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Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Fish:  Halfway through this historic season, the world #1 aims to break another record and become the first player to win five Masters 1000 titles in one year.  In each of his previous four title runs, Djokovic contested at least one compelling three-setter against opponents such as Nadal, Federer, and Ferrer.  By contrast, this week has witnessed the emergence of no serious challengers for the Serb after the first set of his first match.  Recovering from a deep deficit to win that set, Djokovic has lost his serve only once thenceforth and has displayed little tension in his three successive straight-sets victories.  The raised eyebrows and bemused shrugs of Monfils and Tsonga, two spectacularly gifted Frenchmen, demonstrated not only the degree to which the Serb has risen above the competition but also the degree to which he intimidates even high-quality foes.  Having won all six of his meetings with his opponent in the final, the tournament seems headed towards an anticlimactic conclusion.

Or will it?  For his part, Fish has reached three consecutive finals for the first time in his career and will contest his fourth Masters 1000 final.  On these relatively fast hard courts, Fish has executed his serve-reliant style to excellent effect and more often than not has attacked the net at judicious moments.  (In an upset-riddled draw, however, Fish has defeated no opponent more imposing than Wawrinka, far from a hard-court threat.)  During the Indian Wells final three years ago, moreover, the top-ranked American rebounded from a lopsided first set to alarm the Serb’s fans by extending him to a final set.  Likewise unruffled by facing Federer in last year’s Cincinnati final, he came within a tiebreak of what then would have seemed a stunning upset before suffering another gallant defeat.  Nevertheless, in a sport where outcomes still matter most, the key word remains “defeat.”  A dismal 6-13 in championship matches, Fish rarely has summoned his finest tennis on Sundays but instead has contributed to his conqueror’s cause with untimely unforced errors or unwise shot selection.  Most tellingly, Fish’s most impressive tournament in 2011 halted with a lopsided loss at the hands of the Serb.  Having defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinal, the American clawed just four games away from Djokovic despite earning multiple opportunities to play an active role in their encounter.

In order to inflict the second loss of Djokovic’s season, therefore, Fish probably must hope for a fallible performance from the top seed.  Victorious in all eight of his finals this year, the Serb faces an opponent outside the top five for just the second time on a championship Sunday.  He has dropped just one of his last 63 matches to opponents in that category, a tribute to a versatile game that lacks any element upon which an adversary can prey.  When battling Federer, opponents know to attack his backhand; when dueling with Nadal, they can expect vulnerability on his serve.  Somewhere between solid and stunning in every department, meanwhile, Djokovic can combat Fish’s outstanding serve with one of the ATP’s finest returns, the product of agile footwork and reflexes.  Also essential in this final for the Serb is his movement and his passing shots, for the American will stand little chance in a contest of protracted exchanges from behind the baseline.   As Tsonga learned in the semifinals, however, only commanding approach shots can prevent Djokovic from finding an angle to force a difficult volley attempt.  All the same, Fish can rely on the underdog’s nervelessness and remind himself that he has nothing to lose, perhaps allowing him to swing more freely.  If he can stay within range in the early stages, the Serb might feel pressure from the unfamiliar situation of playing a close match.  Should Djokovic gain an early lead, conversely, he almost certainly will not allow the American a second life, as he did in their Indian Wells final.  An increasingly inexorable front-runner when he holds the advantage, the Serb still has not suffered a dip in motivation as he seeks to continue his march into history.

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Serena vs. Stosur:  Terminating the nine-match winning streak of the San Diego champion in the semifinals, the suddenly resurgent Stosur attempts to terminate the ten-match winning streak of the Stanford champion in the final.  Their past encounters offer the Aussie reason for hope, especially a Roland Garros quarterfinal last year.  Despite the magnitude of both the stage and the opponent, Stosur summoned the courage to outplay Serena on crucial points deep in the third set, normally when the 13-time Slam champion becomes most dangerous.   Also inspiring hope in her supporters is a three-set victory during the 2009 US Open Series at Stanford, which marked her first breakthrough against an opponent from whom she previously had won sets.  Since losing the opening set of her tournament to Morita, Stosur has lost her serve only three times in the eleven sets thereafter, subjecting her opponents to immense pressure on their own service games.

Better equipped than any other potential opponent to handle that pressure, however, is the most formidable server in the WTA.  Against the outstanding return game of Azarenka, Serena faced only two total break points and rarely trailed in a service game.  Just when the fourth seed seemed on the verge of asserting herself early in the second set, Serena cruised through a service game in which she hit only one groundstroke (a routine forehand into the open court) together with two aces and a service winner.  Typically associated only with the ATP, that sort of overwhelming serving has worn down opponents mentally as much as physically.  One could observe even the highly accomplished Belarussian grow progressively more discouraged until she finally capitulated.  Not much less impressive, Serena’s second-serve return has unleashed a cascade of flagrant winners throughout this tournament, so Stosur either must aim for a high first-serve percentage or add ample kick to her second serve.  Considering the American’s modest stature, that kick serve could prove one of the keys to the final if it consistently veers above her favored strike zone.  Yet in few other areas does the Aussie have weapons that can trouble Serena.  More balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Serena should find ways to target her opponent’s backhand and perhaps stretch her wide to the forehand in order to expose the backhand corner.  In the semifinal, though, she curiously directed the majority of her groundstrokes towards her opponent’s stronger wing—the backhand—and still managed to prevail while matching strength with strength.

Although both players prefer the staccato, first-strike tennis that showcases their imposing power, Serena probably has a slight edge in movement and defense.  As she smothered Azarenka, spectators could notice that she often forced the Belarussian to hit an additional shot or two when the rally’s conclusion seemed foregone.  Whereas the fourth seed could not always finish those points, the 13-time Slam champion almost invariably finished when she had the opportunity.  That type of focused, precise play should allow Serena to exploit the occasional crack in Stosur’s serve when it does arise and edge past an opponent who, like Fish, rarely finds her highest level in finals.  Juxtaposed with the American’s sparkling 38-14 record in championship tilts is a statistic that illustrates her opponent’s contrasting fecklessness on those occasions.  A finalist ten times but a titlist just twice, Stosur has not acquired the mixture of scorching intensity and steel focus that champions like Serena personify.

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We return shortly with Cincinnati previews and a review of the most memorable upsets in Canada.

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Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Jie Zheng of China on Day 4 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 11, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Far from Canada’s frozen north, Toronto and Montreal still have proven inhospitable habitats for elite contenders in both Rogers Cups.  Defending champions Murray and Wozniacki?  The three WTA Slam champions this year?  The two most dominant ATP players of the past decade?  Together with defending US Open finalist Zvonareva and former #1s Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, all have departed to more humid surroundings in Cincinnati.  Scraping through the rubble after the avalanche of upsets are a host of talented, often under-appreciated figures—in addition to a reigning #1 and a thirteen-time Slam champion with carnivorous streaks.

