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Future Stars Earning Their Stripes: Rising Americans in Stanford and Atlanta

Ryan Harrison flexed some muscle this week in Atlanta.

Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours.  The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting.  Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.

Atlanta:

Ryan Harrison:  He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand.  But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents.  He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis.  Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably.  A first career final is not inconceivable.

Christian Harrison:  Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament.  For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta.  While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher.  The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins.  Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.

Jack Sock:  A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo.  This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court.  Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament.  Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta.  Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.

Rhyne Williams:  Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him.  Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve.  He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces.  But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.

Denis Kudla:  The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club.  Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas.  He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.

Tim Smyczek:  Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer.  Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments.  Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey.  Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake.  At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.

Stanford:

Jamie Hampton:  Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka.  A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier.  The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week.  She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors.  A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne.  She must clean up her game by then.

Madison Keys:  In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina.  Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year.  She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat.  Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.

Christina McHale:  A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers.  The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May.  McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year.  Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.

Coco Vandeweghe:  Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent.  The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough.  Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else.  She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.

Mallory Burdette:  Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener.  The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall.  Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss.  She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.

Nicole Gibbs:  The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university.  Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second.  But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor.  Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third.  Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.

The Series Is Open: Previewing WTA Stanford (and Baku)

Can anyone bring Radwanska to her knees at Stanford?

The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA.  In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments.  Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.

Stanford:

Top half:  Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford.  Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw.  The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon.  Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before.  She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year.  A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.

Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it.  American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years.  Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton.  Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs.  Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.

Semifinal:  Radwanska vs. Keys

Bottom half:  The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska.  Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis.  Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer.  Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.

The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges.  This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set.  Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round.  The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea.  A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open.  None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.

Semifinal:  Cibulkova vs. Stosur

Final:  Radwanska vs. Stosur

Baku:

Top half:  Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then.  Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then.  Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.

At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago.  Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers.  The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.

Bottom half:  Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku.  Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein.  Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog.  A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section.  Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.

The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals.  That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw.  She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic.  Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals.  A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.

Final:  Pliskova vs. Vekic

Roland Garros Rewind: Wawrinka Wins Thriller; Djokovic Finishes Strong; Sharapova, Azarenka, Nadal Cruise on Monday

Tommy Robredo showed me how.

From 256 players to 16, the Roland Garros draws keep shrinking.  We keep returning to keep you updated on the latest attrition.

ATP:

Match of the day:  After Richard Gasquet had won his first eleven sets of the tournament, he lost the plot just long enough for Stanislas Wawrinka to reset himself.  Once again, Gasquet allowed a two-set lead to evaporate at a major.  But he battled valiantly to the end, only succumbing 8-6 in the fifth as Wawrinka reached his first Roland Garros quarterfinal.

Most improved:  The outlook is not bright for Wawrinka in the next round, however, for he faces a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal.  The birthday boy celebrated turning 27 with his most emphatic win of the tournament, finally delivering sustained quality from start to finish.  Nadal will have one more tune-up before the Friday battle with his archrival.

Least improved:  That is, assuming that Novak Djokovic reaches that stage.  The death of his former coach predictably took its toll on his game in a four-set victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber, who converted only two of thirteen break points.  Djokovic asserted that his motivation to win here had risen rather than dulled, but he rarely has produced his best tennis in situations of personal turmoil.

Stat of the day:  Not since 1971 had a man as old as Tommy Haas reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.  But the German achieved that feat for the first time in 12 appearances, crushing Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets two days after saving a match point against John Isner.

Question of the day:  Haas dominated Djokovic in Miami this spring.  Can he repeat the feat when they meet in the quarterfinals?

WTA:

Match of the day:  None.  All of the higher-ranked women won in straight sets to leave Svetlana Kuznetsova the only unseeded quarterfinalist in either draw.

Most improved:  Into her third quarterfinal here, Victoria Azarenka improved to 11-0 at major this year by sweeping nine straight games from 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone.  Azarenka had descended from second-round frailty to third-round fecklessness, so this authoritative fourth-round display came as a welcome relief to her fans.  She will seek her first Roland Garros semifinal against Maria Kirilenko.

Americans in Paris:  Down they went like dominoes, none able to win a set from their fourth-round opponents.  Bethanie Mattek-Sands could solve Li Na but not Maria Kirilenko, while Jamie Hampton could solve Petra Kvitova but not Jelena Jankovic.  When Tuesday dawns in Paris, Serena Williams will fly the stars and stripes all by herself.  To be honest, though, nobody would have expected any Americans other than Serena to reach the middle weekend.

Stat of the day:  Marching ever further into her title defense, Maria Sharapova recorded her 33rd consecutive victory on clay (and 43rd in her last 44 matches) against opponents other than Serena.  The best clay winning percentage of any active woman got a little better when she swatted Sloane Stephens aside with a much stronger serving display than in her previous two matches.

