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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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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats Robin Soderling (Sweden) to win the French Open 2010. The trophy was presented to him by former Roland-Garros champ Nicola Pietrangeli and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation. French Open 2010, Internationaux de France de tennis 2010, held at Roland-Garros in Paris.

First quarter:  Handed a disorienting opener against Isner, Nadal should tower over the towering but clay-averse American while acquiring valuable confidence for the challenges ahead.  Among the talented rivals that riddle this quarter is former Roland Garros semifinalist and potential third-round opponent Davydenko, who has won his last four meetings with Nadal.  Nevertheless, the Russian’s precipitous decline following a wrist injury suggests a match of scintillating rallies but little suspense.  Mired in a less explicable slump, Verdasco has endured a fruitless clay season as his ranking has sagged below the top 15.  If the second-ranked Spanish lefty survives a grinding opener against Monaco, however, his draw could grant him smooth passage into the second week and another doomed battle with his compatriot.  At the base of this section lurks the ATP king-maker, who transferred the Roland Garros crown from Nadal to Federer in 2009 and back to Nadal in 2010.  Dormant since March, Soderling rumbled into relevance with a Rome quarterfinal and can settle into the tournament without facing extreme pressure during the first week.  Although Simon’s lithe movement might unsettle him, only an especially inspired effort from the Frenchman could weather the Swede’s punishing assault.  Having split memorable Roland Garros clashes in the last two years, Rafa and Robin will collide earlier than either would wish.  History always will infuse these meetings with intrigue, but Nadal regained control over their rivalry last year and has solved Soderling (not without difficulty) when healthy.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  In 2011, every significant ATP draw has included a quarter open for opportunists and arrivistes.  To be sure, Murray justified his top-four seeding in both Monte Carlo and Rome, where he came closer than anyone this season to snapping The Streak.  The Scot does not intimidate opponents on this surface to the extent that Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer do, though, so a dark horse like flamboyant fourth-round opponent Dolgopolov could wreak havoc.  A quarterfinalist in Melbourne, the 21st seed ambushed Soderling and Tsonga there before falling to Murray; moreover, he demonstrated budding clay-court skills with a final in Brazil and a win over Ferrer.  Perhaps still demoralized from his epic Rome defeat, the Scot might spend this tournament restoring his psyche, although he has shown marked improvement in his clay movement and point construction.  Unlikely to repeat his 2010 semifinal, an injured Melzer has accomplished little on clay this year following a Monte Carlo upset over Federer.  A more imposing threat to Murray or Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals springs from Nice finalist Almagro, who has won two clay titles this season while losing only one clay match to a player outside the top 8.  Recently reaching the top 10 for the first time, Almagro thrust Nadal into two tiebreaks during a compelling quarterfinal here a year ago and has greater ability to hit through the slow courts than most players in this section.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Third quarter:  Weeks after surviving a match point against Lopez in Madrid, Federer surely did not thank Ivanovic for assigning him an encore with his Spanish near-nemesis.  Once past that initial obstacle, however, the 2010 champion’s route grows more tranquil with the stagnating Tsonga perhaps waiting in the fourth round.  Or perhaps Federer will enjoy a relaxing afternoon with Wawrinka at that stage, having dominated his compatriot and doubles partner on all occasions but one.  In theory, a quarterfinal with Ferrer should prove scarcely more intimidating, considering the Swiss legend’s 11-0 record against the Spaniard (5-0 on clay).  In reality, Ferrer could profit from Federer’s increasingly erratic form to detain him for longer than usual.  An early loser to Melzer last year, the world #7 has reached the second week at Roland Garros in only one of his last five appearances.  Regularly carving deep into most clay draws, Ferrer’s futility at the clay major may arise from his hectic schedule and exhausting playing style in previous weeks.  A Nice loss to Dolgopolov hinted at accumulating weariness that might leave him vulnerable to a shot-maker like Monfils.  Surely eager to atone for an opening-round collapse last year, Gael has earned surprising success at his home major before.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates match point during the final against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the Internazoinali BNL D'Italia at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.

