You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Shvedova’ tag.

Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

Benesova vs. Stosur:  Reinvigorated with a stirring week in Rome, last year’s finalist must recover swiftly from the illness that troubled her there.  Stosur recently defeated Benesova on clay, but the Czech lefty reached the second week at the Australian Open by upsetting a pair of seeded opponents.  Opening the fortnight’s action on Philippe Chatrier, the Aussie may feel some flickers of the pressure that hampered her play at the season’s first major.  While Beneosva almost certainly cannot outplay her for an entire match on this surface, we might gain a window into Stosur’s current confidence as she enters the scene of her most glorious victories and most painful defeat.

Ferrer vs. Nieminen:  Like Stosur, the second-ranked Spaniard suffered from illness in Rome that may have filtered into an unimpressive performance in Nice.  After reaching a Masters 1000 final on clay and another semifinal last season, Ferrer fell meekly to Melzer in the third round at the major where he should prosper the most.  If he has not fully recovered his energy, the aging lefty Nieminen could trouble him as he did a few months ago in Rotterdam.  Nevertheless, Ferrer’s far superior fitness should bolster him in the best-of-five format against his occasional doubles partner, whom he overcame in a Melbourne four-setter.

Hewitt vs. Montanes:  Receding into the mists of tennis history, Hewitt has battled gallantly through multiple surgeries as he attempts to resist the evolution of the game.  The valiant Aussie’s counterpunching tactics no longer can frustrate the ATP elite, and repeated injuries have slowed his once formidable movement.  Against the offensively challenged Montanes, however, he might find one more opportunity to thrill his devoted Aussie fans in a match certain to feature grueling rally after grueling rally.  Armed with the competitive willpower of a champion, Hewitt may ambush a player who relies just as much upon high-percentage point construction and stingy defense.  But the surface edge swings the advantage clearly towards Montanes, who has defeated even Federer on clay.

Jankovic vs. A. Bondarenko:  Fourteen meetings normally suggest a hard-fought rivalry between two players near the peak of the game.  In this case, by contrast, the frequency of this non-rivalry tells nothing about the relative strengths of its components.  Jankovic has won twelve of their thirteen meetings, with eleven of the wins coming in straight sets.  After recording three bagels and four breadsticks against the unfortunate Ukrainian, perhaps she can expand the menu to croissants.

Rybarikova vs. Kuznetsova:  When Kvitova abandoned the Rome tournament to play her local challenger in Prague, she surely expected to cruise to an uneventful title.  Such proved not the case, for Rybarikova squashed the Czech’s dreams of hometown heroics.  A Birmingham champion two years ago, the Slovak possesses the flat strokes and limited movement more suited to grass or the indoor hard-court in Memphis where she won another title this year.  Her Prague ambush might have meant nothing at all in the larger picture, but she now faces a highly vulnerable opponent who has lost four opening-round matches in 2011 and four to players outside the top 50.  On the other hand, Kuznetsova also has defeated three top-10 players this year, in addition to Henin, as she continues to translate unpredictability into Russian.

Peer vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Hailed as a genuine threat when she won Rome in 2010, Martinez Sanchez has proven those proclamations unfounded as she has sunk below the top 75.  Not as dazzling as she was during that championship run, she remains a more compelling adversary than her ranking suggests.  Against a baseliner like Peer who moves better laterally than forwards and prefers longer rallies, the Spaniard’s drop shots and serve-volley tactics could pose complicated questions.  On the brink of the top 10 earlier this year, the Israeli has slumped to the edge of the top 20 as she has struggled to integrate timely aggression into her naturally counterpunching style.  Like Jankovic, she may prefer to return to what she does best and accept her limitations rather than attempting to have her pain au chocolat and eat it too.

Shvedova vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Both reaching the second week of Roland Garros last year, they stood as monuments to either the current dearth of WTA clay specialists (viewed pessimistically) or the ability of two heavy hitters to project their power onto a hostile surface (viewed optimistically).  Both the Russian and the pseudo-Kazakh have suffered from a concerning quantity of injuries that have hampered their attempts to establish momentum.  Absent from the Australian Open, Shvedova may require a few months to regain her shot-making precision, which often placed her atop the WTA power rankings in a measure of sheer velocity.  The highest-ranked teenager in the sport, Pavlyuchenkova must develop a sturdier serve to complement her penetrating groundstrokes before taking the next step forward.  The narrow confines of the outer court where they collide should illuminate their first-strike power by creating more opportunities to strike terminal blows early in the rally.

Advertisements

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

***

Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+tokyo&iid=6693285″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/6693285/toray-pan-pacific-open/toray-pan-pacific-open.jpg?size=500&imageId=6693285″ width=”500″ height=”355″ /]

Although the Slam season has ended, plenty of captivating action remains in the tennis calendar.  As the battlefields shift to Asia, the Tokyo event promises to reward the sport’s faithful followers.  We examine the promisingly balanced draw at the year’s final Premier Five event.