Vinci vs. Stosur:  Glancing down the WTA rankings, few would suspect that the world #22 has won more tournaments than eight members of the current top 10.  But Vinci has enjoyed a modest counterpart to the late-career surge of her compatriot Schiavone, capturing three titles in 2011 and baffling more notable opponents with her deceptively penetrating backhand slice.  Among the baffled this week were two former #1s, Wozniacki and Ivanovic, who struggled to find a rhythm against the Italian’s unpredictable mixture of slices, chops, and spins.  Although this quarterfinal seems a serving mismatch on paper, Vinci protected her underpowered delivery with considerable success against the excellent return games of the Dane and the Serb.  Facing only one break point in her second 2011 victory over Li Na, meanwhile, Stosur has responded to the loss of her top-10 status with one of her most encouraging performances this year.  Nevertheless, she now must shoulder the burden of the favorite in a half stripped of the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion, the defending US Open finalist, and the reigning world #1.  Often fragile under pressure, Stosur may require time to adjust to a distinctive game that she never before has faced and that may threaten her composure unless she can assert her dominance in the early stages.

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Less than a week ago in San Diego, they met in a semifinal defined mostly by Petkovic’s nausea-induced sprint from the court.  Drained of energy by that experience, the top 10’s newest inhabitant mustered scant resistance thenceforth against a foe who has won all three of their encounters and excels at eroding the physically or mentally vulnerable and.  Radwanska repeated her Sunday victory over Zvonareva on Thursday, suggesting that her first title in over three years has boosted her confidence.  Regularly impressive during the US Open Series, the San Diego champion often has thrived on faster surfaces that add an ounce of extra sting to her serve.  Halting Kvitova in the previous round, Petkovic benefited considerably from the Wimbledon champion’s errant groundstrokes but deserves credit for staying crisp and focused rather than allowing her opponent’s waywardness to infect her.  At the core of this quarterfinal are Radwanska’s serve and Petkovic’s return, which could savage the Pole’s second delivery if she fails to maintain a high first-serve percentage.  Able to maneuver through rallies reasonably well when healthy, the German must resist the temptation to pull the trigger too aggressively too early in the point.  At the same time, she will want to keep Radwanska stretched along the baseline, preventing her from constructing her clever combinations at leisure.

Voskoboeva vs. Azarenka:  If one of the other quarterfinalists wins this tournament, they will have needed to collect only five or six victories.  Voskoboeva already has won five matches here, having progressed through qualifying, and has defeated two top-10 opponents in Bartoli and Sharapova.  Sometimes flustered by unknown challengers before, Azarenka suffered such a fate when she lost to Erakovic in her Stanford opener.  Far more impressive are her first two performances in this tournament, when she conceded three total games in four sets against home hope Dubois and former nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Despite Voskoboeva’s stunning run to this stage, fatigue may hamper her as she confronts a player more consistent than those whom she previously has ambushed.  The Kazakh has spent nine hours on court this week compared to just two for the Belarussian, who seeks her third semifinal at one of the Canadian tournaments.

Safarova vs. Serena:  A rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal, this meeting would seem to offer little drama.  Riding an eight-match winning streak into a clash with an opponent who never has defeated her, Serena has wasted little time in establishing herself as the leading contender for the US Open.  Since Wimbledon, she has conquered not only veterans like Sharapova and Bartoli but some of the WTA’s more promising younger stars, such as Lisicki and Goerges.  The root of Serena’s success remains a serve that has distanced itself ever further from the competition, resulting in a streak of 24 consecutive holds between Stanford and Canada.  After a series of emphatic victories, though, the former #1 faced ten break points and lost serve twice in a tense three-setter against Zheng Jie, a valiant competitor but a fading force in singles.  One wonders whether that scratchy performance signaled an ebb in Serena’s momentum or a dip in her motivation.  On the other hand, she survived a similarly unimpressive performance against Kirilenko in the same round at Stanford before roaring to life when the title neared and the opponents grew more worthy of her attention.  Having overcome Schiavone in two routine sets late on Thursday, Safarova may have gained a burst of self-belief that she can use to challenge an opponent who has not faced a lefty in over a year.  Should Serena find her trademark determination, though, the flaky Czech probably will show little appetite for battle.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Aiming to move 50 wins over .500 just 52 matches into the season, the top seed and only surviving member of the Top Four must fancy his chances of a fifth Masters 1000 crown.  Undefeated in six previous meetings with Monfils, the Serb has won ten of their last eleven sets, including emphatic victories at the US Open and Davis Cup final last year.  This authoritative head-to-head underscores the gap separating the Frenchman from the players above his inflated ranking of #7.  Lucky to survive a third-set tiebreak against Troicki on Thursday, Monfils lost the Washington final to Stepaek and has not shed his reputation of an unreliable competitor whose mind wanders from one point to the next.  Once smeared with a similar reputation, Djokovic can attribute much of his spectacular season to his elevated commitment and maturity, a lesson that his ultra-talented opponent could learn.  Nevertheless, the world #1 struggled in his opener against Davydenko and should have felt fortunate to evade a three-setter when he trailed by two breaks and later faced set point.  Although his serving improved during a Thursday victory over Cilic, the first set remained tighter than one might have expected.  On both occasions, Djokovic merely accelerated to steamroll his opponents once he earned the one-set lead, and Monfils should anticipate no more mercy if he relinquishes the initiative.

Tsonga vs. Almagro:  For the second time in four matches and for the second time in Montreal, the acrobatic Frenchman conquered Federer.  After those two earlier victories, Tsonga slumped to defeat a round later, so he must beware of another hangover against an opponent who arrived in the top 10 this year for the first time.  Less visibly talented than Tsonga, Almagro has enhanced his fitness this season and owns one of the ATP’s most elegant one-handed backhands, which he deployed to overcome fellow backhand artist and 2011 breakthrough story Gasquet.  The Spaniard and the Frenchman have tangled four times since the start of 2010, including a spectacular five-setter at the Australian Open last year that showcased not only shot-making skills but sportsmanship on both sides.  Especially ominous for the world #10, three of those matches came on the clay where he possesses much greater aptitude than does Tsonga.  His more elongated strokes require more precise timing than the compact, bludgeoned whacks of his opponent, who relies less upon placement than upon raw power.  Since the minds of both combatants can drift, though, a plot twist or two should enliven this narrative of stunning winners and stunning errors.

Fish vs. Wawrinka:  Unlike Federer, the top-ranked American avenged a recent defeat on Thursday when he reversed the Los Angeles final result against Gulbis.  Having withdrawn from Washington to rest his ankle, Fish found his caution rewarded with his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season.  Expected to face Murray at the stage, he instead eyes an opponent whom he has not faced in four years and who should pose a much less formidable threat.  After consecutive Slam quarterfinals at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Wawrinka has watched his results taper and his ranking rise stall.  Best suited to clay, his sturdy game rarely breaks down for extended stretches but conceals little of brilliance.  Much the opposite, Fish remains prone to inconsistency in his groundstrokes but remains an explosive server with sparkling touch around the net.  Considering that skill, one wonder why he does not approach the forecourt more frequently.  If Wawrinka lures him into baseline rallies, he could neutralize his disadvantage in first-strike power.  The American instead must hope to set the tone with his much brisker pace of play on serve while swinging freely on returns.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  A beneficiary of Dodig’s monumental upset, Berdych has become the arguable favorite to reach the final from this half.  Last year, the Czech served for the match against Federer and has found the fast-but-not-too-fast hard courts a suitable venue for exploiting his serve while protecting his questionable movement and groundstroke asymmetry.  Contrary to expectations, Berdych has lost both of his previous meetings with Tipsarevic, who nearly choked away a match against Verdasco for the second time this year but managed to survive 12 double faults.  The Serb often raises his level to meet the competition, delivering his finest tennis when battling opponents like Federer and Roddick.  Against the Czech, Tipsarevic has compensated for his deficiency in power with relentless focus, a weapon against an opponent as mentally flaky as girlfriend Safarova.  His stellar 2010 spring and summer nearly forgotten, Berdych has reached a position where he must prove himself again to the ATP elite.  Another defeat to Tipsarevic would heighten impressions of him as a dangerous floater capable of wins or losses against anyone, while a first victory would fan hope that last year represented no anomaly.