Fourth quarter:  As befits the colossus looming above the ATP, Djokovic has received the most formidable early draw.  Although he has won all seven of the sets that he played against Del Potro, the Serb could find him an arduous third-round challenge permitting him little time for settling into the fortnight.  But the Argentine first must conquer the elephantine serve of Karlovic and the unpredictable Gulbis as he rebounds from a leg injury.  Elsewhere in this section stands the resurgent Gasquet, who came within a few games of upsetting Murray in the first round last year and will have gained momentum from upsetting Federer in Rome.  The Frenchman has disappointed his compatriots in major after major, though, and his fitness remains questionable in a best-of-five encounter with an athlete of Djokovic’s caliber.  Instead, the second seed might face Madrid semifinalist Bellucci, a dangerous lefty who tested Nadal here before and led the Serb by a set and a break in Madrid before faltering.  The section’s upper half pits 2010 semifinalist Berdych against several players least comfortable on clay, such as Cilic and Youzhny.  Possibly threatened by Fognini in the second round, the Czech should experience scant difficulty en route to a quarterfinal with the player who defeated him in the same round at the Australian Open.  Since Berdych smothered Djokovic in a Wimbledon semifinal last year, their paths have veered in opposite directions.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

Final:  Nadal vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Francesca Schiavone wins the 2010 French Open at Roland Garros tennis stadium.

First quarter:  Fresh (or not) from a strong week in Brussels, Wozniacki arrives in Paris after a peripatetic, slightly disappointing clay campaign.  Like Nadal, she must navigate through a curious opener against Kimiko Date-Krumm, no longer a serious threat despite winning a set from the Dane before.  Not until the fourth round will Wozniacki meet an opponent worthy of her steel, for the fragile Hantuchova should not trouble the resilient Dane.  If she can evade Rybarikova in the first round, 2009 champion Kuznetsova could reverse the trajectory of a season that began promisingly in Melbourne and Dubai but has derailed spectacularly since then.  Although the Russian mustered little resistance to Wozniacki in the Dubai final, Kuznetsova has both the offense and the court coverage to challenge her on those increasingly rare days when she performs at her potential.  Equally intriguing is the projected fourth-round collision between Stosur and Goerges, who overcame the Aussie in a tense Stuttgart semifinal.  Before that rematch, the 2010 finalist must recover quickly from her illness against the inflammable Benesova, architect of a Melbourne second-week run.   Nor should one underestimate another Czech lefty as an early test for Goerges, since Safarova upset Jankovic in Madrid and adapts her elongated swings effectively to the slower surface.  Both Goerges and Stosur have scored recent success against Wozniacki, so the top seed should find her accumulating clay skills severely tested in a quarterfinal.  More accomplished at significant tournaments than either of those potential rivals, she also faces greater pressure as the still Slamless #1.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Resembling the second quarter of the men’s draw, this softest section hosts several fading veterans and a pair of perpetually rising, never quite risen Russians.  Aligned to meet in the third round, Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova spearhead the next generation of their nation’s stars and have inherited the familiarly ball-bruising baseline style of their compatriots.  While neither delivers her best tennis on clay, each has the ability to hit through the slow courts as well as the competitive resilience to stun a contender.  Few are the true contenders in this quarter, moreover, for defending champion Schiavone has followed her historic Australian Open with a series of uninspired performances.  Surprise champions rarely repeat their feats, more often losing early to steady opponents like potential third-round foe Peng Shuai.  Defeated by Peng in Brussels, Zvonareva has shown little appetite for clay wars of attrition and may prefer to conserve her energies for defending her Wimbledon final.  Once an all-surface threat to the WTA elite, Pennetta has won only one match since Indian Wells and could face Rome conqueror Mattek-Sands in the second round.  From this seething chaos nevertheless will emerge a semifinalist, and who better to exploit the void than three-time Roland Garros semifinalist Jankovic?  Although the Serb has sunk to the fringes of the top 10, she has acquired a reputation for seizing opportunities that present themselves.  A generally unremarkable clay season did include a closely contested Rome quarterfinal with Wozniacki, and at any rate nobody else in this section can claim more momentum than the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter:  Since February, exactly one player has converted a match point against Azarenka as the fourth seed has alternated titles with retirements.  This pattern suggests that physical issues may pose her greatest challenge this fortnight, but Madrid nemesis Kvitova or Melbourne nemesis Li could await in the quarterfinals.  If her elbow injury does not trouble her, Azarenka should ease through a comfortable section of the draw largely bereft of players who can match her firepower or willpower.  The only exception in that group, 2008 champion Ivanovic defeated Vika twice last year after losing their Roland Garros meeting two years ago.  Hampered by abdominal and wrist injuries, the Serb has played only five clay matches before Paris and could encounter the unnerving test of Australian Open conqueror Makarova in the second round.  Attempting to rekindle the flames of Madrid, Kvitova confronts the third-round obstacle of Cibulkova, her sternest test en route to that title and a former semifinalist in Paris.  The Slovak’s relentless retrieving will harden the Czech’s resolve and focus should she survive their meeting, however, and prepare her to reprise her Madrid victory over Li.  Can she follow that script to another win over Azarenka?  On a much slower surface, Vika’s superior movement should allow her to reverse the earlier narrative.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

