Carla Suarez Navarro

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts.  The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.

Carlsbad:

Top half:  World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season.  Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February.  Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week.  Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents.  An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika.  Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.  Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs

The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.  Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics.  Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb.  The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test.  Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals.  This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic.  The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.

Semifinal:  Azarenka vs. Vinci

Bottom half:  Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati.  The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis.   A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round.  Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead.  A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far.  That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013.  An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.

The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances.  Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here.  She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically.  Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko.  That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska

Final:  Azarenka vs. Radwanska

Washington:

Top half:  Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard.  World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered.  Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford.  Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova.  Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.

Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss.  Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages.  The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then.  More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia.  These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend.  Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.

Bottom half:  Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections.  Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis.  Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May.  But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.

By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer.  American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago.  The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013.  Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries.  A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.

Final:  Makarova vs. Stephens

Wimbledon Rewind: Serena Stunned, Djokovic Dominant, Radwanska Resilient, Li Lethal, Ferrer Fierce on Manic Monday

Monday got manic in a hurry with a titanic upset in the women’s draw, only to settle down into more predictable outcomes for most of the day.  Catch up on any of the fourth-round action that you may have missed with the daily Wimbledon rewind.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Twists and turns pervaded the clash of rising star Jerzy Janowicz and grizzled veteran Jurgen Melzer.  In the intimate surroundings of Court 12, Melzer started the match on fire but gradually lost his momentum in the second set and later trailed two sets to one.  Able to rally in the fourth, he secured a clutch break in the tenth game to force a deciding set.  With his first major quarterfinal on the line, though, Janowicz refused to let the opportunity escape him as he edged across the finish line 6-4 in the fifth.

Comeback of the day:  The other half of an all-Polish men’s quarterfinal, Lukas Kubot trailed Adrian Mannarino by a set and later by two sets to one in the most important match of his career so far.  Nobody would have expected Kubot to reach a major quarterfinal in singles, yet he wrested away this five-set encounter from his fellow journeyman.  His semifinal chances may hinge on whether Janowicz or he can recover from their draining victories more efficiently.

Upset of the day:  None.  Tomas Berdych deserves credit for snuffing out the most plausible upset threat in Bernard Tomic.  Splitting the first two sets in tiebreaks, Berdych gradually asserted himself against the Aussie talent in the next two sets and avoided the nerve-jangling scenario of a fifth set.

Gold star:  Before 2013, Juan Martin Del Potro never had reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.  This year, he has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Del Potro overcame a knee injury to defeat Andreas Seppi after wondering whether he would be fit to play on Monday.  Despite all of the surprises at Wimbledon this year, all of the top-eight seeds in the men’s top half reached the quarterfinals.

Silver star:  Winless in two previous grass meetings with Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic seized control of the third from the outset and never let the veteran catch his breath.  Like Del Potro, Djokovic has not lost a set en route to the quarterfinals, but this victory impressed more than those that came before because of his history against Haas.  He will seek his fourth straight Wimbledon semifinal, not bad for a man whose worst surface is grass.

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  World No. 4 David Ferrer has not won any of his four matches in straight sets, three of them against unseeded opponents.  Struggling with a painful ankle injury, Ferrer fell behind early again on Monday before dominating the latter stages of the match, as he had in the third round.  Wimbledon is the only major where he has not reached the semifinals, so he will aim to end that futility by repeating last year’s victory there over Del Potro.

Foregone conclusion of the day:  Even with Nadal’s early exit, two Spaniards reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Joining Ferrer there was Fernando Verdasco, who rolled past Kenny de Schepper in straight sets.

Stat of the day: In addition to Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s draw, the quarterfinal appearances of Kubot and Janowicz gave Poland more Wimbledon quarterfinalists than any other nation.

Question of the day:  World No. 2 Andy Murray again took care of business efficiently today, dispatching 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny.  Can Murray continue his uneventful progress to the final, his path barred only by Verdasco and one of the Poles?  Or will the escalating pressure of the second week lead to some unexpected drama in the bottom half?

WTA:

Match of the day:  One of the greatest grass specialists in WTA history, Sabine Lisicki reached her fourth Wimbledon quarterfinal by shocking heavy title favorite, defending champion, and world No. 1 Serena Williams in three sets.  Serena had not looked as sharp in the first week as she had at Roland Garros, but one expected her to prevail once she recovered from a dismal first set.  The defending champion dominated Lisicki in the second set and rolled to an early lead in the third, at which point many underdogs might have surrendered.  Lisicki is a different player on this court than she is anywhere else, though, and she swung freely with the match in the balance at 4-4 in the final set.  Hitting through her nerves and a staggering Serena, she scored perhaps the biggest upset in an upset-riddled draw.

Comeback of the day:  When Tsvetana Pironkova claimed the first set from Agnieszka Radwanska, Wimbledon suddenly looked in danger of losing all of the top five women before the quarterfinals.  But grass specialists would split their two meetings with top-four seeds on Monday as Radwanska ground through a second straight three-set victory.  As has been the case with much of her 2013 campaign, she has not shown her best form while doing just enough to win.

Gold star:  Li Na had survived consecutive three-setters to end the first week, including an 8-6 epic against Klara Zakopalova.  She needed to fasten her teeth into the tournament more firmly, and she did by losing just two games to the 11th seed, Roberta Vinci.  Having defeated Radwanska in a quarterfinal at the Australian Open, Li will hope to repeat the feat in a Tuesday match between the two highest-ranked women remaining in the draw.