First quarter: Tantalizingly close to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki should enjoy a placid route to the quarterfinals after a bye, a qualifier, and probably Pavlyuchenkova.  After a dismal loss to Date in Seoul, the Russian teenager outlasted Cibulkova in the first round here but continues to struggle with her serve; moreover, she has lost all eight sets that she has played against the Pole-Dane, including six this year.  In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki most likely will face the enigmatic Kuznetsova, who will be favored to overcome Radwanska for the third time in five tournaments.  Before that potential third-round encounter, though, Sveta probably will need to navigate past the recently resurgent Szavay, previously a stern test for the Russian.  A 2008 finalist in Tokyo, Kuznetsova should relish the fast courts if she encounters Wozniacki, still centered around counterpunching despite a slightly enhanced offense.  On the other hand, the world #2 conquered the two-time major champion with ease at the Rogers Cup and edged her a year ago on another fast court—the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter: Stacked with fascinating first-round matchups, this section features two former #1s, three Roland Garros finalists, and no fewer than five 2010 titlists.  Of Bartoli, Wickmayer, Kleybanova, and Ivanovic, only one can reach a third-round collision with Azarenka, who must be eager to erase memories of her bizarre New York demise.  A near-ideal blend of power and movement, the Belarussian should prosper on Tokyo’s speedy surface, although she has lost both of her meetings with the Serb this year.  Injected with minor momentum after two quality wins in Seoul, 2008 champion Safina stares at a second-round meeting with Stosur.  The Aussie performed much more impressively than expected in New York, considering her historic aversion to fast hard courts and a mysterious arm injury.  Despite the Russian’s more balanced groundstroke game, Stosur should advance to a highly winnable clash with the weary Rezai.  Scheduled to meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Sam has never won a set from Vika in four meetings and has won just six games in the four sets that they have played this year.  Unless she serves exceptionally well, the Belarussian’s dominance should continue.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+tokyo&iid=6693280″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/6693280/toray-pan-pacific-open/toray-pan-pacific-open.jpg?size=500&imageId=6693280″ width=”500″ height=”335″ /]

Third quarter: Defending a title for the first time in her comeback, Sharapova finds herself in probably the weakest quarter of the draw.  If she stays alert to evade the ageless Date, Maria should ease past the ever-glamorous, ever-fragile Hantuchova to set up an intriguing encounter with Schiavone.  One of Sharapova’s six Tokyo victims last year, the Italian came closer than anyone to derailing that title run; she led by a set and 4-2 in the first round before fading sharply.  Fresh from an invigorating quarterfinal run at the US Open, she will seek to derail the Russian’s rhythm with artful placement, dogged defense, and a competitive intensity that almost (but not quite) matches Maria’s fabled ferocity.  A potential rematch of the 2009 final could lurk in the quarterfinals, yet Jankovic floundered ignominiously on the summer hard courts.  Before that round, in fact, she likely will need to defuse New York nemesis Kanepi, who seems determined to capitalize upon consecutive Slam quarterfinal appearances.  Despite a slightly disappointing US Open, Sharapova enters the tournament in distinctly superior form to the Serb, while the Estonian’s lack of subtlety would play directly into Maria’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter: Much ink has been spilled upon the perceived demise of the WTA’s Russian empire, but all three remaining seeds in this section are Russian, two of them hold Olympic medals, and one of them could gain the top ranking after Beijing.  In order to achieve that implausible objective, Vera must at least reach the final here.  After her Wimbledon heroics, she departed prematurely from her next two tournaments, so we won’t be surprised to see an early exit after another major final appearance at the US Open.  Rather than seriously targeting #1, Zvonareva probably will rest content with her unexpectedly stellar Slam campaign and drift quietly into Doha following an indifferent fall season.  She eyes a third-round encounter with Petrova, who reached the Seoul semifinals last week with three resounding victories…but then retired with an illness, not for the first time this year.  Removing a formidable dark horse threat, the withdrawal of Li Na eased the path of Dementieva, who suffered gallant losses against top-6 opponents in both New Haven and New York.  Familiar with the most excruciating forms of adversity, the resilient Russian should face the recently disappointing Shvedova and then Pennetta.  Probably more motivated than her compatriot to record a solid fall season, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist should trump the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist for the fifth time in seven meetings if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

***

We will revisit Tokyo by the quarterfinals, if not sooner.  Before then, however, we will discuss key events from last week’s four small tournaments that might outline trends for the fall.  Another edition of (TW)2 lies ahead…

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=ivanovic+azarenka&iid=9523903″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9523903/western-southern-financial/western-southern-financial.jpg?size=500&imageId=9523903″ width=”389″ height=”594″ /]

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

Cincinnati:

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

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

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

Semifinalist: Clijsters

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+kuznetsova&iid=9527395″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9527395/maria-sharapova-serves/maria-sharapova-serves.jpg?size=500&imageId=9527395″ width=”500″ height=”698″ /]

Toronto:

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist:  Nalbandian

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

Semifinalist:  Berdych

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=djokovic+nadal&iid=9523902″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9523902/rogers-cup/rogers-cup.jpg?size=500&imageId=9523902″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

***

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

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=federer+nadal+wimbledon&iid=605764″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/605764/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=605764″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=laura+robson&iid=9076840″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9076840/tennis-aegon-classic/tennis-aegon-classic.jpg?size=500&imageId=9076840″ width=”500″ height=”338″ /]

Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=bernard+tomic&iid=8184686″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8184686/australia-chinese-taipei/australia-chinese-taipei.jpg?size=500&imageId=8184686″ width=”500″ height=”347″ /]

Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=ivanovic+wimbledon&iid=5038614″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/5038614/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=5038614″ width=”396″ height=”594″ /]

Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

***

We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!

