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Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Within minutes of Djokovic’s final forehand, viewers around the world began to wonder whether the epic that we had witnessed had become the new “greatest match ever,” thrusting aside the Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon in 2008.  We view each match through eight separate lenses to consider whether the older match retains its crown.  Take note, though, that not all carry equal weight.

Time:  The most obvious measure of comparison, time represents the least significant when one considers the numerous five-set exercises in boredom that populate the early rounds of majors.  And few would argue that Isner-Mahut, despite its gluttonous excess, ranks as the best match of all time.  All the same, the 65 additional minutes of the Melbourne final impressed not in themselves but in the ability of both players to continue displaying their fearless, physical brand of tennis long after anyone had thought possible.  The less brutal points played for a shorter time at Wimbledon four years ago never tested the endurance of both adversaries to that extent, while two rain delays offered a welcome respite in that roofless arena.  Advantage, Rafole

Place:  Unique in the reverent hush of its pristine lawn, the Centre Court at Wimbledon towers above all of the world’s other tennis venues, no matter how much larger or newer.  When one watches a final there, the specter of history hovers portentously and sometimes oppressively above the players.  Termed the Happy Slam by Federer, who won it four times, the Australian Open does not summon the same majestic aura.  Even when filled to capacity under the lights, it remains a tournament rather than a temple.  Advantage, Fedal

Magnitude:  Just two majors away from equaling Sampras, Federer also strode onto Centre Court in 2008 one victory from a record-setting sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.  Across the net, Nadal sought to cast aside the label of clay-court specialist by conquering a major other than Roland Garros for the first time.  Not since Manolo Santana had one of his countrymen won Wimbledon, and members of the Spanish royal family watched their champion.  By contrast, Djokovic’s fifth major title represented no historic moment in itself but merely the next chapter in his mounting dominance.  An eleventh major title would have tied Nadal with Rod Laver on the all-time list but have improved his status as potential GOAT contender only incrementally.  Advantage, Fedal

Context:  Framed within their rivalry, the conclusion of the Wimbledon trilogy between Federer and Nadal marked a crossroads in their rivalry.  On one hand, Roger had left Rafa in tears a year before when he won another classic five-setter in Part II of the trilogy.  On the other hand, Nadal had routed the Swiss superstar barely a month earlier in the Roland Garros final, losing just four games and triggering murmurs that he had eclipsed Federer for good.  (He had, as it turned out, but we wouldn’t know until they met in Melbourne two majors later.)  As Djokovic and Nadal braced for their thirtieth meeting, no sense of a crossroads loomed.  Having won their last six meetings, including consecutive major finals, the Serb stood higher in the rankings and enjoyed the surface advantage.  On the eve of the final, Nadal’s only edge seemed to come from Djokovic’s depleted fitness after a five-set semifinal, a tenuous thread on which to hang one’s hopes.  Advantage, Fedal

Complexity:  After a grinding, 80-minute first set tilted in Nadal’s favor, Djokovic seemed in serious trouble.  Then, he charged to an early lead in the second set and generally held that momentum until midway through the fourth set.  Almost with an air of inevitability approached the finish line as the second seed served at triple break point in the eighth game of the fourth set, defeat lurking five points away.  With several impressive serves, Nadal appeared to save himself—until he fell behind 5-3 in the tiebreak.  Dodging that bullet as well, he seized all of the momentum from his rival and never looked back until he led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set.  Six points from defeat himself now, Djokovic exploited an uncharacteristic backhand error to reverse the narrative one more time.  Much more straightforward was the narrative of the Wimbledon final, which divided neatly into halves.  Nadal won the first two sets rather routinely and held triple break in the seventh game of the third set, at which point Federer mounted a comeback that brought him within five points of the title before Rafa narrowly survived the deluge of serves and forehands.  To be sure, the Swiss did save a match point on Nadal’s serve in the fourth-set tiebreak, but the broader narrative remained relatively simple.  Advantage, Rafole

Drama:  Falling just short of completion, Federer’s accelerating comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit captured the imagination as an aging lion mustering one last effort to defend his territory from a younger rival.  Moreover, each of the last three sets reached 6-6 and hinged upon a handful of points; few situations can trump the drama of an advantage set to decide a major final.  Without that clash of generations or unified narrative, the Melbourne final still posed the question of whether Nadal could solve the man who had harried him around the globe last year.  The last two sets ended by the narrowest of margins, like the Wimbledon final, and the player who won the fourth-set tiebreak similarly rallied from a 5-3 deficit.  Moreover, the fifth set compensated for its fewer games with the internal plot twist provided by the exchange of breaks near its midpoint.  Deuce

Entertainment:  For sheer visual pleasure, little could trump the spectacle of the top two players in the world hurling 100-mph thunderbolts at each other from behind the baseline.  Nor was the Melbourne final oriented entirely around such savage groundstrokes, for both men covered the court expertly to collaborate on repeated rallies of 20 shots or more.  By those breathtaking standards, the Wimbledon final looks austere and restrained in retrospect.  The older match featured clinical precision in its serves, approach shots, and passing shots, but it showcased many fewer lung-burning exchanges and blinding blasts flung towards corners with spine-tingling courage.  Advantage, Rafole

Climax:  In this department, the Melbourne final clearly surpassed its predecessor.  After losing his serve at 7-7 in the fifth set with a forehand unforced error, Federer tapped another forehand meekly into the net to end the Wimbledon epic with abrupt anticlimax.  While a feeble netted backhand by Nadal handed Djokovic the decisive break, the final game offered scintillating drama.  Trailing 30-0, Rafa later reached break point with a penetrating backhand, only to see the Serb erase it with an explosive two-hander of his own.  After doing all that he could to invoke divine aid, Djokovic then delivered an outstanding first serve on championship point, followed by a decisive inside-out forehand winner.  That authoritative point ended this match in a manner worthy of its magnificence.  Advantage, Rafole

Verdict:  A thrilling epic in its own right, Rafole remained almost entirely a story of two players on one court during one, seemingly endless night.  On the other hand, Fedal sprawled beyond those confines to assert its place in the sport’s history even as we watched, which earns it a stature still unsurpassed.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

With the sport settled into its midsummer vacation, albeit not a vacation for players like Isner and Roberta Vinci, we return from our own brief respite to remember the most memorable matches of the first half.  In three majors and five Masters 1000 tournaments, the top men provided plenty of stiff competition for a list that we reduced to five (or rather six).

5) Nadal d. Del Potro (Wimbledon):  Arriving much earlier in the fortnight than either player would have preferred, this bruising four-hour battle illustrated Del Potro’s resurgence as well as Nadal’s self-belief against all adversaries but one.  Tension seethed throughout the first three sets as the momentum shifted throughout prolonged service games and rallies that pitted the Argentine’s massive forehand against the top seed’s cat-like court coverage.  Barely denied the upset, the former US Open champion left little doubt that he can recapture his glory once he accumulates greater confidence from playing more matches.   A match waged with the mind as much as the racket, however, this encounter deservedly fell to the combatant with the keener survival instinct and appetite for competition.

4) Djokovic d. Nadal (Wimbledon) / Nadal d. Federer (Roland Garros):  Although not the finest hours of these classic rivalries, the last two Slam finals underscored the new hierarchy at the top.  Following scripts with too little suspense to become classics, they nevertheless featured strings of scintillating exchanges from all corners of the court.  From Federer’s choreographed elegance to Nadal’s grinding physicality to Djokovic’s swaggering fusion of offense and defense, the top three showcased their distinctive strengths as well as their distinctive personalities, opening windows onto the past, present, and perhaps future of the sport.  Apparent from both matches was the psychological edge owned by Nadal over Federer and by Djokovic over Nadal, magnified by the weight of the moment.  As the second half approaches, one wonders whether the greater challenge lies in the Serb’s attempt to maintain his supremacy or in the efforts of the others to overtake him.

3) Djokovic d. Murray (Rome):  No less notable than the brilliance of the victor was the courage displayed by the vanquished in this semifinal epic.  On his least comfortable surface, Murray rebounded from an abysmal first set to reverse the match’s trajectory with a degree of aggression unfamiliar to his fans.  The Scot nearly succeeded where the king of clay failed, edging within two points of victory on multiple occasions as he served for the match.  That predicament inspired Djokovic to display his own valor and demonstrate how he had remained undefeated for so long, growing bolder and more focused as danger loomed.  In the climactic tiebreak, the Serb struck each shot with a fearlessness rarely witnessed during his 2009-10 swoon, a fearlessness that proclaimed not just his desire to win but his conviction that he would.  For Murray, meanwhile, this loss augured more brightly for the future than many of his wins.