Question of the day:  All of the top four women have reached the quarterfinals, three without losing a set.  Can any of their opponents forestall a semifinal convergence?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Djokovic, Nadal, Sharapova, Azarenka Highlight Day 9 Action

Big girls need big bottles.

On the second Monday of Roland Garros, the remaining quarterfinal lineups take shape.  We continue our comprehensive look at the round of 16.

ATP:

Novak Djokovic vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber:  Four long years ago, Kohlschreiber stunned the future No. 1 in the third round here, their only clay meeting.  Never have they met since Djokovic became the Djuggernaut in 2011, so that history offers little guide.  Growing more impressive with each round, he demolished Grigor Dimitrov to reach the second week without dropping a set.  Kohlschreiber has played only two matches here, receiving a second-round walkover, but he too has shone in limited action and appears to have recovered from a recent injury.  Highlighted by his elegant one-handed backhand, the German’s shot-making talent should produce flurries of winners and an ideal foil for Djokovic’s court coverage.  But he lacks the consistent explosiveness to hit through the Serb from the baseline.

Tommy Haas vs. Mikhail Youzhny:  Two veterans wield their one-handed backhands in hopes of a quarterfinal rendezvous with Djokovic.  Far from a clay specialist, Youzhny may have surprised even himself by reaching the second week here, although he did win a set from the Serb in Monte Carlo and compiled a solid week in Madrid.  A week later, he halted Haas routinely in Rome for his second win of the clay season over a top-20 opponent.  Youzhny’s third such victory came over Janko Tipsarevic on Saturday, perhaps aided by the Serb’s fatigue in playing the day after a grueling five-setter.  Meanwhile, Haas found the stamina to win a five-set epic from John Isner on Saturday without a day of rest, putting younger men to shame.  Able to weather the adversity of twelve match points squandered, he looks as physically and mentally fit at age 35 as he ever has.

Rafael Nadal vs. Kei Nishikori: After Nadal lost a set to the Japanese star in their first meeting five years ago, he has swept their remaining three meetings without losing more than four games in any set.  None of them has come on clay, which should tilt the balance of power even more clearly in Nadal’s favor.  If he brings his flustered, disheveled form of the first week into the second week, however, Nishikori has the coolness, consistency, and belief to punish him.  The last Asian player left in either draw recently defeated Federer on the Madrid clay, and he owns a victory over Djokovic as well.  Nadal needs to start this match more solidly than he did his three previous matches, or he might dig an early hole for himself again.  Even if he does, Nishikori’s vanilla baseline game should play into Rafa’s hands eventually.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Richard Gasquet:  The Swiss No. 2 could have renamed himself “Wowrinka” after a clay season in which he surged back to the top 10.  Just outside it now, he seeks to reach his first Roland Garros quarterfinal with a fifth victory over a top-ten opponent this spring.  This match will feature a scintillating battle of the two finest backhands in the men’s game, Wawrinka’s the sturdiest and Gasquet’s the most aesthetically pleasing.  A strong four-set victory over fellow dark horse Jerzy Janowicz will give the former man valuable momentum for tackling an opponent who did not lose a set in the first week.  Once fallible when playing in or for France, Gasquet has improved in that area during this mature phase of his career.  He remains highly unreliable when sustained adversity strikes or when a match grows tense, as this match should.

WTA:

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Maria Kirilenko:  When they collided on hard courts this spring, the Russian prevailed uneventfully.  That result captured the relative status of their games then, Mattek-Sands struggling to gain traction in the main draws of key tournaments and Kirilenko arriving from a semifinal at Indian Wells.  The gap separating their trajectories has narrowed during the clay season, where Mattek-Sands suddenly has emerged as a credible threat.  A victory over Sara Errani launched her toward a semifinal in Stuttgart, while an upset over Li Na here has catalyzed this second-week run.  The American will dictate the terms of this engagement by attempting to bomb winners down the line before Kirilenko settles into the rallies.  Against someone who defends as adeptly as the Russian, that tactic could reap mixed results for someone whose accuracy ebbs and flows.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Victoria Azarenka:  In a bizarre head-to-head considering their histories, Azarenka has won both of their clay meetings and Schiavone their only match on hard courts.  Those trends do not reflect the surface advantage that one would hand the Italian, once a champion and twice a finalist here.  Azarenka never has ventured past the quarterfinals, by contrast, and has struggled both mentally and physically with the demands of clay.  She may need more experience on it to solve its riddles, but Schiavone could confront her with an intriguing test.  A player who prefers rhythmic exchanges from the baseline, Azarenka can expect to find herself stretched into uncomfortable positions and forced to contend with an array of spins and slices.  If she serves as woefully as she did against Cornet a round ago, Schiavone might have a real chance at another miracle.

