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Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

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Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

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As a lull in both calendars approaches, we rewind the week in Shanghai and two WTA International events…

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1) Nadal is still human on hard courts…somewhat: Unnoticed by all but the most ardent fans, Rafa’s bizarre loss to compatriot Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok presaged his upset by Melzer in Shanghai.  Struggling to break his opponent’s serve on both occasions, the Spaniard fell to two players well beyond the orbit of his typical nemeses.  Before he acquired the Tokyo title a week ago, an unexpectedly inspired Troicki came within a point of ousting him from their semifinal there.  (What an excellent fall it’s proved for Serbia!) These two losses and one near-loss restore a bit of reality to Nadal’s situation, reminding us of his fallibility on this surface when he falls short of his electrifying best.  But it’s difficult to imagine Garcia-Lopez or Melzer defeating the world #1 at a hard-court Slam, so perhaps his precarious Asian performances suggest that Rafa has begun to peak at the majors more perceptibly than he did earlier in his career.  Like Federer a few years ago, Nadal soon will compete less with his colleagues than with history, and history enters exactly four events each year.

2) Federer has become predictably unpredictable: For the second straight tournament, he unleashed a stunning display of dominance in one round and an equally stunning display of frailty a round later.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far superior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger had slipped into an inevitable spiral of decline.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far inferior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger no longer could muster the motivation to dispatch adversaries unworthy of his steel.  Since Soderling, Djokovic, and Murray occupy roughly the same level, however, neither of those explanations apply.  Quite simply, one doesn’t know what to expect from Federer on any given day or even in any given set, which lends his matches an aura of intrigue absent from the clinical demolitions that he once delivered.  For those who relish dramatic suspense, the mighty one has become more engaging—and more sympathetic—now that he has become a little less mighty.

3) Tall men stand short:  When Soderling reached the Roland Garros final and Del Potro won the US Open a year ago, the towers of power seemed about to swallow up the ATP.  This trend gathered impetus when Berdych finally broke through on clay and grass this year, but the baseline behemoths have stumbled in the last several tournaments.  At an event where they should have prospered, Soderling mustered just two games against Federer, Tsonga collected just two games against Murray, Berdych crumbled against the aforementioned Garcia-Lopez, and Del Potro never appeared.  Viscerally thrilling to watch, their games may prove less durable and consistent than those of their more versatile, more modestly proportioned peers.

4) Time can stand still for some:  Still charging up the rankings into the top 50, Kimiko Date Krumm continues to baffle the WTA elite with her distinctive, arrhythmic style.  In Osaka, she battled past both Stosur and Peer before succumbing to fellow senior citizen (well, virtually) Tanasugarn after a ferociously contested final; Tanasugarn herself had ambushed Bartoli in the semifinals.  Perhaps the most remarkable element in Date’s implausible comeback is her physical and mental stamina, which more than once this year has enabled this intrepid 40-year-old to outlast far younger opponents in three-hour matches.  The results of this week included, she has accumulated a winning record against the top 20 since her return.  Far from a harmless, endearing anomaly, she constitutes a legitimate threat to almost anyone on any occasion.  Halfway around the world, moreover, the evergreen “Peppermint Patty” Schnyder reached her second final of 2010 with victories over Hantuchova and the burgeoning Petkovic at her home tournament in Linz.

5) The Sleeping Beauty awakens: When Serena’s withdrawal opened a wildcard for Ivanovic, the eager Serb seized her opportunity with both hands and romped to her first title since…Linz two years ago.  Building upon encouraging efforts in Cincinnati, New York, and Beijing, Ana unleashed a commanding performance behind her serve that featured 25 aces and plentiful service winners—several on key points—while surrendering just five breaks in five matches.  The engine of her post-2008 misfortunes, that shot fittingly has become the platform of her resurgence, testifying to her renewed confidence.  Undeterred by adversity this week, Ivanovic maneuvered around undigested yogurt in the second round and three squandered set points in her quarterfinal with her glowing smile intact.  While Linz featured few familiar names, the experience of winning a title again will rekindle the Serb’s self-belief and determination over the off-season by reminding her of what she can still accomplish.  After the shortest WTA final of 2010, the moment that Ana’s fans had feared might never come finally arrived:

Transmission reference: XKJ110

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We return in a few days with an article on the new WTA #1, who may be less unworthy of her position than some would suppose.

