Jelena Jankovic

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: 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.

Fashion Review: Fila Introduces Stylish, Durable and Comfortable New Tennis Shoe, The Sentinel

(June 21, 2013) Long time tennis and sports brand Fila has just released its first tennis shoe in years, the Sentinel, and we at Tennis Grandstand were given a sneak peak into the brand’s newest creation.

Fila has marketed the Sentinel as a “modern silhouette with comfort, durability and traction in mind and engineered to endure the rigors of match play” for all levels of tennis players, from juniors to professional. I’ve been on the market for a good tennis shoe, so naturally I wanted to test it out for myself.

(Available directly from Fila.com for $100, shop the women’s or men’s Sentinel shoe now.)

Fila Sentinel shoe review, Tipsarevic, Goerges, Jankovic, Tursunov

When I first took my white/Hawaiian ocean blue test pair out of the box, I was immediately captivated. The sleek lines, seamless pattern shifts of the varying mesh materials, and incorporation of color were perfectly in balance. By the look and feel alone, it felt like a sturdy and durable shoe. Design-wise, this is one of my favorite shoes on the market currently, and it comes in three color combinations for women and four for men. Time to put it on and really test it out!

Style – 5/5 stars

***

Fila Sentinel Shoe review_1My feet haven’t always easily and comfortably fit into all the differing Nike and adidas tennis shoes on the market over the years. So, when I put these bad boys on for the first time, it fit like a glove. The inside cushioning has a slight upward deflection around the heel area, as well as the inner and outer arches, allowing your feet to almost mold with the design. The cushioning also has a slight give, letting your feet rest comfortably in the shoe.

Taking my new kicks out onto the tennis courts, I was ready to play. Running up and back, and laterally, I felt that there was sufficient room for my feet to be comfortable, and nothing was pinching. The tongue also has an internal elastic strap, which prevents it from moving around, and it was a really nice addition. By the end of match play, my feet didn’t feel tired or cramped, and I could still feel the welcome extra cushioning of the memory foam lined heel collar.

Comfort – 5/5 stars, but I would like to give it more stars!

***

Fila Sentinel Shoe review_2The true test of any shoe is not only comfort, but for the tennis-centered mind, a durable shoe that performs well and let’s you play your tennis as opposed to hindering or distracting you.

The modified herringbone outersole provided good traction on the hard courts, and though Fila offers a 6-month guarantee on it, based on my use, I would expect a longer life than that for the average club player. The extra toe protection that Fila also incorporated doesn’t overwhelm visually, but gives those who like to slide, enough material to do so without wearing the shoe down quickly. The same goes for the inner (medial) and outer (lateral) support on the sides of the shoe, which provides good foot stability, as well as durability for sliding or quick stops. My movement didn’t feel hindered by the shoe in any way, and it is lightweight measuring at around 12.3 ounces for the women’s shoes, and 14.6 ounces for the men’s shoes. The shoe is also fairly true to fit, not really expanding with use, and if anything, is perhaps a half-size big.

Performance – 5/5 stars

***

Truth be told, I was really trying hard to find something wrong with this shoe over time because it seemed too good to be true. But I failed miserably in my endeavor. The durability, comfort, breathability, style and performance of the Sentinel were worth the wait since Fila’s last tennis shoe years ago.

The Fila tennis pros themselves have already been testing out the Sentinel for months now, so don’t take my word for it. See what Janko Tipsarevic, Andreas Seppi, Julia Goerges, Dmitry Tursunov and Marina Erakovic have to say!

Janko Tipsarevic
“Tennis shoes are very important to professional players. It is important that the shoe is lightweight so we can be quick on our feet, yet stable so we do not slip or slide on court. The Sentinel feels low to the ground without sacrificing comfort and cushioning.  The traction is excellent and the shoe is very durable for the hours that I put in on the tennis court.  All in all, this is my favorite Fila tennis shoe in recent years.”

Andreas Seppi
“I have been wearing the Sentinel since late last year and I really like the shoe because they are light, extremely durable and very comfortable on-court. The Sentinel is now my favorite Fila shoe that I have worn in all the years we have been together on tour!”

Julia Goerges
“The Sentinel is very light, but at the same time, the shoe is very stable which is important for your ankles! It is so comfortable wearing these shoes!”

Dmitry Tursunov
“I have been wearing this shoe during the clay court season and it’s an extremely lightweight shoe but this benefit does not come at the cost of comfort. The Sentinel is very stable and gives good feedback. It’s one of the best shoes Fila introduced in recent years.”

Marina Erakovic
“The Sentinel is very lightweight, supportive and has great cushioning, but my favorite thing about the Sentinel is the secure fit on my feet. I don’t think about slipping or rolling because the Sentinel is so stable on my feet.”

WTA Nurnberg: Petkovic Ousts Jankovic as Halep Rallies Back to Defeat Safarova

(June 14, 2013) Friday match play at Nurnberg saw German wild card Andrea Petkovic defeat top tournament seed Jelena Jankovic in a 90-minute match. Despite the 6-4, 6-3 score, Petkovic rallied from an early break in both sets and the two faced a combined 20 break point chances.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed right now,” Petkovic said. “I think I played a really great match today. I didn’t think it would be possible because I was really tired after yesterday, so I pulled all of my power and strength that was left together and managed to put in a good performance out there today.”

Petkovic admitted earlier this week that she contemplated retirement recently, and now she will vie for her third title after winning Bad Gastein in 2009 and Stasbourg in 2011.