As players and fans anxiously await the Wimbledon draws, we turn our lens towards the snakes in the grass:  dangerous lurkers who won’t hoist the trophy but from whom the top competitors hope to keep their distance.  Often quirky and typically opportunistic, this group spans a spectrum from grizzled veterans (only figuratively grizzled, in one case) to surging newcomers eager to brand their imprint onto the pristine lawns of the All England Club.  Ladies, gentlemen, and Jelena Jankovic, meet your Wimbledon dark horses:

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=berdych+wimbledon&iid=5057266″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/5057266/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=5057266″ width=”396″ height=”594″ /]

1)       Tomas Berdych:  Much like his fellow ball-bruiser Soderling, Berdych appears to be finally capitalizing on his vast talents after a lengthy stretch of underachievement.  Winning both lopsided matches and nail-biters on the North American hard courts this spring, he signaled an awakening that extended to his first career Slam semifinal in Paris.  Surprisingly sturdy in tense situations, the Czech led Soderling by two sets to one before fading; again like the Swede; his massive serve-groundstroke combinations will prove even more difficult to retrieve on the grass than on the red clay.  Berdych lacks the depth of experience to win a major at this stage, but his shotmaking might bedevil counterpunches like Murray, one of his Roland Garros victims.

2)      John Isner:  In the absence of the injured Karlovic, this burgeoning American becomes the leading attraction among the ace artists.  Maturing more swiftly than one might have expected, he defeated Roddick at last year’s US Open, threatened Nadal at Indian Wells, and has won a set from Federer in the past.  The sprightly surface at the All England Club always rewards monster servers, who count on bombing their way into tiebreaks and taking their chances there.  Although it’s hard to imagine Isner winning three sets from either of the top two at a Slam, he spells trouble for virtually anyone else who might cross his path in the earlier rounds.  Unlike many other towering servers, his fitness has proved solid in the best-of-five format.  The near-impossibility of breaking Isner’s serve places extreme pressure on his opponent’s shoulders to hold with equal consistency and maintain a high level of focus when any opportunity arises.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=hewitt+wimbledon&iid=7256470″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/7256470/wimbledon-2009/wimbledon-2009.jpg?size=500&imageId=7256470″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

3)      Lleyton Hewitt:  A year ago at Wimbledon, Hewitt upset Del Potro and nearly outdueled Roddick in a five-set quarterfinal.  Just days ago in Halle, he demonstrated his undimmed competitive willpower by rallying from a first-set deficit to inflict Federer’s first grass-court loss against someone other than Nadal since 2002.  A former Queens Club champion, the Aussie possesses the quick reflexes, crisp footwork, balanced baseline game, and mental resilience to reach the second week if his draw proves kind…or perhaps even if it doesn’t.  Too battle-worn now to reprise his 2002 title run, Hewitt should test the consistency and resolve of higher-ranked but less experienced, more erratic sluggers.

4)      Sam Querrey / Mardy Fish:  The last two men standing in an upset-riddled London draw, both Americans possess the mighty serves that could carry them deep into fast-court majors.  In particular, Fish’s skill in serve-and-volley tactics should have enabled him to wreak havoc at Wimbledon before now.  Maturing more slowly than Isner, Querrey has won three titles this season, more than anyone not named Nadal.  Nevertheless, his hitherto pedestrian performances at the All England Club force us to temper our expectations with caution.  It’s a long way from Memphis, Belgrade, and even Queens Club to the All England Club.

5)      Ivan Ljubicic:  Rapidly receding into the mists of time at the start of this decade, the Croatian veteran resurfaced explosively at Indian Wells, where he won three consecutive tiebreaks in his last three sets of the tournament.  That skill will serve him well at on the most tiebreak-friendly surface of all, while his elegant net play will enable him to capitalize upon weak returns by finishing points quickly at the net.  Having met Querrey and Jurgen Melzer (perhaps a slight dark horse himself) in previous Wimbledon openers, his draws have been rather unfriendly in the past.  If he finds himself in a comfortable section with time to settle into a serving rhythm, though, he could emulate his compatriot Karlovic’s feat last year with a few moderately unexpected upsets.

6)      Mikhail Youzhny:  Reaching the second week of Wimbledon five times, the streaky Russian emerged this year from a lengthy journey through the tennis wilderness.  Could 2010 be the year that he finally reaches a quarterfinal after five fourth-round losses, in one of which he led Nadal by two sets to none?  His relatively mild serve will comprise a considerable disadvantage against opponents who can win shoals of short points with the shot, but his deft touch, lithe movement, and expert transition game fit the profile of a grass-court threat.

7)      Ernests Gulbis / Feliciano Lopez?  The toast of the ATP after electrifying performances against Federer and Nadal in Rome, Gulbis became mere French toast when he retired in his first-round Roland Garros clash with home hope Julien Benneteau.  Recovering from that injury, he enters Wimbledon without any grass-court preparation but has often excelled without extensive practice.  Retiring from Eastbourne with a shoulder injury, the 2008 quarterfinalist Lopez could exploit his lefty serve and agile volleys on grass should his health return in time; his game suits the surface more than any other Spaniard outside Nadal.