Fourth quarter:  Here roars the Siberian lioness, as confident as ever in her comeback following an unexpected title in Rome and an equally startling victory over Wozniacki.  Situated in a tranquil corner of the draw, Sharapova might find a compelling test of her consistency against indefatigable roadrunner Zakopalova in the third round.  The 31st seed once won a set from Serena here and should prepare Maria for more challenging encounters against players with similar movement but more dangerous offense.  Perhaps endangered earlier by Wickmayer, Radwanska could attempt to block Sharapova’s passage  as she did at the 2007 US Open.  Although the Russian has not lost to the Pole since that notorious meeting, their matches sometimes have grown tense as a result of the latter’s crisp instincts and keen intelligence.  The victor of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox might face two-time finalist Clijsters—but just as plausibly might not.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam that would rival the Serena Slam, the Belgian has not won a match on clay in five years and has not recovered entirely from injuries to three different joints.  Most concerning of those injuries is her ankle, which could undermine her movement and leave her vulnerable to a strutting shotmaker like fourth-round opponent Petkovic.  After an encouraging week in Strasbourg, the charismatic German will open against the blossoming Jovanovski and later might face Gajdosova-turned-Groth-turned-Gajdosova, a talent who can unsettle anyone when at her best.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Petkovic could face Sharapova for the second straight major and the third time this year, allowing us to discover whether Paris has more in common with Melbourne or Miami.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

***

Final:  Stosur vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Victoria Azarenka


 

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

As two marquee events hover just beyond the horizon, we unfold some of the potential narratives to consider at this week’s small tournaments, overtures to the clay symphonies in Rome and Madrid.

The march to 28-0 (Belgrade):  Notably absent from Nadal’s triumphal parade through Monte Carlo and Barcelona was his North American bête noir.  Seeking a well-deserved respite during the past two weeks, Djokovic now will ease into his clay campaign at home against a draw otherwise headlined by Troicki, Garcia-Lopez, and Montanes .  The world #2’s unblemished 2011 record should survive this week unscathed, placing him in position to win his first 30 matches of the season should he reach the Madrid quarterfinals.  A staggering accomplishment by any measure, this current winning streak has come at the expense of redoubtable foes who demanded a high degree of focus.  Will Djokovic let that focus slip when he faces less heralded opponents?  Although he will bask in the adulation of his compatriots, he finds himself in a position where anything less than a dominant charge to the title will register as a disappointment.  Rafa handled a similar situation masterfully in Barcelona, and now we will find whether Novak can match his poise.  On the other hand, nobody in the draw probably possesses the necessary nerve—and perhaps nastiness—to ruin the Serb’s homecoming.

Digging out of doldrums (Estoril):  Anchoring the Portuguese draw, Soderling and Verdasco would benefit enormously from a jolt of momentum before the lucrative events ahead.   No elite contender has endured an odder start to the season than the Swede, who won three of his first four tournaments and 19 of his first 20 matches but lost before the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Hampered in recent weeks by both illness and injury, Soderling did not quite excel during the road to Roland Garros last season but reversed his fortunes with frightening speed.  In fact, he dropped his Nice opener just a week before launching his second straight finals run in Paris.  Perhaps in greater need of psychological succor, therefore, is the Spaniard who stalked away from Barcelona in pique when the tournament denied him a wildcard.  Verdasco’s injured pride may finally catalyze his revival from a period of irritable listlessness that has precipitated his tumble from the top 10.  Situated among the less dangerous half of the draw, he should encounter less sturdy resistance than Soderling.  Succumbing to Del Potro in Miami, the Swede may well confront the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist again in the quarterfinals, when this gentle seaside town could witness some fantastically ungentle ball-striking.