Jamie Hampton vs. Jelena Jankovic:  It looks like a clear mismatch on paper, and it could prove a mismatch in reality.  A three-time Roland Garros semifinalist and former No. 1 confronts an American who never has reached a major quarterfinal or the top 20.  But Hampton will bring confidence from her upset of Petra Kvitova, an opponent with much more dangerous weapons than Jankovic can wield.  The bad news for the underdog is that the Serb also will have brought confidence from her previous round, a three-set comeback against former Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur.  Jankovic often follows an excellent performance with a clunker, though, as she showed in Rome when she collapsed against Simona Halep after upsetting Li Na.  And Hampton won their only prior meeting last year at Indian Wells.

Maria Sharapova vs. Sloane Stephens:  The defending champion looked a few degrees less than bulletproof in the second sets of her last two victories.  Perhaps Sharapova relaxed her steeliness a bit in both when she won the first sets resoundingly from her overmatched prey.  While she deserves credit for finishing both in style, future opponents may find hope in those lulls.  On the other hand, Sharapova struggled on serve throughout her match against Stephens in Rome—and lost a whopping three games.  Her experience buttressed her on the key deuce points, which she dominated, while her return devastated the Stephens serve.  The 20-year-old American has surpassed expectations by reaching the second week here again, although she has benefited from a toothless draw.  Needing help from Serena to stun the world in Melbourne, Stephens will need help from Sharapova to stun the world in Paris.

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Nadal Thrive; Haas, Isner Thrill; Sharapova, Azarenka Survive

Yes, I remember you well.

The remaining second-week lineups fell into place on Saturday at Roland Garros.  Here’s a look back at the studs and duds.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Returning to the battlefield after playing an 8-6 fifth set yesterday, John Isner outdid himself in the effort department.  The American giant rallied from two sets down against Tommy Haas, saving twelve match points in the fourth set.  Isner even claimed a 4-1 lead in the fifth set as a second comeback in two days from losing the first two sets loomed.  Somehow managing to break and saving a match point at 4-5, Haas hung on until Isner finally cracked at 8-8.  The thirteenth match point proved the charm.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Also back in action a day after an 8-6 fifth set, Janko Tipsarevic predictably responded less impressively than Isner did.  The eighth seed fell to Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets.  Whoever thought that Youzhny would reach the second week of Roland Garros and have a real chance at a quarterfinal berth deserves a glass of Champagne’s finest.

Nice story of the day:  Overshadowed this tournament by someone else from Switzerland, as he usually is, Stanislas Wawrinka posted a solid four-set win over the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz.  Wawrinka had not known whether he would participate in Roland Garros this year because of a leg injury, so he will feel confident that he made the right decision.

Scandal of the day:  A set point against Kei Nishikori awaited Benoit Paire—or so it seemed.  Umpire Enric Molina took away the opportunity with a coaching code violation, resulting in a point penalty.  An infuriated Paire argued his case at length, but Molina appeared to have ruled correctly.  Probably spurred by the incident, Paire bludgeoned his way to win the set anyway, although he lost the match.

Gold star:  Like fellow Head endorser Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic always fancies a taste of revenge.  He ravaged Grigor Dimitrov’s serve without mercy just weeks after finding it nearly invulnerable in Madrid.  Toppled in three sets that time, Djokovic lost just seven games here.

Silver star:  Baby steps for Rafael Nadal, who looked far from his overwhelming King of Clay self again but at least advanced in straight sets.  Nadal had thrashed third-round opponent Fabio Fognini in Rome.  This match proved much more competitive but never really in doubt once he survived a slow start to win a first-set tiebreak.

Stat of the day:  The twelve match points saved by Isner were the most ever saved by any man in a match at a major.

American men in Paris:  None reach the second week.  RIP, this category.

Question of the day:  Djokovic’s fourth-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber has advanced routinely to this stage and upset the Serb here in 2009.  Can he make things interesting on Monday?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Just like Monfils-Berdych, the Stosur-Jankovic duel of veteran clay specialists lived up to its billing.  Jankovic repeated her Stuttgart upset of the world No. 9 after losing the first set and closing out a long, tight decider.  Her clay revival this year should lead to her first major quarterfinal in recent memory,…

Surprise of the day:  …although Jamie Hampton might have something to say about it.  The small American who gave Victoria Azarenka a scare in Melbourne bundled Petra Kvitova out of the tournament. Facing little resistance early, Hampton needed to navigate a long second-set tiebreak to prevent the advantage shifting back to the favorite in the third set.  Kvitova has lost before the quarterfinals at three straight majors.

Nice story of the day:  Perhaps the nicest story of the tournament, in fact.  2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone returns to the second week in Paris despite a disappointing season, finishing off top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli without much ado.