And now for the ladies:

1)       Nadia Petrova:  In two of her last three tournaments, she has defeated the Williams sisters.  In her last two majors, she has reached the quarterfinals behind at least one significant upset (Clijsters, Kuznetsova in Melbourne; Venus in Paris).  A former quarterfinalist at the All England Club, the highest-ranked Russian beyond the absent Dementieva might repeat that result behind her overpowering serve.  Exposed on slightly slower surfaces, her inconsistent groundstroke game might not cost her as much on grass, where she will be able to end many points after three or four shots.  Adroit on the doubles court, Petrova has displayed more comfort moving forward than many of her rivals.  Her 2-and-0 loss to Makarova in Eastbourne certainly startled most observers, yet we have learned to always expect the unexpected from Nadia, for whom one week doesn’t necessarily trickle into the next.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=azarenka+wimbledon&iid=9138531″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9138531/victoria-azarenka/victoria-azarenka.jpg?size=500&imageId=9138531″ width=”500″ height=”364″ /]

2)      Victoria Azarenka:  Her health remains uncertain after a nagging hamstring injury undermined her entire clay season.  Reinvigorating last year’s quarterfinalist, however, is a stirring Eastbourne run past Radwanska and Clijsters, who had conquered her twice in the past year.  Whether or not the Belarussian can ride the momentum to a title at that seaside event, her competitive energy looks more vigorous and more positive than it has since February.  While she lacks an adequately imposing serve to win the title at this stage, Vika can play first-strike tennis with almost anyone and crack clean winners from behind the baseline on both sets of groundstrokes.  Unless a bold returner exposes her second serve or a crafty veteran unlocks her temper, the world #15 might well overthrow a more prestigious opponent or two.

3)      Aravane Rezai:  Bursting onto the scene in Madrid, the pugnacious Frenchwoman underwhelmed in Paris but regrouped on the Birmingham grass, where she dragged eventual champion Li Na into a third set.  This week, she ambushed top seed Wozniacki in Eastbourne before retiring against the next player in this list.  One of the fiercer competitors in the WTA, the diminutive Rezai punches far above her weight and holds serve more regularly than one might imagine.  Brash and unintimidated by any environment, she’s unlikely to crumble under the pressure of the All England Club, where her compatriots (such as 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli or 2007 semifinalist Richard Gasquet) typically have fared better than at their home major.

4)      Martinez Sanchez:  The other women’s surprise package of the spring, MJMS suddenly transferred her doubles prowess to the singles court in Rome, yet her strengths would seem even better suited to grass than clay.  While her feathery drop shot will prove a weapon at Wimbledon as much as at Roland Garros, her spinning lefty serve and sometimes surreal volleying expertise might fluster inexperienced foes like Wozniacki or indifferent servers like Jankovic.  Featuring 15 aces, her three-set loss to Bartoli in Eastbourne represented more a tribute to her opponent’s unflinching resolve than a testament to the Spaniard’s frailties.  Her idiosyncratic, low-margin playing style can swing wildly from the inspiring to the horrifying, however, so one doesn’t know what she’ll bring to the court on any given day.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=zheng+wimbledon&iid=5015864″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/5015864/the-championships/the-championships.jpg?size=500&imageId=5015864″ width=”396″ height=”594″ /]

5)      Zheng Jie:  A 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist with wins over Ivanovic and Vaidisova, Zheng reemerged in 2010 by matching compatriot Li Na win for win all the way to the Australian Open semifinals.  Positioning herself well inside the baseline for her crisply struck groundstrokes, this Chinese star relishes the low bounce on grass that hinders the WTA’s towering contenders.  Zheng’s serve and especially her second serve remain a major flaw that force her to turn most matches into breakfests.  Generally helpless against psychologically impregnable shotmakers like Serena, she will be best equipped to capitalize upon erratic outings from more powerful, less agile adversaries whose serves sometimes falter under pressure.

6)      Alisa Kleybanova:  Securing her maiden title at Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago, this rising Russian has upset Dementieva, Jankovic, Clijsters, and Venus while severely threatening Henin and Sharapova.  Mentally redoubtable and remarkably agile, Kleybanova creates ingenious cross-court angles that should shine on grass while enjoying a greater ability to bend for low shots than most players with similar height.  Although double faults occasionally creep into her game, her flat second serve does challenge aggressive returners more than a standard WTA second delivery.  Kleybanova must serve at a high percentage, however, in order to wield an impact upon the draw; she nearly toppled Kuznetsova in Eastbourne before her first serve wobbled when she most needed it in the final set.

7)      Yaroslava Shvedova:  The Russian-turned-Kazakh has stumbled a bit at the grass preparatory events, falling to American qualifier Alison Riske in Birmingham and fellow upstart Alexandra Dulgheru in the Netherlands.  But the sheer ferocity with which she strikes the ball on almost every shot make her a player to watch after her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Among the most upwardly mobile WTA newcomers, Shvedova should prove even more dangerous on faster surfaces during the rest of the season, although she remains a little raw at present.

***

After this final article in our three-part Wimbledon preview, we will return in a day or two with thoughts on the draws.  We plan to release our debut daily preview on Sunday several hours before Federer strikes the first serve of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships.  Prepare for a fortnight filled with drama!

