The Cup Runneth Over: Fed Cup Preview

One might have thought that Henin’s broken finger would have given Team Estonia some hope, for they’ll be confronting a Belgian team without the seven-time Grand Slam champion as its #2 singles player.  But 13th-ranked Yanina Wickmayer (pictured above) represents the insurance policy of anyone’s dreams; the Belgian cup runneth over indeed.  Although that tie is virtually a foregone conclusion, some of the others are not; we’ll preview the World Group semifinal and World Group playoff ties straight ahead:

USA-Russia:  One might imagine that Russia would prevail comfortably in the absence of both Williams sisters, but the crafty  Shamil Tarpischev enters the weekend with a sadly depleted squad of Dementieva, Makarova, and Kudryavtseva.  Since Dementieva is the only top-30 player on either team, one can expect her to win both of her matches.  (Despite Oudin’s win over her at the US Open last year, Dementieva reversed that upset at the Paris Indoors this February and boasts an outstanding 20-5 record in Fed Cup, including wins over Clijsters and Mauresmo.)  Therefore, Team USA’s task will be to win the remaining three matches, which is a less imposing task than it sounds on paper.  Oudin should be able to defeat Kudryavtseva on Saturday, and the Americans have a distinct advantage in the doubles with world #1 Liezel Huber, so the decisive moment in this tie becomes the fourth singles rubber.  This match is scheduled to pit Mattek against Kudryavtseva, offering both of these relatively anonymous players a rare opportunity to play the heroine.  It’s almost impossible to discern how such a match would develop, and one might favor the veteran with the home-court advantage over the emotionally volatile Fed Cup novice.  On the other hand, Tarpischev has an uncanny knack for extracting excellence from unexpected sources at crucial moments.  Pick:  Russia, 60-40.

Italy-Czech Republic:  Like the Americans, the Italians possess the comfort blanket of a nearly guaranteed doubles win in the fifth rubber should they need it; the team of Errani and Vinci has lost a total of zero Fed Cup matches.  But it’s unlikely that the defending champions will need it, for they possess almost every imaginable advantage over the visitors, from the surface to mental strength to experience to recent form.  Regrouping from a dismal North American campaign, Pennetta won the Marbella title two weeks ago, while Schiavone emphatically seized her third career title in Barcelona last weekend.  Dangerous but streaky shotmakers, neither Safarova nor Hradecka can maintain the consistency necessary to outlast the tenacious Italians on clay in front of a raucous Roman audience.  If all players perform to their potential, the Italian team should win the first three rubbers rather routinely and book their tickets to either the U.S. or Russia for the November final.  Pick:  Italy, 80-20.

Belgium-Estonia In order to reach Belgium, the Estonian team took a ferry to Stockholm before driving the remaining distance (nearly 1,000 miles) through Sweden, Denmark, and Germany.  Unless Henin’s broken finger proves contagious, Kanepi & Co. will retrace their steps empty-handed.  Pick:  Belgium, 90-10.

Ukraine-Australia:  Fresh off her the biggest title of her career in Charleston, Stosur aims to collect all three wins that Australia will need to reclaim a position in the World Group.  Expect her to partner Stubbs in the doubles if necessary, but the comeback artist Alicia Molik can render that match irrelevant with a win over Koryttseva in the reverse singles.  With K-Bond absent and A-Bond slumping, the Ukrainians have few weapons that can threaten the Aussies.  Pick:  Australia, 75-25.

Germany-France:  This matchup might be the least predictable and most compelling (in a wacky way) among all of the weekend’s ties.  A Lisicki-less Germany seeks leadership from Petkovic–who should rise to the occasion–yet also needs support from Tatiana Malek and Julia Goerges–who might not.  We’re still trying to deduce why the Germans chose clay for the surface, which will blunt Petkovic’s blows without severely hindering the opposition.  Across the net stands Fed Cup enigma France, which generally displays the level of sturdiness associated with a ripe Camembert.  Behind a slumping, eccentric firecracker making her Fed Cup debut (Rezai), captain Nicolas Escude has mustered a player who has lost all eight of her Fed Cup matches (Cornet) and a player who has fallen in the qualifying rounds of five tournaments already this year (Pauline Parmentier).  Julie Coin actually might be the emotional anchor of this bateau.  A recipe for intrigue?  Definitely.  A recipe for victory?  Perhaps…or perhaps not.  Pick:  [Insert your country of choice here]. (In other words, we simply don’t know.)