Silver star:  Only one woman has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set or playing a tiebreak.  Take a bow, world No. 15 Marion Bartoli, who has threatened only occasionally at majors since reaching the Wimbledon final in 2007.  Granted, Bartoli has faced no opponent in the top 50 to this stage.  She participated in a bloodbath of Italians by ousting Karin Knapp for the loss of just five games.  (None of the four Italians who reached the fourth round won a set on Manic Monday.)

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  The only former Wimbledon champion left in the women’s draw, Petra Kvitova had dropped sets in both of her first-week victories and easily could have done so again on Monday.  Former nemesis Carla Suarez Navarro took Kvitova to a first-set tiebreak and the brink of an emotional meltdown, but the Czech steadied herself once she survived it.  Kvitova can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Kirsten Flipkens, also fortunate to avoid losing a first set for which her opponent served twice.  Flipkens won their previous meeting this year in Miami.

All eyes on Andy:  A round after she upset Angelique Kerber, Kaia Kanepi sent home local darling Laura Robson in two tight sets.  The match could have tilted in either direction, so Kanepi’s experience probably proved vital in securing her second Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance.  She also earned the last laugh on British tabloids that lampooned her burly physique before the Robson match.

Americans in London:  In the wake of Serena’s loss, the United States plausibly might have gone home without a single quarterfinalist in either singles draw.  Sloane Stephens averted that disappointment by winning a second straight three-setter, this time against Monica Puig.  Trailing by a set, Stephens showed resilience in battling through a tight second set and then dominating the third.  She has won twelve matches at majors this year, more than many higher-ranked women.

Stat of the day: In Lisicki’s last four Wimbledon appearances, she has defeated the current Roland Garros champion every time.  Her repeated denials of Channel Slams protect a record held by compatriot Steffi Graf, who completed the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double four times.

Question of the day:  The first three majors will crown three different women’s champions for the third straight year.  With all of the top three gone before the quarterfinals, who becomes the new title favorite?  One might favor Kvitova, the only woman who has won here before, but conventional wisdom has taken it on the chin all fortnight.

 

Wimbledon Rewind: How the Mighty Have Fallen (And Who Might Reap the Rewards)

A wild Wednesday swept through the All England Club.  We glance back through the avalanche of upsets that rendered some sections of both draws almost unrecognizable as a major.

Roger rolled:  36 straight quarterfinals at majors.  Seven Wimbledon titles in the last ten years.  None of his legendary opponent’s credentials mattered to the 116th-ranked Sergei Stakhovsky, who became the lowest-ranked man to defeat Roger Federer in a decade.  His moment of truth came in the fourth-set tiebreak, as crucial for the underdog as it was for the favorite considering the momentum that Stakhovsky had built by winning the second and third sets.  Federer had started to reassert himself late in the fourth, and he surely would have secured the fifth set if he had reached it.

Unlike Alejandro Falla in 2010, and Julien Benneteau in 2012, Stakhovsky made sure that the Swiss did not survive the crossroads.  A barrage of unreturnable serves early in the tiebreak, a clutch backhand down the line, and a sequence of magnificent lunging volleys brought him to match point on his serve.  Sure enough, Federer saved it with a pinpoint passing shot.  But Stakhovsky kept his composure through what felt like an interminable rally with the champion serving at 5-6 in the tiebreak.  Finally, a Federer backhand floated aimlessly wide as time seemed to stand still on Centre Court, where things like these never happen.

Maria mastered:  Off the WTA radar for years, former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito had gained most of her publicity from distinctively elongated yodels.  She entered the main draw as a qualifier, though, which meant that she had accumulated more grass matches than her heralded opponent.  Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova has stumbled early in the draw there more often than not in recent years.  Slipping and skidding around the site of her first major breakthrough, she never found her rhythm or range from the baseline in a loss that recalled previous Wimbledon setbacks to Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.

The finish did not come easily for de Brito, as it never does against Sharapova.  The girl who long has struggled with her serve deserves full credit for standing firm through deuce after deuce as five match points slipped past until the sixth proved the charm.

Vika victimized:  Injuring her leg during her first-round victory, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka never reached her scheduled Centre Court rendezvous with Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday.  Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon while blasting the All England Club for creating unsafe playing conditions.  She now needs only a retirement or walkover at Roland Garros to complete a career injury Slam, and she will hand the No. 2 ranking back to Sharapova after the tournament.

Jo-Wilfried jolted:  Also on the retirement list in a day filled with injuries, world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga handed Ernests Gulbis a ticket to the third round after losing two of the first three sets.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and at Queen’s Club, Tsonga had seemed one of the tournament’s leading dark horses at the outset.  But Gulbis, the most dangerous unseeded man in the draw, eyes an open route to a quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

Caro curbed:  An Eastbourne semifinal aside, Caroline Wozniacki has struggled without respite since reaching the Indian Wells final in March.  Another early loss thus comes as no great surprise for someone who lost in the first round of Wimbledon last year.  Wozniacki secured just four games from Petra Cetkovska, not the first upset that the Czech has notched on grass.

Tall men toppled:  Their opponents had nothing to do with it, but the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic and American No. 2 John Isner added themselves to the exodus of retirements.  While Isner did not harbor real hopes for a deep run, Cilic reached the final at Queen’s Club barely a week ago and had reached the second week of Wimbledon last year.  Of the top-16 seeds in the bottom half of the men’s draw, only Murray and Nicolas Almagro remain.

Serbs swiped:  More comfortable on slower surfaces, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic departed in straight sets on Wednesday.  Ivanovic’s loss came at the hands of rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who may rival Laura Robson (or Larcher de Brito?) for the breakout story of the women’s tournament.  The proudly patriotic Jankovic may take some comfort in the fact that her misfortune came at the hands of a fellow Serb.  Her conqueror, Vesna Dolonc, is the only Serb left in the women’s draw.

