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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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As the players pack their passports and clay-court shoes for the annual trip to Europe, we’ll take a moment to commemorate the events of a captivating fortnight in Miami.  Since our last tournament wrap used the Ad-in, Ad-out format once beloved of SI, we’ll switch to the report card model for this edition.  Not everyone is included, of course; we targeted those players who especially stood out and those who especially…stood out in a different way.

A:

Roddick:  Securing his most significant title since 2006, the top-ranked American nearly completed the coveted Indian Wells-Miami sweep.  His suffocating serving performance (just two breaks in 73 service games) proved that his Australian shoulder injury has subsided.  Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of his tournament, however, was his ability to adapt and improvise in order to reverse the momentum of his semifinal match against Nadal; often considered a programmatic, unimaginative player, Roddick  demonstrated otherwise on Friday afternoon.  If he stays healthy during the clay season, he’ll undoubtedly find himself among the top contenders at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the other top summer events.  (Roddick also deserves praise for honoring his commitment to participate in the Champions for Chile earthquake relief exhibition on the afternoon before the final.)

Clijsters:  Mom was merciless in Miami, surrendering four or fewer games in four of her six matches here.  As remarkable as that statistic was, she’ll have gained the most momentum from her nail-biting, stomach-churning semifinal against Henin.  Long overshadowed by her flashier compatriot, Clijsters progressed a considerable distance towards laying painful memories to rest.  Less importantly, she laid painful recent memories to rest by rebounding from untimely exits in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  We enjoyed watching Kim’s new style, which relies on more aggressive court positioning while leaving the splits to bananas and Jankovic.

Berdych:  His tournament looked all but over when he leaned on the net during the third-set tiebreak against Federer, peering wide-eyed at a forehand mark millimeters from the sideline.  Two days later, his tournament looked all but over again when he trailed an energetic Verdasco by a set and 3-1, serving at 0-30.  His gritty comebacks from both of those perilous positions may have signaled the birth of a new Tomas, who blends bullet-like ball-striking with stubborn tenacity.   A single win over a top player at a major tournament can transform any talented player’s career (just ask Soderling).  If Berdych has indeed turned a psychological corner, he’ll threaten anyone on any surface but clay.

Henin:  She may have fallen to her compatriot by the identically microscopic margin as  Brisbane, but she demonstrated that her Melbourne run was no accident, permitted by the vagaries of an upset-filled draw.  After efficiently dispatching Dementieva and Zvonareva, Henin confronted world #2 Wozniacki in a quarterfinal that became the best women’s match of the tournament.  One might have thought that the Dane’s extreme consistency would be a nightmare for a still-rusty Henin (although we didn’t), yet she responded to losing a marathon first set by holding her nerve (and her serve) until she found a rare chink in Wozniacki’s Viking-like armor.  Outside Serena and Maria, Justine may be the most relentless competitor in the WTA. 

A-:

Venus:  She delivered only one performance of vintage brilliance (against Radwanska) en route to the final but found ways to win over a few potentially tricky opponents.  Spraying balls to all seven continents in the Hantuchova match, she somehow delivered her best tennis at the most critical moments–the mark of a champion.  As her career and consistency wane, she’ll find those survival skills increasingly useful.  We dropped her a notch for failing to stay on court for an hour against Clijsters on Saturday; one expects more from a five-time Wimbledon titlist, even bandaged on both legs.

Nadal:  The good news was that Nadal reached his second straight Masters Series semifinal with wins over former nemeses Nalbandian and Tsonga, and that his knees created no headlines.  The bad news was that essentially the same sequence of events happened in both semifinals.  Once again, Rafa took a comfortable lead, moved seamlessly around the court, and controlled the overwhelming majority of the rallies.  Once again, he stumbled (metaphorically) late in the second set and never regained his equilibrium.  As discussed above, Roddick deserves considerable credit for taking the match into his own hands, but Nadal gave him the opportunity to do so.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard’s performance at the North American hard-court events exceeded our expectations, and we feel more confident about his clay season than we did a month ago.  The unforced errors are declining as rapidly as the explosive shotmaking is returning.

Soderling:  After a dismal Australian Open, the Swede promptly righted the ship with the Rotterdam title and consecutive semifinals at Indian Wells and Miami.  Whether you like him or not (we do), this polarizing figure is emphatically here to stay.  At the core of Soderling’s meteoric rise since last year’s French Open is his vastly improved mentality; whereas momentary lapses in matches once derailed him completely, now they infuse him with even greater conviction.  His lackluster losses in both events suggested that he may need a little more experience, though, before claiming his first Masters shield.