Serbia-Slovakia:  Which absentee will be more sorely missed, Slovakia’s Cibulkova (groin injury) or Serbia’s Ivanovic, who wisely chose not to revisit the scene of February’s humiliation against Russia?  Although Cibulkova has been the better player of the two, the visitors enjoy substantially more depth and call upon the still-raw but certainly capable Magdalena Rybarikova., whereas the home team must lean almost entirely upon Jankovic to secure three wins.  Hampered by a sore wrist, the Indian Wells champion recently lost in Charleston to Hantuchova, whom she’ll encounter again in Belgrade.  Against Russia, she won both of her singles matches but proved unable to compensate for a lackluster partner (sorry, Ana!) in the doubles.  Even if the wrist pain allows her to participate, it’s reasonable to suspect that the same scenario might unfold here.  Pick: Slovakia, 65-35.

***

We’ll close this preview with a pair of relatively modest suggestions that might improve this sagging team competition for both spectators and participants.  First, reschedule the doubles match to the third rubber, as in Davis Cup; its current position as the final rubber renders it either utterly irrelevant (when the four singles are not split) or excessively important (all the eggs are in its basket).  By contrast, the third position would assure it neither too little nor too much significance as a potential swing match in the center of the weekend but not at its climax.  The second suggestion also stands for Davis Cup, which shares with Fed Cup a draw system that positions the two #1s in the first reverse singles and the two #2s in the second reverse singles.  Does it seem logical that the closest ties should be decided by the second-in-commands on both teams?  (This structure may in part be responsible for the bizarre sequences of events that so often define both competitions.)  If you’re an unbiased spectator looking for drama, would you want to see a 2-2 deadlock climax with Jovanovski-Rybarikova…or with Jankovic-Hantuchova?  If you’re a team captain or a national tennis federation representative, would you want Alla Kudryavtseva holding your flag with everything on the line…or Elena Dementieva?

Or, better yet, of course…

Does anyone remember whom Maria defeated in her Fed Cup debut?  Hint:  she’s retired now.

We’ll be back shortly with an ATP Rome preview, unless everyone of consequence follows the example of Del Potro, Davydenko, Roddick, and Gonzalez.  The city has a splashy new stadium, but will anyone come play in it?  At any rate, we’ll keep your cup filled with tennis over the next few days!

Russian Roulette: Mikhail Youzhny

First of all, thanks to my readers for your intriguing comments on my blog; it’s a pleasure to know what you’re thinking as you read these articles!  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on the subject of our third player profile, the mercurial Russian Mikhail Youzhny.  A sporadic threat to the game’s elite, “Misha” hasn’t quite established himself as a perennial contender but has developed a stylish, engaging game as well as a charmingly quirky victory salute (see above).  As with our previous profiles, we’ll begin by recalling five key achievements and five key disappointments in his career before outlining three strengths and three areas for improvement.  At the close, the profile will briefly discuss what to expect from Youzhny during the latter stages of what has been a rollercoaster career.

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2008 Australian Open:  Capitalizing on his title in China, Youzhny surged into the quarterfinals of the year’s first major on a medium-speed hard court that probably suits his game better than the surface at any other major.  Especially impressive was his dominant victory over Davydenko, since he never had defeated his higher-ranked compatriot and had long labored in the shadow of Safin as well as Kolya.  His loss to Tsonga in the quarters looked more than respectable in retrospect after the flamboyant Frenchman annihilated Nadal one round later.