Hewitt halted:  The 2002 champion soared to a straight-sets victory over the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round, only to tumble back to earth against flashy Jamaican-turned-German journeyman Dustin Brown.  Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat leaves Novak Djokovic as the only former champion and only No. 1 in the Wimbledon men’s draw.

And more…:  The seeded casualties did not stop there.  Fernando Verdasco bounced No. 31 Julien Benneteau in straight sets, No. 22 Sorana Cirstea lost two tiebreaks to Camila Giorgi, and No. 27 Lucie Safarova let a one-set lead get away against another Italian in Karin Knapp.  Nadal’s nemesis, Steve Darcis, also withdrew from Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Hanging on tight:  In the women’s match of the day, No. 17 Sloane Stephens narrowly kept her tournament alive against Andrea Petkovic by surviving an 8-6 third set.  Stephens will have a real chance to reach her second semifinal in three 2013 majors with both top-eight seeds gone from her quarter.  Also extended to a third set were No. 19 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 25 Ekaterina Makarova, the latter of whom overcame rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza.  Meanwhile, men’s 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny needed five sets to survive Canadian youngster Vasek Pospisil as hardly anyone escaped at least a nibble from the upset bug.

Rising above the rubble:  But a few contenders did.  Extending his winning streak to seven, second seed Andy Murray notched another routine victory as he becomes the overwhelming favorite to reach a second straight Wimbledon final.  Murray’s pre-final draw might pit him against a succession of Tommy Robredo, Youzhny, Gulbis, and Benoit Paire or Jerzy Janowicz—hardly a murderer’s row, although the Gulbis matchup might intrigue.

In the wake of a difficult first-round victory, 2011 champion Petra Kvitova caught a break today when Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew.  Kvitova becomes the only top-eight seed to reach the third round in the bottom half of the women’s draw.  She could face a compelling test from Makarova on Friday, but her most significant competition might come from Stephens or Marion Bartoli in the semifinals.  Struggling mightily for most of the spring amid coaching turmoil, 2007 finalist Bartoli has picked an ideal time to find some form again.  She ousted Christina McHale in straight sets today and has become the highest-ranked woman remaining in her quarter.

Roland Garros Rewind: Serena, Ferrer, Radwanska Thrive; Federer, Errani, Kuznetsova Survive

The schedule of play in singles has shrunk to two courts as the second week starts at Roland Garros.  Categories have started to shrink as well in the latter stages of these recaps.

ATP:

Match of the day:  That pesky Gilles Simon just won’t do the decent thing and retreat respectfully from Roger Federer, bowing every two steps.  Simon has defeated Federer twice and now taken him to a fifth set in both of their major meetings.  Reeling off 10 of 13 games in one stretch, the Frenchman even led the former champion by two sets to one until Federer compiled a seven-game surge of his own and eased through the final set without drama.

Comeback of the day:  Maybe we should rename this category the “Tommy Robredo Comeback of the Day.”  The Spanish veteran became the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive matches at a major after losing the first two sets.  At least Robredo did not need to save match points this time, as he did against Gael Monfils, but he trailed Nicolas Almagro by a break in both the fourth and fifth sets.  Of course, this was Nicolas Almagro.

Gold star:  Assigned the tallest man in the draw, David Ferrer trimmed him down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes.  Serena Williams also would have appreciated Ferrer’s demolition of Kevin Anderson and his massive serve, which ended with consecutive breadsticks.  Alone among the men in his half, he has not dropped a set or played a tiebreak through four matches.

Silver star:  Like Ferrer, Tsonga has not lost a set en route to a second straight quarterfinal here.  His victory over Viktor Troicki produced a routine scoreline like those before it, a departure from his usual trends but good news for his future here.

Stat of the day:  By rallying against Simon, Federer extended his streak of consecutive quarterfinals at majors to 36.  That’s nine years, reaching back to Wimbledon 2004.

Question of the day:  Tsonga threw quite a scare into world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the quarterfinal stage here last year, holding four match points in the fourth set.  He took Federer to a fifth set in the same round at the Australian Open this year.  Does another heart-stopping epic lie in store?

WTA:

Match of the day:  A 48-winner barrage from Svetlana Kuznetsova avenged a loss in Madrid to world No. 8 Angelique Kerber.  Kuznetsova has reached the quarterfinals at both majors this year, something that at least half of the WTA top ten cannot say pending tomorrow’s results.  Unseeded former champions plowing deep into the draw always adds an extra layer of interest to the second week of a major.

Comeback of the day:  Her first three matches had tumbled into the win column almost too easily.  Like Federer, Sara Errani encountered her first serious test of the tournament today against Carla Suarez Navarro and nearly flunked it.  She regrouped to secure her tenth win at Roland Garros in the last two years, having won one match in four previous appearances.  Predictably, neither woman hit an ace.

Gold star:  Never at her best on clay, Agnieszka Radwanska seemed ripe for an early upset when she lost early at the key clay non-majors and withdrew from Brussels last week with a shoulder injury.  Radwanska thus has surprised by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set, comfortably knocking off 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic to set up an intriguing clash with Errani.  All of the top four women are still in the draw.

Silver star:  To Roberta Vinci’s credit, she gave Serena Williams something to ponder in the second set as she stayed level until 3-3 and made inroads toward a break in the seventh game.  Unwilling to throw her opponent a lifeline, Serena snuffed out the threat, broke, and then served out her 28th straight win.  Four matches, ten games lost.