2) Federer d. Djokovic (Roland Garros):  Robbed by Djokovic in a New York semifinal and dominated by Djokovic in a Melbourne semifinal, Federer clearly entered their Paris semifinal determined to avenge those wrongs of majors past.  Standing within a victory of the #1 ranking, the still undefeated Serb seemed almost certain to contest a third straight Slam final, for few could imagine the fading Swiss legend outlasting him over the course of five sets.  But Federer halted the march of time during a performance that awakened memories of the steely superstar who played his crispest tennis when he most needed to win a rally, returned most convincingly when he most needed to break serve, and fired an ace when he finally arrived at match point.  Tsonga would prove a month later that this match marked only an ephemeral revival, but Federer salvaged his legitimacy as a contender for some time to come with his most notable triumph since winning the 2010 Australian Open.

1) Djokovic d. Nadal (Miami):  Among the most dazzling feats in tennis is the Indian Wells-Miami double, which demands not a fortnight but a month of sustained dominance.  After Djokovic sagged through the first several games of his final against the world #1, observers sensed that this prize would elude a weary Serb burdened by the pressure of his perfect season.  Just as he had in Indian Wells, however, Djokovic willed himself to find the self-belief necessary to turn the tide early in the second set.  Not vanishing in the third set as he did in the desert, Nadal battled the Serb relentlessly through a riveting final set that featured no breaks but several suspenseful service games.  When Rafa stood two points from victory in the twelfth game, observers again sensed that the sands had at last trickled out of Novak’s hourglass.  Then, Djokovic won nine of the next eleven points as his frequently questioned fitness prevailed on physical and mental levels over an opponent previously unsurpassed in either department.  Not scorched by the glaring Miami sun or the intensity of a title-deciding tiebreak, the future #1 showcased the courageous spirit that has developed into the central storyline of 2011.

What goes up must come down.  Behold the three most unforgettably forgettable fizzles of the first half.

3) Soderling d. Verdasco (Rome):  In 2009, both players looked on the verge of becoming genuine contenders at majors after Verdasco reached the Australian Open semifinals and Soderling the Roland Garros final.  This ghastly carnival of errors illustrated several reasons why both have receded to the edges of the conversation in 2011.  Foremost among those reasons was Verdasco’s serve, which cost him the match with double faults that threw the rest of his volatile game and mind into disarray.  But the Spaniard held triple match point in the second set, which he could not have reached without considerable assistance from an equally impatient and equally profligate Swede, whose scintillating start to the season has evaporated amidst illnesses, injuries, and general petulance.

2) Djokovic d. Murray (Australian Open):  Expected to decide the leading pretender to the Nadal-Federer twin throne, the year’s first Slam final unfolded with no more suspense than a coronation.  Serenely surveying the spectacle from Djokovic’s box, Ivanovic trended on Twitter as the far less stunning events below her sputtered and wheezed towards their inevitable conclusion.  If Murray had joined her there, he might have discomfited Novak more than he did with a thoroughly feckless performance that made Britons wonder why they rose early to watch.  One could understand how farcical gaffes on even his steadiest shots cost the Scot his confidence and plunged him into a second straight spring swoon on the North American hard courts.

1) Nadal d. Federer (Miami):  Eager to witness the first North American edition of The Greatest Rivalry in Sports in six years, the Key Biscayne audience saw no encore of the thrilling 2005 final.  Instead, a listless Federer failed to summon tennis remotely resembling his magnificent best and thus did not force Nadal to unleash his own greatness.  When Federer earned a break point in the first game of the second set, spectators waited breathlessly for the plot twist that would turn this match from a soggy dishcloth into a regal tapestry.  But a dishcloth it remained, arguably the least compelling meeting between the two legends since the earliest stages of their rivalry.  Fortunately, Madrid and Roland Garros enabled them to replace this moment with brighter memories.

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We return in a few days with the companion piece for the women’s first half.

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Djokovic:  The undisputed monarch of all that he surveys, the new #1 cemented his ascendancy by triumphing on the most prestigious stage of all.  Expanding his empire to a second surface, Djokovic confirmed that his Roland Garros loss represented a temporary wobble rather than a return to the old order of Federer and Nadal.  This champion’s credentials rise significantly with his conquest of a major outside the less glamorous Australian Open and his first career victory over the Spaniard in a best-of-five format.  Twice dominating the opposition in Melbourne, Djokovic proved in London that he could maneuver through a draw without delivering his best tennis from start to finish.  His unremarkable performances against players like Baghdatis and Tomic disappeared from memory after his emphatic victory over the defending champion.  Especially notable in the final were the improvements to the Serb’s two former weaknesses, his serve and volleys.  While he did not concede a single break point to the Spaniard in the first two sets, he manufactured the only championship point that he needed with an expertly knifed volley that Nadal could not touch.  Maintaining his composure when the top seed mounted the inevitable rally, moreover, Djokovic rebounded from an ugly third set to recapture the momentum immediately in the fourth.  As he travels to the North American hard courts, the new #1 must fancy his chances of becoming the third player since 2000 to win three majors in a season.  Valedictorian

Kvitova:  When the much-awaited younger generation of the WTA finally broke through at a major, neither Wozniacki nor Azarenka scored the vital blow.  Those two competitors now find significant pressure heaped on their shoulders after a feisty 20-year-old lefty snatched the Wimbledon title with a fearlessness reminiscent of Sharapova’s 2004 surge.  Seemingly immune to pressure herself, Kvitova seized the initiative from famously aggressive opponents in the semifinal and final.  Accustomed to dictating rallies, Azarenka and Sharapova instead struck only nine and ten winners, respectively, as they struggled to withstand the Czech’s baseline barrage.  Beyond the fierce groundstrokes that have become de rigueur in the WTA, Kvitova owns a serve with pace, variety, and consistency; that shot separates her from the underpowered deliveries of Azarenka and Wozniacki and the erratic deliveries of Sharapova and Clijsters.  Whereas first-time finalists frequently wilt under the spotlight, the Czech served out the match at love against a legendary opponent.  Beneath her tranquil demeanor lies a degree of confidence remarkable for a player whom few knew before her semifinal appearance here a year ago.  Many of her peers have remained essentially the same players through time, combating the same weaknesses with little success.  In contrast, Kvitova has learned from her setbacks and developed into an increasingly complete competitor.  If she can adjust to her newfound celebrity, a kingdom could await.  A+

Nadal:  Reaching the Wimbledon final in his fifth straight appearance, the top seed comfortably overcame his two most notable rivals outside Djokovic.  After he battled through a four-set epic against Del Potro, prevailing in two tiebreaks, his triumph over Murray showcased some of the most compelling tennis that Nadal has delivered during a season a little below his lofty standards.  Counterpunching with imagination and conceding only one service game, the defending champion illustrated the competitive mercilessness that has carried him to ten major titles.  A round later, the hunter became the hunted as Nadal’s tentative performance at crucial moments in the final revealed his psychological frailty against Djokovic.  At the two most important junctures of the match, Rafa played two abysmal service games.  At 4-5, 30-15 in the first set, a blistering Djokovic forehand clearly unnerved him and led to two missed first serves followed by two routine errors, including a needless miss into an open court on set point.  At 3-4 in the fourth set, following a love hold by the Serb, the Spaniard uncorked a double fault and three more groundstroke errors to donate the decisive break.  Cast in the role of Federer to Djokovic’s impersonation of Nadal, the Wimbledon runner-up faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career so far.  Still, he has lost only one match since January to an opponent other than the scorching Serb.  A

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova:  Absent from the grass preparatory tournaments for only the second time, the 2004 champion showed little rust in roaring to the final without dropping a set.  Although skeptics will note that she faced no top-15 opponent in those six matches, Sharapova nevertheless navigated with ease past a diverse array of stylists, from the lefty Robson to the double-fister Peng to the jackrabbit Cibulkova to the mighty server Lisicki.  Having suffered only one pre-semifinal loss since the Australian Open, the Russian has proclaimed her return to the circle of elite contenders (albeit not the champion’s circle) by translating her momentum from the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami to the clay of Rome and Paris to the grass of Wimbledon.  Still fickle at inconvenient moments, her serve contributed to her demise in the final by lowering her confidence in the rest of her strokes.  As Kvitova effectively out-Sharapovaed Sharapova, one wonders whether Maria’s mind drifted back to her own emergence here as a 17-year-old, when she defeated Serena at her own game.  In both of those encounters, spectators expected the veteran champion to mount a valiant comeback that never happened as they succumbed to defeat with uncharacteristic meekness.  But the cathartic, self-vindicating experience of again starring on the sport’s grandest stage after a seven-year absence surely will inspire Sharapova to a sparkling second half on the hard courts that best suit her strengths.  A

Lisicki:  Amidst an engaging fortnight of women’s tennis, the single most inspiring story came from a player who had narrowly survived a career-threatening injury and had seemed unlikely ever to reproduce her bombastic best.  Perhaps the next generation’s grass-court specialist, the former Bolletieri pupil built upon her Birmingham title with victories over top-10 opponents Li and Bartoli.  Despite her relative inexperience, she displayed encouraging composure in saving match points against the reigning Roland Garros champion.  While the WTA’s age of parity has produced plentiful upsets, few of their perpetrators have extended the momentum from their breakthroughs as did Lisicki when she reeled off three more wins after defeating Li.  The German’s raw, less balanced game, heavily reliant on her serve, may prevent her from rising into the echelon of regular Slam contenders, but she should remain a threat at Wimbledon—and on the faster hard courts—as long as she stays healthy and positive.  A-