4)  2009 Valencia:  After a season of erratic results and underachievement (see below), Youzhny enjoyed a stellar fall season that culminated in a finals appearance at this Mediterranean city.  En route to the Sunday title tilt with Murray, he demonstrated his stylistic versatility by ousting both Tsonga and Simon, two players with identical passports but almost antithetical games; few tools are lacking in an arsenal that can defuse the relentless aggression of one and the near-impenetrable defense of the other.  This torrid sequence of three finals in four tournaments vaulted him back into the top 20 and positioned him for a strong run early in 2010, momentum upon which he capitalized in Rotterdam and Dubai.

3)  2009 Kremlin Cup:  Just a few weeks before Valencia, Misha scored an emotional triumph at his home tournament with a comeback three-set win over Janko Tipsarevic.  Although this title awakened little attention outside the tennis world, one was impressed by his ability to rise to the occasion and deliver a stirring performance under the gaze of his compatriots, who always expect spectacular feats from their athletes. The injection of confidence here probably spurred Youzhny towards his success at the more prominent event  in Valencia, rekindling his competitive spark at a stage when his career seemed endangered after a series of injuries and early losses.  Casting a glance back at the moment, one can see how much it meant to him:

2)  2002 Davis Cup Final:  Two years before Sharapova, Myskina, Kuznetsova, and Dementieva burst onto the WTA stage with the fabled Russian Revolution, Youzhny led Tarpischev’s squad to the first Davis Cup title in Russian history, a portent of his nation’s future ascendancy throughout the decade.  In a competition typically rife with suspense and plot twists, he remains the only player to have rallied from a two-set deficit in the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final.  Then just 20 years old, Misha demonstrated exceptional maturity and poise in completing this comeback against the admittedly fragile Paul-Henri Mathieu.  Since that moment, however, his poise has been a shade less than impeccable, as we explore below.

1)  2006 US Open:  His best performance at any major, this semifinal run included a straight-sets demolition of Robredo and a four-set quarterfinal triumph over Nadal, who has frequently struggled against the Russian.  After splitting the first two sets with Rafa, Youzhny edged the third set in a tiebreak before racing to the finish line in a lopsided fourth set.  Meanwhile, he defeated the then-top-ranked Bryan brothers in the doubles draw, so one can conclude that this US Open witnessed some of the most sparkling tennis of his career thus far.

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2010 Dubai:  Against a tentative, slovenly Djokovic, Youzhny had an exceptional opportunity to win a title more significant than any of his former triumphs.  Despite the Serb’s 12 double faults and swarms of unforced errors, however, the Russian failed to produce his best tennis at the most important moments late in the third set, including a pair of squandered break points.  This loss looked even more disappointing considering his win over Djokovic in the Rotterdam tournament just before, where he had once again proven his ability to disconcert the ATP elite.

4)  2009 Davis Cup:  Falling to Israel in the first round, the Russian team of Andreev and Youzhny did little to justify its formidable reputation. accumulated in part from the 2002 championship that Misha had helped secure.  His stunning loss to Dudi Sela in the first day of singles prompted the disconsolate remark that his “luck fell away” after a strong first set.  Throughout the first half of last year, his luck indeed seemed to be in short supply as what was once a crisp, tightly organized game unraveled and stagnated.

3)  2009 Australian Open:  Youzhny won just seven games from Austrian journeyman Stefan Koubek during an ignnominious first-round loss in a tournament where he had burst into the quarterfinals during the previous year.  The high-bouncing, slightly slower courts in Melbourne should have allowed him to produce a far more imposing performance, but an upset at the hands of the world #183 signaled the inconsistency that has increased rather than decreased as his career has progressed.

2)  2007 Wimbledon: After seizing a two-set lead over Nadal on the greatest stage of all, Youzhny proved unable to close out the match as a result of an indifferent third set and later back spasms, which allowed the Spaniard to regain control.  Since he had just defeated Nadal at the previous US Open, this loss suggested that he might struggle to maintain his form against the top players.  Had he found a way to win one more set, the draw would have opened up and possibly allowed him to reach the semis or even the final.  Instead, he stumbled rather awkwardly on the grass:

1)  2008 Miami:  Probably the most (in)famous Youtube clip in tennis that season, Youzhny’s self-destructive racket smash over his own head earned him the wrong sort of publicity.  Lost in that masochistic moment, however, was the fact that he had allowed a lopsided match not only to become competitive but to (almost) slip out of his grasp.  Although he eventually won in a third-set tiebreak over an understandably disconcerted Almagro, this event telegraphed the crucial flaw of mental frailty under pressure, which had not surfaced earlier in his career.