Top seeds show frailty…:  Victoria Azarenka barely could hold serve at all for a set-plus against Alize Cornet, dropping a break at love to concede the first set to someone with a 24-match losing streak against top-30 opponents.  After an emphatic first set, Maria Sharapova suddenly lost the plot and fell behind by a double break to the persistent but faded Zheng Jie amid serving struggles.

…but finish strong:  Once adversity struck, both top women showed their spine.  World No. 3 Azarenka raced through a 6-1 third set, while world No. 2 Sharapova swept six of the last seven games.  If you want to score a huge upset, you cannot afford to labor as consistently on serve as Cornet and Zheng did.  That is too much additional pressure stacked on top of the pressure created by the circumstances.

Adieu, les bleues:  Barely wobbling through her two previous matches, Bartoli followed Cornet to the exit as the last Frenchwomen faded from the draw in the first week.  Credit to each of them for fighting bard, but France simply is not a first-tier tennis power in the women’s game.

Stat of the day:  Sharapova converted all eight of her break points against Zheng, who held serve exactly once in the match.

Americans in Paris:  Who would have thought that the stars and stripes would supply a quarter of the women’s final sixteen on the clay of Roland Garros?  In addition to Hampton and Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from losing the first set for the second straight match to dominate clay specialist Paula Ormaechea late.  Sloane Stephens took advantage of a soft draw to repeat her second-week result here from last year.  Now 8-1 at majors and 11-1 at non-majors, Stephens saves her best for when it means the most.

Questions of the day:  Can Schiavone flap the visibly flappable Azarenka on Monday?  And how many women’s quarterfinalists will the USA produce?  All but Serena will be underdogs next round.

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Azarenka, Sharapova, Stosur, Nadal, Gasquet and More Highlight Day 7

Will Nadal start looking more like the King of Clay?

While Yeshayahu Ginsburg focuses his spotlight on the marquee clash between Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov, this article focuses on nine other matches to watch as the first week concludes in Paris.

WTA:

Alize Cornet vs. Victoria Azarenka:  The champion in Strasbourg last week, Cornet has won seven straight matches in her home nation on her favorite surface.  She faces a daunting test against a woman whom she lacks the power to hit through her with either serve or groundstrokes.  Simple and steady should suffice for Azarenka, who looked crisp in her first round and shaky in her second.  The wildcard in this match could consist of the French crowd, likely to try anything possible to fluster her.  If Vika can keep her composure and perhaps draw energy from the hostility, she should reach the second week in a feisty mood.

Maria Sharapova vs. Zheng Jie:  A massive height advantage should help the defending champion collect some free points against the last Chinese woman left in the draw.  Zheng has a winning record against top-10 opponents this year and a victory over Sharapova at Indian Wells in 2010, but her meek serve will cause the WTA’s most vicious returner to salivate.  If she can dig herself into some rallies, her groundstroke depth could make this match competitive, like their other meetings.  Sharapova fell a few notches short of flawless in the second round, wobbling slightly near the finish line, and Zheng owns a reputation for never going away.

Marion Bartoli vs. Francesca Schiavone:  The top-ranked Frenchwoman probably should consider herself fortunate to have reached this stage.  Bartoli saved two match points in a three-hour match to start the tournament and came from behind in both sets of her second-round match after her opponent served for both.  While she has underachieved for her ranking, Schiavone has overachieved in upsetting top-30 player Kirsten Flipkens.  She holds a clear surface edge over Bartoli, whom she defeated in a 2011 semifinal here.  Less clear is whether her serve can withstand the double-fister’s return well enough to secure the holds that eluded Bartoli’s previous challengers at key moments.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Also a rematch of a Roland Garros semifinal, this match offers Jankovic the opportunity to avenge a rout at the Australian’s hands here in 2010.  On the other hand, it offers Stosur a chance to secure retribution for a loss to the Serb in Stuttgart this spring.  These two women wield weapons almost mirror images of each other, from Stosur’s forehand to Jankovic’s backhand and Stosur’s serving power to Jankovic’s movement.  Both have found contrasting ways to shine on clay, the Aussie utilizing heavy topspin and a kick serve while the Serb bolsters her counterpunching with sliding retrievals.  Both have looked especially crisp this tournament by advancing in straight sets, Stosur more convincingly but Jankovic against stronger opposition.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Paula Ormaechea:  Both women enter this match riding a wave of momentum from upsetting a seeded opponent.  While the Argentine clay specialist bounced Yaroslava Shvedova, one of last year’s quarterfinalists, the American power-hitter knocked off 2011 champion Li Na in the surprise of the tournament so far.  This match will come down to whether Mattek-Sands can continue to strike her targets relentlessly or whether Ormaechea can find ways to survive her opponent’s first strikes and lengthen the points.  Almost nobody would have expected either to reach the second week of a major when the season began.