A: 

Nadal:  Carrying a 22-match winning streak into the grass season, Nadal unsurprisingly awakened on the surface where he first burst onto the tennis stage.  His emphatic win over Soderling in the final should have dramatically boosted his confidence for the coming weeks, where he will be considered the Wimbledon co-favorite with Federer.  After months of awkwardly searching for himself, Rafa once again approaches key moments with the calm purposefulness and unflinching resolve that have won him seven majors.  We expect him to start reversing his recent struggles against top-10 opponents as the summer unfolds and to retain the #1 ranking at least until the fall.

Schiavone:  Recently serving heaping helpings of agony, the WTA delivered a sudden jolt of ecstasy with Schiavone’s delirious writhe on the clay after her last three victories.  Unlike the vast majority of first-time Slam finalists, the charismatic Italian rose spectacularly to the occasion with one of the finest performances in her storied career.  Her title probably represents more of an ending than a beginning, more of a dome than a foundation, as far as she is concerned; nevertheless, her implausible fortnight might infuse other unsung heroines with the belief that they could follow in her footsteps.  Contemplating her win, our thoughts turned towards the epithet “one-Slam wonder” often applied with contempt to these lightning-in-a-bottle champions.  Schiavone almost certainly will head into history as a one-Slam wonder, but this feisty overachiever won’t care a bit.  Neither should anyone else.

Stosur:  Until the final Sunday, the Australian’s tournament couldn’t have been much more spectacular, built as it was upon the bones of Henin, Serena, and Jankovic—the three leading contenders entering Roland Garros.  Sam alternately outdueled her competition in tense thrillers (Henin, Serena) and pulverized it in overwhelming fashion (Jankovic), demonstrating excellent focus, composure, and intelligence throughout the fortnight.  Even under extreme pressure against Serena after temporarily snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, she displayed trademark Aussie fortitude by refusing to fold as would so many of her peers.  Stosur should remember this French Open for what she did rather than what she didn’t do, for one senses that she’ll find herself in position to win Slams on multiple occasions in the future.

Soderling:  For the second consecutive year, he toppled the defending champion and world #1 at the French Open, a feat that merits top marks itself.  Just as stunning as his brutal forehand was his bulletproof self-belief in that quarterfinal, after which he celebrated his win with the calm demeanor of someone who expected to win from the beginning.  Perhaps we should dub him the “king-maker” for transferring the top ranking from Federer to Nadal as he did from Nadal to Federer a year ago; the Swede now joins Del Potro as the only active player to defeat both of the top two at majors.  Weary from a rollercoaster five-set semi against Berdych, Soderling couldn’t produce his finest tennis in the championship match, but nobody wants to see him in their section of any draw.  We highly doubt that he’ll ever gain the #1 ranking, as his compatriot Borg suggested, but he’ll continue to electrify spectators and terrify opponents with inspired surges when one least expects them.

Berdych:  Although the relentless Swede battered him into submission towards the end of their semifinal, Berdych consolidated his hard-court breakthrough with his first career Slam semifinal.  Winning his first five encounters without dropping a set, the Czech ball-bruiser obliterated Isner, Murray, and Youzhny on the surface that least suits his style.  Combined with the familiarly crushing serve and explosive forehand was his infinitely improved focus and increasingly positive body language.  (Berdych seems to be learning that one needs to look like a winner in order to be a winner.)   If he can capitalize upon this momentum during the summer, he’ll be an extremely dangerous dark horse on the fast hard courts in New York.

A-:

Melzer:  Schiavone wasn’t the only 29-year-old to create headlines here.  After 11 third-round losses in majors, this Austrian broke the curse against Ferrer before rallying from a two-set deficit against Djokovic in the quarters.  Similar to Schiavone’s run, Melzer’s charge to the final four probably doesn’t portend his sudden emergence as a contender.  But props to him for refusing to surrender against the Serb and for finding his high-stakes game at crucial stages in his matches, creating moments that will warm his memories through many Austrian winters.

Dementieva:  Including a fourth round with a South African qualifier, her draw wasn’t especially intimidating.  Nevertheless, we tip our cap to the Russian for overcoming a serious leg injury to grind her way into the semis.  After three second-round losses in her last four majors, this run should enhance Dementieva’s confidence for the next tournaments after she recovers.

Petrova:  Before an injury crippled her against Dementieva in the quarters, the former Roland Garros semifinalist finally found a way to win a close match against a talented player in her third-round marathon victory over Rezai.  Moreover, she summoned her best tennis when it mattered most in her minor upset of Venus a round later.  Combined with her Australian Open quarterfinal, this fortnight suggests a Petrova revival in 2010.

Sharapova vs. Henin:  It seemed an open-and-shut case after the routine first set, but Maria scratched and clawed her way to snapping the Belgian’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her match winning streak in serious jeopardy a day later, it was Justine’s turn to scratch and claw to one of the most impressive wins of her comeback.  Like the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid last year, the encounter’s exhausting intensity effectively eliminated both of its participants, for an emotionally spent Henin ran out of fuel against Stosur less than 24 hours later.  During the second and third sets of Henin-Sharapova, though, spectators were treated to exhilarating shotmaking, improbable retrieving, and a Nadal-like level of competitive determination.  Here’s hoping for a sequel…but later in the draw.