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A rather painful episode of déjà vu occurred today for the star-crossed Richard Gasquet, who watched a two-set-and-break lead evaporate against Murray for the second time.  Probably better suited for the compressed best-of-three format, the Frenchman’s electrifying shotmaking fails to compensate for his lack of physical (and mental) fitness at majors.  With relatively little at stake, Murray deserves credit for staying focused until Gasquet faded once again; this instinctive will to compete comprises an essential trait of a champion.  Elsewhere, Taylor Dent cracked the fastest serve in Roland Garros history…and actually won the match.  (We know that Andy will be eyeing the radar tomorrow in an effort to eclipse that 149-mph bomb, but wet conditions won’t aid his cause.)  In previous French Opens, serving records generally have not produced positive outcomes; Venus broke the WTA Slam speed record in a 2007 loss to Jankovic, while Karlovic broke the single-match Slam ace record in a defeat to Hewitt last year.  Finally, Ivanovic delivered a characteristically candid post-match interview that was much more intriguing than her opening victory.  Documenting the Serb’s mental oscillations between confidence and uncertainty, it’s worth a read for Ana fans (go to the Roland Garros site, click on News and Photos, then Interviews).  As she tries to “move on and get better” from match to match, we move on to Day 3.

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Pironkova vs. Henin (22) (Chatrier, 1st match):  Perhaps a shade more familiar than the typical 22nd seed, Henin will be sure to reawaken blissful memories in the multitudes of quasi-compatriots eager to celebrate her return to Roland Garros.  The four-time defending champion ignites what will be an extremely demanding fortnight (judging from her draw) against a player whom she once considered a future contender.  Her tennis tomorrow will need to be more impressive than her prognosticating skills then, for Pironkova hasn’t accomplished anything remarkable at significant events; nevertheless, she did defeat a sub-par Dementieva in Warsaw last week.  A quintessential pusher, the Bulgarian projects almost no power at all behind her serves and groundstrokes, relying on movement and consistency to prolong points until her opponent commits errors.  Although Henin’s heightened aggression has produced recurrent flurries of miscues, she should find her range sooner or later.  Pironkova’s pacelessness should allow the Belgian to measure her groundstrokes on the clay, providing her with a useful reference point for tenser encounters in the imminent future.

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Hewitt (28) vs. Chardy (Chatrier, 4th match):  While neither player especially enjoys this surface, the match offers an intriguing contrast between a wily, tenacious veteran and a flamboyant, temperamental star of the future.  Or at least the French hope that Chardy delivers upon his promise, since recent evidence has not been impressive.  Can Hewitt’s grittier mentality enable him to outlast the younger player just as another Anglophone competitor survived a Frenchman on Day 2?  Or will Chardy’s more forceful serve-forehand combinations penetrate the court too effectively, miring the Australian deep behind the baseline?  Note the duration of the rallies, which will favor Chardy if relatively short and Hewitt if they extend longer.  Also observe the impact of the Paris crowd on yet another of les bleues, some of whom (Gasquet, Mauresmo) have appeared burdened by expectations and others of whom (Tsonga, Monfils) have relished the adulation.  On the other hand, something more than fanatical Frenchies is required to rattle Hewitt.

Safina (9) vs. Date Krumm (Lenglen, 2nd match):  The Russian seeks her third consecutive finals appearance at Roland Garros after finishing runner-up to Ivanovic and Safina, but it’s unrealistic to expect the realization of that goal in the aftermath of her back surgery.  Winning just one total match at Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, Safina could fall well outside the top 10 and possibly outside the top 20 if she falters here.  Opposite her stands the artful, seemingly ageless Date, whose enduring affection for the game inspired her improbable return.  Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t toppled many high-profile foes in the comeback, yet she did win the Seoul title and has taken sets from elite players such as Wozniacki.  The match rests in Safina’s control, which is not necessarily good news for her; in a similar situation against the pedestrian Zakopalova in Madrid, she coughed up leads in both sets before crumbling under pressure in two tiebreaks.  Should she establish an early lead, she might cruise.  If she doesn’t, we could witness a lively rollercoaster that would compensate for mediocre tennis with high-quality drama.