Best of Three:  Strengths

1)  Backhand:  Rare among the forehand-centric ATP, Youzhny produces stronger, more confident tennis from his backhand, a shot that comes in as many flavors as Nadal’s forehand or Henin’s backhand.  There’s the flat down-the-line bomb, the crosscourt topspin looper, the low, biting slice, the chipped return-of-serve, and even the occasional drop shot, almost all of which are executed to perfection.  Whereas the forehand side remains vulnerable to unforced errors under pressure, the backhand stays steady throughout the match and offers him infinite ways to open up the court, keeping opponents off balance.  If coaching a player before a match against Youzhny, we would advise him to target the Russian’s forehand.  Such a major tactical adjustment from the conventional hit-to-backhand logic, however, complicates an opponent’s mindset and thus further aids Misha’s cause.  Here’s a look at the follow-through after the high-octane version of this unorthodox but lovely shot:

2) Net play:  An experienced doubles player, Youzhny expertly sallies forward when an opportunity opens for him and can dispatch even the most challenging volleys with ease.  Unlike many of this era’s baseline sluggers, he doesn’t need to hit a near-winner on an approach shot in order to finish a point at the net.  His deft hands, swift reflexes, and excellent footwork thwart all but the best-placed passing shots and force opponents out of the “two-pass” model often witnessed today.  The main idea of this tactic, performed most artfully by Murray, is to hit a dipping but relatively safe pass on the first opportunity, induce a clumsy volley that pops up and sits in the middle of the court, and then put away a routine winner past the frozen net player.  If you don’t pass Youzhny immediately, though, he likely will execute a volley difficult to retrieve that will set up a weak second pass and an easier second volley.  Opponents thus should use the one-pass model against him, yet it increases the risk of unforced errors.  In this glimpse of his textbook technique on the backhand volley, note his balanced body weight, well-planted feet, forward momentum, natural arm motion, and crisp focus:

3)  Point construction / shot selection:  Except when he’s under extreme pressure, Youzhny displays a superb tennis IQ and instinctively knows how best to discomfit his opponent at any given moment.  As demonstrated by his multifaceted backhand, the versatility and consistency of his game allows him to construct points in which he gradually probes his foe’s weaknesses, pushes them back, and opens up angles, rather than going immediately for a seismic blow.  Watching him develop a rally like a chess grandmaster, one sometimes feels that nothing is really happening because neither player seems to have clearly seized the upper hand.  Then, he’ll abruptly wrong-foot the opponent and clean a line with a pinpoint backhand, or creep slowly forward towards the net and catch his opponent unprepared to hit a pass.  This subtlety and nuance may wear him down physically more than stronger players (in fact, he has endured more than the average number of injuries), but it gives him more options when he’s not at his best.  Moreover, it’s easier to play oneself into a rhythm in this fluid style of play than in the ”bang-bang, bye-bye” style of the most savage sluggers, so he should be more able to work his way out of rough patches during the course of a match.