Backhands do battle (Munich):  While Soderling and Verdasco aim to shift into a higher gear, several of the players at the BMW tournament hope to change the direction of their vehicles entirely.  Chief among them is world #39 Nikolay Davydenko, who in about fifteen months has fallen from a top-8 seed in Melbourne to a top-8 seed in Munich.  The former World Tour Finals champion has unleashed some of his finest tennis on clay, even troubling Nadal four years ago in Rome.  Despite fleeting signs of revival, though, his scintillating groundstrokes have not regained their sting from late 2009 since a wrist injury.  More perplexing is the decline of former prodigy Marin Cilic, who has quietly receded without suffering substantial injury.  Their two-handers could collide in a quarterfinal, while another quarterfinal could feature the elegant one-handers of Kohlschreiber and Wawrinka.  Without Federer looming above him, the Swiss #2 will have the opportunity to exhibit the clay skills that carried him to the Rome final three years ago.  Atop the draw looms yet another fine one-hander in Youzhny, rarely a threat on clay and a possible second-round victim for Barcelona semifinalist Ivan Dodig.  Otherwise, the Russian might confront the dangerous, flat two-hander of Baghdatis.  While improving his fitness, the Cypriot has continued his frustratingly erratic results this year, and he faces an intriguing early test against the much-discussed teenager Grigor Dimitrov.

A Groth by any other name (Estoril): Uncoupled this month from her Aussie husband, the former Slovak hopes that her tennis does not revert to a pre-Groth state together with her name.  A generally solid start to 2011 for Gajdosova augurs well for her ability to wreak limited havoc on clay.   Although few would envy her movement on the surface, she possess sufficient power to hit through even the slowest surface and, like her compatriot Stosur, will enjoy the additional time to measure her groundstrokes.  Thus, one hopes that her divorce and Fed Cup disappointment do not weigh heavily upon her shoulders.  While few bold-faced names here have earned their living during the European spring, the paceless groundstrokes of Sevastova and Zakopalova could trouble the unwary on such a slow surface.  Still unseeded after a strong Miami performance, Medina Garrigues might navigate deeper into this draw than one might expect.  Likewise of note are two youngsters, Radwanska’s sister Urszula and Fez runner-up Simona Halep, a Romanian more natural on clay than many of her peers.

The crucible of clay (Barcelona):  In 2010, the WTA champion at this tiny event brought home the ultimate clay prize from Paris.  Few are the suspects who could repeat the feat this year, although Schiavone would remind us that “nothing is impossible.”  Is the impossible nothing for Alexandra Dulgheru, a clay specialist who reached the quarterfinals in Miami?  Or for Tsvetana Pironkova, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year who has almost entirely evaporated since?  Lightning rarely strikes twice, but beware of taking anyone too lightly in the WTA’s current whirlwind of flux.

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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

Dwarfed by the lingering shadow of the US Open, four small tournaments came and went last week.  We outline one intriguing storyline from each of these geographically disparate events in the most recent edition of (TW)2.

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Allez les bleus (Metz): Just a week after France advanced to the Davis Cup final, two players who didn’t participate in any live rubbers dazzled in Metz.  Overcoming the tenacious Robredo in the quarterfinals, Gasquet temporarily conquered his aversion to playing before his compatriots and extended his momentum from a second-week run at the US Open.  But the more remarkable storyline came from the nearly forgotten Simon, who celebrated the birth of his first child with his first title of 2010.  Enduring an arid campaign this year, Gilles emphatically dispatched the formidable Kohlschreiber in the semifinals after the German had ousted Cilic with equal authority in the quarterfinals.  Accomplished on indoor hard courts, Simon enters the fall season fresher and more motivated than most of his rivals, having missed much of the spring and summer with injuries.  Don’t be surprised to see the new father spring an upset or two (or, in Simon-speak, “accidents”) during the Masters 1000 events.  If his star does continue to rise, Guy Forget may face some intriguing choices when assembling his squad for the Davis Cup final.

The clay season never ends (Bucharest): Between Wimbledon and the US Open, an assortment of small events throughout Europe allow dirt devils to gobble up rankings points while the top dogs play elsewhere.  Even after the US Open, though, the Bucharest event greets clay specialists with open arms at a time when Roland Garros lies far in the past or the future, depending on your perspective.  Unsurprisingly, three Spaniards capitalized upon this unlikely windfall to reach the semifinals, while the ageless Chela captured his second title of 2010.  Although these results bear little or no meaning for the impending Asian hard courts, one should note that not every player experiences the apparently seamless progression from hard courts to clay to grass to hard courts traced by the arc of the key events.  When contemplating schedule revisions, though, ATP officials might want to address this particular anomaly and relocate it to a more appropriate week in the calendar.