Stat of the day:  In five years and 20 majors since she won her in 2008, Ana Ivanovic has reached one major quarterfinal.

Question of the day:  Four years ago, Serena and Kuznetsova combined on a quarterfinal thriller that the Russian snatched late in the third set.  Could we see a worthy sequel in the same round on Tuesday, or is Serena simply too bulletproof at present?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Federer, Ferrer, Serena, Ivanovic-Radwanska and More on Sunday

Now that the second week has arrived, you can find previews of every match on this site.  This article covers all eight on Sunday.

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Viktor Troicki:  While their head-to-head stands more evenly balanced than you might think, Tsonga has won both of their clay meetings convincingly.  Troicki has sandwiched a tortuous five-set win over a clay specialist between two straight-sets victories, the latter an upset of Marin Cilic.  For a man with a losing record this season headed into the tournament, an appearance in the second week marks an excellent step forward.  The bad news for Troicki is that Tsonga has not lost a set through three matches, showing uncommon discipline and purpose.  With the French crowd behind him on the biggest tennis stadium in his nation, he should make short work of a man who often gets rattled in hostile or tense environments.

Gilles Simon vs. Roger Federer:  When they first started to collide in the second half of 2008, Simon seemed to have Federer’s number.  He rallied from losing the first set to grind past him twice that year on the hard courts of the Rogers Cup and the year-end championships.  Surely chagrined that his stylistic flights of fancy could not trump a mechanical counterpuncher, Federer labored to finish him off at the 2011 Australian Open after squandering a two-set lead.  Rome this month marked the first time that he finally seemed to solve his “Simon problem.”  Displaying his superior clay skills, Federer yielded just three games to a Frenchman who lost his first two sets at his home major and needed to come from behind in the third round as well.  Simon lost 23 games in his last match.  Federer has lost 23 games in the tournament.  Not even the crowd, which adores Federer, will give him a meaningful edge.

Kevin Anderson vs. David Ferrer:  The tallest man in the draw faces the shortest man in the draw.  On clay, though, David Ferrer looms much larger than does Kevin Anderson despite the South African’s appearance in the Casablanca final this spring.  Ferrer has dominated all of his first three opponents without dropping a set, pouncing on a weak draw after Madrid and Rome assigned him quarterfinals against Nadal.  The Spanish veteran has made a living out of defanging huge servers like Anderson, using his deft reflexes and compact swings to blunt their single overwhelming weapon before outmaneuvering them along the baseline. Anderson bounced Ferrer from the second round of Indian Wells in March, but that victory may have owed something to Ferrer’s busy South American clay schedule just before and the deflating loss to Nadal that ended it.

Tommy Robredo vs. Nicolas Almagro:  This all-Spanish battle should feature plenty of traditional clay tennis with extended rallies from behind the baseline.  A former member of the top ten, Robredo launched an impressive comeback from injury this spring by winning the Casablanca title and upsetting Tomas Berdych in Barcelona.  He has emerged from one of the draw’s most star-studded nuggets, which included not only Berdych but Gael Monfils and Ernests Gulbis.  Saving match points against Monfils in the last round, Robredo has rallied from losing the first two sets in each of his last two matches.  By contrast, Almagro has grown famous for choking away huge leads.  But he has won all five of his meetings with Robredo, all on clay, while losing one total set.  Look for him to control the rallies as Robredo slips into retrieving mode.

WTA:

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Angelique Kerber:  Two of their three previous meetings have gone deep into a final set and ended with almost identical scores, the most recent in Madrid this spring.  Kerber’s burst from anonymity into the top 10 occurred near the same time that Kuznetsova plummeted from trendy dark horse to forgotten woman.  True to those trends, the German lefty has won both of their matches this year.  Kuznetsova should hold a clear surface edge, however, and she showed by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals that she still can bring her best tennis to the biggest tournaments.  An upset of Agnieszka Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that Kerber has plenty to fear, although she will bring momentum from gritting through a hard-fought contest with dirt devil Varvara Lepchenko.  This match may hinge on whose forehand does the dictating.

Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci:  Headlines would ripple through the tennis world if somebody merely stands up to Serena, much less defeats her.  A canny veteran with plenty of clay skills, Vinci will resist more tenaciously than most of her previous victims.  Serena will deny her the time to construct her artful combinations, though, and handled her doubles partner Sara Errani with ease.  This match could develop some intrigue if the world No. 1 struggles with her timing on her return, which can happen on clay.  But otherwise Serena should break serve too consistently and land too many punishing punches with her own serve to feel any serious pressure.

Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Sara Errani:  The answer to Robredo vs. Almagro in the men’s draw features a contest between two clay specialists of the sort rarely witnessed in the WTA these days.  Errani routed Suarez Navarro in the Acapulco final, which makes sense.  In no area of her game is the tiny Spaniard better than the small Italian, who even aced her in Acapulco.  On the other hand, Suarez Navarro scored a stunning upset over Errani in the first round of the last major, signaling an appropriate start to the best year of her career.  The two women combined for just a handful of service holds in that match, a pattern that could resurface.  Having conceded only nine games through three matches, barely more than Serena, Errani has looked as dominant as a woman without weapons other than drop shots ever will.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Ana Ivanovic:  To state the obvious, the most important shots of a point are the first and the last.  (If you’re Serena Williams, it’s often the same thing.)  In the language of the WTA, that means penetrating first serves, aggressive returns, and the ability to finish points with clean winners.  Ivanovic has struggled in both of those categories during her current six-match losing streak to Radwanska over the last three years.  Earlier in her career, she controlled her matches with the Pole by excelling in both of them, but the tide turned in 2009 when the Serb let a 4-0 lead slip away in a third set.  The pace of her serve and forehand has dwindled since she won Roland Garros five years ago, although Ivanovic has grown more comfortable in the forecourt with time.  Beyond tactics and technique, though, her main challenge lies in believing that she can defeat a top-five woman at a major.  The last time that Ivanovic did?  Two days before she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

