Roland Garros Fast Forward: Radwanska, Serena, Ferrer Highlight Tuesday’s Quarterfinals

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The road to the title goes through me.

The first four Roland Garros quarterfinals unfold on Tuesday, featuring Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Serena Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska.  Colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg will break down Federer’s marquee bout with home hope Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in plenty of detail.  You can find succinct previews of the other three quarterfinals here.

Tommy Robredo vs. David Ferrer:  Classic clay specialist Robredo radiated with elation after he rallied from multiple deficits to upset compatriot Nicolas Almagro for his first quarterfinal here in four years.  Two days later, he will need all of the energy that remains in his legs to defeat the second-ranked Spaniard.  The clay specialist par excellence in the ATP, Ferrer has cruised through five matches without dropping a set and befuddled a wide range of opponents.  Robredo does nothing that the fourth seed cannot do, and do better, so the matchup presents serious problems unless the favorite’s forum tumbles down an elevator shaft.

To leave any impact on the match at all, the underdog must start more effectively than he has in previous matches.  Masked by the heroism of his record-setting comeback trilogy was the uninspired play that required the heroism.  Ferrer is no Almagro or Gael Monfils, instead an excellent front-runner against lower-ranked opponents who rarely lets an advantage slip away once he sinks his teeth into a match.  Robredo last defeated him in 2008, when they stood much closer in the rankings, and Ferrer has won six of seven overall since losing their first meeting.  An all-Spanish quarterfinal at Roland Garros always produces a welcome display of vintage clay tennis.  But this quarterfinal should not produce much drama.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sara Errani:  The only quarterfinal in either draw between two top-five players features two women who prefer the counterpuncher’s role.  The winner can count on occupying that role in the semifinals, no matter who she faces there, but it will be intriguing to see whether Radwanska or Errani steps out of her comfort zone to take the initiative. Both have displayed sparkling form here, suggesting that a high-quality match should lie ahead.  Radwanska faced the single most challenging test of their eight opponents in Ana Ivanovic, while Errani’s victories came against a higher level of opponent on average.  The Italian labored through a difficult three-setter against Carla Suarez Navarro, a heavier burden than any placed on Radwanska this fortnight.  She overcame breathing issues in that match too, showing her underrated toughness.

Neither of these stubborn women relaxes her focus when at her best, so we can expect an absorbing battle waged in all areas of the court.  We also can expect plenty of service breaks from these antitheses of Serena’s first-strike power.  Radwanska wins more free points on her serve than she did earlier in her career, but she remains a competitor who makes her living with excellent consistency and inspired finesse.  Those two traits define the core of Errani’s success as well, pitting strength against strength here.  Their history extends back to several meetings in challengers and qualifying draws, which the Pole has dominated in addition to claiming their three WTA main-draw encounters.

Serena Williams vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova:  Other than a few games here or there, the top seed’s opponents have offered little more than glorified batting practice.  Which Kuznetsova decides to show up on Tuesday will decide whether the batting practice continues, or whether the level of competition spikes.  After all, the Russian has won as many Roland Garros titles as Serena has, and hers came more recently.  In the same round here four years ago, she outlasted an edgy, error-prone Serena in three pulsating sets before proceeding more smoothly to her second major title.  Kuznetsova also served for the match when they met at the Australian Open that year, a tournament that the latter eventually won.  Overall, she has won at least one set in five of their eight meetings and taken Serena to a tiebreak in two others.  Few women can boast such a fine record against the greatest player of their generation.

An area in which Kuznetsova can come closer to Serena than most women is her natural athleticism, which enables her to transition smoothly from defense to offense.  Years of training in Spain have honed her clay skills, moreover, leaving her a more natural mover on the surface than even this sensational version of Serena.  An area in which Kuznetsova remains more vulnerable than many women to the world No. 1, meanwhile, is her serve.  This shot contributed to her downward spiral in 2011-12, partly because of shoulder trouble and partly because of a general lack of confidence that emerged through double faults.  To plant a flicker of doubt in Serena’s mind, an opponent cannot sustain relentless pressure on her own serve.  Kuznetsova will bring belief from her three-set upset over world No. 8 Angelique Kerber, but belief alone cannot revive her 2009 form.

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