“It’s really absurd – two weeks ago I was thinking about quitting tennis because I was playing so badly. I wasn’t feeling good on the court and I was doubting myself a lot. But here I am now. The good thing about going through all of that is I appreciate everything much more now. I’m very thankful and grateful for all of this. I never guessed I would get a second chance after all of my injuries, but here it is.”

Simona Halep, the No. 7 seed, took out Lucie Safarova in the other semifinal and will compete in her fourth final on Saturday, and will be looking for her first title.

Thursday and Friday gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

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WTA Nürnberg Gallery: Petkovic Ousts Goerges; Jankovic and Beck Thru to QFs

(June 12, 2013) World No. 18 and the top seed this week at WTA Nürnberg, Jelena Jankovic reached the quarterfinals without much resistance. She finished her darkness-delayed first round match against Arantxa Rus 6-4, 6-2, and followed it up with another breezy 6-2, 6-0 win over Johanna Larsson.

The Serb will next take on No. 6 seed Lourdes Dominguez Lino who ousted Mandy Minella, and the winner will face either Andrea Petkovic or Annika Beck in the semifinals.

In the bottom half of the draw only two seeds remained, No. 5 Lucie Safarova and No. 7 Simona Halep. Galina  Voskoboeva defeated No. 3 seed Alize Cornet and Polona Hercog rounded out the quarterfinals.

Doubles – First Round Results
(1) Groenefeld/Peschke (GER/CZE) d. Beygelzimer/Bratchikova (UKR/RUS) 61 62
Krunic/Piter (SRB/POL) d. (2) Goerges/Minella (GER/LUX) 61 62
(3) Panova/Thorpe (RUS/FRA) d. Pegula/Plipuech (USA/THA) 63 63
Olaru/Solovyeva (ROU/RUS) d. (4) Birnerova/Buryachok (CZE/UKR) 62 62
Duque-Mariño/Pereira (COL/BRA) d. Craybas/Savchuk (USA/UKR) 60 46 108 (Match TB)
Klemenschits/Klepac (AUT/SLO) d. Muhammed/Will (USA/USA) 62 76(4)
(WC) Barrois/Friedsam (GER/GER) d. Kichenok/Linette (UKR/POL) 75 62

Wednesday match play gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.

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When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

A few surprising events unfolded on Wednesday, but all of the favorites ultimately prevailed to set up an elite group of semifinalists.

ATP:

Book it:  The inevitable has happened.  Last year’s finalists, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, are still the two best clay players in the world, and they will meet in the second semifinal on Friday.  The winner will enter Sunday’s final as a heavy favorite against either David Ferrer or Jo-Wilfred Tsonga:

Welcome back, Rafa:  For much of the first week, the inevitable did not seem very inevitable as Nadal looked a shadow of himself.  In the second week, though, he has lost just 14 games to opponents of a much higher quality than those whom he faced earlier.  Like Serena Williams, Nadal has a knack for pulling himself together when he absolutely must.

0-for-life:  Swiss No. 2 Stanislas Wawrinka has returned to the top ten this year while beating half of the top eight and pushing the rest to the brink of defeat—with one exception.  He never has won a set from Rafael Nadal, a streak that extended to 0-22 today.  To be sure, Wawrinka probably lacked energy after his marathon comeback against Richard Gasquet in the previous round.

What happens in Miami stays in Miami:  Novak Djokovic has spent his last few rounds taking revenge on nemeses of varying recency.  First came Grigor Dimitrov, demolished in the third round after upsetting the Serb in Madrid.  Then Philipp Kohlschreiber bit the red dust four years after defeating Djokovic here.  Third in line was Tommy Haas, who dominated him in a stunningly lopsided victory at Miami this spring.  Haas did manage to force a tiebreak in the second set but otherwise never seriously threatened Djokovic’s progress toward another attempt at revenge.

Question of the day:  Who wins on Friday, and is it really the de facto final?

WTA:

What…was…that?  Now renowned for her clay skills, Maria Sharapova looked very much a cow on ice when she committed 20 unforced errors in the six games of the first set.  She cannot let it happen again against Victoria Azarenka tomorrow.

Classic Maria, and classic JJ:  Sharapova never had won a match after losing a first-set bagel before today, but one can think of no woman more capable of accomplishing the feat.  Losing a match after winning the first set 6-0 also seems a quintessentially Jankovic thing to do, as does double-faulting to lose the first game of the second set in that position.

Rule of three:  Don’t mess with Maria in third sets on clay.  She has lost only one in the last five years, to Justine Henin in 2010, winning nine straight and 16 of 17.  Moreover, only one player outside the top ten has won a third set from her on any surface since 2010.  Once she leveled the match, only one possible ending lay ahead.

Tale of two Marias:  A clear underdog against world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, Maria Kirilenko battled valiantly through a first set that lasted 76 minutes.  Kirilenko then faded quickly in the second set, but she still deserves credit for reaching her first Roland Garros quarterfinal this year.

Semi-sweet:  With her first Roland Garros semifinal, Azarenka now has reached the semifinals at every major in the last twelve months, something that no other woman can say.  Among the men, only Djokovic has done the same.

Question of the day:  Serena Williams clearly rules the WTA roost, but Azarenka and Sharapova are the heiresses apparent to the throne.  Who comes through to, in all likelihood, face the empress?  Previews of both women’s semifinals will appear later today.

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.