Tsonga:  Many are the players who have stared at two-set deficits against Federer and mentally submitted to the inevitable, but Tsonga refused to follow their path.  Erratic for much of the first week, the Frenchman suddenly soared near the tournament’s midpoint into the irrepressibly athletic shot-maker witnessed only sporadically since the 2008 Australian Open.  As he pounded forehands and slashed volleys past the six-time champion, he began to appear a legitimate contender at the major that most favors short points.  Djokovic then restored order in the semifinals, not without difficulty, after Tsonga’s fickle mind floated out of focus once again.  While he probably cannot summon the stamina necessary to win a major, his ebullient insouciance offered a refreshing antidote to the grimly intent top four.  Rarely does tennis look more like a sport and less like a business than when watching Tsonga.  A-

Azarenka:  Falling to the eventual champion for the second straight major, the Minx from Minsk finally capitalized upon a farcically cozy quarterfinal draw to reach her first Slam semifinal.  Contrary to the expectations of some, Azarenka did not collapse at that stage despite an unimpressive first set but instead battled to reverse the momentum, albeit temporarily.  Sometimes vulnerable to upsets against streaky opponents, she also impressed by defusing the recently scorching Hantuchova under the Centre Court roof.  Unruffled by the most prestigious arena in the sport, Azarenka largely controlled her emotions throughout the fortnight and ultimately lost not because of her shortcomings but because of her conqueror’s brilliance.  Yet her serve remains a less imposing weapon than one might expect from a player of her height, while her groundstrokes penetrated the court rather than exploding through it.  A-

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Murray:  Strikingly similar to his Wimbledon performance last year, the Scot wove an eventful route around second-tier opposition en route to another mildly competitive loss to Nadal.  That four-set defeat in some ways felt more disappointing than last year’s straight-set loss, for Murray had challenged the top seed on clay earlier this spring and opened this encounter in sparkling form.  Within range of a set-and-break lead, though, a few minor stumbles sufficed to shatter his self-belief for good.  While he must ground his confidence more firmly in order to halt Great Britain’s drought of futility at majors, Murray continued to handle the microscopic scrutiny that he endures at every Wimbledon with poise and maturity.  Moreover, the glimmers of aggression that surfaced during this natural counterpuncher’s clay season emerged again on grass.  The Scot now must display his characteristic stubbornness in retaining that more offensive mentality even when it yields ambivalent results.  A-/B+

Bartoli:  Unlike Federer, the Frenchwoman surged from her Paris exploits to a notable accomplishment at Wimbledon, where she expelled the two-time defending champion.  Not known for her serving excellence, Bartoli kept Serena at bay with that stroke late in the second set, when the greatest player of her generation threatened to mount one of her patented comebacks.  Despite the rust evident on the American’s game, a triumph over this fabled competitor ranks among the highlights of the double-fister’s career, similar to her victory over Henin here in 2007.  Having conquered Serena, though, Bartoli fell immediately afterwards to Lisicki as her questionable fitness betrayed her in a third set.  One might have expected Monday’s magic to last a little longer than a day.  B+

Pironkova:  Seemingly designed by the gods to vex Venus at every possible opportunity, last year’s semifinalist fell only one round short of repeating that implausible accomplishment.  In addition to dispatching the American by an eerily identical scoreline, the Bulgarian won a set from eventual champion Kvitova and flattened defending finalist Zvonareva for the loss of only five games.  Some players excel far more at one tournament than any other, and Pironkova certainly has chosen her spot of sunshine wisely.  B+

Cibulkova:  Similar to Bartoli, the Slovak watched a magnificent Monday turn to a tepid Tuesday as a stirring comeback over Wozniacki preceded a rout at the hands of Sharapova.  Few Slam quarterfinalists have eaten four breadsticks in the tournament, as did Cibulkova, but she illustrated a different route to success on grass than the huge serves and huge returns pioneered by champions like the Williams sisters or Sharapova.  Clinging tightly to the baseline, the Slovak chipped away at the top seed and earlier victims with low, darting groundstrokes.  Nearly toppled by Lucic in the first round, she competed through three three-setters against more powerful opponents with admirable durability and concentration.  B+/B

Federer:  The fashionable pre-tournament choice for the title (and not just because we chose him), the Roland Garros runner-up could not extend that momentum to the site of his most memorable accomplishments.  Undone in part by the Frenchman’s ball-striking power and in part by his wayward return, Federer resembled more than ever a genius from an earlier age.  Although Tsonga unleashed some of the finest tennis that he ever has displayed, the 16-time major champion formerly weathered those tempests and simply refused to permit such a blot upon his escutcheon.  Much more courteous in defeat than last year, he sounded strangely content with his tournament for a competitor who generally demands perfection from himself.  Perhaps even Federer has begun to accustom himself to the world after Federer—good news for his psyche but bad news for his viability as a contender.  B

Tomic:  Stealing the spotlight from his youthful contemporaries in the ATP, the controversial Aussie prodigy strung together the sequence of victories for which his languishing compatriots had hoped.  As events unfolded, Tomic tested Djokovic more than any opponent before or after him, although he faced a diluted version of the Serb far different from the tornado that swept away Nadal’s title defense.  At just 18, he has developed a surprisingly versatile array of weapons but, like Murray, sometimes outthinks himself when choosing among them.  A straight-sets victory over a two-time Slam finalist en route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal will earn the teenager ample attention over the summer.  Not adept at handling scrutiny and hype previously, has he matured mentally as well as physically?  B

Del Potro:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, he had every opportunity to claim a two-set lead against Nadal.  Allowing the Spaniard’s unfortunately timed treatment request to unglue him, he gave further credence to suspicions of competitive fragility.  From a broader perspective, though, his ability to battle the world #1 on equal terms throughout three tense sets augurs well for a comeback that remains a work in progress.  B

Berdych:  While he didn’t implode in spectacular fashion as he did at Roland Garros, a straight-sets loss to Fish on Manic Monday did little to counter the impression that his 2010 campaign stands as a unique moment in a career of underachievement.  Since reaching the Wimbledon final last year, Berdych has won seven matches in four majors as his introverted personality has shrunk from the expectations placed upon him.  His lowered ranking may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing him to collect himself under the gaze of fewer eyes.   B-

Caroline Wozniacki - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Wozniacki:  When the Dane dines, she must prefer the appetizer to the main course.  Winning New Haven in the week before the US Open, Brussels in the week before Roland Garros, and Copenhagen in the week before Wimbledon, Wozniacki failed to reach the final at any of the aforementioned majors.  Almost entirely a hard-court threat, she perhaps can explain her premature exits in Paris and London as a product of the surface.  Had a champion like a Williams or a Sharapova fed a breadstick to a sub-20 opponent, though, one feels confident that they would not have let their victim wriggle free.  Moreover, Kvitova’s breakthrough underlines and italicizes the question mark hovering above Wozniacki’s #1 status.  Meanwhile, Bastad beckons…  B-

Zvonareva:  Not expected to duplicate her finals appearance from last year, the tempestuous Russian at least should have earned herself an opportunity to face Venus in the fourth round.  But she slumped to an embarrassingly lopsided defeat against Pironkova, whose counterpunching skills might trouble a shot-maker as inconsistent as Venus but should not have troubled an opponent as complete as Zvonareva.  Although her top-5 position survived the avalanche of sliding rankings points, the early upset does not bode well for her attempt to defend the same result at the US Open.  C+

Soderling:  After winning three titles in the first two months of 2011, he has vanished almost entirely from relevance in the wake of injuries, illness, and allegedly a bout of food poisoning at Wimbledon’s new pasta bar.  Understandably surly in defeat, the Swede probably senses that his window of opportunity will pass swiftly as rivals emerge who can match his firepower while surpassing his movement and versatility.  Alone among the top five, he exited the European majors with his credibility dented rather than burnished.  C+

Roddick:  Perhaps Feliciano Lopez played the match of his life in their third-round encounter, dismissing Roddick in three sets less competitive than the scoreline suggested.  But it seems as though the American’s monochromatic style more and more brings out the best from more multifaceted, flashy opponents.  Never quite recovering from his mono last year, the three-time Wimbledon finalist lacks much spark or direction as his career inexorably wanes.  C