Petra Kvitova vs. Jamie Hampton: The American’s two victories could not have differed much more from each other.  First winning a three-set thriller from the 25th-seeded Lucie Safarova, Hampton then eased past a qualifier comfortably.  She may or may not have a chance to affect the outcome of this match, depending on which Kvitova shows up.  The bad Petra flirted with first-round disaster by spraying groundstrokes aimlessly midway through the match, while the disciplined and focused Petra returned for a victory over Peng Shuai.  Kvitova’s weapons will overwhelm Hampton if she sustains her accuracy, but this underdog has the talent to exploit one of her feckless days.

ATP:

Rafael Nadal vs. Fabio Fognini:  Never having faced the Italian before this month, Nadal now will meet him for the second time in two tournaments.  His Rome rout of Fognini mutes the intrigue of this match despite the short rest for Rafa, forced to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days.  Fognini maintained his regular schedule and will need all of the rest to prepare for a competitor in some ways the antithesis of him.  While both men play their best tennis on clay, Nadal views it as trench warfare and Fognini as art form.

Benoit Paire vs. Kei Nishikori:  Outside a wobble late in the second set of his second match, Nishikori has not defeated his opponents so much as annihilated them.  While he stunned Roger Federer in Madrid, this imposing form still surprises from someone who has accomplished little on clay, losing to Jeremy Chardy and Albert Ramos this spring.  Barely ten ranking slots behind Nishikori, Paire had not loomed any larger in more extensive clay action—until he suddenly reached the semifinals in Rome.  He has won nine of his last ten matches against opponents other than Federer and Rafael Nadal, although he never has reached the second week at a major.  Nishikori won their only meeting last fall, also in Paris, but the indoor hard courts of Bercy bear scant resemblance to the terre battue of Roland Garros.

Nikolay Davydenko vs. Richard Gasquet:  While Davydenko holds the stronger career record at Roland Garros, having reached the semifinals here before, Gasquet has found much stronger form this year.  Among his more notable accomplishments was a Doha final in which he rallied from within a tiebreak of defeat to overcome Davydenko.  They have not met on clay since 2005, but both have advanced convincingly so far.  In contrast to the earlier stages of his career, Gasquet has won most of the matches that he should win over the past twelve months.  This match belongs in that category, although the contrast between the elongated one-handed swing of the Frenchman’s backhand and the streamlined two-hander of the Russian merits watching alone.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  After he played four sets on Friday, Janowicz finds himself at a fitness disadvantage against one of the ATP’s premier grinders.  Wawrinka brought some physical issues of his own into the tournament with a muscle tear in his leg, issues that have receded as he has settled into the tournament.  These men number among the leading dark horses in the men’s field, and the winner would stay on track to meet a fallible Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.  Janowicz’s heavy serve and flat groundstrokes should allow him to take the initiative in most points, which he will want to finish quickly before fatigue descends.

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Dimitrov, Azarenka, Stosur Beat the Rain on Thursday; Li Falls

Not even rain could stop the world No. 1 today, much less Guido Pella.

For the second time in three days, inclement weather limited the action in Paris.  This rewind tilts more towards the women’s side, which featured more headlines and more matches overall.

ATP:

Match of the day:  In a sequel to the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Mother Nature confronted a host of ATP players today and defeated most of them.  Fewer than half of the scheduled men’s matches finished on Thursday.

Gold star:  Probably aware of the rain clouds overhead, Novak Djokovic lost no time in disposing of Guido Pella in 86 minutes.  The world No. 1 lost just four games and gains a timing advantage over rival and semifinal opponent Rafael Nadal, who never took the court because of the rain.

Silver star:  Grigor Dimitrov reaches the third round of a major for the first time, dispatching home hope Lucas Pouille in straight sets.  Granted, Dimitrov would have had nobody to blame but himself had he failed to knock off the 324th-ranked Pouille, but a milestone remains a milestone.  And the rematch with Djokovic looms on Saturday with both men on full rest.

Most improved:  Also beating the raindrops was Benoit Paire, who regrouped from an unsteady four-setter against Marcos Baghdatis to oust Lukas Kubot in straight sets.  People called Lukas generally had a bad day, though, as…

Rematch that won’t happen:  Lukas Rosol fell to Fabio Fognini in four sets, the expected outcome but not the outcome that many of us wanted.  With a mini-upset, Rosol would have faced Rafael Nadal in a bid to repeat his staggering Wimbledon upset.

Anticlimaxes of the day:  The trickle of injuries continued to flow from the men’s draw with a walkover by Yen-Hsun Lu, advancing Philipp Kohlschreiber, and a retirement by Dmitry Tursunov, sending Victor Hanescu through.