B+:

Wickmayer:  While more volatile peers rise and fall more swiftly than the stock market, the disciplined, motivated Wickmayer keeps taking care of business quietly and efficiently.  After a shabby start to her quarterfinal against Bartoli, she kept her concentration and made the match competitive.  She may be just the third-best player from a tiny country, but she’s got the physical talent and mental attitude to eventually climb into the top 10 and contend for the biggest prizes.

Wozniacki:  The Indian Wells runner-up faded late in her quarterfinal match against Henin after having endured grueling marathons against Kirilenko and Pironkova.  In order to consistently progress deep into draws, she needs to learn how to dispose of undemanding opponents in a less exhausting manner.  Nevertheless, she displayed tremendous competitive vigor and confidence when she confronted a seven-time Grand Slam champion, an immensely encouraging sign for her future.  It’s only a matter of time before she starts narrowly winning instead of narrowly losing these tense encounters with fabled foes.

Fish:  The ever-dangerous American not only notched the second-biggest win of his career against Murray but followed it up impressively by upsetting Feliciano Lopez.  If his sciatic nerve hadn’t intervened in the Youzhny match, his run could have lasted a little longer.

B:

Tsonga:  No traces of a lingering stomach injury surfaced in the Frenchman’s exuberant early-round bludgeonings, during which one almost forgot about the existence of his cowering opponents.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t muster even his B-level against Nadal, removing all drama from what should have been a crackling quarterfinal.

Nalbandian:  Few third-round losers will score a B in our grading system, but the Argentine earned our applause by returning from hip surgery to defeat Troicki and take a set from Nadal.  Had he converted one of his two break points early in the second set, he might well have reached the semifinals.

Verdasco:  The other Spanish lefty outdueled Cilic from the baseline and showed impressive tenacity by surviving an early barrage from the mercurial Melzer.  He squandered a major opportunity against the initially weary-looking Berdych, however, by playing a hideous second-set tiebreak.

Hantuchova:  When the elegant Slovak led Venus by a set and 2-0, we wondered whether Miami would be her new Indian Wells.  About an hour and a half later, we learned that Miami was her new Australian Open, where she let the same lead unravel against Ivanovic in a 2008 semifinal.

Ivanovic:  Another third-round loser scores in this respectable category, largely because we grade on improvement.  Ana recorded her first victory since the Australian Open and then extended Radwanska deep into both sets before the Pole vaulted over her.  While the serve still wobbles, she demonstrated an improved psychological condition by remaining competitive and focused even in her most erratic moments.  Also, she earns extra credit by overriding a line judge and awarding Radwanska a winner on a potentially crucial point. 

B-:

Federer:  He lost after holding a match point on his serve against a player whom he had beaten on eight consecutive occasions.  The GOAT needs to sharpen his horns before digging them into the clay.

Azarenka:  After a highly competitive and indeed engaging first set against Clijsters, the defending champion had little excuse for capitulating so abjectly in the second set.  Despite a strong start to 2010, her momentum has evaporated over the last month, while her rival Wozniacki continues to accelerate.

Querrey / Isner:  The toast of American tennis fans after Memphis and Davis Cup (as well as Indian Wells, to a lesser extent), the two giants were just ordinary toast in Miami.  They’re still very far from filling Roddick’s sizeable shoes.

Dementieva:  She mastered her nerves in Melbourne to severely test Henin, so we were excited when the draw here promised a rematch and disappointed when it wasn’t televised.  As it turned out, we didn’t miss anything.

C:

Murray:  Watching his match against Fish, one sensed that he will become an excellent commentator someday; the Scot soaked his box in a flood of verbiage after every feeble miscue.   The deep mental scar left by the Australian final is remarkable, especially considering the outstanding tournament that he enjoyed until that match–rather a breakthrough, it seemed at the time.  Never the sunniest personality, Murray needs to recognize the positives as well as the negatives from each tournament in order to move forward and realize his vast potential.

Djokovic:  We’ll let the world #2 sum up his own performance:

***

We’ll be back tomorrow with a brief rankings update before moving on to a player profile or two during a rare ebb in the tennis calendar.  (Not that we’ll ignore Marbella and Ponte Vedra Beach entirely.)  As we wave goodbye to Miami, though, let’s take one last trip past the Crandon Park golf course…

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