Williams, Inc.:  By far the more encouraging return came from the younger sister, who revealed an encouragingly human side after her opening victory over Rezai.  Two uneven victories later, a rusty Serena nearly scratched and clawed into a third set against Bartoli.  Even in defeat, the defending champion displayed the trademark intensity that could propel her to Slam glory again if she stays healthy.  On the other hand, she may struggle to intimidate a WTA that has grown increasingly opportunistic and populated with players who don’t know enough about Serena to fear her.  After she collaborated with Kimiko Date-Krumm on one of the tournament’s most thrilling encounters, Venus dismissed the dangerous Martinez Sanchez with aplomb.  But then she flunked the consistency test posed by Pironkova for the second straight year.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,…?”  Incomplete

Li:  Suffering the misfortune of a second-round meeting with Lisicki, the Roland Garros champion repeated her post-Melbourne stumble of failing to convert match points en route to a loss, the third time that she has accomplished that dubious feat this year.  Since few expected her to complete the Channel Slam, though, the early loss largely just repeated the precedent set by Schiavone and Stosur here after their Paris breakthroughs last year.  Had Wimbledon followed Roland Garros by more than a few weeks, a different narrative might have unfolded.  Excused Absence

Manic Monday:  Replete with upsets in the women’s draw, the busiest day on the tennis calendar felt like an embarrassment of riches better enjoyed in moderation.  By introducing matches on the middle Sunday, Wimbledon could ensure that spectators see and appreciate more of the fascinating action that generally unfolds in the final 16, when dark horses often trample the top seeds.  Furthermore, dividing this round into two days would allow the tournament to include both men’s and women’s matches on each of the following days, not a possibility at present because it would require men to play best-of-five encounters on consecutive days.  Ticket holders and television viewers alike probably would prefer the variety of seeing two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as they do at the other majors.  (Also on our list of convention-bending reforms:  night sessions.)  Expulsion

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We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals and on an article on the most entertaining matches of the first half.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  After repeated disappointments at her favorite tournament, the 2004 Wimbledon champion has arrived in her first final there since the moment that transformed her from upstart into superstar.  Despite not facing any top-15 opponent in her previous six matches, Sharapova will have accumulated confidence from winning all twelve sets that she has played.  In her semifinal, she found her rhythm only sporadically and yet still prevailed routinely over a dangerous foe.  Feared in the first half of her career for her electric serve, Sharapova has compensated for that weapon’s decline by honing the most explosive return in the WTA.  Stifling the single most discussed shot of the women’s tournament, Lisicki’s serve, her return skidded off the sidelines and baseline with a depth and precision difficult for even an agile mover to withstand.  When she parries the formidable serve of Kvitova, Sharapova should adopt a similarly fearless positioning and tactics on her ripostes.  Displaying not only immense ball-striking power but sparkling shot-making talent, the Czech has devoured mid-court replies with Marian savagery throughout the tournament.  Leaving pockmarks across Centre Court, her 40 winners in a three-set semifinal victory over Azarenka portend a final organized almost entirely around offense and overwhelming first strikes.  Both title threats can deliver point-ending blows with virtually any shot from well behind the baseline, while their indifferent movement leaves them few defensive options.  Although lefties have thrived on the low, skidding bounces of grass, the Russian has won 21 of her last 22 matches against them over a six-year span.

From the early stages of the final should emerge clues concerning the factor upon which the title will hinge:  the minds of both competitors.  As earlier WTA breakthrough performers have discovered, the pressure of contesting a maiden major final poses a challenge unique in the sport.  Yet Kvitova may suffer from those nerves less than other debutantes, having captured a Premier Mandatory title in Madrid, defeated Clijsters in a Paris final, and reached the semifinals here last year.  Since Sharapova’s comeback, meanwhile, her formerly superb efficiency in finals has dipped to a pedestrian level.  In part a result of rust, her recent struggles in title matches also may have developed from a desire to win so keen that it has consumed her energy and prevented her from playing within herself.  Edgy during her loss to Li at Roland Garros, Sharapova narrowly avoided a deep deficit in the first set against Lisicki after similarly tense, rigid play.  For both women, a key to their psychological position lies in their footwork, which grows crisper in proportion to their confidence.  Allowing opponents to gain early momentum, the Russian often has begun unremarkably in her matches as her shoulder loosens and her focus crystallizes.  Kvitova conversely has opened most of her matches in obdurate form before occasionally wandering into a mid-match malaise.  Considering Sharapova’s perfect record in third sets this year, the Czech cannot offer the 2004 champion second chances as she eyes a second Wimbledon crown.  Unless Kvitova seizes control swiftly and decisively, Sharapova’s unsurpassed appetite for battle should spring into the spotlight during a fierce collision saturated with audacious winners.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Nadal vs. Djokovic:  Having collaborated on no fewer than 27 prior encounters, the Sunday #1 and the Monday #1 meet in a Slam final for only the second time.  Aligned in opposite directions are the two most relevant statistics from a rivalry that has evolved into a worthy successor to Federer-Nadal.  Undefeated against the Serb at majors, Rafa generally has showcased a superior resolve on the grandest stage to virtually all of his peers, a trait that emerges most compellingly in the best-of-five format.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard’s hegemony withstood a severe, temporarily terminal blow during the first half of 2011, when he sustained four losses to Djokovic in the finals of Masters 1000 events.  Even on Nadal’s beloved clay, he found no answers to an opponent who had assembled the finest transition game in the ATP.  Still with only one loss this season, the new #1 seeks his eighth title in nine tournaments this season and seventh at the expense of a top-5 opponent.  To the surprise of most observers, he twice rallied from losing the first set against the Spaniard this spring and outlasted him with superior fitness despite a reputation for fragility on physical and mental levels.  Having claimed the top ranking with his semifinal victory, however, one wonders whether Djokovic will approach this final with the same determination manifest in his earlier assaults upon Nadal.  His overflowing satisfaction in becoming the third Serb to reach the sport’s pinnacle may lead to a slight lull in his energies, upon which a competitor as relentless as the current #1 surely would capitalize.   But he repeatedly has named Wimbledon among one of his career’s principal objectives, so he may summon the extra jolt of motivation necessary to conquer the defending champion.

While Djokovic certainly has earned his ascendancy, he has not spread his Slam empire outside the more informal environment of the Australian Open, where pressure descends less heavily than at the other majors.  In contrast, Nadal built his reign upon the foundation of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the traditional epicenters of the sport and the sites most fraught with the psyche-testing presence of history.  Forged from this crucible that has melted so many competitors, the Spaniard remained unbroken by a potentially alarming injury early in his match against Del Potro and again when Murray threatened to accumulate a set-and-break advantage.  Somewhat more easily ruffled, Djokovic has enjoyed the smoother draw and has not faced either a Slam champion or a top-10 opponent en route to the championship Sunday.  Despite that smoother pathway, he spurned chances to dispatch Baghdatis, Tomic, and Tsonga more economically, while his mannerisms slipped some distance back towards the sardonically self-deprecating “Djoker” of his underachieving period from 2009-10.  After Murray’s outstanding return could not break Nadal more than once in their semifinal, the Serb can expect scant windows of opportunity in the final and thus must hold serve with greater conviction than he has for most of the fortnight.  If Djokovic can conquer the Spaniard on his weakest surface to collect his second major of the season, he would cement his ascent to become the dominant player of the ATP.  If Nadal can defend his grass kingdom, meanwhile, he would maintain a mastery over majors that would counterbalance the Serb’s statistical superiority in the first half.

Since each finalist knows the nuances of his rival’s game almost as thoroughly as his own, one expects tactics to play a relatively inconsequential role in deciding Wimbledon’s 125th men’s champion.  Like the women’s final, the last match of the season’s third major instead should revolve around execution, nerve, and desire—attributes that both contenders possess in far greater measure than any of their peers.

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Tsonga vs. Djokovic:  Buoyed by his victory over Nadal at Queens Club, the Frenchman has accelerated through this fortnight with an effort more sustained than any of his performances since the 2008 Australian Open.  Triggering memories of Tsonga’s brilliance on that occasion was his unprecedented comeback from a two-set deficit against Federer, whom he limited to only one break point throughout their quarterfinal.  As he served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, many would have expected the underachieving, acrobatic twelfth seed to falter under the magnitude of the moment.  But Tsonga did not flinch, thundering through a love service game to arrange a clash with a top-three opponent whom he has dominated.  Since losing to Djokovic in the Australian Open final three years ago, the Frenchman has reversed the trajectory of their rivalry by winning five of their following six meetings, most notably a five-setter in Melbourne last year.  In that jaggedly uneven encounter, the Serb’s notorious physical fallibility proved decisive.  Although Djokovic has solved those issues with a superior fitness program, the disparity in their serving effectiveness at this Wimbledon could prove a crucial factor.  Whereas Tsonga constructed an almost impenetrable fortress behind a startlingly high first-serve percentage, the Serb often endured tenuous service games at untimely moments in his quarterfinal against Tomic.  As he did last year against Berdych, Djokovic slipped into counterproductive passivity too often and should count himself fortunate to have avoided a fifth set.