B+:

Number 1s :  Downed in the quarterfinals within a day of each other, Federer and Serena didn’t crash out spectacularly yet faltered at their first serious opposition.   We weren’t convinced that either would move halfway to the calendar Slam here when the tournament started.  Nevertheless, Serena put herself in excellent position to close out Stosur, while Federer brought a 12-0 record into his clash with Soderling.  We expect both Wimbledon defending champions to rebound resoundingly when they return to the grass, but this week was certainly not their finest hour. On the other hand, neither of their nemeses was exactly unheralded.

Shvedova:  Like Dementieva, she exploited a friendly section of the draw that included nobody more intimidating than Radwanska.  We give her modest props, however, for upsetting the Pole as well as the resilient Kleybanova en route to her first career Slam quarterfinal.  It might not be the last time that the hard-hitting Kazakh reaches the final eight at a major.

Almagro:  Extending his momentum surge from a Madrid semifinal run, he narrowly escaped a first-round five-setter but found his game in time to thump a fatigued Verdasco in the fourth round.  More impressive than any of his wins was his highly competitive loss to Nadal, during which he came closer than anyone in the tournament to winning a set from Rafa.  Even after losing the first-set tiebreak, he doggedly nipped at his more famous compatriot’s heels until a second-set tiebreak.  Even after losing that tiebreak, he played with conviction deep into the third set, demonstrating much greater belief that we’re accustomed to seeing from him.

Wozniacki:  Although one might not think a quarterfinal drubbing by Schiavone worthy of a B+, we appreciated the third seed’s gritty three-hour win over the clay-loving Pennetta in the preceding round despite a major ankle injury.  When she returns to full strength, the iron-willed Wozniacki will start threatening for Slams again.

B:

Djokovic:  The good news was that he overcame his breathing issues to reach the quarterfinals, a little better than we anticipated.  The bad news was that he squandered a two-set-and-break lead against Melzer after having firmly controlled that match.  Can one imagine Federer or Nadal doing the same?  And his previous opponents were much less than formidable, ranging from the sluggish Hanescu to the fading Ginepri.  In order to preserve his position among the top four, Djokovic needs to find the motivation that he has lacked for most of 2010; it probably won’t happen until the hard courts, though.

Jankovic:  Gifted with a superb opportunity to grab that elusive first Slam before her window of opportunity closes, JJ did exactly as we had predicted in our French Open preview and found a dismal way to waste her chance.  En route to the semis, she defeated nobody more fearsome than Hantuchova, so she should have entered her match with Stosur rested and eager to capitalize on her good fortune.  Without any visible physical injury, her performance there was unacceptable for an elite contender:  nine winners, 22 unforced errors, three total games won.  Why can’t the steely competitor who outdueled Serena in a Rome semifinal bring that intensity to Slams?

Venus:  We didn’t mind the outfit as much as some other observers did; in the fashion world, one needs to take chances sometimes.  In the distinctly weaker half of the draw, however, she failed to exploit the momentum boost from reaching the Madrid final and offered little resistance to Petrova.  The elder Williams oscillates wildly between excellent and ghastly in the latter stages of her career and seems unable to escape a bad day against any reasonably capable adversary.

Verdasco:  After slogging through an erratic five-setter against Kohlschreiber, Verdasco gulped down two breadsticks courtesy of Almagro.  The result wasn’t overly surprising considering his overloaded pre-Roland Garros schedule, and hopefully he’ll learn a valuable lesson from the fatigue that he felt in Paris.

Murray:  Never a leading contender on clay, the Scot still landed in a remarkably comfortable section of the draw and plausibly could have reached the semis.  A fourth-round showing was far from a disaster considering his recent debacles, but it was somewhat disappointing to see him find no more answers for Berdych than he did for Cilic in a similar situation at last year’s US Open.

B-:

Ivanovic:  She escapes a C because she was unseeded and because of her past struggles against Kleybanova, who always will prove a difficult opponent for Ana.  All the same, the stylish Serb needs a strong result soon before Rome fades too far into the rear-view mirror.  Only her forehand is clicking for her at the moment, and rarely can a player win with just one great shot.  Over the summer hard-court season, we should gain a better sense of whether Ivanovic can rediscover her serve or reinvent her backhand, either of which would lift her back to respectability. 

Safina / Kuznetsova:  Even allowing for a comeback from a debilitating injury, last year’s finalist shouldn’t have coughed up a double-break lead in the first set against a 39-year-old who could barely move at times, nor should she have donated four quick, ugly unforced errors in the final game.  Spared only temporarily by a rare choke from Petkovic, the defending champion continued her dismal 2010 with a ninth consecutive pre-quarterfinal defeat.  We don’t expect anything inspired from either player on the grass but will be curious to see whether they can rebound by the US Open.

Roddick:  Admittedly, he’s no contender for the title and normally would have been fortunate to reach the second week.  Yet the irritable, defeatist attitude with which he approached a match against a Russian qualifier ranked outside the top 100 was unworthy of the sterling competitor who tested Federer so forcefully at Wimbledon last year.  That said, we’d be surprised to see him lose before the semis at the All England Club.

Isner:  When you serve from the top of the Eiffel Tower, there’s no reason to be broken in more than half of your service games, regardless of the surface.  On the other hand, he didn’t embarrass himself in the press conference as did his erstwhile doubles partner Querrey.  Like Roddick, Isner should rebound on the grass and become a dangerous sleeper in the Wimbledon draw.

