Victoria Azarenka

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

We have reached the end of the red brick road for another year.

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 the Women’s Semifinals

Might we have a real WTA rivalry on our hands?

After contrasting semifinals, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams will meet in a major final for just the third time and the first time since 2007.  Here are some thoughts on how they got to Saturday.

Vengeance was hers:  At two majors last year, Maria Sharapova had fallen short against Victoria Azarenka.  A rout in the Australian Open final and a tight three-setter in the US Open semifinal had handed the momentum to Azarenka in their rivalry.  Flipping the script in a three-set thriller, Sharapova has snatched the momentum back with her first victory over the younger blonde at a major and first (excluding retirements) on an outdoor court since 2009.

30 at age 31:  Top seed Serena Williams cruised past world No.5 Sara Errani for the loss of just a single game.  This second semifinal marked Serena’s 30th straight victory and the fourth time in six matches here that she has lost three or fewer games.  She will enter the final as an overwhelming favorite.

Defense does not rest:  For the first time, Sharapova carries a title defense at a major to a second straight final.  She has not excelled at title defenses throughout her career, but notable exceptions have come during the clay season with Rome in 2011-12 and Stuttgart in 2012-13.

That was…steely:  Whenever adversity struck today, Sharapova responded without hesitation.  Dropping her serve with two double faults to start the match, she reeled off six straight games for the first set.  Losing four straight games at the end of the second set, with another double fault down set point, she broke early in the third.  Broken straight back, she broke again—twice.  Unable to convert four match points when she first served for the match, she closed it out at love on her second opportunity.

That was…quick:  While the first semifinal produced the drama that one associates with a major semifinal, Serena cruised through her match in 46 minutes.  Sara Errani should not hang her head, however.  When Serena takes it into her mind to hit an average of three winners per game, and three winners for every unforced error, nobody has an answer for that sort of display.

Fitting finish:  Relentless with her vicious ball-bludgeoning, Sharapova climbed into double digits for both aces (12) and double faults (11).  The final ace sealed her most memorable victory of 2013, just as an ace sealed her return to No. 1 in last year’s Roland Garros semifinal.  She now has reached as many major finals since shoulder surgery as she did before it, and the serve that so many have questioned has played a critical role.

Italian streak ends:  For the first time since 2009, no Italian woman reaches the Roland Garros final.  Instead, the top two seeds will meet in the women’s final for the first time since 1995 (when No. 2 Steffi Graf defeated No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario).

Question of the day:  Serena leads her head-to-head with Sharapova 13-2 and typically plays her best tennis against her.  But she struggled for long stretches in both of her major finals last year against opponents whom she historically dominates.  Which trend prevails?

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing the Women’s Semifinals

Will either, both, or neither make it back to the podium on Saturday?

Judging by recent history, Maria Sharapova might want to bring  a portable roof with her when she faces Victoria Azarenka.   With the exception of a retirement in Rome, Azarenka has won their last six matches outdoors while losing one total set, whereas Sharapova has both of their meetings indoors.  One would hand Maria the edge on clay, but Vika won the first set in that Rome encounter before retiring down a break in the second.  And Serena Williams proved in Madrid that Sharapova’s dominance on this surface does not trump her futility in a certain rivalry.  Although Azarenka plays a notably different game, she shares Serena’s ability to relentlessly threaten the Russian’s serve, building pressure that takes a toll on the rest of her game.

Beyond their relative rankings, however, the Madrid runner-up has reason to believe that she can overcome the Rome runner-up.  Roland Garros tests mental and emotional endurance more than any other major, especially late in the fortnight, and Sharapova always has claimed an edge in that department over this rival.  Furthermore, she has shed the playfully self-imposed label of “cow on ice” that described her early forays onto the terre battue.  Sharapova now moves more naturally on the surface than many women, including Azarenka, and she transitions most comfortably from defense to offense on this surface.  A key to Vika’s success against her, catching the statuesque Russian out of position with tangled feet has proved more difficult on clay.

Some uncertainty clouds the recent form of both women, neither of whom has faced a notable opponent here.  Sharapova and Azarenka each have looked solid but not sensational in four of their five matches while submitting a clunker in the fifth.  While Sharapova’s best tennis surpasses the best that Azarenka can produce, a match played at a more modest level would seem to favor the younger woman.  The semifinal should come down to how consistently the defending champion can balance shot-making aggression with patient point construction.  Sharapova knows that she will reach the final if she strikes that balance with immaculate precision.

On the dirt of Roland Garros, though, staying immaculate is easier said than done.

***

The quarterfinals regularly have marked the end of the line for Serena Williams at Roland Garros, whether against Justine Henin, Samantha Stosur, or Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Now that she has survived that stage in a match narrower than she might have anticipated, Serena may feel ever more secure in her determination to win this title for the second time.  Her first Roland Garros semifinal in a decade pits her against Sara Errani, whom she defeated in a Madrid semifinal last month.  Serena looked vulnerable in the quarterfinals of that tournament as well, nearly succumbing to Anabel Medina Garrigues, but she regrouped to find a higher level of form in her last two matches.