In theory, the world #2 should acquire additional motivation from the opportunity to wrest the #1 ranking from Nadal with a victory over an opponent outside the top 10.  But will the pressure of potentially earning the top ranking weigh upon him, which it seemingly did during his sporadically listless defeat to Federer at Roland Garros?  During his one-loss first half of 2011, he has not faltered when defusing some of the ATP’s most imposing serves with his sparkling return.  In contrast to Tsonga’s reliance on his forehand, Djokovic can project equal offense from both groundstrokes, a vital advantage on grass that has contributed to his three Wimbledon semifinal appearances.  This groundstroke symmetry may counterbalance Tsonga’s more traditional grass-court style, centered around relentless assaults upon the forecourt.  Most comfortable when he controls the outcome of rallies, the Frenchman can grow tentative when forced onto the defensive, so Djokovic should not spurn openings to assert his baseline offense.  Displaying far greater nerve than expected against Federer, Tsonga likely will not fade should he encounter early setbacks but instead compel the Serb to deliver his most complete performance of the tournament so far.  If Djokovic does ascend to the pinnacle of the ATP on Monday, he will not have seized his laurel crown undeservedly.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Nine

Nadal vs. Murray:  Thwarted by the Scot at both hard-court majors, the world #1 has won all nine sets that they have contested at Slams on clay and grass.  Injecting elevated aggression into his game when he meets Nadal, Murray has troubled the Spaniard on faster surfaces by driving his cross-court backhand into the lefty’s forehand corner and creating an opening for a backhand down the line.  The stroke that has bedeviled Federer, Rafa’s skidding wide serve in the ad court slides into the strike zone of the fourth seed’s penetrating backhand return.  These issues of point construction did not prevent Nadal from recapturing the momentum in their rivalry with a spine-tingling epic at the World Tour Finals last fall, however.  Still a much superior player on the points that matter most, the top seed maintained his calm in the pivotal second-set tiebreak of their Wimbledon semifinal last year.  After Murray failed to convert the set point that he held on his serve, the two-time champion never offered him a second hope.  The least impressive component of the Scot’s otherwise complete arsenal, his second serve poses such a vulnerable target that he often faces a painful dilemma between striking his first serve with maximum velocity and concealing his Achilles heel by maximizing his percentage.  Once rallies begin, though, Murray can engage in longer, more grueling baseline exchanges with Nadal than any other opponent except Djokovic.  Deceptively fit and keenly focused, he dragged through a series of exhausting service games this year in sets that often stretched over an hour.

Largely untested by Lopez, the home hope should have arrived in this third straight Slam semifinal with his confidence soaring in proportion to his ten-match winning streak.  Murray has proven too fragile in that department against elite opposition, though, as demonstrated in his losses to Djokovic and Nadal at the season’s two previous majors.  While the crowd will exert themselves to the utmost in raising his spirits, the fourth seed must shed the memories of last year’s defeat to the Spaniard and curb his tendency towards morose self-loathing.  Yet Murray knows that he has succeeded against Nadal when the latter has lacked peak physical condition, and a concerning foot injury two rounds ago causes one to question whether Rafa can summon the explosive movement that has won two Wimbledon titles.  Beset by nagging injuries for much of his career, the world #1 has demonstrated an occasionally disconcerting imperviousness to discomfort.  Instead, Nadal seemingly thrives upon adversity and embraces challenges with a determination proportional to their rigor, an attitude shared by few of his rivals and that has contributed to his recent dominance.  Still searching for that elusive first Slam, Murray certainly can equal the Spaniard in talent measured tangibly through serves, groundstrokes, and volleys.  In overcoming an ankle injury to reach the Roland Garros semifinals, he revealed traces of Nadalian fortitude as well.  From those traces spring hope that Centre Court will host a classic collision on Thursday, during which Murray dogs the favorite’s footsteps deep into the London twilight.

Petra Kvitova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Azarenka vs. Kvitova:  Filled with percussive groundstrokes and fiercely aggressive shot selection, their Madrid clash developed into one of the most scintillating women’s finals on clay in recent years.  In her second straight Wimbledon semifinal, Kvitova can recall the most significant title of her career so far and the manner in which she achieved it, thumping nearly 50 winners in two sets.  Just as vital to the outcome of that tightly contested encounter, the Czech lefty’s serve lifted her on crucial points to deny Azarenka most of her opportunities to break.  In the contrast between their second serves lies the Czech’s most substantial advantage, for Azarenka offers returners a vulnerable target with that shot.  Therefore, first-serve percentage will play a critical role in the Belarussian’s fate, whereas Kvitova must guard against the mental lapses that still can descend upon her.  Outside such a lull in her victory over Pironkova, Kvitova has dominated her opponents on both serve and return throughout this fortnight, but she has not encountered an opponent who can match her baseline power.  Her signature curling cross-court forehand plays into the teeth of Vika’s most notable weapon, the backhand, leading to rallies that pit strength against strength or weakness against weakness.  In this context, each player will force her opponent to identify the most opportune moment for redirecting the ball down the line.

Although the fourth seed had not reached a Slam semifinal before Tuesday’s victory over Paszek, she probably has accumulated greater experience against elite opponents at significant tournaments.  But she cannot permit Kvitova to dictate the rallies as comprehensively as she did in Madrid, though, and thus must deliver her first strike (whether serve or return) with particularly stinging vigor.  The semifinalist who unleashes her groundstrokes with the greatest margin, Vika also has proven herself the most averse to risk among this notably risk-embracing quartet and the most fragile under pressure.  Since fortune generally favors the braver woman on grass, Kvitova should fancy her chances of repeating her victory over Azarenka in Wimbledon 2010 and advancing to a maiden Slam final.  Most vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments this season, she has won all three of her semifinals this year as her confidence mounts from one victory to the next.  Still only 20, she may yet surpass Wozniacki and Azarenka as the most complete competitor, physically and mentally, of her generation.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  Seven years ago, a towering blonde surged from the Birmingham title to claim the Venus Rosewater Dish without having reached a Slam semifinal before.  In 2011, that narrative verges on repeating itself after Lisicki’s Roland Garros agony modulated into ecstasy on the Wimbledon lawns, where she already has defeated two top-10 opponents with one of the most overpowering serves in the women’s game.  The protagonist in the earlier narrative, Sharapova has reached semifinals at consecutive majors for the first time since 2007 as her partnership with Thomas Hogstedt has injected her with fresh insights and momentum.  In order to halt Lisicki’s eleven-match winning streak, Maria must continue the timely serving that propelled her through victories over Peng and Cibulkova while surrendering only one break.  Aware of the power that her opponent projects on this surface with every stroke, the 2004 champion must fasten herself to the baseline while constantly searching for opportunities to step inside it.  Even if this tactic results in conceding additional aces, Sharapova should willingly trade them in exchange for more penetrating replies when she does make contact.   Just as assertive court positioning will prove essential for the Russian, the German must balance velocity  with consistency in her first serves.  When Sharapova routed her in Miami this spring, a flagging first-serve percentage exposed her relatively modest second delivery to one of the WTA’s most savage returners.  No sharper in movement or instincts than her opponent, Lisicki similarly must dictate from the outset rather than scrambling to recover.

Absent from the penultimate round of majors for three years, Sharapova’s Roland Garros semifinal exposed uncharacteristic nerves in a situation that had become unfamiliar.  The lessons from that recent defeat may assist her to prepare more effectively for this second opportunity, although she faces a distinctly different type of opponent.  As the oldest and by far the most accomplished semifinalist, Sharapova brings not only the memories of triumphs past but the expectations that spring from them, complicating her quest for triumphs to come.  Contesting her first major semifinal, by contrast, Lisicki can repeat clichés about “nothing to lose” with full honesty.  Moreover, she already forged an inspiring Centre Court memory of her own this fortnight by saving match points against Li Na on the sport’s most fabled arena.  Threatened by severe, career-threatening injuries in recent years, both semifinalists have captured respect from audiences for their fortitude in adversity.  After their labyrinthine journeys from convalescence to contention, they now gain greater satisfaction than ever from their accomplishments, knowing that the endless months of tenuous patience and tireless efforts have reaped rewards.

Roger Federer - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Tsonga vs. Federer:  Unexpectedly mortal at times in his four-set victory over Youzhny, Federer nevertheless arrived in his 29th consecutive Slam quarterfinal and must eagerly await the opportunity to erase the memory of last year’s defeat to Berdych.  This year, a similarly potent server awaits the six-time Wimbledon champion, but Tsonga failed to threaten the GOAT in their only previous Slam meeting while winning only one of their five previous collisions.  In that bizarre Canadian encounter, Federer squandered a double-break lead in the final set as his focus visibly ebbed.  Since such a lapse surely will not occur at his favorite tournament on the calendar, the Frenchman must replicate his outstanding form of the past two rounds in order to avoid another barely competitive loss to the Swiss.  Parrying Tsonga’s serve with the same reflexes that he has displayed against Roddick, Federer generally has neutralized his greatest weapon and trapped this volatile shot-maker behind the baseline.  The former Australian Open finalist overwhelmed Ferrer in all dimensions of the game, however, showcasing a more balanced offense than usual.  For nearly two full sets of his quarterfinal against Murray last year, he dominated an opponent with a more versatile, complete arsenal through the straightforward power that prospers on grass.  Then, just when a two-set lead edged within range, Tsonga suffered an untimely brain cramp that reversed the match’s trajectory.  While he escaped similar lulls against Dimitrov this year, he cannot expect to survive them against a top-five foe.  Clearly gifted with the weapons and athletic ability to upset the third seed, perhaps his greatest challenge lies in maintaining his concentration throughout what might become a very long engagement.  Unless Tsonga wins swiftly, his odds of victory will diminish sharply.

