Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

Four down, three to go?

Two Russians, two Serbs, two defending champions, and two one-handed backhands take the court for Wednesday quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal vs. Stanislas Wawrinka:  From watching both men play this tournament, this quarterfinal looks like a fascinating matchup of the greatest clay play ever in a vulnerable moment against an outstanding clay specialist producing the best tennis of his career.  The history between them tells a different, less promising story.  Never has Nadal dropped a set to Wawrinka in their nine meetings, including a routine victory in the Madrid final this spring.  That match abruptly halted a stirring passage of play from the Swiss No. 2, who had notched consecutive top-eight wins to reach the final.

But perhaps this match will grow more competitive than their previous meetings suggest.  Upon closer inspection, Wawrinka has tested Nadal in many of those 19 lost sets and conceded several of them by a tiebreak or a single break.  The Spaniard swept their only meeting at a major in their first encounter six years ago, but both men have evolved so much since then that it bears little relevance.  Offering Nadal a key advantage here, all the same, is his superior experience at these stages compared to a man who never has reached a major semifinal and will contest his first Roland Garros quarterfinal.

While Wawrinka prefers a higher striking point for his backhand than Federer, parts of Nadal’s tactics should resemble those from a more familiar matchup.  As human as he has looked for much of the tournament, the man who turned 27 on Monday seemed to turn a new leaf at the start of the second week.  Dominating Kei Nishikori then, Nadal should not need to leave his comfort zone to set up the Djokovic collision.

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:  Considering their respective resumes, the head-to-head stands startlingly balanced.  Haas recorded two of his three victories over Djokovic on grass in 2009, granted, but he also holds the recent momentum in their rivalry by sweeping past a listless Serb in Miami two months ago.  On that strange evening, the world No. 1 played his worst match ever in the top spot as he faced constant pressure on his serve while rarely maximizing his best weapon, the return.

But one should not forget that Haas has troubled many elite opponents during his late-career surge, and he deserved plenty of credit for his Miami upset by taking time away from Djokovic and finishing points in the forecourt.  The German veteran will find that task more challenging on clay, and he must expect the Serb to find finer form than he did in Miami with so much more at stake.  Reeling from the loss of his former coach, Jelena Gencic, Djokovic declined from the third round to the fourth.  With his first match after the news behind him, he should regain his equilibrium in time for the next.  Haas has taken several twists and turn through the tournament, his wins spanning the spectrums from five-hour epics to straight-sets routs.

Plenty of contrasts will emerge from this match, not just the nine years separating the players.  While Djokovic prefers to win his points in physical rallies from the baseline, Haas relies on his inspired shot-making to craft timely approaches.  The clash of vintage grace with modern power also finds expression in exchanges between the German’s one-handed backhand and the Serb’s two-handed stroke.  Nearly able to upset Roger Federer on this court four years ago, Haas should enjoy some moments in the sun before Djokovic’s counterpunching attrition turns out the light.

Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic:  The history between the former Bolletieri pupils extends back to their teenage years when they met at the 2004 US Open.  Sharapova’s victory there began her stranglehold over this rivalry, continuing until the present day.  On the other hand, Jankovic has won sets in four of her seven losses during this eight-match sequence.  At her prime, the Serb’s superb movement offered a compelling contrast of styles when pitted against Sharapova’s relentless but raw offense, and their two-handed backhands juxtaposed strength with strength from the baseline.

Yet Jankovic has regressed since holding the world No. 1 ranking in 2008-09, while the four-time major champion has emerged from shoulder surgery a more complete, relatively more polished player than before.  One would have handed the 28-year-old Serb the edge if they had met on clay earlier in their careers, based on her repeated Roland Garros semifinal runs, multiple Rome titles, and cluster of victories over elite opponents on this surface.  Now, Sharapova has surpassed those accomplishments by winning Roland Garros last year and collecting two Rome titles herself.  Her perfect clay record against opponents other than Serena spans the last two seasons, and she has plowed to the quarterfinals as the defending champion without losing a set.

Sharapova still has not displayed her best tennis this tournament for extended stretches, while Jankovic found convincing form in the last two rounds.  This quarterfinal might produce more drama than their relative rankings suggest before the world No. 2 leans on her superiority in serve and steel to prevail.

Maria Kirilenko vs. Victoria Azarenka:  One of these former doubles partners dropped a set to Alize Cornet, while the other has not lost a set in the tournament.  If you guessed which was which without knowing what has happened at Roland Garros 2013, you probably would be wrong.  Remarkably, neither woman has faced a seeded opponent in Paris as each has profited from the upsets around them. Azarenka’s fourth-round victim Francesca Schiavone accounted for two seeds, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands dispatched the quarter’s other top-eight seed in Li Na before falling to Kirilenko.

Neither of these quarterfinalists ever has reached the final four at Roland Garros, for they prefer other surfaces to the terre battue.  Azarenka clearly holds the advantage in the battle of blondes, having won their only meeting since 2010 at the Olympics last summer.  After unpromising play in the first week, including that three-setter against Cornet, she appeared to regain her rhythm with a strong effort against Francesca Schiavone.  If the canny counterpunching of that clay specialist could not derail Azarenka, surely Kirilenko’s more straightforward counterpunching by itself cannot produce an upset.  The Russian underdog must take some chances on offense, especially in return games, to win a match in which she has no apparent weapon better than its counterpart across the net.

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