Tough luck:  Suspended within three games of a comfortable victory over Horacio  Zeballos, Stanislas Wawrinka must come back tomorrow.  His ability to finish off Thiemo De Bakker just before darkness in the previous round looks even more clutch now.

Question of the day:  How much difference does it make that Djokovic can maintain his regular schedule, while Nadal will not?

WTA:

Awards sweep of the day:  Match of the day?  Check.  Comeback of the day?  Check.  Surprise of the day?  Check.  Across three sets and two rain delays, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from a disastrous start against 2011 champion Li Na to oust the sixth seed.  The upset bolsters a surprising resurgence on clay by the American veteran and ends a deeply disappointing clay season for Li, who fell short of the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome before exiting Paris in the second round.   For Mattek-Sands, the door lies open for a deeper run in this relatively weak section of the draw.

Gold star:  Building on her comfortable first-round victory, Samantha Stosur cruised past home hope Kristina Mladenovic on Court Philippe Chatrier.  Stosur held the status of the heavy favorite in that match, but one could have imagined the difficult weather conditions and the challenge of playing a Frenchwoman on a show court might have flustered her.  Not the case.

Silver star:  Beating the rain more easily than anybody, Jelena Jankovic also built on a solid start to the tournament by dropping just three games to Garbine Muguruza.  Like Stosur, Jankovic has reached three semifinals here, so she will bear watching as the tournament reaches its midpoint.

Lesser surprises of the day:  A meager 2013 for Dominika Cibulkova continued when the former Roland Garros semifinalist fell in three sets to Marina Erakovic.  Much less skilled on clay than her opponent, Cibulkova could muster fewer excuses for her loss than could the recently injured Yaroslava Shvedova.  Last year’s quarterfinalist will lose plenty of ranking points after falling to qualifier Paula Ormaechea.

Most improved:  After she wobbled through three sets against Aravane Rezai, Petra Kvitova advanced much more efficiently against a far more creditable opponent in Peng Shuai.  This section of the draw has become fascinating with Stosur set to face Jankovic and the winner due to meet Kvitova.

Least improved:  Dominant in her first match, Victoria Azarenka struggled to finish off the overmatched Annika Beck in two sets closer than they looked.  Perhaps the rain derailed Vika’s rhythm.  The good news of the day for her is that she cannot face anyone ranked higher than No. 12 Maria Kirilenko en route to the semifinals.

Tough luck of the day:  Defending champion Maria Sharapova stood six points from victory at 6-2 4-2 deuce before the tournament suspended play for the night.  Sharapova will need to return tomorrow for the coup de grace.  On the other hand, she can thank Djokovicfor finishing his match so swiftly that she could play as much of her match as she did.

Good luck of the day:  Top Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli would have faced Mariana Duque-Marino on an outer court had she played on Thursday.  Following the rain and the rescheduling, she will return to Court Philippe Chatrier to start Friday’s matches.  That setting and the amplified crowd support should boost Bartoli as she attempts to work through her serving woes.

Americans in Paris:  Sloane Stephens pulled rank on Vania King, moving within one victory of a second straight appearance in the second week here.  If you just look at majors, Stephens has compiled an excellent season.  The rest of the American contingent stood at deuce, with Jamie Hampton a comfortable winner and Melanie Oudin a resounding loser to Zheng Jie.

Question of the day:  After Li’s loss, who is most likely to face Azarenka in the quarterfinals?

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Federer, Azarenka, Serena Cruise, Monfils Leads French Parade on Day Four

Azarenka made her Roland Garros 2013 debut today after a four-day wait.

Profiting from more cooperative weather, Roland Garros produced a Day 4 replete with action.  Here’s the review of how it all went down.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Ah, the French in Paris.  Sometimes they dazzle, sometimes they implode, sometimes they puzzle, and sometimes they do all three.  Julien Benneteau achieved the trifecta in a five-set victory over Tobias Kamke, completing his first pair of consecutive victories since February.  En route to the third round, Benneteau a) won a 20-point tiebreak b) blew a two-set lead c) ate a bagel in the fourth set and d) won anyway.  Richard Gasquet, it’s your move.

Worth the wait:  After a 14-game fifth set, the epic between Horacio Zeballos and Vasek Pospisil finally ended a day and two sets after Zeballos could have ended it in a third-set tiebreak.  A young Canadian talent, Pospisil showed grit by rallying from the brink of a straight-sets loss to the brink of a five-set victory.  But Zeballos, who defeated Rafael Nadal to win a South American clay title this spring, relied on his greater experience to get the last word.

Comeback of the day:  Dutch heavy hitter Igor Sijsling looked ready to knock off the lowest men’s seed when he swept two tight sets.  Continuing a surprisingly solid clay campaign, Tommy Robredo surged through the next three sets for the loss of five total games.  The pattern of the scores recalled Roger Federer’s comeback over Juan Martin Del Potro here last year.