Murray vs. Lopez:  Far from a tranquil progress past overpowered opposition, the home hope’s route has proved riddled with obstacles from the first round onwards.  Losing his first set of the tournament and nearly extended to five sets against Ljubicic, Murray now faces the player whom his mother has nicknamed “Deliciano.”  “Delicioso” certainly described the gaudy statistics that Lopez registered in his startlingly routine straight-sets victory over Roddick, who never found a solution to the conundrum of his lefty serve.  More encouraging for the breathless British fans was the Spaniard’s desperate struggle for survival against Kubot in the following round, during which he recovered from a two-set deficit in a grueling epic that may have eroded his fitness.  Arguably the finest returner in the ATP, or perhaps tied with Djokovic for that honor, Murray rarely has met a serve that he cannot crack.  Thus, Lopez cannot rely entirely on that cornerstone of his game, nor can he depend upon approaching the net behind anything less than an outstanding approach, considering the Scot’s exceptional passing shots.  Since his strengths play into the hands of his opponent’s greatest weapons, the Spaniard probably must hope to open the match in such convincing style that Murray grows discouraged and apathetic.  But a scintillating victory over Gasquet will have bolstered the fourth seed’s ever-fragile confidence, while the Wimbledon crowd support appears to raise his spirits rather than weighing upon them.  Although their previous meetings have featured several reasonably competitive spans, Lopez has won only one of nine sets from Murray and has lost both of their tiebreaks.  Twice a semifinalist at Wimbledon already, the Scot has not fallen to anyone other than a former finalist there since 2006.

Tomic vs. Djokovic:  Still just a teenager despite his global notoriety, the precocious Aussie defies the stereotypes associated with ATP giants.  Rather than an overwhelming serve, a preference for short points, and mediocre movement, Tomic displays a balanced, flowing game sometimes compared to the model of Murray.  With that versatility can come indecision over which weapon to choose at a certain moment, and Tomic sometimes falls prey to that dilemma.  Similarly, he triggers memories of a much more talented Fabio Fognini for his tendency to meander through rallies of moderately paced shots before suddenly unleashing a scorching groundstroke past a befuddled opponent.  Although he defeated only one genuine contender (Soderling) during his quarterfinal surge, Tomic surrendered a set in only one of his four victories while illustrating his ease in all areas of the court.  In contrast, the second seed has struggled with his movement here after deciding to omit his normal grass-court tournament.  Dropping only a single set through four matches, though, Djokovic has served more convincingly than at past Wimbledons and has evinced a more aggressive mentality, unruffled by the end of his winning streak.  Since Tomic views his opponent so respectfully, one wonders whether he will enter their quarterfinal with the same steely poise that fueled his earlier victories.  And one also wonders whether the Serb will view this meeting with a hint of complacency, unconvinced that his 18-year-old admirer can summon the nerve to threaten him.  Even if Djokovic does, however, the prospect of the relatively raw Tomic winning three sets from a two-time major champion looks remote indeed.

Nadal vs. Fish:  Surviving not only Del Potro but a foot injury on Monday, the defending champion aims to repeat his victory over the American in the first round here four years ago.  Despite substantial improvements in his fitness and consistency since that encounter, Fish remains a relatively one-dimensional player who cannot threaten the Spaniard unless he serves to perfection.  In the fourth round, he did serve nearly to perfection against 2010 finalist Berdych in a victory notable for its lack of noteworthiness.  Destined to reach the top 8 after Wimbledon, Fish consistently threatened the Czech’s imposing serve while displaying no trace of insecurity that might have arisen from his recently elevated ranking.  The American did win a set from Nadal when they last played at the US Open, varying the direction and spin on his serve in addition to approaching the net at the earliest opportunity.  Since those strategies succeeded in rushing Rafa out of his comfort zone, albeit temporarily, Fish should remind himself that his chances improve in direct proportion to the number of strokes that he strikes from inside the baseline.  His improved fitness notwithstanding, he does not rank among the players who can outmaneuver Nadal from the baseline but instead must attempt to disrupt his rhythm.  Surely relieved and invigorated by his victory over Del Potro, the world #1 will thrive on the increasingly scarred turf that surfaces in Wimbledon’s second week.  As clumps of dirt mix with patches of grass around the baselines, the ball skids through the court slightly less swiftly.  That factor should facilitate Nadal’s attempts to defuse Fish’s principal weapon, although he probably needs no such assistance.

Lisicki vs. Bartoli:  Rarely has a beneficiary of a Slam wildcard seized the opportunity with both hands as has Lisicki, who has arrived at her second Wimbledon quarterfinal in three years.  Frequently hammering serves above 120 mph, the former Bolletieri pupil saved two match points in the second round against Li with her signature shot before riding it to two ensuing victories.  Lisicki crunches her groundstrokes with only somewhat less velocity, sparing little time for slices or drop shots.  While her lack of variety may limit her upward progress, it has proved no obstacle on the surface where first-strike tennis still offers the greatest reward.  Yet Lisicki did not become the only quarterfinalist who saved match point in the second round, for Bartoli dodged multiple bullets against Dominguez Lino at that stage.  Following unsteady efforts at that stage and in her ensuring round, the double-fister submitted a thoroughly poised, complete effort against Serena that showcased every element of her game at its most lethal.  When the Birmingham champion confronts the Eastbourne champion,  an intriguing battle should emerge between Lisicki’s serve and Bartoli’s return.  Will the Frenchwoman attack the German’s weapon as boldly as she did Serena’s serve?  After a ten-match winning streak or a nine-match winning streak, respectively, both players have quelled their fatigue thus far, but one wonders whether fitness will become a factor considering the prolonged matches that both have played here.  Since neither woman counts movement as a strength, most rallies should not last longer than a few shots in the staccato style familiar from classic grass-court tennis.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Sharapova vs. Cibulkova:  If the 2004 champion had glanced ahead at her draw on Monday morning, she would have observed that a formidable trio of Wozniacki, Serena, and Venus loomed ahead.  By late Monday afternoon, the topography of the women’s draw had shifted starkly as all three of those threats tumbled from their pedestals.  The sole Slam champion remaining in the draw, Sharapova now must master the pressure of expectations that have crystallized around her.  Walking through an open door can prove more challenging than opening the door oneself, as no less a champion than Federer discovered during his near-loss to Haas after Soderling defeated Nadal at Roland Garros 2009.  Sharapova thus must steel herself to remain focused on the immediate future, a rendezvous with the only player to halt her before the semifinals in any tournament since March.  Victorious in that Madrid collision, Cibulkova never has faced the former #1 on a surface other than clay but will gain confidence from having won their only Slam meeting.  The feisty Slovak demonstrated her survival skills by winning three three-setters here, erasing a set-and-break deficit against Lucic before rallying from an unsightly first set against Wozniacki.  Ideally suited to cope with the low bounces of grass, Cibulkova has enhanced her serve and forehand under the guidance of Zelkjo Krajan.  Rather than engaging in a shot-making duel with Maria, though, she might attempt to feed low balls deep down the center that force the Russian to create her own angles.  Meanwhile, Sharapova should vary the placement of her groundstrokes in order to keep this scrambling roadrunner off balance.  Despite not yielding a set this fortnight, Maria maintains that she has not attained her optimal level, a thought perhaps more ominous for opponents than for herself.

Kvitova vs. Pironkova:  Both semifinalists at Wimbledon last year, only one can defend all of her points this year.  Before the tournament, in fact, few would have projected Pironkova to reach the second week after a generally futile 2011 campaign.  Once she arrived on her favored lawns, the memories of recent glory must have awakened to inspire her through victories over Zvonareva and Venus during which she conceded ten total games.  Not a player who seems likely at first glance to record such dismissive results, the Bulgarian counterbalances the exclusively offensive games of most shot-makers who have left their imprint on the grass.  Clearly in that latter category stands Kvitova, who surrendered just two games to the talented Wickmayer a round ago.  The Czech enjoys the natural advantages of a lefty on this surface, curling and kicking serves at uncomfortable angles that open the court.  Not always the sturdiest competitor in adversity, however, Kvitova can look overwhelming until an opponent dares to blast groundstrokes with her from the baseline throughout an entire match, at which point the intimidator sometimes becomes the intimidated.  More comfortable in a counterpunching mode than when taking the initiative, Pironkova may allow the brash eighth seed  to measure her targets rather than forcing her into a situation that tests her resolve.