C:

The French:  With Murray all but on the Eurostar to London, Gasquet relinquished a two-sets-and-break lead for the second time against the Scot.  Monfils continued the trend in the next round by flinging away an equally substantial lead against Fognini.  A round later, Madrid champion Rezai let three match points slip away against Petrova.  The final seaman on this sinking ship, Tsonga fell prey to an injury in his fourth round against Youzhny, providing a fitting anticlimax to his nation’s rather predictable train wreck in its home Slam.

Ferrer:  You lose only to Nadal and Federer at the three Masters 1000 events, and then you lose in straight sets to a player who had been 0-11 in Slam third rounds?  Including a second-set bagel? 

Azarenka:  We were planning to write off her listless 1-and-2 opening loss to Dulko as the product of a lingering hamstring injury…until her coach mentioned that the injury wasn’t bothering her.  Oops.

***

In addition to the triumphs, tragedies, and tragicomedies, there were a pair of notable unfinished narratives.  After their twin breakthroughs in Rome, Gulbis and Martinez Sanchez suffered leg and neck injuries in the first round that prevented them from capitalizing upon their recent momentum.  We send best wishes to both of them for a speedy recovery. 

Beginning just a day after the French Open final, the brief grass season contains many intriguing plotlines to ponder.  We’ll return to discuss five of them later this week as well as composing a Stosur player profile, but now it’s time to wave a fond farewell to the clay season…

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=federer+roland+garros&iid=8972793″ src=”0/2/c/9/Robin_Soderling_0c69.jpg?adImageId=13068832&imageId=8972793″ width=”500″ height=”667″ /]

Savagely slinging thunderbolts down from Valhalla, the Norse god of tennis confirmed what Del Potro proved at last year’s US Open final:  audacious, relentless power can overcome even the most talented player of all time.  Often a flaw earlier in his career, Soderling’s sheer stubbornness profited him immensely against Federer just as it did against Nadal a year ago.  Refusing to retreat or compromise in moments of adversity, he continued to unleash his weapons with abandon until they struck their targets.  The crucial juncture in the match, though, arrived with a Federer-worthy display of shotmaking late in the third set.  With the top seed hovering at a set point for a two-sets-to-one lead, Soderling charged to the net and crushed an overhead, only to see the Swiss retrieve it with a sparkling display of reflexes and timing.  Here, one sensed, had come the inevitable moment of Federer magic that would prove the turning point in this intense encounter, as had happened in so many fateful matches over the years.  And indeed it was, but not in the way that the world #1 or any of the spectators would have imagined.  Presented with a persuasive invitation to donate a set-ending error, the ungainly Soderling instead somehow leaped and pivoted to his left just enough to slash away a backhand volley past the frozen Federer.  Despite an 0-12 record against the defending champion, the Swede found the courage and the inspiration to execute this shot under extreme pressure, a testament to his unflinching self-belief against the game’s elite. 

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=serena+roland+garros&iid=8969105″ src=”1/c/b/a/Sports_News_703d.jpg?adImageId=13069988&imageId=8969105″ width=”500″ height=”356″ /]

One calendar Slam bid evaporated in the quarterfinals, and will the other attempt falter there too?  After Henin’s listless departure, the WTA draw became a children’s animated picture book entitled “Serena and the Seven Dwarfs.”  Most of the other seven quarterfinalist have enjoyed extensive success at the sub-Slam level yet regularly have fallen short in majors.  The least dwarfish of the dwarfs, Stosur brings not only the momentum boost acquired from her victory over Henin but a game that can match Serena blow for blow from the service notch or the baseline.  Interestingly, however, the Australian survived a rather indifferent serving performance against Henin and will need to improve those numbers when she confronts the American, who has served brilliantly here when her stomach allowed.  Look for both players to utilize the kick serve out wide, always an effective weapon on this surface, and to move forward whenever they pull their opponent out of position.  Although they’ll hope for a high first-serve percentage, one imagines that they’ll prioritize pace over consistency; therefore, their formidable second serves could be crucial in a match that won’t feature many breaks.  While the Aussie defeated Serena in a testy three-setter at Stanford last year, the world #1 delivered when it mattered most by stifling her big-serving foe in the Australian Open fourth round.  The 12-time Slam champion simply brings a different game to the majors than to the smaller events, and that game generally rises another level in the second week.  Profiting from Henin’s disintegration late in the third set, Stosur can’t expect such generosity on this occasion, but she has more than enough belief to capitalize on any opportunities that arise.  We anticipate many short points, intelligent serving, excellent shot-making, and a solidly competitive effort from start to finish on both sides of the net.  Eight weeks a year, there’s no better competitor than Serena.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=jankovic+roland+garros&iid=8974094″ src=”2/1/d/5/TENNIS_2010_a65d.jpg?adImageId=13069997&imageId=8974094″ width=”500″ height=”335″ /]