Roland Garros Rewind: Federer, Tsonga, Serena, Errani Shine on Friday

A sweeping slate of second-round and third-round matches filled the slate on Friday as the tournament caught up from a rainy Thursday.  Here is a look back at the rapidly unfolding action.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Banished from the televised courts, Fernando Verdasco and Janko Tipsarevic continued their history of fascinating meetings with a five-set sequence of twists and turns.  Tipsarevic appeared to have seized control for good when he dominated the second set after winning a tight first-set tiebreak.  To his credit, Verdasco battled all the way back and took the eighth seed to 8-6 in the fifth.  Vulnerable all year, Tipsarevic found just enough courage to ward off the massive collapse:

Comeback of the day.  Tommy Robredo did it again.  Not known for flamboyance or drama, the Spanish veteran did what his compatriot Verdasco could not and charged back from two sets down to halt home hero Gael Monfils.  Fatigue from an overstuffed schedule may have hampered Monfils late in the match, for Robredo closed out the fifth set with surprising ease.

Surprise of the day:  Third-ranked Serb Viktor Troicki had struggled to string together victories all season, so an upset of the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic on Troicki’s worst surface raised eyebrows.  (Of course, clay is Cilic’s worst surface as well.)  The key to this match may have come as early as the first-set tiebreak, which Troicki saved multiple set points to win 14-12 before dominating thereafter.

Tale of two Spaniards:  Nine sets played, nine sets won for—not Rafael Nadal, but David Ferrer.  None of his first three opponents have tested the second-ranked Spaniard, whereas his top-ranked countryman has dropped the first set in both of his first two matches.  Nadal, who comes back to face Fabio Fognini tomorrow, looked strangely uncomfortable for much for his four-set victory against Martin Klizan despite his outstanding clay campaign.

Gold star:  Tremors rippled through Court Philippe Chatrier when Roger Federer lost his opening service game, a departure from his routs in the first two rounds.  Against chronic nemesis Julien Benneteau, however, Federer swiftly buckled down to business and never looked seriously troubled thereafter.

Silver star:  Top-ranked Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga continued his bulletproof progress with a surprisingly routine dismissal of compatriot Jeremy Chardy.  Tsonga lost only eight games in staying on track to meet Federer in the quarterfinals, a rematch of their Australian Open meeting.

Americans in Paris:  Winless in five-set matches, Ryan Harrison let a two-set lead escape him as his 2013 woes persist.  At least his disintegration benefited fellow American John Isner, who snapped his own four-match losing streak in final frames.  Less fortunate was the top-ranked American Sam Querrey, falling in five sets to Gilles Simon after coming within a tiebreak of victory.  Also gone on Friday was Jack Sock, overmatched by Tommy Haas in a competitive but rarely suspenseful straight-setter.

Question of the day:  Does the impressive form displayed by Tsonga and Ferrer suggest that they can challenge Federer more than they usually do?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Overcoming an 0-4 record against Varvara Lepchenko, Angelique Kerber withstood 46 winners from her fellow lefty to prevail 6-4 in the third.  Lepchenko’s history of strong results on clay underscores the significance of Kerber’s victory as she reached the second week for the fifth straight major.  Up next for her is 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who recently played a thriller against her in Madrid.

Comeback of the day:  Pounding more winners in two sets than Lepchenko did in three, Mariana Duque-Marino served for both sets against Marion Bartoli.  The top-ranked Frenchwoman spent much of the match with her back to the wall, as she did in the first round, but she edged through a first-set tiebreak and swept the last four games of the second set to survive.

Surprise of the day:  In a day with no notable upsets, a match between two unseeded players produced the greatest surprise.  Brussels champion Kaia Kanepi failed to exploit a crumbling section of the draw, instead adding to the uncertainty caused by the exits of Li Na and Yaroslava Shvedova.  Having won barely a single match on red clay this year, Stefanie Voegele ousted last year’s quarterfinalist 8-6 in the third as part of an excellent day for Swiss players.

Gold star:  Top seed Serena Williams has dropped just six game in six sets here, extending the longest winning streak of her career.  Her momentum and aura has built to the point where many opponents seem to lose hope before they even take the court.  What a difference a year makes.

Silver star:  All three Italian women in action today prevailed.  Only slightly authoritative than Serena here, Sara Errani bageled imposing server Sabine Lisicki in a demonstration of how her clay-court skills can compensate for immense gaps in power.  Less persuasive was second-ranked Italian Roberta Vinci, who weathered a second-set lull to survive in three.  But the brightest headline of the day came from 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone, able to edge seeded opponent Kirsten Flipkens to reach the brink of the second week.

Most improved:  After she had lost the first set in each of her first two matches, Carla Suarez Navarro navigated through her third more routinely.  Perhaps Nadal should take a page from his countrywoman’s book.

Fastest finish:  Defending champion Maria Sharapova seemed to spend more time warming up before and interviewing after the completion of her second-round match than she needed to play the match itself.  About ten minutes of live action sufficed to move Sharapova past Eugenie Bouchard, although she needed a massive second serve to save a break point that would have leveled the second set.