Paszek vs. Azarenka:  Still searching for her first major semifinal after four failed attempts, the minx from Minsk can find little excuse if she fails to break through this time.  Although Paszek deserves credit for upsetting Schiavone in a 20-game third set, this former prodigy vies with Pironkova’s 2010 effort for the honor of most surprising Wimbledon women’s quarterfinalist in recent years.  Despite sporadic frailty against Hantuchova, Azarenka showed scant mercy to the aging Petrova on Monday.  Her strikingly fierce victory celebration, disproportionate to the scoreline and opponent, demonstrated the degree to which she craves a maiden major.  Before she can capture that honor, she may need to manage her emotions more maturely.  Unless an unexpected injury descends upon her, as it often has in the past eighteen months, Vika should move a step closer to her goal and accumulate the experience essential to becoming a genuine contender.  Like Murray, she probably must improve her second serve before winning Wimbledon, but a semifinal certainly would position her auspiciously for the summer hard courts where she can wreak greater havoc.

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Five

Murray vs. Gasquet:  If history offers a reliable guide, this opening clash of Centre Court’s second week should tie Judy Murray’s stomach into knots.  At two previous majors, Gasquet led the British home hope by two sets to none before the latter turned the tide at the eleventh hour.  One of the signature moments in Murray’s early career, his five-set victory over the Frenchman at Wimbledon 2008 revealed a fiery competitor behind his sometimes dour façade.  Gasquet has arrived at the second week of consecutive majors for the first time in three years and has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since this tournament four years ago.  Noted for breathtaking grace, timing, and spontaneity, his effortlessly fluid brand of tennis contrasts with Murray’s more mechanized, functional style.  Despite his lack of overwhelming first-strike power, Gasquet has delivered many of his finest performances on grass, but the Scot also habitually rises to the occasion on the shoulders of his enraptured compatriots.  Through the first week, the Frenchman has sparkled more brightly than Murray, who nearly entered a fifth set against the aging Ljubicic.  If the fourth seed can weather Gasquet’s sporadic barrages of inspired shot-making, though, the best-of-five format should assist him in outlasting an opponent with inferior stamina on both physical and emotional levels.  Still struggling to convince himself that he can challenge the elite, the Frenchman defeated an erratic Federer in Rome but mustered scant resistance to Djokovic at Indian Wells or Roland Garros.

V. Williams vs. Pironkova:  Expected to meet Jankovic in the third round, the elder Williams faced Martinez Sanchez.  Projected to intersect with Zvonareva on the second Monday, she instead eyes the player who expelled her from Wimbledon last year.  After a narrow escape from Date-Krumm, Venus returned in the third round to the confident ball-striking of her opener.  Yet Pironkova has troubled her on more than one prior occasion, forcing her deep into the third set at an Australian Open. The reserved Bulgarian seems an improbable nemesis for Venus, considering her average serve and generally unremarkable groundstroke offense.  On grass, furthermore, the court coverage that assists her on slower surfaces should prove a less notable asset.  Startlingly emphatic was Pironkova’s victory over Venus on these lawns last year, however, and she upset the second-seeded Zvonareva a round ago in equally routine fashion.  Certain players do establish special, rationally inexplicable zones of comfort at specific tournament, as Venus herself could attest.  Even if she struggled at other tournaments throughout the calendar, the five-time champion always could expect to produce a memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  After Pironkova denied those expectations last year, Venus surely will bring an additional level of focus to the sequel.

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Until the former US Open champion completes his inexorable rise towards the top 10, contenders will face a towering challenge earlier than they would have preferred.  After the duty of defusing Del Potro fell to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal earned the least enviable pre-quarterfinal assignment at Wimbledon.  Although he defeated the Argentine at Indian Wells this year, that semifinal offered more compelling tennis than the scoreline suggested.  Still relatively early in his return, Del Potro already has defeated worthy opponents including Soderling and Verdasco as he regains the confidence to swing freely on his nearly unanswerable forehand.  Specializing in finding answers for the unanswerable, Nadal eked out two tiebreaks against Muller’s veering lefty serve to reach the second week at Wimbledon without losing a set for the first time.  While that match will have prepared the Spaniard for blunting the Argentine’s imposing delivery, Rafa may find his opponent’s baseline arsenal a sterner test.  Court positioning early in points should prove vital for both players and especially Del Potro, as Nadal attempts to restrain him from stepping inside the court to launch his forehands at penetrating angles.  After an indifferent serving performance at Roland Garros, the top seed elevated his serve during the first week to a weapon that won him several key points outright.  Perhaps drained by extended encounters in the first week, Del Potro must assert himself in the initial stages to open a crack in Nadal’s confidence.  Always uncomfortable against the ATP’s towers of power, the Spaniard has scored recent successes in that category that may help maintain his calm under pressure.

Bartoli vs. S. Williams:  Still scorching as spring turns to summer, the top-ranked Frenchwoman charged from a Roland Garros semifinal to the Eastbourne title and now aims for a quarterfinal at the major where she broke through four years ago.  On that occasion, Bartoli defeated reigning #1 Justine Henin in one of Wimbledon’s more spectacular upsets before falling uneventfully to Venus in the final.  Although she since avenged that loss, the idiosyncratic double-fister always confronts a severe obstacle when facing the Williams sisters:  the discrepancy between their serves.  Bartoli has improved that most unorthodox component of her unorthodox repertoire, but it remains a shot that can donate strings of double faults at awkward moments.  By contrast, Serena has relied heavily on her serve to survive tense situations, although it lately has not approached the heights of her past two Wimbledons.  Having met the Frenchwoman only once in the last seven years, the younger Williams will need to reacquaint herself with the distinctive combinations created by Bartoli.  Since both players punish second serves with ferocious returns, first-serve percentage may hold the key to victory for either woman.  After a pair of edgy victories in the first two rounds, Serena eased into the second week with a dominant performance.  Meanwhile, Bartoli’s momentum appeared to have slowed when she saved match points in the second round and then endured a marathon against the floundering Pennetta.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Six

Sharapova vs. Peng:  Perched in the top 20 and still climbing, the second-ranked Chinese star has unfolded a season more consistent albeit less spectacular than the exploits of her countrywoman.  After she toppled Sharapova in Beijing two years ago, Peng extended her to three sets at Indian Wells this year.  At the root of that unsightly rollercoaster lay the Russian’s erratic serving, exacerbated by the wind and an apparent lack of focus.  From Sharapova’s spring successes have flowed renewed focus that has translated to her serve, still subject to occasional wobbles but vastly improved from its waywardness throughout much of her comeback.  A resilient counterpuncher with a talent for redirecting the ball, Peng does not shrink from powerful opponents and can trade flat, deep lasers with anyone from behind the baseline.  Less impressive than her groundstrokes is her serve, into which Sharapova can sink her teeth at will.  Not especially sharp in the third round, Maria will seek to improve her timing and shot selection as she enters the second week, recognizing opportunities to finish points without rushing to end them prematurely.   In that balance lies the key to unlocking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal berth since 2006.

Fish vs. Berdych:  Justifying his elevated seeding, the top-ranked American man edged through his first three matches with little fanfare against unheralded opposition.  Almost as unnoticed amidst the scrutiny surrounding the top four is last year’s finalist, who has accomplished little of note since that time.  After imploding in his Roland Garros opener, Berdych has delivered a series of considerably more composed performances despite the pressure of defending his 2010 result.  In a match that opposes two thunderous serves, one expects few extended rallies or closely contested service games.  Neither player should gain frequent opportunities to break, so a tiebreak or two looks probable.  If Berdych can orient the rallies from forehand to forehand, he should break down Fish’s less technically reliable wing.  If the American can target the Czech’s vulnerable backhand with his own brisk two-hander, conversely, he could score the mini-upset.  His rise in the rankings notwithstanding, Fish has not yet scored a resounding statement win this year outside his Miami victory over Del Potro.  On the other hand, neither has Berdych.

Petrova vs. Azarenka:  Vertigo and other physical woes behind her, the 29-year-old Muscovite mounted an encouraging charge to the second week that included a victory over compatriot Pavlyuchenkova, a decade younger than her.  Opposing another youthful ball-bruiser in Azarenka, Petrova will hope to rely on her  superior forecourt play and much superior serving to overcome an adversary with a greater array of weapons at her disposal.  Both players will recognize the significance of this situation, for a highly winnable quarterfinal against Paszek or Pervak awaits the survivor.  Ruffled by Hantuchova for much of two sets, Azarenka appeared to refocus during the rain delay.  No less important for Petrova is the psychological dimension, since she bears the scars of multiple disappointments at majors and probably has underachieved considering her talents.  At this stage, though, greater pressure probably weighs upon the Belarussian, whose narrative remains unwritten and her potential untapped.  Which of these volatile Russian-speaking women can restrain their inflammable temper more successfully?