Worst of Three:  Flaws

1)  Response to pressure:  Youzhny’s mental fragility emerged during the 2007 Davis Cup final against the American team, during which he played Blake in the second rubber.  After losing the first two sets, he rebounded to take the third set, force the fourth set to a tiebreak, and capture a mini-break lead there.  At that  stage, this viewer recalled his miraculous comeback from a two-set deficit in the 2002 Davis Cup final and sensed that history might repeat itself.  But the Russian then donated a rare unforced error on his backhand to surrender the mini-break, dumped a passive drop shot in the net, and meekly handed back the initiative to Blake, who closed out the tiebreak rather handily.   In the 2010 Dubai final against Djokovic, Youzhny crumbled at a critical point in the opposite fashion.  Rallying after losing the first set to force a decider, he held the upper hand for most of the third set until he earned two break points on Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game.  Instead of patiently constructing the rallies in his usual manner, he stepped out of his comfort zone by unleashing two reckless, errant forehands; the Serb capitalized on the reprieve to hold serve and soon closed out the final.  Juxtaposing these two performances, one realizes that Youzhny hasn’t discovered a balanced response to the pressure that he encounters in important matches.  Either the Russian’s overly conservative play allows his opponent to catch his breath and seize the initiative, or his premature aggression rushes himself out of the opportunity.  And then there are the Safin-esque histrionics, which only underscore his pscyhological insecurity:

2)  Holding serve:  Unlike most top players, Youzhny rarely yawns through comfortable service games, partly as a result of his relatively unimposing serve and partly because he lacks an overpowering weapon with which to instantly end a point as soon as he gains control of it.  Consequently, he’s among the easiest players to break in the top 20 and often must rely upon his sturdy return game to compensate.  Sometimes, however, it’s not quite enough, as was demonstrated by a straight-sets loss to Soderling in Miami this year that featured no fewer than nine breaks of serve in seventeen total games; impressively breaking the Swede three times in two sets, Youzhny should have been able to force a third set or at least a tiebreak.  On other occasions, his adventurous service games don’t cost him a match but do cost him significant physical and emotional energy.  During the final set of his first-round match against Gasquet at this year’s Australian Open, he repeatedly failed to consolidate a break advantage and traded breaks with the Frenchman all the way to a nerve-jangling conclusion.  If Gasquet hadn’t served second, it’s hard to know what might have happened; one of the ATP’s elite, by contrast, probably would have grabbed the momentum after the first break and closed out the match with minimal ado.  The method to Youzhny’s madness is more entertaining but also more exhausting.

3)  Winning matches that he should win:  How many players have scored multiple wins over Rafael Nadal and suffered multiple losses to Teimuraz Gabashvili?  Not many, we suspect.  The principal reason why we chose the title “Russian Roulette” for this article was because one never knows quite what to expect from Youzhny on any given day.  Over the last few years, he has not only defeated Nadal, Djokovic, Davydenko, and Soderling but has lost to Chiudinelli, Hernych, Zverev, Lapentti, Llodra, Benneteau, and Stakhovsky–not really a murderer’s row.  In order to establish himself as a consistent threat in the last few years of his career, he needs to avoid bizarre losses such as these in the early rounds of major events, which impede his efforts to consolidate momentum and build confidence.  One of the key differences between a good player and a great player is the ability to persevere and find a way to win over an unremarkable opponent even when they’re playing below their normal level and that opponent is playing above their normal level.  If he can address the first two points on this list, though, this issue might resolve itself naturally.

Recap and projection:

Already 27, Youzhny probably has most of his best tennis behind him, since his all-court game doesn’t age especially well in comparison with more serve-oriented (and more boring) styles.  He’ll probably reach the second week at Slams on a few more occasions, but another semifinal or a final probably are beyond his reach at this stage; we think that he’s better suited for a best-of-3 than a best-of-5 format.  At Masters events, we could see him reaching some quarters and semis if the draw proves accomodating, but he’ll probably never see a shield next to his name.  On the other hand, he’ll definitely be a contender at many of the slightly less intense 500-level events for the foreseeable future.  Moreover, Youzhny will pose a nuanced challenge to his higher-ranked peers on any occasion when his game reaches its scintillating best.  Even when he’s not playing a marquee name, however, it’s worth visiting the side courts to see one of the most explosive backhands and personalities in the ATP.

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Hope that you enjoyed this player profile!  :)   We’ve already planned a highly entertaining topic for the fourth article in this series, which focuses on players who hover in the shadowy area between contender and pretender.