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One step forward, one step back for former #1s (Seoul): Following encouraging campaigns at Cincinnati and the US Open, Ivanovic should have entered Seoul filled with the confidence to move further on her winding road back to relevance.  Yet the Serb tumbled out of the tournament with an unsightly loss to Vera Dushevina, who has developed an odd habit for dragging top players down to her pedestrian level.  Despite winning a comfortable first set, Ivanovic lost the rhythm on her serve shortly thereafter and never regained it.  By contrast, her victim in the 2008 Roland Garros final recorded a pair of solid wins before falling to recurrent nemesis Zakopalova.  One of Safina’s more impressive victories since returning from a back injury, her commanding performance against Kirilenko boded well for her self-belief as 2010 edges towards its conclusion.  Neither Safina nor Ivanovic has anything significant to defend during the fall (Ivanovic, in fact, has nothing at all to defend); therefore, they should hope to exploit any advantageous draws that they receive in order to bolster their rankings for 2011.  (A round into Tokyo, the Serb scored another victory over Kleybanova, while the Russian endured a puzzling loss to Julia Goerges.  In other words, the rollercoaster continues.)

The Russians keep coming (Tashkent): Dwindling to just one member of the top 10, this mighty tennis nation continues to capture title after title at all levels of the WTA.  In Tashkent, Kudryavtseva reached her second straight final and then became the sixth different Russian to win a singles title this year…at the expense of compatriot Vesnina, who was contesting her second final of 2010.  Had Petrova not withdrawn from her Seoul semifinal, another all-Russian title tilt might have developed there.  As it was, Kleybanova thoroughly dominated the competition in the South Korean capital and showed flashes of the shot-making artistry that might lead her to the top 20.  While nobody would mistake Kudryavtseva, Vesnina, or arguably even Kleybanova for a Slam contender, these players remind observers that Russian women’s tennis possesses a depth equaled only by Spanish men’s tennis.  Wherever tennis balls are struck, it seems that someone from the land of Stravinsky and Stalin will stand poised to strike them.

***

On Wednesday, we preview the quarterfinals in Tokyo.  Who looks ready to open the fall with an imposing statement?

Playing a little free association with the words “Henin,” “Sharapova,” and “Madrid,” the 2007 year-end championships final springs to mind, an instant classic in which the statuesque Russian and the petite Belgian fired groundstroke missiles at each other for nearly three and a half electrifying hours.  In their very next trip to the Spanish capital, however, the two former #1s tumbled consecutively to a pair of streaky but second-tier players. 

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Returning from yet another injury and playing on her least comfortable surface, Sharapova wouldn’t have expected to pull off a deep run here and probably would have fallen to Dementieva in the third round even if she had won today.  The Russian has played just nine matches this year and scored just one win outside her title run in Memphis, so she’ll head to Strasbourg hoping to settle into a rhythm before Roland Garros (and perhaps test out what may or may not be a Head racket).  Parallel to 2009, though, Maria’s main goal will be to accumulate match play before the fast-surface summer rather than to peak at the French Open, where she won’t be and has never been among the leading contenders.  A high-risk game like hers doesn’t incorporate the margin for error necessary to win seven consecutive matches on a surface that rewards consistency more than shot-making.  Maria’s best tennis probably lies behind her, for one senses that her career peaked with her dizzyingly brilliant fortnight at the 2008 Australian Open, the most dominant single-Slam performance in recent memory according to such a perfectionist as Martina Navratilova (who ought to know).  But few players can equal the relentless competitive willpower that she brings to the court when healthy and confident.  Don’t be surprised to see Sharapova resurface on the North American hard courts, as she did last year, and progress deep into some significant draws in the season’s second half.

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On the other hand, Henin indeed will be among the leading contenders (if not the leading contender) for the clay-court crown, and her illness-influenced loss to Rezai raises serious questions about her physical durability, problematic thus far in her comeback but essential for her to dominate Paris.  Rivals such as Jankovic and Serena will be encouraged to think that they might be able to claim the French Open title without confronting the Belgian, while the WTA rank-and-file will enter early-round matches against her without the conviction that victory would be “Mission Impossible,” in Rezai’s words.  Furthermore, she squandered a golden opportunity to gain a top-16 seeding at Roland Garros, which would have afforded her one additional round to find her comfort zone before meeting a marquee opponent.  After a hideous loss to Dulko in Indian Wells, however, Henin charged to the semifinals in Miami and nearly conquered eventual champion Clijsters, so don’t underestimate this feisty competitor’s ability to rebound from discouraging losses (see our article on the Art of Amnesia below).  She’ll have plenty of time to rest, recover from this illness, and acclimate herself to the Paris conditions before most of the other contenders arrive. 