This second article of our US Open preview series discusses the challengers in the outer circle of contenders, players with legitimate aspirations to win the title but with less airtight cases than the favorites whom we outlined yesterday.  Selecting three members of the ATP and three members of the WTA, we explain why these less legendary players might find themselves with a bit of extra hardware to polish over the winter.

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1) Andy Roddick

Causes for confidence:  Recovering from a bout of mono that hampered much of his summer, Roddick dramatically exceeded expectations in Cincinnati.  After he vanquished fifth-ranked Soderling in a suspenseful third-set tiebreak, the top American extended his mastery over third-ranked Djokovic and nearly doused the flames of a scalding Mardy Fish.  The 2003 US Open champion always enjoys greater crowd support than any of his rivals in New York, creating an electric atmosphere that boosts his spirits in tight matches.  During his earlier hard-court campaigns this season, he scored triumphs over Soderling, Nadal, and Berdych at the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.  As illustrated in Cincinnati, Roddick responds better to heat and humidity than most of his future foes.

Causes for concern:  Visibly drained of energy late in his longer matches, the post-mono Roddick may not be ideally prepared for the best-of-five format at a major.  Once stellar in tight sets, Andy has dropped eight of his last eleven tiebreaks, and his prowess in closing out matches has wavered; he failed to serve out matches against Djokovic and Fish after squandering second-set match points against Soderling.  Moreover, there’s that little problem called Federer, who has defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and three Slam semifinals while compiling a 19-2 record against the American.

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2) Robin Soderling

Causes for confidence: A two-time Roland Garros finalist, Soderling came within a point of a fifth set against Federer in a US Open quarterfinal last year.  Despite his clay breakthroughs, the swift surface there should suit his percussive game better than any of the other majors.  The only player in the draw who has defeated both Federer and Nadal at majors, Soderling possesses more than sufficient swagger to assault the summit of the ATP.  His fearsome precision on both serve and groundstrokes should especially dazzle during a night session, when conditions are calmer. Traveling without coach Magnus Norman for the last several weeks, the Swede will be rejoined by his invaluable mentor before confronting the pressure of New York.

Causes for concern:  Ever an inflammable character, Soderling succumbed to his emotions too often during his summer campaign and displayed a disturbing negativity during a few of his recent losses.  Rebounding from TGUE (The Greatest Upset Ever) last spring, Nadal seems to have regained the momentum in that mini-rivalry with victories at the last two majors.  Lacking a Plan B, Soderling often struggles to maintain consistency throughout a tournament and may not be equipped to defeat a range of playing styles over the course of a fortnight; he has won surprisingly few titles considering his vast talents.

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3) Tomas Berdych

Causes for confidence: Rare is the player who takes up residence inside Federer’s cranium, but Berdych joined Nadal in that coveted piece of real estate after the Swiss admitted his anxiety when playing the Czech in Canada.  For the vast majority of that match, Tomas controlled as many baseline rallies as did Roger and kept his legendary opponent at bay with Del Potro-like groundstrokes.  After reaching the Roland Garros semifinals and the Wimbledon final, Berdych adapts well to the best-of-five format, which allows him to find his game, lose it, and find it again.  Yet fast hard courts remain his favorite surface, suggesting that he should improve upon dismal past performances at the US Open.  The Czech’s sturdier mentality will allow him to cope with his glamorous surroundings more capably than before.

Causes for concern: In response to an abysmal bit of scheduling by the Washington event, the old, churlish Berdych resurfaced to express his disgust with this minor tournament.  When he attempted to serve out his match against Federer, more importantly, the old Berdych resurfaced in a different way by donating egregious unforced errors as the pressure mounted upon him.  No such situation arose in Cincinnati, where the Czech suffered a routine loss to Baghdatis amidst discussion of a lingering injury.  Consequently, he brings little momentum to New York and will hope for a tranquil first week in which to regain it.

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

Causes for confidence:  Rebounding from a disastrous first half, the mercurial Russian relished her week in San Diego, where she battled to the title past Pennetta and Radwanska.  Armed with the confidence of that long-awaited victory, she tested Sharapova in Cincinnati before reaching the Montreal semifinal.  The 2004 US Open champion and 2007 finalist possesses a Clijsters-like athleticism that will be rewarded on the fast courts and a taste for showmanship that will be welcomed in New York.  Although Kuznetsova’s forehand comprises a more potent weapon than her backhand, she can hit winners from both wings and won’t easily be wrong-footed.  She also enters the tournament with a stronger health record than any of the other contenders, and durability should not be underestimated in the physically demanding context of a major.

Causes for concern:  Don’t be overly discouraged by her semifinal loss to Wozniacki in Canada, played under conditions that would have frustrated most competitors.  But that desultory defeat did remind audiences of her wayward focus, which has undermined on grand stages throughout her career.  Often more concerned with entertaining than winning, Kuznetsova sometimes derails herself with reckless, unintelligent shot-making.  And her game hasn’t returned for a substantial period, so her confidence may falter under pressure.  Furthermore, top contenders will punish her for the late-match nerves that she has displayed throughout this season.

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the most important title of her career so far, Wozniacki defeated a string of reasonably formidable opponents at the Rogers Cup and coped impressively with the rain-addled weekend.  The world #2 reached the final here last year by relentlessly exploiting the opportunities that arose and can be trusted to do so again.  More mature than her twenty years would suggest, she should respond calmly and coolly to the New York atmosphere.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki earned hard-court laurels at Indian Wells, where she reached her first Premier Mandatory final.  Recovered from the ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass seasons, she now covers the court as fluidly as ever and generally competes better than the WTA’s other rising stars.

Causes for concern:  Still susceptible to the occasional odd loss, the Pole-Dane folded meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati and struggled with the high temperatures there, an ominous portent for the Open.  Like Murray, she continues to lack an offensive weapon that would be rewarded on the fast courts (although, like Murray, she proved that counterpunchers can prosper in New York).  Dominating most of her peers, Wozniacki still struggles against most of the WTA veterans and never has defeated a former #1.  As the top seed, she will carry the proverbial “target on the back” into the draw and must cope with the additional burden of this position, not an easy task for a 20-year-old.

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3) Vera Zvonareva

Causes for confidence:  A surprise finalist at Wimbledon,  Zvonareva has scored two wins over Open favorite Clijsters this summer, which itself would suffice to feature her on this list.  Again a finalist in Canada, she dispatched her early opponents with an efficiency valuable in the seven-match fortnight at a Slam.  The meltdown potential that spelled her doom in New York a year ago has receded—although not disappeared—and allowed her to play a more focused, purposeful brand of tennis at key moments.  After struggling with ankle problems throughout her career, her balance looks much less awkward than previously and allows her to reverse direction more smoothly, an important asset on a fast court.  Far less familiar to mainstream fans and media than most contenders, she might coast into the second week with less of the exhausting scrutiny than her rivals will endure.