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder: Clay Edition

It’s always a pleasure to contemplate Henin’s exquisite all-court game, especially on the surface where she has won four of her seven majors.  Although the petite Belgian hasn’t played on clay since Berlin 2008 and claims to be have recentered her game around grass, she’ll be one of the main focal points during the next several weeks.  Can she and Nadal reclaim their long-lived mastery of Roland Garros?  This question and four (actually, five!) others are addressed straight ahead.

1)  Will the king and queen be crowned again?  Despite Monte Carlo’s depleted field, we were highly impressed with the composed, merciless Rafa who systematically dismantled the draw.  To the dismay of his rivals, he appears to have recaptured the inner confidence that flickered throughout the past year.  Never was this fact more visible than in the final, a match that he couldn’t afford to lose (odd as it may sound); revealing no signs of pressure at all, he played with conviction and a determination not to allow Verdasco a ray of hope.  The post-injury Rafa hasn’t yet proven that he can defeat the likes of Federer, Del Potro, or Soderling, but the early omens are excellent.

Unlike Nadal, Henin voluntarily abdicated her throne without a legitimate successor.  Watching Justine’s retooled style on the hard courts, we wondered whether her enhanced aggression would diminish her chances on a surface designed for longer points.  Against a battered WTA lacking in clay-court specialists, though, it’s hard to imagine more than a handful of players who could trouble her on it.  Safina will be rusty after a long absence, Kuznetsova is nursing a shoulder injury and has underwhelmed this year, Clijsters looked hapless in Marbella, Venus rarely makes an impact at Roland Garros, Jankovic hasn’t defeated Henin in nine attempts (think Verdasco-Nadal), Dementieva already has lost twice to her this year, and the Wozniacki-Azarenka generation still seems intimidated by the veterans.   Her greatest potential challenges might come from Serena and Sharapova, two players who have both the weapons and the self-belief to trouble her on any surface; however, neither of them can be expected to perform at their best until (at least) Wimbledon.  Who else is there?  We think that Henin is even more likely than Nadal to dazzle on the final weekend in Paris.

2)  Will injuries play more or less of a role on this surface?  The extended, grinding points played on clay test fitness more than do the staccato shootouts that so often develop on hard courts.  On the other hand, the softer surface will be gentler on sore joints and perhaps allow players such as Soderling or Del Potro to regain their rhythm with minimal aggravation.  We’ll be curious to observe the trends in withdrawals and retirements during the events in Rome and Madrid, where many of the recent absentees will be tentatively testing their repaired wheels.

3)  Will another Soderling find unexpected glory?  After winning one lone game against Nadal in Rome, the Swede abruptly scored The Greatest Upset Ever and has been soaring ever since.  (By the way, it’s curious how Nadal both won the Greatest Match Ever and was the victim in the Greatest Upset Ever.)  Less loudly, Stosur achieved a significant breakthrough with her semifinal run in Paris and likewise has capitalized on it to establish herself as a permanent threat.  We’ll keep our eyes on anyone who strings together a few surprises, aware that they might be a genuine contender in 2011.  At the moment, the WTA looks more open than the ATP to the rise of a dark horse; perhaps a name like Pennetta, Wickmayer, or Szavay will forge a path deep into the Paris draw.

4)  How much will the clay specialists trouble the top seeds?  Quite a bit, if Monte Carlo is any judge.  It’s doubtful that Cilic loses to Montanes, Tsonga loses to Ferrero, or Berdych loses to Verdasco on a surface other than clay, while Ferrer won’t reach many Masters 1000 semifinals on a hard court.  Cilic did defeat clay-court warrior Andreev, and Tsonga outlasted dirt devil Almagro, but the draws ahead will be about more than just the boldfaced names; unexpected pitfalls and ambushes will spring from players who struggle to win consecutive matches for much of the season.  Since few of them are seeded, early rounds often will be more dramatic than the usual straight-set yawners. (This issue applies almost exclusively to the ATP, for clay-court specialists are rapidly plunging towards extinction in the WTA.  Standard hard-court tennis won the Charleston title for Stosur without the loss of a set.)