Question of the day:  Which former champion has a better chance to upset a top-eight seed, Kuznetsova against Kerber or Ana Ivanovic against Agnieszka Radwanska?

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Tsonga, Monfils, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova, Errani and More on Day 6

Here are ten matches to note on Friday at Roland Garros, five from the men and five from the women.  Roger Federer vs. Julien Benneteau makes a fine eleventh offering, but Yeshayahu Ginsburg gives you all of the details that you want to know about that pairing in another article on this site.  (Also note that many of the postponed matches from Thursday feature in that day’s preview.)

ATP:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Jeremy Chardy:  This clash of January’s Australian Open quarterfinalists may divide the loyalties of the Paris crowd.  The flamboyance on both sides should thrill spectators as both men aim to pummel with a forehand the first attackable ball that they see.  While both Tsonga and Chardy easily lose focus, both have kept their eyes on the ball through two straight-sets victories.  A quarterfinalist at Roland Garros last year, Tsonga rode his usual rollercoaster through a clay season with a semifinal in Monte Carlo and a second-round loss in Rome.  The two Frenchmen rarely have clashed, splitting their two matches by identical 6-4 7-6 scores.

Gael Monfils vs. Tommy Robredo:  After he slugged a path past two fellow shot-makers, the story of the men’s tournament faces a different challenge altogether.  In a contrast of styles, Monfils will look to break through the defenses of a resilient veteran who has compiled his greatest successes on clay.  For his part, Robredo will look to grind down his opponent and exploit any lingering fatigue from the Frenchman’s overstuffed recent schedule.  If Monfils blows a massive lead, as he did against Berdych, Robredo probably will punish him.

Feliciano Lopez vs. David Ferrer:  The second-ranked Spaniard has planted himself firmly in the driver’s seat of his quarter, although Monfils might beg to differ.  With two comprehensive victories, Ferrer has looked more formidable than anyone here except Roger Federer.  He often has found fellow Spaniards trickier than expected, though, even beyond the inexorable Rafael Nadal.  Fortunately for him, Lopez poses a much greater threat on a faster court with his lefty net-rushing style.  Their head-to-head illustrates this trend with Ferrer sweeping their clay matches and Lopez dominating on hard courts.  Still, the latter held match point in Barcelona last year before Ferrer fastened his jaws around him.

Andreas Seppi vs. Nicolas Almagro:  Few would have given Seppi much chance to reach the second week for the second straight week here, but he is a plausible upset from doing exactly that.  Seppi had won only two matches at six clay tournaments entering Roland Garros, only to eke out consecutive five-set victories.  Laboring through an equally poor season at clay Masters 1000 events, Almagro did reach the final in Barcelona and has dropped just one set through his first two matches here.  The Italian has won both of their previous matches, although neither came on clay.  Whoever wins will be favored to reach the quarterfinals against David Ferrer.

Milos Raonic vs. Kevin Anderson:  This match sounds more like Wimbledon than Roland Garros, and in fact their only previous meeting came on an indoor hard court.  Each man has recorded one notable result on his least favorite surface, Raonic reaching the semifinals in Barcelona and Anderson reaching the final in Casablanca.  Doubtless glad to see his perennial nemesis Tomas Berdych gone from this section, Anderson has produced somewhat more consistency on clay than Raonic with victories over Juan Monaco and Marin Cilic.  But this match will hinge on a few key points, as it would elsewhere, and on the ability of both men to execute fundamentals while finding timely first serves.

WTA:

Virginie Razzano vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Much improved from the first round, Ivanovic started her second match with another flurry of winners and this time largely continued her dominance through the second set.  She can take nothing for granted against a woman who refuses to go away when she falls behind here, no matter the opponent.  Razzano will benefit from the support of those who remember last year’s miracle, which will encourage her to believe that anything is possible.  As remarkable as Razzano’s repeat run is, however, her two victories came against Claire Feuerstein and Zuzana Kucova.  And they were close, which this match will not be unless Ivanovic has a bad day, when anything can happen.

Bojana Jovanovski vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova:  Some players specialize in clay, some players specialize in grass, and Bojana Jovanovski specializes in tormenting Caroline Wozniacki on clay.  Jovanovski defeated the Dane twice this month while notching just one other victory since the Australian Open, where she reached the second week.  One win from doing the same here, the Serb perhaps saves her best tennis for the biggest stages.  While she went AWOL for a set in the second round, as she often does, Kuznetsova regrouped impressively to dictate play from there.  She should have a decent chance to face Serena in the quarterfinals, not that anyone envies the honor.

Sabine Lisicki vs. Sara Errani:  The greatest contrast of styles on the WTA schedule should test Errani much more than her first two opponents.  Living up to her billing as a member of the top five, last year’s finalist has dropped just five games in the tournament, or one more than Serena Williams.  A first meeting with Lisicki may require an adjustment period to the weight of the German’s explosive first serve, able to penetrate surfaces of any speed.  Fans could see plenty of drop shots as both women love to use that gambit more often than most rivals.  Very steady on outdoor clay this year, Errani has lost only to Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Petra Kvitova on her favorite surface.  All of those women can and did pounce on her serve, which will be the key for Lisicki and her less lethal return.

Varvara Lepchenko vs. Angelique Kerber:  Losing just ten games in two matches, Lepchenko owns three clay victories this year over the daunting Italian duo of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.  This battle of lefties pits her against a woman at her least effective on clay, so the American should hold the surface edge.  On the other hand, Kerber did reach the Roland Garros quarterfinals last year and has produced consistent if not outstanding results over the last few months.  Perhaps her best performances of the year came in two three-set semifinal losses when she battled Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to the finish.  Kerber wins fewer of those epics now than she did last year, but she won’t play an epic if she brings that form here.