Causes for concern:  An unassuming personality, Vera clashes with the extroverted atmosphere surrounding the Open.  Just as with Kuznetsova, moreover, her breakthrough has been recent, so it’s difficult to discern whether she can extend success at one major better than she could extend her 2009 triumph at Indian Wells.  Often following impressive results with early exits, she lost early in San Diego and Cincinnati after reaching the Wimbledon final.  Vera often underperforms in finals and has accumulated a 10-14 record in championship matches (1-3 this year); she won eight total games in the Charleston and Montreal finals, suggesting that she might not be able to finish what she starts.

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By contrast, we are fully able to finish what we start.  Tomorrow comes Part III of the US Open previews, focusing on dark horses who (probably) won’t win the title but might spoil the fortnights of a few higher seeds.  Here’s a glimpse of the loveliest mane in the list:

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This first article in our series of US Open previews discusses the tournament favorites, the inner circle of contenders who most closely surround the title.  As with the Wimbledon previews, we outline both causes for confidence and causes for concern regarding each player, four from the ATP and four from the WTA.

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1) Roger Federer

Causes for confidence: A finalist in Toronto and a champion in Cincinnati, Federer duplicated his 2007 performance at the summer Masters 1000 events.  That year, of course, he captured the trophy in New York from the player who denied him the trophy in Canada; we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scenario unfold in 2010.  Avenging his Wimbledon loss to Berdych and reasserting his dominance over Djokovic, Federer’s Toronto performance demonstrated his ability to outlast his primary challengers in tense situations.  A week later in Cincinnati, he demonstrated that he could smother inspired dark horses by navigating past Nadal-killer Baghdatis and Murray-killer Fish.  The fast courts of Flushing suit Federer’s game better than the surface at any other major, sparking a streak of six consecutive finals there, and his superb fitness allows him to profit from the best-of-five format in steamy conditions more than any of his rivals except Nadal.

Causes for concern: Firmly in control of his matches against Berdych and Djokovic, Federer wavered in the second set and ultimately came within a few points of defeat on both occasions.  In order to progress efficiently through the draw and conserve energy for the later rounds, he can’t afford such lapses of concentration at the Open.  His draw at Cincinnati couldn’t have been much cozier on paper, featuring a bye, a walkover, a retirement, and just one seeded player (Davydenko); one imagines that his route in New York will be significantly more arduous.  But the most serious issue concerns his Toronto nemesis, Murray, who showed there that he finally has learned to attack Federer just as he attacks Nadal.  A rematch of their 2008 final would be the most compelling men’s championship match that one could expect this year.

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2) Rafael Nadal

Causes for confidence: Having won fourteen consecutive matches at majors, the world #1 seeks to join Federer in the career Slam club.  During his title runs in Paris and London, he overcame several of the players who most tormented him throughout his previous slump, such as Soderling and Murray.  The knees seem healthy after various surgical procedures, and his confidence generally rises in direct proportion to his health.  Almost as much as Federer, Nadal profits from the best-of-five format, which allows him to lose a tight set here or there while gradually wearing down the shotmakers who prosper on the Open’s fast courts.  A semifinalist in his last two appearances there, the Spaniard has followed a pattern of gradual but steady improvement each year that recalls his progress towards the Australian Open title in 2009.  Although Federer has established himself as the favorite, there is little evidence to suggest that he has overcome his mental fragility against Nadal.

Causes for concern: Highly fallible during the summer Masters tournaments, Nadal dropped a set to Kohlschreiber, faced a match point against Benneteau, mustered little resistance against Murray, and sprayed forehands wildly against Baghatis.  Rafa moves much less fluidly on hard court, often still lacks the depth on his groundstrokes, and sometimes displays a negativity never witnessed on clay or grass.  During the second half, fatigue typically prevents him from summoning his best tennis, while the slick surface in New York is antithetical to his movement-based style.  Unquestionably the steeliest competitor in the sport, he remains vulnerable to a swaggering shotmaker who can deny him the rallying rhythm upon which he relies.  Finally, his backhand will need to deliver much more consistently than it did in the past two weeks, for confidence in his weaker groundstroke has been essential to his previous hard-court success.

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3) Andy Murray

Causes for confidence: The almost certain US Open Series winner, Murray enjoys an excellent chance to secure his extra million if he can reproduce his Rogers Cup performance.  In Toronto, the introverted Scot became the first player since Del Potro at last year’s US Open to defeat Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Reminding audiences of his quarterfinal victory over Rafa in Australia, Murray suffocated the Spaniard with clutch serving and his lethal cross-court backhand.  In the final, he frustrated Federer with crisp returning and pinpoint passing shots whenever the Swiss legend ventured into the forecourt.  Clearly recovered from his post-Australian Open swoon, Britain’s #1 appears to relish his current coachless status and the independence that he has acquired from it.  Reaching both of his Slam finals on hard courts, Murray considers the US Open his favorite major and will feel much less pressure to succeed there than at the All England Club, two factors that bode well for a breakthrough.

Causes for concern: Unable to blunt Querrey’s power in the LA final and Fish’s power in the Cincinnati quarterfinal, Murray still is susceptible to being battered off the court by the ATP’s premier (and not-so-premier) powerhouses.  A year ago, Cilic dispatched him rather routinely in the round of 16; the Scot’s draw thus could be crucial in deciding his fate, for he often needs to play his way into a tournament in order to find his rhythm.  Although his serve has improved, Murray has yet to develop the type of first-strike weapon that thrives on the Open’s fast surface. As Mats Wilander dryly noted, moreover, his status as a Slam favorite remains dubious until and unless he wins one of them.

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4) Novak Djokovic

Causes for confidence: After a disheartening spring, Djokovic reinvigorated his 2010 campaign with a somewhat unexpected charge to the Wimbledon semifinals on his least favorite surface.  Later in the summer, he starred in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over Croatia and severely tested Federer deep in the third set of their Rogers Cup semifinal.  Reaching the semifinals or better at his last three US Opens, the Serb has lost to nobody other than Federer in any of those years.  The vibrant New York atmosphere ideally fits his personality, and this ebullient impersonator recaptured the acclaim of Open audiences last year after alienating them with harsh (albeit justifiable) criticism of Roddick in 2008.  Although less impressive than during his 2008 title run in Australia, his serve has grown into a more potent weapon in the last few months than it was at the outset of 2010.

Causes for concern: Predictably bothered by the Canada and Cincinnati heat, Djokovic will find scant relief when the stage shifts to humid New York.  His fitness comprises perhaps his greatest shortcoming, although his odd lack of confidence against elite opponents registers a close second.  Even when facing the relatively untested Berdych at Wimbledon, he slumped into defeatism too soon after encountering adversity; despite his prodigious talents, his appetite for competition simmers quite low.  This mixture of complacency and self-doubt rarely wins majors or defeats dangerous rivals, so Djokovic must quell those character traits before seizing a second Slam.

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

Causes for confidence: Freed temporarily from the shadow of her more glamorous compatriot, the defending champion extended her American hard-court winning streak by battling to the Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Often considered too gentle for her own good, Clijsters defied this perception by tenaciously surviving Sharapova’s assault in the final there and by escaping multiple deficits in the quarterfinals against Pennetta.  Her balanced groundstroke game and outstanding athleticism hinders opponents from wrong-footing her as easily as some of her more powerful, less agile colleagues.  Winning both of her majors in New York, the Belgian generally showcases her best tennis in the summer season and will be especially fresh this year after a foot injury curtailed her spring campaign.  Although a hip strain fueled a quarterfinal exit in Canada, she sounded convinced that the injury would not hamper her preparations for the Open.  (In fact, she may find herself better prepared than the four semifinalists there, forced to wait in limbo until the precipitation stops.)