Surprise of the day:  Surely elated by his upset over Berdych in a first-round epic, Gael Monfils might have fallen victim to a hangover against the dangerous Ernests Gulbis.  Although he dropped the first set for the second straight match, Monfils outlasted his fellow erratic shot-maker for another quality win that jangled the nerves of his compatriots a bit less.  Up next is a more compelling test of his consistency against Robredo.  Check out the more detailed recap of Gael’s win on this site by colleague Yeshayahu Ginsburg.

Gold star:  A few of the less notable home hopes fell today, but all of the leading French men prevailed.  Like Monfils, Benoit Paire completed a comeback from losing the first set to win in four.  Gilles Simon hurled three consecutive breadsticks at clay specialist Pablo Cuevas after he too spotted his opponent a one-set lead.  Jo-Wilfried Tsonga roared through in straight sets for the second consecutive match, as did Jeremy Chardy.  And don’t forget the wacky win by Benneteau explored above.  Plenty of reason remains for French patriots to return as the third round unfolds.

Silver star:  Struggling to win matches this year, Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki both survived potentially tricky encounters.  Tipsarevic cruised past local hero Nicolas Mahut, perhaps helped by the schedule shift away from Court Philippe Chatrier after the rain.  Troicki weathered five taxing sets and two tiebreaks against clay specialist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who had upset 17th seed Juan Monaco.

Marathon man:  For the second straight round, Andreas Seppi prevailed in five sets.  Halfway to defending his fourth-round points from last year, Seppi seemed to have a stranglehold when he bageled Blaz Kavcic in the first set.  He later would allow a two-set lead to escape before regrouping when the match hung in the balance.

Stat of the day:  All 15 men’s seeds in action today advanced, eight in straight sets.

American in Paris:  After winning just one match in his first six Roland Garros appearances, top-ranked man Sam Querrey has won two in his seventh trip here without losing a set.

Question of the day:  Second seed Roger Federer entered this tournament as a distant third favorite for the title after Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.  Looking at least as sharp as either of them, Federer now has lost just 12 games in two matches, albeit against weak competition from two qualifiers.  Should we start taking his title hopes more seriously?

WTA:

Match of the day:  After Victoria Azarenka outlasted her in a long match at the Australian Open, Jamie Hampton secured a happier ending to another three-setter at a major.  Hampton stunned 25th seed Lucie Safarova after winning the first set in a tiebreak, withstanding Safarova’s second-set surge, and closing out a 9-7 final set.  That 16-game affair was the longest set of the women’s tournament so far.

Worth the wait:  Delayed by rain, world No. 3 Azarenka did not start her Roland Garros campaign until Wednesday.  Needing to issue a strong statement, as all of her rivals had, Azarenka delivered with a resounding victory over former doubles partner Elena Vesnina.  None of the top four women has lost more than five games in a match so far.

Comeback of the day:  For the second straight tournament, Svetlana Kuznetsova ate a first-set breadstick from an unseeded opponent.  Whereas the Rome breadstick from Simona Halep preceded another breadstick, the Roland Garros breadstick from Magdalena Rybarikova spurred the 2009 champion into action.  Kuznetsova dropped just four games over the next two sets, responding much more forcefully to adversity.

Surprise of the day:  Surviving a first-round flirtation with disaster boded well for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s chances here.  She almost always has ventured deep into draws this year when passing her first test.  This time, though, Pavlyuchenkova fell short in the second round to Petra Cetkovska in another tight three-setter.  The victim of painful losses here as well, coach Martina Hingis can empathize.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Unseeded 2012 quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi continued her momentum from winning a Premier title in Brussels last week.  Kanepi dispatched 23rd seed Klara Zakopalova in straight sets on a difficult day for Czechs.

Gold star:  Famous forever after what happened last year, Virginie Razzano technically surpassed that performance this year.  Razzano more than justified her wildcard by reaching the third round, perhaps bolstered by the memories of her landmark victory over Serena Williams.

Silver star:  In the first match of her career at Roland Garros, promising Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty made her presence felt.  Barty stunned last week’s Strasbourg runner-up Lucie Hradecka in three sets, overcoming dramatic disparities in power, experience, and clay expertise.

Marathon woman:  Eight of Petra Kvitova’s last nine matches have reached a third set, the latest against the fossilized Aravane Rezai today.  That recent capsule from clay reflects a trend typical for Kvitova overall, for she has played 18 three-setters this year and a staggering 39 in 2012-13.  Whether caused by slow starts or mid-match hiccups, those rollercoasters illustrate her unreliability.

Stat of the day:  Bojana Jovanovski has won three matches since January, two of which have come against Caroline Wozniacki.  The Dane predictably became the first top-ten woman to lose at Roland Garros as Jovanovski accomplished what the more talented Laura Robson could not.