Monica Puig vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Progressing by leaps and bounds, the charming Puig stands within range of the second week at a major.  Puig did not reach this stage by feasting on cupcakes, upsetting top-15 opponent Nadia Petrova in three sets and winning a clash of future stars from Madison Keys.  While Suarez Navarro should be favored with her superior clay prowess and overall experience, she has not looked this week like someone enjoying the best year of her career.  The finalist in Acapulco and Portugal dropped the first set in both of her matches, including against anonymous American Shelby Rogers.  Suarez Navarro can’t afford to overlook Puig, although she dismantled her in Portugal.

 

The Three Tiers of Triumph at Roland Garros

At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.

The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.

The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.

As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.

The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.

One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.

But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.

Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.

The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.

For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.

In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.

This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.

Roland Garros Rewind: Monfils Stuns, Nadal Survives, Sharapova and Radwanska Cruise

Welcome back to your daily review of the studs and duds at Roland Garros 2013.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Five sets and four hours.  Three tiebreaks and a 7-5 final set.  A two-set lead squandered by the man who eventually won—after saving triple break point midway through the fifth.  A home underdog firing 26 aces and 66 winners on his nation’s biggest stage to upset a top-eight seed who hit 72 winners of his own.  Rarely is the match that looks like the best of the day in the first round actually the best of the day, but Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych put on perhaps the best show of any men’s match that we will see all week.  The section has opened a bit for Monfils if he can defuse the equally dangerous dark horse Ernests Gulbis in the second round.  That match looks like the highlight of Thursday, although it has a hard act to follow.

Comeback of the day:  Last week’s Dusseldorf champion Juan Monaco looked well on his way to a routine victory when he won the first two sets by single-break margins and reached a tiebreak in the third.  Perhaps aided by his opponent’s fatigue, Daniel Gimeno-Traver thrust himself back into the match by snatching that tiebreak and stormed all the way back to an upset over the seventeenth seed.

Surprise of the day:  It was not an upset in the end,  but Daniel Brands surely turned more heads than anyone when he came within a tiebreak of leading Rafael Nadal by two sets to love.  The master of Roland Garros had not lost the first set in a first-week match there since 2006, although he once  survived a five-setter against John Isner.  Brands channeled his inner Soderling in explosive serving and bullet forehands that thrust Nadal on his heels for far longer than anyone could have expected.

Gold star:  Australian youngster Nick Kyrgios gave his nation something to cheer amid the latest Bernard Tomic controversy.  Kyrgios defeated veteran Radek Stepanek in three tiebreaks, saving several set points in each of the last two.  The 53 total tiebreak points played might survive as a tournament record.

Silver star:  Allez les bleus.  While Nadal battled with Brands on Philippe Chatrier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rolled through in straight sets on Suzanne Lenglen.  Later in the day, second-ranked Frenchman Richard Gasquet did the same, and even Julien Benneteau won a match on clay for just the second time this year.  Combined with the Monfils upset, these victories added up to an excellent day for the hosts.

Wooden spoon:  When Andy Murray withdrew, Marcel Granollers moved up from unseeded to seeded position.  That promotion served him no benefit as he lost his first match to countryman Feliciano Lopez in five sets and two days.  By contrast, Tommy Robredo profited from the seed that he received with Juan Martin Del Potro’s withdrawal by advancing further into the section vacated by Berdych.

Americans in Paris:  John Isner and Ryan Harrison, both of whom have struggled for most of the year, each notched comfortable straight-sets victories.  Assigned Nice champion Albert Montanes, Steve Johnson battled gallantly into a fifth set as he had against Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open.  American men have no reason to feel shame so far at historically their worst major.

Question of the day:  Who comes out of Berdych’s section of the draw to reach the quarterfinals?

Question of the day, II:  Does Nadal’s first-round frailty reduce your confidence in him as a title threat?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None could compete with Berdych-Monfils or with Urszula-Venus the day before.  This award goes to a battle between two clay-courters who have produced outstanding recent results.  Rome semifinalist Simona Halep won the first set from world No. 20 Carla Suarez Navarro, but the Spaniard rallied with the form that brought her to two clay finals this year.  A pity that the draw forced them to meet in the first round, and a pity that the match was not scheduled on a televised court.

Comeback of the day:  Channeling a little of her inner Monfils, Garbine Muguruza scorched 46 winners and dropped serve just twice in three sets to ambush fellow power-hitter Karolina Pliskova.  The Venezuelan-born citizen of Spain recorded her first career win at Roland Garros barely a year after her first appearance in a WTA main draw.

Statements of the day:  Although they fell a bit short of Serena’s suffocating brilliance, top-four seeds Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska started the tournament in emphatic style.  Defending champion Sharapova conceded just three games to top-50 opponent Hsieh Su-wei, while Radwanska yielded just two games to former top-15 player Shahar Peer.  The latter result came as a mild surprise because of the newly blonde Pole’s struggles on clay this year.

Gold star:  Everyone thought that Laura Robson would knock off world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the first round, and everyone thought very wrong.  Wozniacki ended a five-match losing streak by dominating the British teenager from start to finish.  Perhaps a movie night with Rory McIlroy the day before (they saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained) allowed her to forget her recent futility.

Silver star:  The most unsurprising surprise of the day came when the 2009 Roland Garros champion dispatched compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.  In Serena’s quarter, Kuznetsova could meet Wozniacki in a rematch of their Australian Open three-set thriller.  Sveta bounced back impressively from one of the worst losses of her career in Rome.