Causes for concern: Not a weapon like the deliveries of Sharapova or Venus, the Belgian’s serve became an outright liability on multiple occasions in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup.  When one element of her game disintegrates, the other components often descend with it as she struggles to adapt to the circumstances.  Rallying from within five points of defeat against Mattek-Sands in her Montreal opener, Clijsters has suffered chronic premature losses in her comeback, including third-round debacles in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  Her last two defeats have occurred against the mentally suspect Zvonareva, not a player accustomed to upsetting elite contenders, so a dangerous floater could threaten in an early round before she settles into the tournament.

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2) Maria Sharapova

Causes for confidence: A finalist in three of her last four and four of her last six tournaments, Sharapova came within a point of inflicting a 2-and-3 drubbing upon Clijsters in Cincinnati before rain and then fatigue intervened.  At Stanford, she not only avenged her Indian Wells loss to Zheng but secured her first notable wins of 2010 with morale-lifting victories over Dementieva and Radwanska.  Dispatching San Diego champion Kuznetsova in her Cincinnati opener, Maria adjusted surprisingly comfortably to the sultry conditions that week.  Untroubled by a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal, she should arrive in New York healthier than she has been there since her 2006 title.  The slick surface and glamorous atmosphere of the Open mirror Sharapova’s personality; she relishes playing under the lights and never has lost a night match at a major.  Without recent Slam nemeses Henin and Serena in the draw, Maria will be poised to extend the surge of stirring performances that began with her Strasbourg title in May.

Causes for concern: While the fast courts at the Open enhance Sharapova’s first-strike ferocity, their speed also can expose her movement when opponents stretch her laterally.  Maria’s last two appearances concluded in ignominious third-round exits during which her serve unraveled in spectacular fashion, so one should observe the performance of that shot under pressure.  Even in Cincinnati, Sharapova lost the rhythm on her serve when attempting to close out matches, suggesting that her once-bulletproof confidence has not returned completely after injury travails.  During the two and a half years since her breathtaking run at the 2008 Australian Open, Maria has reached just one Slam quarterfinal (2009 Roland Garros).

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3) Venus Williams

Causes for confidence: Just as Clijsters will benefit from the absence of Henin, Venus should benefit from the absence of her sister and the scrutiny that such a situation inevitably provokes.  Her serve still sizzles through the court more fiercely than any of the other contenders, allowing her to hold serve with greater regularity.  Favoring short exchanges over extended rallies, the swift surface will shield Venus from the consequences of her increasingly erratic groundstrokes; fewer shots are required in order to win points from the baseline.  Probably more gifted in the forecourt than any of the other leading ladies, Serena’s elder sister also can exploit the fast courts to finish points at the net.  After a dismal Wimbledon, moreover, she may prove more motivated than ever to deliver a performance that reaffirms her relevance.  Startlingly, she has won only two fewer Slams (7) than the rest of the draw combined (9).

Causes for concern: Not having played since that Wimbledon loss, Venus enters with no hard-court matches this summer and without having won the Open in nine years, a period longer than many tennis careers.  (Interesting fact:  she has won no tournaments in 2009-10 except Dubai and Acapulco, both of which she won in both years.)  A factor in her loss to Clijsters there last year, her knee injury may forestall a deep run by hampering the 30-year-old’s service rhythm as well as her footwork.  Possessing virtually no B-game, she generally is ghastly when anything less than magnificent and may not be able to maintain her best tennis throughout a fortnight against seven different opponents with diverse playing styles.  Outside Wimbledon, in fact, Venus has reached just one Slam semifinal since 2003 (the 2007 US Open).

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4) Victoria Azarenka

Causes for confidence: Finally free from the hamstring injury that crippled her clay and grass seasons, the Belarussian bombshell returned to her early-season form during the US Open Series.  While capturing the Stanford title, Azarenka lost no more than five games in four of her five matches against opponents including Stosur and Sharapova.  As of this writing, she has reached the Rogers Cup semifinals with emphatic victories over Li Na and Bartoli, who often are formidable at this stage of the season.  (An unkind draw in Cincinnati witnessed her demise at the hands of a suddenly resurgent Ivanovic, no easy first-round assignment.)  Fusing power with intelligence and bold shotmaking with above-average movement, she is a more complete player than any of the WTA’s other rising stars.  Signaled by a Sharapova-esque shriek and a dog named Rolex, the Belarussian’s strutting personality should shine in a city that celebrates showmanship and swagger far more than the other Slam venues.

Causes for concern: A heavily hyped prodigy during her teenage years, Vika broke through only temporarily with the 2009 Miami title and three consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Still her greatest flaw, this phenom’s overly volatile temper has cost her matches on important stages, such as a third-round encounter with Schiavone at last year’s US Open and a clash with Wozniacki at the year-end championships in Doha.  Under the bright lights of New York, she will feel the pressure of intense media scrutiny, not a situation to which she has responded maturely in the past.  Although she defeated both Sharapova and Clijsters this summer, she has struggled against elite contenders at key tournaments; note that she fell to Maria in Beijing and Clijsters in Miami, both Premier Mandatory events much more significant than Stanford and Eastbourne.

***

We return tomorrow with the challengers, the outer circle of contenders with legitimate title aspirations but a little further removed from the season’s final grand prize.  Happy reading!

While commentators often have likened Murray to the next generation’s version of Federer, we have observed few similarities in their games.  Whereas the Swiss master has honed a free-flowing brand of shotmaking that relies upon relentless aggression, the Scot’s success has hinged upon his outstanding counterpunching and resilient defense, somewhat reminiscent of grinders like Hewitt.  Therefore, their rivalry has featured an intriguing contrast of styles in addition to a mini-momentum shift.  Frustrated by Murray during their early meetings, Federer recently has wrested the psychological advantage away from the Scot.  Can the Rogers Cup’s defending champion reverse the balance of power on Sunday?  We offer three kernels of advice for each finalist to ponder.

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1)      transition from defense to offense:  During the Australian Open final, Murray recoiled from seizing command of rallies and exerting pressure upon Federer from the baseline.  Content to rely upon his superb movement and reflexes, he allowed the Swiss legend to settle into the role of aggressor throughout the match.  By stepping into midcourt balls and attempting to create offensive forays of his own, Murray can implant doubts into Federer’s mind that will complicate his game plan.  Despite the third seed’s skill in passing shots, the defending champion should confidently venture towards the forecourt when his imposing first serve elicits a diffident return.  If he can translate to the final the resolute mentality with which he attacked Nadal, Federer might be discomfited by the unexpected departure from the Scot’s cautious personality. 

2)      backhand to backhand rallies:  One of the crispest and most consistent two-handers in the game, Murray’s backhand penetrates the court far better than does Federer’s one-hander in addition to donating far fewer errors.  The Scot ably redirects the ball on this wing and disguises the direction of his shots, allowing him to keep opponents off balance.  Although Federer hit through his weaker groundstroke with confidence early in his semifinal, the shot predictably wilted when the match grew tight.  Rather than allowing the Swiss to unleash forehand after forehand, Murray must force him into his backhand corner and erode his patience, perhaps eventually luring him into an recklessly aggressive gambit.