***

It’ll be intriguing to see whether the wave of upsets in the opening weekend, which began with Kuznetsova’s Saturday loss, will trickle into Monday and Tuesday.  We take a look at a handful of Monday matches that each offer something to ponder:

Safina-Zakopalova:  Wobbly so far in her return from a back injury, the defending champion couldn’t have asked for a better opener than against Zakopalova…or for a worse opener.  The 28-year-old Czech lacks any real weapon but can retrieve ball after ball after ball, as Serena discovered to her dismay in a three-set marathon at last year’s French Open.  Safina won’t have to worry about being hustled off the court before she can find a rhythm; she’ll have plenty of chances to work her way through rallies and construct points, so in a sense the matchup is ideal.  On the other hand, an inconsistent evening from the Russian could be a prolonged trip to the torture chamber, since Zakopalova misses very few balls at all and loves to wage a war of attrition, for which Safina is currently unready.  Either way, it’ll be a timely opportunity for her to practice the vital skill of controlled aggression, always a test for her slim patience.

Kvitova-Wozniacki:  The world #2 lost to one lefty in Stuttgart (Sharapova-killer Safarova) and another lefty in Rome (Martinez Sanchez); here comes a third lefty in the opening round of Madrid.  Between Indian Wells and an untimely injury in Charleston, Wozniacki looked ready to take a major step forward, justify her inflated ranking, and perhaps even challenge for the Roland Garros title.  Since she still relies excessively on her movement and ball-retrieving skills, threats to mobility such as this ankle injury could undermine her capacity to outlast streaky shotmakers like Kvitova, who pummeled Zvonareva in Rome last week.   The Pole-Dane should come through because Kvitova tends to go cold at the wrong time, but expect Wozniacki’s wheels to be tested. 

Zvonareva-Venus:  We weren’t quite sure what to expect from either of these players after their dismal exits from Rome, including the worst loss of Venus’ professional career.  In the opening round, however, the American registered a sturdy serving performance, while the Russian routinely knocked off Oudin for the third time in 2010.  (Wasn’t the pugnacious Georgian supposed to be especially good against Russians?)  Venus has won their last six meetings, of which three were on clay, so on paper she appears the heavy favorite.  Nobody saw the horrific Rome loss on the horizon after a pair of capable wins there, though, and the elder Williams sister dropped her second-round match to Kleybanova here last year.  Solid with both sets of groundstrokes, Zvonareva has more than enough ability to grind down an erratic Venus from the baseline, as did Jankovic, or punish her for an off-key serving day.  Considering Venus’ struggles on clay, one imagines that Vera will see an opportunity sometime; can she hold her nerve and convert?

Cirstea-Pennetta:  Picking Pennetta to reach the Rome semis, we felt that she would be buoyed by her recent Fed Cup success, her Andalusia title, and the home crowd.  How wrong we were (although not as wrong as when we picked Henin to win here); the Italian extracted just three games from Safarova in the second round on a very bleak day for her countrywomen, who won nine total games in four matches.  2010 has been surprisingly inconsistent for Pennetta, so far largely unable to capitalize upon the momentum from her strong second half in 2009.  Across the net, Cirstea seems to be finally emerging from a protracted slump by hiring Azarenka architect Antonio van Grichen and scoring a handful of wins during the clay season.  There’s plenty of potential for van Grichen to unlock, as Jankovic could attest after dropping a 9-7 third set to the charismatic Romanian at Roland Garros last year.  Can the stagnating veteran use her experience to prevail over the burgeoning youngster?

Li-Garcia Vidagany:  We hear the contemptuous chuckles from those of you who missed the Marbella event.  Before the dust had settled from Miami, Garcia Vidagany had stunned Clijsters in that lush Mediterranean resort.  Kudos to her for building upon the momentum by qualifying for another of her home tournaments here.  It’s unrealistic to expect her to defeat Li, but we’re curious to see whether this 21-year-old can muster something that will keep her name on our radar, at least for small events.  A competitive effort in this match would do so.

***

After Monday’s light canape, Tuesday should offer a delicious selection of tapas, not least the Ivanovic-Jankovic and Berdych-Nalbandian encounters.  We’ll be back to set the table for you tomorrow…