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Cornet vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 1, 1st match):  Long considered future superstars by their respective nations, these expectation-laden phenoms have not quite delivered on their promise—the French much more notably than the Russian.  One can trace Cornet’s implosion to the two match points that she squandered against Safina in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open.  Had she converted one of those opportunities, she would have reached a first Slam quarterfinal and possibly sparked a breakthrough season; instead, her understandable deflation combined with a  shoulder injury to completely reverse her momentum.  Although Pavlyuchenkova hasn’t endured a similarly spectacular collapse, the Russian has wavered after what seemed a career-changing surge into last year’s Indian Wells semifinals.  She has struggled notably on the largest stages over the past year and has been hobbled by a foot injury in recent weeks.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Pavlyuchenkova can recapture the form that brought her to the second week here in 2009, or whether Cornet can muster momentum from encouraging performances in Fez and Estoril.  The French crowd will be firmly on her side, but she might be better off if they weren’t.

Ferrero (16) vs. Cuevas (Court 1, 3rd match):  Our last sight of the polished, gracefully aging Ferrero was his ignominious opening defeat in Rome at the unexpected hands of Santiago Giraldo.  (The Colombian displayed a crisp game that day, but a former French Open champion needs to win more than three games from an unseeded challenger.)  Shortly afterwards, a knee injury compelled Juan Carlos to withdraw from his home even in Madrid, a pity considering his near-total dominance of the South American clay courts in February.  It’ll be intriguing to observe what attitude the former French Open champion brings to his clash with the Uruguayan clay-court doubles specialist Pablo Cuevas.  Gifted with an elegant backhand, Cuevas has overcome adversaries as accomplished as Almagro on this surface, so he could penalize an unconvincing Ferrero.  Above all, though, this duo should deliver a classic exhibit of clay-court tennis rather than awkwardly adapting hard-court styles to the dirt as is so often the case in the contemporary game.  Watching players like these, one learns to relish the variety among tennis surfaces and regret the current trend towards uniform surface speed.

Ginepri vs. Querrey (18) (Court 2, 2nd match):  We’ll admit immediately that these two Americans are no clay experts and in fact are occasionally embarrassed by the vagaries of the surface.  This clash caught our attention not from the brilliant technique that they’ll display but from its psychological component.  Losing their previous meeting in the Indianapolis final despite a far more imposing serve, Querrey brings that mental baggage to the court as well as the baggage of never having won a match at Roland Garros.  It’s not surprising that his strategically limited game hasn’t succeeded here in the past, yet the sometimes complacent American has typically underwhelmed at Slams in general, not a positive sign for his future.  He can’t keep writing off early, disappointing losses as learning experiences forever, nor can he continue losing lackadaisically on important occasions to respectable but unintimidating players like Ginepri.  There’s a fine line between relaxed and lackadaisical that the loose-limbed Californian needs to find soon.

Peer (18) vs. Llagostera Vives (Q) (Court 6, 1st match):  Generally not renowned for her clay-court skills, the Israeli smoothly navigated a pair of formidable draws to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart and Madrid.  In that infamous top quarter of the WTA draw, Peer’s days are certainly numbered, for she could face Serena in the round of 16.  Nevertheless, this tournament represents an opportunity to extend the momentum from the Premier events into Wimbledon and the summer hard courts, where she has prospered more often.  Toting a name as long as she is short, Llagostera Vives has achieved resounding success in doubles with Martinez Sanchez but can be crafty in singles as well.  Peer will be cast in the role of the aggressor, an unaccustomed and perhaps uncomfortable position for her.  We should see a match defined by intelligent point construction and mental tenacity much more than baseline bullets.  Neither of these players can survive with the top-tier sluggers, but they’re an engaging diversion from the power-soaked games of the WTA elite.

Briefly notedAfter Ginepri vs. Querrey on Court 2, Serena and Venus continue their pursuit of a doubles calendar Slam.  Absent for most of the clay season in which she thrives, Marbella finalist Suarez Navarro targets Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Govortsova, a Belarussian who has enjoyed surprising success on this surface over the past several weeks.  One match to not watch is the clash between Gabashvili and Daniel Koellerer.  The senselessly pugnacious Austrian has earned the contempt of fellow players, commentators, and spectators alike for his repulsive, relentless displays of gamesmanship inappropriate to this dignified sport.  Far more elegant is the meeting between Hantuchova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, both of whom must be looking forward to the grass season; nevertheless, we’re curious to see who more successfully adapts their fast-court style to the clay.  While the willowy Slovak attempts to solve that riddle, Russian qualifier Ksenia Pervak ventures into the den of a familiar lioness:

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How do you solve a problem like Maria?  We hope that Pervak has no answer. 😉