3)      stay positive:  Whereas Federer radiates confidence even in perilous situations, Murray has proven swift to sink into negativity when momentum shifts against him.  Petulantly castigating himself or his coaches, he displays an emotional vulnerability upon which opponents as experienced as the Swiss will capitalize.  One imagines that Federer might start the final impressively, as he did in Australia; that time, the Scot vanished into a cloud of defeatism from where he didn’t emerge until the third set, before which the match virtually had been decided.  In this final, Murray must remind himself that the GOAT has grown increasingly susceptible to peaks and valleys within a match, creating unforeseen opportunities for his challengers.  But one can profit from such lapses only by remaining alert, focused, and optimistic.

Federer:

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1)      finishing points at the net:  A deft and instinctive volleyer, Federer demonstrated his forecourt talents  at pivotal junctures in his victories over Berdych and Djokovic.  Murray’s retrieving style probably will create repeated openings for the third seed to move forward, which will enable him to take time away from his fluid opponent.  Rather than engaging in a war of attrition from the baseline, Federer can prevent the defending champion from settling into a rhythm by decisively cutting points short and forcing the thoughtful Scot to rush.  In order to implement this tactic, though, he must elevate his first-serve percentage, for Murray’s outstanding return will neutralize any attempt to attack behind a second delivery.  Here, Federer might choose to prioritize placement over pace, utilizing a few more wide serves to drag the Scot off the court.

2)      attack Murray’s second serve:  Connecting with fewer than 50% of his first serves against Nadal, Murray managed to survive that low conversion rate in part because of the Spaniard’s benign returning.  Don’t expect Federer to perch cautiously behind the baseline when one of the Scot’s second balls arrives, however.  Enabling an aggressive opponent to seize the initiative immediately, this shot remains the greatest flaw in Murray’s game.  If the second serve lands well inside the service line, Federer should consider running around his backhand and crushing an inside-out or inside-in forehand return.  Beyond winning a few points outright, such a strategy would send a message to Murray and perhaps cause the pace on his first serve to diminish as the defending champion focuses upon raising his percentage. 

3)      stay focused:  Leading Djokovic 6-1, 2-0, 30-0 in the semifinal, Federer seemed headed towards an emphatic victory after an hour or so.  Serving at 5-6, 40-15 in the second set against Berdych, he seemed headed towards a tiebreak that he probably would win.  On both occasions, he injected his reeling, vastly outplayed opponent with hope by donating a slovenly service game.  While one doesn’t expect a 29-year-old father of twins to play with the relentless urgency of a hungry 24-year-old, such lapses have cost Federer severely at non-majors and even have infiltrated his game during the eight most important weeks of the calendar.  A cunning competitor when at his best, Murray feasts upon the unwary and the unfocused.  Don’t expect him to reward any charity from Federer with mercy of his own.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:  who has the edge?

Serve:  Federer

Return:  Murray

Forehand:  Federer

Backhand:  Murray

Volleys:  Federer

Movement:  Murray

Mental:  Federer

***

In Cincinnati, meanwhile, Sharapova finds herself in a highly similar situation to two weeks ago in Stanford, when she battled through a three-set semifinal on Saturday night before finding herself “out of gas” (her expression) in Sunday afternoon’s final.   While Maria will welcome the 3 PM first ball much more than Stanford’s noon start, she will be playing for a sixth consecutive day—an extremely rare occurrence in her career.  An excellent mover, the much better rested Clijsters should be able to stay in the rallies until fatigue forces the weary Russian to purposelessly spray groundstrokes, a product of striking her high-risk missiles late and out of position.  We suspect that this final may be a “one-set match,” during which Sharapova attempts to keep pace with her fellow US Open champion in the first set while ascertaining the amount of effort that the match will require from her.  If Clijsters establishes the lead with a reasonably sturdy set, Maria probably will concede the second set as she did in Palo Alto.  But if she can muster the energy to swipe the first set from an uninspired Belgian, all bets are off. 

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One can’t imagine how the Cincinnati stadium could have experienced a power outage when the Siberian’s percussive groundstrokes thundered through the court.

We return shortly to preview the ATP Cincinnati and WTA Montreal draws in the same quarter-by-quarter format that we used for this week’s tournaments!

Just as we had hinted in our pre-tournament previews, Nalbandian chopped down the limb on which we had climbed by forecasting him to reach the semifinals.  At any rate, such is the beauty of the disclaimers that one can carefully attach to these long-shot picks.  When the player actually performs as we had foretold, we can proclaim that we knew that they would.  When he/she doesn’t…well, we can proclaim that we knew that they wouldn’t.  In our semifinal preview, we investigate the probability of the first Federer-Nadal hard-court clash since the 2009 Australian Open and the probability of the first “Sharapovanovic” final since the 2008 Australian Open. 

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Nadal (1) vs. Murray (4):  For the second straight tournament and the second straight Toronto Rogers Cup, the fiery Spaniard and the icy Scot collide in a semifinal.  During their eleven previous meetings, a fascinating rivalry has developed that has showcased Murray’s capacity for offensive first-strike tennis (uncharacteristic) as well as Nadal’s scintillating counter-punching talents (characteristic).  While Murray must leave his comfort zone when he plays Rafa, therefore, the Spaniard requires few adjustments when he confronts the Scot.  As one would expect, Rafa has dominated their head-to-head except on three occasions when injuries or fatigue undercut his performance.  Hard courts constitute Murray’s surface of choice as well as Nadal’s least favorite surface, so a mini-upset could occur if the world #1’s pedestrian form from this week continues.  Erratic against Monfils, Murray delivered a poised, seamless quarterfinal performance to record his first career victory over Nalbandian.  The Scot will seek to recapitulate his stunning display against Rafa in Melbourne, when he served boldly on key points, sharpened his focus throughout the rallies, and resolutely opened up the court with early ball-striking.  Aiding Nadal will be the humid weather conditions, to which the Spaniard adapts more adeptly than does Murray.  Healthy and mentally relaxed, Rafa should elongate a sufficient number of rallies on this medium-speed hard court to wear down Murray physically and psychologically.  Since we’re only a month removed from Wimbledon, the ghosts of Nadal’s rather straightforward victory there will be waiting to descend into the Scot’s mind when adversity strikes. Pick:  Nadal, 70-30.