While Errani clung tightly to the world No. 1 in the first set, the disparity between the best serve in the WTA and the worst serve in the WTA top 20 proved too great to overcome, even on a slow surface.  Granted, the Roland Garros clay should play more slowly than the Madrid clay, quickened by that city’s altitude.  And Serena’s rout of Errani  in another semifinal two majors ago should not dictate our anticipation of this semifinal, for the US Open hard court showcases the American’s offense much more effectively than the terre battue.  Last year’s finalist also has displayed crisp form in all but one of her matches this tournament, much as Serena has.  Errani finally cracked her career-long drought against top-five opponents by edging Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals, so she may believe more than ever before that she can challenge the elite.

But the question remains whether she can stay in the point long enough to challenge a truly elite shot-maker, who poses a completely different threat from Radwanska.  The Italian must work much harder than Serena to win points, so her only hope lies in her opponent producing pedestrian tennis (by her standards) for a second straight match.  That prospect looks far from likely with the world No. 1 playing some of her most focused, thoughtful tennis ever during the last three months.   If Serena preserves her patience amid Errani’s flashes of artistry, we can expect to see her again on Saturday.

 

Roland Garros Rewind: Thoughts on Wednesday’s Quarterfinal Action

Feed Me.  (No bagels, thanks.)

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

Four down, three to go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roland Garros Day 9: Links Roundup with Wawrinka, Li, Youzhny, Djokovic and more

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

Shot of the Day: Fans who couldn’t make it out to Roland Garros still got their taste of tennis in front of the Hôtel de Ville in the center of Paris, where participants could try out the red clay or catch the action on the big screen.

Mikhail Youzhny loses it: Many tennis fans were likely experiencing a bout of déjà vu when Russian Mikhail Youzhny absolutely obliterated his racket after falling down a set and 3-0 to Tommy Haas in their fourth round match. This was not the first time the fiery Russian has exhibited such anger on the court, as Nick Zaccardi of Sports Illustrated points out. In 2008, in a match against Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, Youzhny banged his racket against his head several times and in the process drew blood. Both videos can be seen in Zaccardi’s article.

Week one French Open takeaways: The first half of the French Open has come and gone but not without an abundance of drama and questions. Jonathan Overend of the BBC discusses some of the biggest storylines surrounding Roland Garros including Rafa’s form, the restoration of single-handed backhands, Laura Robson’s struggles and more.

Li Na’s press conference raises questions: Sports Illustrated reports that after her second round exit to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Li Na has been heavily criticized for comments she made to the Chinese media. Asked if she had an explanation for her loss Li replied, “Do I need to explain?” She carried on saying, “It’s strange. I lost a game and that’s it. Do I need to get on my knees and kowtow to them? Apologize to them.” Chinese Journalists Zhang Rongfeng believes this response is indicative of Li Na’s lack of professionalism.

Dominic Inglot grateful for professional career: Dominic Inglot, as Simon Briggs of The Telegraph points out, was the final player hailing from the United Kingdom to be playing in the 2013 French Open. Inglot, along with college teammate and current doubles partner, Treat Huey, crashed out to Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut in the third round of the doubles competition. In his conversation with Briggs, Inglot talks about how he made it into professional tennis and how lucky he is to be able to make a living on tour.

“I get to play tennis for a living—that is the ultimate dream. When I was a little kid I remember cutting the cake on my birthday and blowing the candles out and saying every single time, ‘I want to be a professional tennis player.’”

Road to Roland Garros- Bethanie Mattek-Sands: In this edition of Road to Roland Garros, Bethanie Mattek-Sands reveals her inspiration in tennis, talks about her perpetual lateness, and how her diet is her biggest sacrifice.

Novak Djokovic playing for Jelena Gencic: Novak Djokovic advanced to the quarterfinals of the French Open after a four set win over German Philipp Kohlschreiber. Djokovic, as Reem Abulleil of Sport360 reports, is hoping to claim his first Roland Garros title in memory of his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, who passed away Saturday.

“She’s one of the most incredible people I ever knew. So it’s quite emotional. I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament. Now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way,”

27 pictures of Rafael Nadal on his 27th birthday: In his first three matches, Rafael Nadal looked like a shadow of himself and was consequentially tested by Daniel Brands, Martin Klizan, and Fabio Fognini, three players Nadal probably expected to dispose of quicker than he did. In his fourth round match with Kei Nishikori, Nadal quickly erased the memories of his lackluster play in the opening three rounds.  Nadal’s 27th birthday was today and he definitely made sure he had enough time to celebrate crushing Nishikori 6-4 6-1 6-3. DNA India takes a look back at Nadal’s career in 27 pictures.

Victoria Azarenka prepares for Maria Kirilenko: 2013 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka is set to square off against longtime doubles partner, Maria Kirilenko, after beating Francesca Schiavone in a match that she said was her “most composed and most consistent match thus far.” As Chris Wright of Yahoo Sports points out, “Azarenka is 3-2 against Kirilenko but has not lost to the Russian since 2007.” Azrenka said in regards to Kirilenko “She’s definitely improved a lot over the last couple years since she’s a very motivated player (and a) good friend of mine.”

Stanislas Wawrinka topples Richard Gasquet: Coming back from two sets to love down, Stanislas Wawrinka defeated French hopeful Richard Gasquet in a five set match that featured some of the most jaw-dropping infusions of pace, exquisite shot making, and masterful racket work of the entire tournament. The ATP called the match a “vintage display of shotmaking with 149 winners struck during the match.” Wawrinka’s play was so exemplary that the Swiss went as far as to say, “I played the best level I ever played at.” One of the comments on the ATP article even offered a new nickname for Stan—“WOWrinka.”

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.

 

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