Americans in Paris:  Blasting past Caroline Garcia today, Serena Williams has lost just four games in two matches and 18 games in seven matches since Rome started.  While the top seed continues to look every inch the title favorite, several other American women acquitted themselves well.  Varvara Lepchenko notched a second straight routine victory, while women’s wildcard Shelby Rogers swiped a set from 20th seed Carla Suarez Navarro despite the gap between their relative credentials.  On the other hand, Madison Keys dropped a winnable match to Monica Puig, and Mallory Burdette could not find any answers to Agnieszka Radwanska.

Question of the day:  All of the top four women have roared through their early matches, confirming their elite status.  Outside that group, who has impressed you the most so far?

Roland Garros Day 4: Links Roundup with Tipsarevic, Williams, Dimitrov, Bartoli and more

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the RG Lab

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeated Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets today, 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-3, and later the Frenchman showed off his colorful mask, part of the “Tournoi des Masques” activity at RG Lab where kids can design their own “Turbo Ten” cartoon mask.

Jamie Hampton’s preferences on and off the court revealed:  23-year-old Jamie Hampton, who scored a monumental victory over No. 25 seed Lucie Safarova in her opening round match (9-7 in the third set), chatted with Sports Illustrated about her piano playing past, her adoration for chocolate, what she would do if she was in charge of the WTA and much more.

Grigor Dimitrov and Jelena Jankovic put their tennis knowledge to the test:   In this Roland Garros Quiz, Grigor Dimitrov and Jelena Jankovic are asked about the 1989 French Open, Andre Agassi’s French Open results, Nadal’s first Roland Garros crown and more.  Check it out and see how much you know, and watch the hilarity ensue!

Tipsy Time returns:  In this latest edition of Tipsy Time where Janko Tipsarevic takes you through part of his day during a grand slam, we find out the secret behind the Hawkeye system.  In addition, Tipsarevic and Benoit Paire, who Janko calls a “crazy and great upcoming player,” take to the court for a practice match on Suzanne Lenglen.

Never a dull moment for Gael Monfils:  After winning the third-set tiebreak in his highly entertaining second round clash with Ernests Gulbis, Monfils became bored waiting for Gulbis to come back from the bathroom.  To combat his boredom, as Sports Illustrated reports, the Frenchman requested that he take his Iphone out to film the crowd doing the wave.

“I asked the chair umpire, am I allowed to tape the wave?” said Monfils who got the go-ahead from the umpire. “So I said, OK I would tape it quick.”

“I didn’t see him, but I really don’t care what he was doing with his phone or with the crowd,” Gulbis said.

Azarenka finally takes to the court:  When most players usually complete their first round matches during grand slams within the first two days of scheduled play, Victoria Azarenka had to wait until the fourth day of play to face Elena Vesnina in their opening round bout.   Asked what she did with all her free time, Azarenka told ESPN “I was just really chilling the whole day, watching ‘The Voice’” she said.  “It was incredible.  I was so entertained.”

Serena Williams, Roger Federer dealing with different expectations:  As Kamakshi Tandon of ESPN points out, Serena Williams and Roger Federer are both 31 and are both looking for a second French Open title.  But whereas “Williams is the favorite to win the women’s title” Federer’s form coming in to Roland Garros understandably makes him “kind of an afterthought in Paris” but his favorable draw is certainly increasing the chatter around the possibility of the Swiss reclaiming glory on the terre battue.

Bartoli reflects on epic victory:  After her seemingly endless albeit thrilling three hour and 12 minute first match with Olga Govortsova on Tuesday, Marion Bartoli felt extremely confident about her mental and physical state moving forward for the rest of the tournament.  Bartoli said “Winning a match like this shows I can last for three hours, physically and mentally.”  With this said, the highest seeded Frenchwoman also attributed her victory to luck stating, “I was lucky, and I chased the balls down when I had to” which was complimented by the fact that “the crowd really helped get me through in the end.”

Jack Sock displaying wonderful potential:  After his first round victory over Gulliermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain, Jack Sock was given immense praise by Peter Bodo of Tennis.com.  After the match, Bodo wrote, “The future of American tennis is locked up in Jack Sock.”  And to defend himself from those who would say he is being far too prognostic and is jumping to too quick of a conclusion Bodo wrote the following:

“So what’s the big deal, you ask? Doesn’t everyone play a lights out match now and then?”

“Well, yes. But this match generated a different kind of feeling, a special feeling, which is not necessarily a true or accurate analysis of anything.  But its points to a door and challenges you to open it, or become one of those people who end up saying things like, “I knew he’d be great, I just never said anything to anyone about it. But honest, I knew!”

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Will Vika hang on to her hardware here as well as she did in Melbourne?

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

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