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Federer (3) vs. Djokovic (2):  At the 2007 Rogers Cup, Djokovic achieved a vital breakthrough by ambushing Federer in one of the most thrilling championship matches ever hosted by the tournament.  At the last three US Opens, however, the engaging Serb has lost to Federer, Federer, and…Federer.  Furthermore, he fell to the Swiss maestro in last year’s Cincinnati final, after which he admitted his lack of confidence against the GOAT.  Djokovic’s stirring upset of Federer at the 2008 Australian Open feels like a long time ago now; since that fortnight, his focus has wandered, his confidence has faltered, and his strokes have lost their crisp, almost robotic precision.  Suggesting a Djokovic renaissance was a Wimbledon semifinal run as well as a comprehensive demolition of Croats Ljubicic and Cilic in Davis Cup.  After almost retiring in his opener here, the Serb dispatched a pair of overmatched opponents in Hanescu and Chardy but has not faced a seeded player.  Menawhile, Federer displayed bursts of signature form in a quarterfinal comeback against Berdych that should have revived his self-belief after losing to the Czech at the All England Club.   But the 29-year-old’s game did wobble in pivotal moments including the last game of the second set, which featured two double faults, a wildly reckless forehand miss, and a shanked backhand on set point.  Armed with a crisp two-hander, Djokovic will hope to target Federer’s weaker wing as often as possible.  By contrast, their forehand-to-forehand battles would favor the Swiss, so be sure to observe the direction of the cross-court rallies.  As has often been the case in their scintillating collision, though, the key factor should be Federer’s superior poise under pressure, the trait that assured his survival on Friday.  (Interesting fact:  Federer was two points from defeat on seven different occasions against Berdych.)  Pick:  Federer, 60-40.

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Ivanovic vs. Clijsters (4):  Just like Hantuchova in San Diego, Ivanovic barely dodged defeat in her first-round match against a seeded opponent.  Also like Hantuchova, she exploited the opportunity that she herself had created by dispatching her next few adversaries as her confidence has mounted visibly each day.  Following the second-set tiebreak seized from Azarenka, Ana has lost just fifteen games in her last seven sets, five of which were played against higher-ranked players.  Once again like Hantuchova, she enters the semifinal as a clear underdog against the fourth seed, a player with a much more versatile game and superior movement.  Don’t put too much weight on their one-set Madison Square Garden exhibition, a ghastly comedy of errors at a time when both women were struggling mightily.  Unless the Serb enjoys an outstanding serving day, Clijsters should expose her still dubious albeit improved movement by stretching her laterally.  Possessing much more balanced groundstrokes than does Ivanovic, the Belgian will seek to pin Ana in her backhand corner, where she either will be prevented from unleashing her massive forehand or will be lured into running around the backhand and thus exposing too much court territory.  The smiling Serb showcased sparkling net should play during her quarterfinal victory, which should encourage her to venture into the forecourt whenever an opening emerges.  Yet the depth on Clijsters’ penetrating, symmetrical groundstrokes should forestall such incursions for much of the match unless Kim’s concentration dissolves; in fact, she has suffered such lapses too frequently during her comeback thus far.  Among the key trends to observe in this encounter will be the length of the points, which will favor Clijsters when extended and Ivanovic when briskly curtailed.  Even if the Serb sprays a few rash forehands, she must muster the confidence to continue forcing the issue and aiming for the lines, necessary against a much more consistent opponent.  (Interesting fact:  a win in this match should vault Ivanovic into a seeded slot for the US Open, a position in which one never could have imagined her a few weeks ago.)  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

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Pavlyuchenkova vs. Sharapova (10):  Savage and suffocating in her last three matches, Sharapova has dropped five or fewer games in her last three matches against Petkovic, Radwanska, and Bartoli—not quite the elite of the elite, to be sure, but a sturdy trio of opponents all the same.  When her serve deserts her as it did early against Radwanska and late against Bartoli, Maria has been able to regroup, crush thunderous returns, and prevent her opponent from capitalizing on the momentum shift.  While she continues to pursue this courageous comeback, the three-time Slam champion has learned to adapt to the dips in her service rhythm rather than allowing them to derail the rest of her game as it did in 2009.  Despite the mind-numbing heat and humidity in Cincinnati, Maria has progressed efficiently through her matches (unlike at Stanford) and has enjoyed the advantage of twice playing at night.  Nevertheless, playing on the fifth consecutive day often has proved a challenge for her in the past, so take note of her movement and footwork in the early stages.  When taking small, careful steps towards the ball, the Russian fully profits from her statuesque frame to blast her baseline weapons with eye-popping precision.  When fatigue induces her to take large, careless strides, she loses the timing and rhythm on her swings, guiding balls instead of striking them cleanly. Having not watched the Istanbul tournament or any of Pavlyuchenkova’s matches this week, we’re unsure what to expect from Maria’s compatriot, who sounded doubtful about her own recovery from a three-set quarterfinal under the unforgiving Ohio sun.  Neither player knows much about the details of her opponent’s game, which implies that the match might feature an early adjustment period as they adapt.  Although upstarts who never have played Sharapova often wilt under her sheer weight of shot, Pavlyuchenkova scored two impressive wins over Venus last fall and thus has demonstrated her ability to absorb pace.  The former junior #1 reached a Premier Mandatory final in 2009; is she ready to extend a career-best nine-match winning streak and reach a Premier Five final in 2010?  Or will Maria reach her fifth final of the season and fourth in her last six tournaments?  Pick:  Sharapova, 65-35.

***

Enjoy the star-studded Saturday in Toronto and Cincinnati, arguably the most intriguing day of tennis so far in this year’s US Open Series!

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Having begun with the ladies during our tournament previews, we start our Friday forecasts with the men.  In the sweltering temperatures of Toronto and Cincinnati, who will sizzle…and who will fizzle?

Toronto: 

Nadal (1) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Despite his unprepossessing, compact frame, the German projects surprising power from both of his groundstrokes and can unleash a blistering one-handed backhand reminiscent of Gasquet’s stroke.  A flamboyant shotmaker who often plays against percentages, Kohlschreiber ebbs and flows dramatically throughout his matches.  In order to trouble Nadal, he’ll need to avoid the untimely dips in form that have hampered him against the ATP elite; he won a set from Rafa in Melbourne with sparkling offense but conceded too many points on feckless unforced errors.  Tested by Wawrinka and briefly by Anderson, the Spaniard is gradually settling into his hard-court rhythm.  His groundstrokes are penetrating the court with increasing conviction, while Kohlschreiber’s modest serve won’t allow him to immediately seize command of points and keep the rallies short.  Pick:  Nadal.

Murray (4) vs. Nalbandian:  Riding the longest winning streak of a fascinatingly convoluted career, the Argentine has defeated Davydenko, Youzhny, Wawrinka, Simon, Cilic, Ferrer, and most recently Soderling during the last several weeks.  Against the Swede, he confidently regrouped from a one-set deficit in an uncharacteristically steady, tenacious performance.  Bageled twice in his last two tournaments, Murray failed to close out Querrey in the LA final and vanished inexplicably for a lengthy period here against Monfils.  Perhaps unsettled by his current coachlessness, the Scot also must cope with the bitter aftertaste of yet another Wimbledon disappointment.  (Fortunately, though, his game hasn’t plummeted abjectly as it did after Melbourne.) Focus on the crisp two-handed backhands in this match, among the finest weapons of this type in the ATP.  Rather than the serve-oriented short points of the quarterfinal below, we expect elongated rallies in which both competitors carefully probe the court’s angles.  Murray must maintain a first-serve percentage higher than his usual level, for the Argentine’s smooth return will feast upon the Scot’s mediocre second ball.  Pick:  Nalbandian.