Ferrer vs. Tsonga:  Like his compatriot Gasquet, this Frenchman revels in flamboyant bursts of inspiration and can hit any shot from anywhere on the court to anywhere else the court.  His talents shone at their most brilliant during a comprehensive victory over Gonzalez but often can flicker from one round to the next.  Reaching the second week on his least comfortable surface, Ferrer fell to the similarly flamboyant Monfils at Roland Garros.  In a five-setter that stretched across two days, he required all of his veteran wiles to outlast burgeoning American Ryan Harrison.  While the grass exposes his serve and meager first-strike capacity, the Spaniard’s compact strokes and crisp footwork represent less obvious advantages.  Pitted against Soderling in the same round last year, Ferrer caused the mighty Swede far more exertion than one might have envisioned considering the fast court.  When the Frenchman approaches the net, the Spaniard’s expertly placed passing shots should challenge his volleying skills.  If Tsonga retains the rhythm on his first serve that he found against Gonzalez, however, even the seventh seed’s scintillating return should inflict few dents upon his service games, leaving him free to concentrate upon breaking his opponent’s more pedestrian delivery.

Wozniacki vs. Gajdosova: Romping through her first two matches with the loss of only seven games, the world #1 has outlasted fellow top-four seeds Li and Zvonareva.  Although a pair of preceding victories over the Slovak-turned-Aussie should leave the Dane confident about her chances, Gajdosova has improved dramatically since their last clash.  Few nuances or hidden strengths lurk in her game, predicated upon the type of massive serving and shot-making precision tailored for grass.  Plowing into the second week here before, Gajdosova has troubled Venus on these lawns and has the raw velocity to overpower anyone before they can collect themselves.  Steamrolled by Kvitova at Wimbledon 2010, Wozniacki has learned how swiftly and inexorably matches can slip away on this surface.  Unable to solve a similarly inflammable dark horse in Hantuchova at Roland Garros, she will confront even more scrutiny unless she continues her convincing fortnight here.

Roger Federer - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Four

Nalbandian vs. Federer:  Deep into the early years of this millennium extend the 18 meetings with the Swiss and the Argentine, who have met at every major except Wimbledon—until now.  Scoring eight victories against Federer, Nalbandian held the upper hand in their rivalry’s initial stages and later scored a memorable comeback in the final of the 2005 year-end championships, the only occasion on which the GOAT has lost after holding a two-set lead.  As recently as 2007, in fact, the “grouchy gaucho” continued to vex the impeccably coiffed superstar with consecutive victories during the fall indoor hard season.  On somewhat similarly slick courts, Nalbandian’s flat, unpredictably angled two-handed backhand could prove a key asset that allows him to expose Federer’s backhand and open the Swiss star’s forehand corner.  Nevertheless, the Argentine’s fitness has dwindled steadily in the waning years of his career, while injuries have forestalled him from developing the consistency necessary to reestablish himself as a threat.  Even if Federer drops a set, as he has in 14 of their 18 confrontations, he probably can outlast the 2002 finalist in the best-of-five format.

Baghdatis vs. Djokovic:  A charismatic entertainer with questionable motivation and often questionable fitness, the Cypriot targets an opponent who once matched the same description.  Vowing to improve his durability, Baghdatis devoted substantial effort to fitness during the offseason but with unremarkable results.  In 2011, he has conquered no opponent more notable than the rejuvenated Del Potro at the Australian Open.  Seemingly unruffled by the end of his 43-match winning streak, meanwhile, Djokovic carved up two creditable opponents in Chardy and Kevin Anderson with minimal ado.  Despite his aspiration to win Wimbledon one day and the chance to gain the #1 ranking this fortnight, the Serb may have relaxed with the media focused on the Nadal-Federer rivalry once again and his 2011 perfection behind him.  Baghdatis has frustrated him for sporadic spans before, winning four sets in their last three meetings, but Djokovic has matured as much as the Cypriot has waned since their five-set quarterfinal here four years ago.

Sharapova vs. Zakopalova:  Eight long years ago, a 15-year-old prodigy from the Bolletieri Academy lost the first main-draw match of her Slam career to Klara Zakopalova.  Does the superstar who bloomed from that raw teenager harbor a thirst for revenge against the petite Czech?   Despite threatening multiple former #1s and defeating Li earlier this year, Zakopalova has compiled a losing record at majors in her career.  Nevertheless, she reached the second week at a Slam for the first time here last year, an unexpected accomplishment considering her lack of offensive firepower.  The most notable weapon in her meager arsenal, her two-handed backhand down the line could ambush Sharapova if she enters their contest unfamiliar with the Czech’s style.  Acknowledging that she did not display her finest tennis against an inspired Robson, the 2004 champion still hammered percussive cross-court blows from not only her fearsome backhand but her less reliable forehand.  Focused upon testing Sharapova’s consistency, Zakopalova may force Maria to hit an additional shot or two to finish points but rarely can seize the initiative from her.

Gonzalez vs. Tsonga:  Reckless ball-bruisers with a taste for showmanship, they share Australian Open finals appearances and massive forehand power, mitigated by dubious shot selection.  Narrowly escaping a fifth set against Bulgarian prodigy Grigor Dimitrov, Tsonga displayed the characteristic, charming, yet costly profligacy that ended his Roland Garros campaign.  Like many Frenchmen past and present, he occasionally prefers the spectacular to the sensible at crucial junctures late in sets.  Although he lacks the desire to win a major, Tsonga certainly possesses the technical attributes to penetrate far into the second week.  By contrast, Gonzalez must consider himself fortunate to have reached the third round so early in his comeback from surgery.  Despite winning the Liverpool challenger on grass this year, Chile’s Olympic medalist prefers waging his battles from the baseline rather than the forecourt.  That lack of comfort represents a significant different between Gonzalez and Tsonga, who hurtles towards the net behind less than overwhelming pretexts.  Able to finish points with almost any of his shots, the Frenchman should neutralize his opponent’s single weapon, the forehand, after a series of blistering yet occasionally head-scratching exchanges.

Cibulkova vs. Goerges:  Lurking in the shadow of Petkovic is her less flamboyant, perhaps equally skilled compatriot, who rose to renown with two victories over Wozniacki during the clay season.  A powerful server on any surface, Goerges has earned surprisingly scant success on grass and suffered a routine loss to Ivanovic at Eastbourne.  During that match and in her previous wins here, this fiery competitor struggled to channel her emotions in productive directions.  Goerges can unleash formidable weapons from both groundstrokes, creating a symmetry that should boost her cause by obviating the need to run around a weaker wing.  Less promising are her relatively long swings, better designed for surfaces with clay that offer more time to adjust for unexpected bounces.  Still a unfolding talent, the German confronts a deceptively unprepossessing Slovak who rallied from a deep deficit against Lucic.  Without the groundstroke symmetry of Goerges, Cibulkova has honed the streamlined movement and footwork upon which counterpunchers like Hewitt built grass-court success.  But the disparity in their serves should prove fatal to her hopes unless the German suffers one of the abrupt dips in form that has characterized her unpredictable season.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Four

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Whatever happens in this Court 18 encounter, the less famous Czech Petra will know that it cannot go worse than her previous meeting with Ivanovic, a double bagel at Roland Garros in 2008.  Encouraged by modest successes in Birmingham and Eastbourne, the Serb has soared through her first two victories while surrendering just four total games as she attempts to exploit a seedless section.  Battling from within two points of defeat in her previous round, the world #81 scored an impressive victory over two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska.  Likely invigorated by that conquest, Cetkovska should compete tenaciously in the belief that she can turn the tide if adversity strikes.  So overwhelming have Ivanovic’s weapons proved thus far, though, that her similarly unheralded previous victims have found little opportunity to restart rallies and blunt her momentum.  In four of her six grass victories this year, Ana has skipped merrily to the net after less than an hour.

Almagro vs. Youzhny:  Far from his best on grass, the Spaniard deserves considerable credit for winning two tiebreaks of Isner while never surrendering his serve throughout four sets.  Not known for his physical or mental stamina, Almagro has improved both of those dimensions during a breakthrough season that has witnessed his ascent to the top 10.  Besieged by injuries and advancing age, former top-10 denizen Youzhny has faded sharply after reaching the US Open semifinal last year.  So low did his confidence dip after the clay season, in fact, that the notoriously inflammable Russian entered a challenger before Wimbledon, from which he retired.  Armed with underestimated adeptness at the net, Youzhny nevertheless possesses superior skills on grass to an opponent with an equally sublime one-handed backhand.  Beyond admiring the juxtaposition of those elegant, vanishing strokes, spectators await an answer to whether overall form this year or surface aptitude will prevail in a clash between evenly matched adversaries.  One imagines that the sequel to their infamous Miami meeting will prove memorable for reasons related more to tennis than to tempers.

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