Wooden spoon:  Outstanding performances on grass last year meant that Tamira Paszek received a seed at Roland Garros despite winning only one match in 2013.  When the slightly less moribund Melanie Oudin dispatched her with ease, Paszek will head to the grass season with the vast majority of points at stake.  Early losses at Eastbourne and Wimbledon will push her ranking down an elevator shaft.

Americans in Paris:  In addition to the aforementioned Oudin, several other women from the United States fared well on Day 2.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands set up a second-round meeting with Li Na, while newer talents Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys cruised.  Vania King also advanced in straight sets to complete a perfect record today for the USA.

Question of the day:  Which American woman of those who won day will go furthest?

Question of the day, II:  Should we feel more impressed by Wozniacki or more disappointed by Robson?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Li, Wozniacki, Berdych Face Intriguing Tests on Day 2

As we look ahead to Day 2, three top-ten players feature intriguing tests.  Let’s start with the women this time.

WTA:

Li Na vs. Anabel Medina Garrigues:  Facing the 2011 Roland Garros champion is a classic clay counterpuncher of a mold rarely in use anymore.  Medina Garrigues came closer than anyone to defeating Serena on clay this spring, just two or three key misses from knocking off the world No. 1 to reach the Madrid semifinals.  Li started the clay season encouragingly with a final indoors in Stuttgart but won one total match in Madrid and Rome.  She will look to pounce on her opponent’s serve and take early control before any first-round nerves surface.

Caroline Wozniacki vs. Laura Robson:  When the draw appeared, many picked this match as the blue-chip upset of the first round.  Wozniacki has not won a match on red clay this year, tumbling into a slump that even has her father, Piotr, planning to relinquish his stranglehold on the coaching role.  (That should suffice to show how dire her situation is.)  Clay should suit Robson less well than faster surfaces, and she hits far too many double faults, but an upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid reminded everyone of her lefty weapons and her belief against elite opponents.

Mona Barthel vs. Angelique Kerber:  The eighth seed drew the short straw in the form of the draw’s highest-ranked unseeded player.  Barthel has won two of the three previous meetings between these Germans, all on hard courts.  Nevertheless, she has won only one match on red clay this year, over the hapless Bojana Jovanovski.  Withdrawing from Rome with a shoulder injury, Kerber had looked creditable if not sensational this clay season with a quarterfinal in Madrid and semifinal in Stuttgart, where she extended Maria Sharapova deep into a third set.

Simona Halep vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  Both women arrive in fine form for a rare WTA match between two clay specialists.  Although Halep had not accomplished much this year until Rome, her semifinal appearance there included upsets of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Jelena Jankovic—easily the best run of 2013 by a qualifier.  Suarez Navarro cracked the top 20 for the first time this year, aided in part by two clay finals.  Her one-handed backhand is the only such stroke in that elite group and worth a trip to an outer court.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ekaterina Makarova:  An all-Russian contest always intrigues because of the elevated volume of angst that it usually produces.  Kuznetsova owns a much stronger clay resume, including the 2009 title here, but she imploded against Halep in Rome and lost easily to Romina Oprandi in Portugal.  Better on faster surfaces like grass, Makarova did upset Victoria Azarenka on the surface this spring.  Both Russians reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where Kuznetsova launched her surge back to relevance.

ATP:

Tomas Berdych vs. Gael Monfils:  Here is the popcorn match of the day on the men’s side, featuring a contrast in personalities between the dour Czech and the flamboyant Frenchman.  Both men are former Roland Garros semifinalists, even though 100 ranking slots separated them until Monfils reached the Nice final last week.  His athletic exuberance could fluster Berdych, as could the volatile French crowd.  The fifth seed lost to a French journeyman in the first round here two years ago and to Gulbis in the first round of Wimbledon last year, so an opening flop would not astonish.  But Berdych improved steadily throughout the clay season after a slow start, becoming the only player other than Nadal to reach the semifinals at both Madrid and Rome.

Julien Benneteau vs. Ricardas Berankis:  In singles, Benneteau is known for two things:  never winning a final and being a persistent thorn in Roger Federer’s side.  He would stay on track to meet the Swiss star again in the third round if he gets past this small Lithuanian bundle of talent.  Berankis had not won a clay match until this year, while Benneteau has won only one match since February.  It was a quality win, though, over Nicolas Almagro.

Carlos Berlocq vs. John Isner:  This match has the potential to offer a fascinating contrast of styles between the grinding Argentine and the serve-forehand quick strikes of the American.  Or it could descend into depths of ugliness that defy contemplation.  Isner started the year in dismal form before finding his footing with a Houston title—and then dropping four of his next five matches.  While Berlocq won a set from Nadal on South American clay, the fact that he tore his shirt in ecstasy when an opponent retired against him in February should give you a sense of how his season has gone.

Albert Ramos vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  Thinking that the explosive hitting of Poland’s young star will overwhelm the Spanish journeyman?  Maybe you should think again.  Ramos defeated Janowicz in three sets at Barcelona this spring and should benefit from the cold, damp conditions.  For all of the hubbub that he has generated at the Masters 1000 level, Janowicz has yet to leave his mark on a major.  He can hit through the slowest of surfaces, though, and brings momentum from two top-ten wins in Rome.

Steve Johnson vs. Albert Montanes:  The UCLA star took Nicolas Almagro to five sets in the first round of the Australian Open, where Almagro nearly reached the semifinals.  The opponent here is much less intimidating, although Montanes just won Nice last week, but the surface is much less comfortable.  Johnson should have chances and make it interesting before getting ground down in the end.