Oddly unnoticed and (we think) underestimated by many commentators, Jankovic has progressed through the draw with increasing rather than decreasing ease and decreasing rather than increasing drama.  Both trends bode extremely well for her chances to become the third Slam champion from Serbia, but she faces an opponent who bounced her from the US Open and has dragged her into third sets during their other two meetings.  On a fast surface, it’s easy to see why Shvedova might trouble Jankovic, for her much more imposing serve allows her to hold more comfortably and consistently.  Yet the JJ who wandered out of the US Open is not the same JJ who (so far) has rejuvenated herself in the last few months, winning Indian Wells and reaching the Rome final with a sensational triumph over Serena.  Already having toppled Radwanska and Kleybanova, the Kazakh has demonstrated both the consistency necessary to topple the Pole and the offensive weapons essential to outhit the Russian.  If Jankovic can stay close to the baseline, display her ball-redirecting talents, and turn the match into a gritty grind, she should be able to make her substantially superior movement a key factor.  One also wonders whether Shvedova mentally may be more than satisfied with her quarterfinal result and not unwilling to move on to greener pastures; she’s already accomplished far more here than anyone could have expected from her.  That said, we never know quite what to expect from the charismatic, controversial Serb, so there might be some lively moments as she navigates into a reunion with Serena.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=nadal+roland+garros&iid=8974099″ src=”4/d/d/d/TENNIS_2010_8d29.jpg?adImageId=13069994&imageId=8974099″ width=”500″ height=”334″ /]

What impact will Federer’s exit have on the lower half of the draw, where Nadal knows that no Swiss legend will await them in the final?  After Soderling stunned Rafa here last year, Federer nearly fumbled the opportunity in his very next match against the unimposing Tommy Haas, when he escaped defeat by a mere five points.  From Nadal’s outstanding form during his 19-match clay winning streak, one doesn’t expect to see him in such a predicament, and he might well have preferred the Swiss to the Swede anyway.  When he met Almagro in the same round here two years ago, Rafa (dis)courteously took his friend to the bakery for three breadsticks.  Even at the nadir of his dismal 2009, he defeated Nic in three unremarkable sets at the US Open and managed to evade multiple match points at the Paris Indoors before exposing his foe’s inferior fitness.  Having improved that dimension of his game as well as his shot selection and consistency, however, Almagro should deliver a significantly sturdier effort than that previous Roland Garros quarterfinal, part of an unsurpassed and perhaps unsurpassable title charge by Nadal.  (Remember that Federer won only one more game than Almagro in the final that year.)  Odd as it may sound, the four-time champion has reached greater heights on his favorite surface than the plateau where he currently resides.  Moreover, Almagro remains one of only two players (with Gulbis) to have won a set on clay from his compatriot this year during an inspired Madrid semifinal run.  On the other hand, he won four total games during the rest of that match, which led us to chuckle a bit when he confidently declared that he knows how to play Nadal on clay.  Congratulations on cracking the code, Nic.  See you in London. 

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=djokovic+roland+garros&iid=8974048″ src=”4/4/d/7/TENNIS_2010_bbad.jpg?adImageId=13070000&imageId=8974048″ width=”500″ height=”332″ /]

Djokovic should be delighted to see Melzer rather than Ferrer in the quarterfinals, for the aging Austrian lacks the consistency to frustrate the Serb in a best-of-five format unless he delivers an outstanding serving performance.  A lefty with an affinity for serve-and-volley tactics, a suspect backhand, and a susceptibility to radical momentum shifts, Melzer reminds us a bit of Feliciano Lopez and possesses a similar ability to temporarily fluster elite players before ultimately succumbing to them.  One might recall his ill-tempered five-set loss to Murray at the 2008 US Open as an example.  On other occasions, he simply never comes to play and heedlessly sprays balls to every conceivable location.  As his loss to Nadal in Madrid last year demonstrated, Melzer struggles with confidence against the top players; that day, he tested the Spaniard well into the first set until losing his serve for the first time, after which he meekly capitulated.  Even if the Austrian arrives in fine fettle, which is likely, and takes an early lead, which is possible, Djokovic should be able to hold the veteran in check until he remembers where he is and whom he is playing.

Enjoy the second half of the quarterfinals!  Will the favorites restore order in the court, or will another thunderous upset leave us covering our eyes in disbelief?

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=ivanovic+roland+garros&iid=8938545″ src=”c/c/6/5/Sports_News_00f3.jpg?adImageId=13066084&imageId=8938545″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

 [picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+henin+roland+garros&iid=8955114″ src=”c/3/c/9/2010_French_Open_b0a4.jpg?adImageId=13049493&imageId=8955114″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

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.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=sharapova+henin+roland+garros&iid=8955339″ src=”5/8/a/d/Tennis__French_e498.jpg?adImageId=13049491&imageId=8955339″ width=”500″ height=”688″ /]

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.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=djokovic+roland+garros&iid=8953026″ src=”9/c/1/3/ROLAND_GARROS_2010_309c.jpg?adImageId=13049450&imageId=8953026″ width=”500″ height=”387″ /]

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.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=serena+williams+roland+garros&iid=8951675″ src=”b/7/6/4/ROLAND_GARROS_2010_0f67.jpg?adImageId=13049445&imageId=8951675″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

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.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=nadal+roland+garros&iid=8951119″ src=”1/6/7/4/French_Open_tennis_c530.JPG?adImageId=13049454&imageId=8951119″ width=”500″ height=”375″ /]

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. 

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=hantuchova+roland+garros&iid=8950585″ src=”3/a/c/5/Sports_News_5315.jpg?adImageId=13049462&imageId=8950585″ width=”500″ height=”704″ /]

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.

***

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