Berdych (7) vs. Federer (3):  The only all-seeded clash of the day, this quarterfinal offers the most intrigue.  As noted by Alvaro Rama, Berdych is the only Toronto quarterfinalist who has not dropped serve in the tournament.  The Czech ball-bruiser seeks a third victory over Federer this year after a fourth-round epic in Miami and a less nail-biting but more historic triumph at Wimbledon.  In that quarterfinal upset, Federer seemed to glide through his service games effortlessly until he suddenly didn’t, whereas Berdych wobbled and slogged through his service games but ultimately escaped them.  In their backhand-to-backhand exchanges, his sturdy two-hander overpowered the GOAT’s graceful yet frail one-hander.  Even in forehand-to-forehand rallies, the Czech enjoyed similar success to Del Potro when he pinpointed his flat bombs within centimeters of the baseline and forced the Swiss into mistiming his strokes.  Like Nadal, the third seed has won two tiebreaks in Toronto, which bodes well for him in the likely event that a set should reach that point.  A bit of the old, whining Berdych returned in Washington, moreover, when he peevishly threatened to never return to the Legg Mason event after some admittedly ham-handed scheduling.  Nevertheless, there’s no question who has been the better player of the two over the last several months.  It’s not Roger.  Pick:  Berdych.

Chardy vs. Djokovic (2):  Very hot and very bothered in his muggy opener against Benneteau, Djokovic will be relieved not only to play in the night session but also to avoid Davydenko and Verdasco, against whom he has struggled over the past year.  On the other hand, the Serb faces the upstart who dismissed both the Russian and the Spaniard.  Yet another mercurial French talent, the swaggering Chardy should relish the theatrical atmosphere of the night session as he thumps his serve-forehand combinations.  Following a three-hour war of attrition against Verdasco, he recovered admirably to dominate Davydenko and has more than enough potential to enjoy a prolonged scorching streak.  Calmer and cooler in his victory over Hanescu, however, Djokovic has recorded relatively consistent results in Canada over the past few years.  The moderate speed of the hard court suits his extremely complete but not quite overpowering all-court game, much as it does Nadal’s.  Yet much of the Serb’s charm consists of his unpredictability, which makes us hesitate for a moment before writing his name.  Pick:  Djokovic.

Cincinnati:

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Amanmuradova (Q) vs. Ivanovic:  Hats off to the towering Uzbek for reaching the quarterfinals after slogging through three qualifying rounds in the Cincinnati midsummer heat.  By far the most impressive win of her career, Akgul’s victory over defending champion Jankovic featured 12 aces and no break points whatsoever on her own serve.  She will enter the quarterfinals filled with confidence but perhaps a little jaded as she prepares to play her seventh match in eight days.  Also brimming with confidence is Ivanovic, who has capitalized convincingly upon her first-round upset of Azarenka to record two dominant victories of higher-ranked opponents.  Possibly galvanized by the Rogers Cup controversy, the smiling Serb seeks to exploit a second half in which she will be defending few points at any tournaments.  Although she doesn’t crush as many outright aces as Amanmuradova, she similarly will rely upon her serve and return to set up benign mid-court balls and abbreviate the baseline exchanges.  Neither player wants to wage a war of attrition, so the Uzbek and the Serb will pull the trigger as soon as they can.  Despite the vast gulf in experience here, this match should be competitive and probably decided by a handful of points.  Recently, Ivanovic had struggled to win such encounters, but perhaps that trend has reversed this week.  Expect an exercise in first-strike tennis with very few service breaks or break points, and a match much less attractive than Ana.  On the other hand, most matches are.  Pick:  Ivanovic.

Clijsters (4) vs. Pennetta (11):  Dangerous during the summer hard-court season last year, Pennetta awakened from a dormant stretch to reach the semifinals in San Diego and has extended that form through three routine wins here.  Forced to battle from the brink against Zvonareva in the 2009 US Open, the fiery Italian comfortably eased past the Wimbledon finalist in the third round.  It’s been an odd year of peaks and valleys for Jada’s mom, meanwhile, who sparkled in Brisbane, flopped in Melbourne and Indian Wells, dazzled in Miami, disappeared on the clay, and did a bit of everything during the grass season.  Avenging a loss to Safina during her comeback event here last year, Kim showed no mercy to home hope Christina McHale.  But don’t extrapolate too much from those matches.  At Wimbledon, Clijsters seemed a genuine contender as she expertly defused Henin, then looked much more like a mom than a murderess when she faced Zvonareva a few days later.  Since neither player possesses overwhelming first-strike potential, this match should unfold in a manner drastically divergent from the quarterfinal above; one imagines that breaks will proliferate and rallies will extend.  If Pennetta can control her seething emotions and stay within range, opportunities probably will present themselves.  But Clijsters is the clearly superior player when focused, and the match ultimately will lie in her hands.  Pick:  Clijsters.

Wickmayer (12) vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Finally, former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova may be on the verge of realizing her vast potential after a tantalizing glimpse of what she could become at Indian Wells in 2009.  Following three victories over experienced opponents in Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Peer, her excellent week continues to a winnable match against fellow phenom Wickmayer.  Allowed to develop calmly outside the limelight occupied by Clijsters and Henin, “Wickipedia” scored a startling upset herself by edging Li Na, whom we had expected to reach the semifinals.  Opportunity knocks for these burgeoning talents, both of whom surely will find themselves in the top 10 someday.  At this Premier Five event, heaps of ranking points await such opportunists, elevating their ranking and softening their draws in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist in Miami, Wickmayer seems a bit closer to a breakthrough than does Pavlyuchenkova; her game currently is crisper and more reliable, her serve is much more potent, and her mind is clearer at tense moments.  On the other hand, the Russian’s groundstrokes are more balanced, while she has recorded more wins over elite players at this stage in her fledgling career.  Will the Belgian’s forehand or the Russian’s backhand set the tone in the rallies?  Either way, their appearances in the quarterfinals here should encourage WTA fans by suggesting that, although the future may not be here, it’s at least approaching.  Pick:  Wickmayer.

Sharapova (10) vs. Bartoli (16):  At the expense of both San Diego finalists, Sharapova has impressed in her Cincinnati debut after an erratic opener during which she struggled with the intense humidity.  Starting with her May title run at Strasbourg, Maria has compiled a 21-4 record that includes three finals appearances on three different surfaces.  Despite early success at Wimbledon, hard courts have evolved into her battleground of choice, where the ball bounces higher than on grass but travels just as fast.  Building her confidence before the US Open are stirring recent triumphs over Dementieva, Radwanska (twice), Kuznetsova, and Zheng, all of whom had frustrated her on past occasions.  The 2007 Wimbledon finalist often shines during the summer season and looked sharp at Stanford as well as her early rounds here.  (In fact, Bartoli was the only player to win a set from Bank of the West champion Azarenka, who dropped no more than five games in any of her other matches that week.)  Slightly marred by a controversial, maybe not quite “timely” challenge on a key point, the Frenchwoman’s upset of the second-seeded Wozniacki again demonstrated her ability to frustrate marquee competition.  Since both players have honed stunning returns, first-serve percentage will be a crucial factor; neither Maria nor Bartoli prosper when regularly forced to rely upon their second delivery.  Although Sharapova has dominated their previous meetings, they haven’t played in the past three years, during which the Frenchwoman has substantially improved her movement.  Once easily wrong-footed along the baseline, she now can retrieve a remarkable range of shots with dogged scurrying.  Maria’s superior first-strike arsenal eventually should  if she can temper her aggression with a modicum of patience, preserve her focus, and take time away from Bartoli by finishing points in the forecourt.  Pick:  Sharapova.

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Enjoy what promises to be a fascinating quarterfinal day in two different cities (and countries)!  We will return to preview all four semifinals in a similar fashion.

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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

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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

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