5)  How much will momentum from Indian Wells and Miami matter?  Maybe not so much in the case of ATP Miami champion Roddick, whose next major target will be Wimbledon.  Not so much either in the case of Indian Wells champion Ljubicic, whose title represented an overdue career highlight rather than a foundation for the future.  But it might matter for Jankovic, who was struggling mightily until her triumph in the desert and always has felt comfortable on the clay.  Another beneficiary could be Venus, who found a way to reach the Miami final despite playing far from her best; similar tenacity and determination would benefit her in Europe.  Following his run in Key Biscayne, Berdych played confident tennis and consistently displayed positive body language in Monte Carlo.  Could we be watching a permanently transformed Czech?  Of course, Soderling’s consecutive semifinals augur well for him, but he has demonstrated that he can beat, um, just about anyone at Roland Garros.

There’s also the possible impact of negative psychological detritus, especially relevant in the cases of Federer, Djokovic, and Murray.  It’s unlikely that Federer will suffer from memories of Baghdatis and Berdych, since he rebounded brilliantly from early losses at these events in 2007.  In Monte Carlo, the Scot reminded us why he’s rarely a serious contender on clay, but he has many more issues at the moment than what’s under his feet, and most of his problems date from Australia.  After impressive wins over Wawrinka and Nalbandian, Djokovic regressed in a dismal loss against Verdasco.  He’s not anywhere near the level where he was at this stage last year, yet the clay suits his increasingly florid strokes and will be an ideal setting to rediscover his serving rhythm.

5+1)  Will matches be more competitive or more lopsided?  On clay, it’s significantly easier to break an opponent’s serve, since fewer points are won on that shot alone.  This distinctive feature could lead to one of two opposite outcomes.  On one hand, players will have more opportunities to rally from a deficit than on hard courts, where a set-and-break lead for a decent server usually makes us hit the snooze button until the next match.   On the other hand, a player who struggles with consistency or who is enduring a mediocre day won’t be able to rest secure in the knowledge that he can collect sufficient cheap points and easy holds to save himself from a humiliating scoreline.   It’ll be curious to see whether epics or routs more frequently develop in matches not involving the top seeds.

***

Mixing together all of these intriguing plotlines, we’re hoping for a clay season as delicious as Maria’s chocolate chip cookies!

Moment of Truth: Monte Carlo Final Preview (+ Charleston Final Preview)

Banishing an oddly listless Djokovic from the playground of princes, Verdasco reached his first career Masters 1000 final in impressive fashion.  He’ll need to produce a career highlight in order to overcome the intent Nadal, who increasingly resembles the four-time French Open champion long invincible on this surface.  Yet Rafa hasn’t won a title since Rome nearly a year ago, so this championship match represents a moment of truth for him in a sense.  The only player to whom he could respectably lose here was Djokovic; if he wavers against Verdasco, we’ll know that his much-coveted “calm” hasn’t yet returned and that he’s still a bit edgy in the crucial moments.  If he delivers another confident, suffocating performance, however, he could put himself in position for another blazing clay season.  We’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo final and a briefer look at the Charleston final:

Head-to-head:    The statistics are staggering.  Nadal not only leads the overall series 9-0 but has lost just 3 of 23 total sets and has won all nine sets that they’ve played on clay.  Only one occasion did the second-best Spanish lefty challenge Rafa:  their 2009 Australian Open semifinal, during which Verdasco came within six points of victory before falling just short.  Probably more relevant to this match, however, are their two clay quarterfinals last year in Rome and Madrid, both won in straight sets by Nadal.

Recent form:  A little shaky at the start of 2010, Nadal steadily raised his level on the North American hard courts and has raced through the draw here without dropping a set.  (However, to be frank, his draw wouldn’t have been much friendlier had Uncle Toni personally designed it.)  Thumped by Berdych in Indian Wells, Verdasco scored an impressive win over Cilic in Miami before his breakthrough run here.  It’s worth noting that he has toppled more imposing opponents (including Berdych and Djokovic) than has Nadal, so his arrival here is no accident.

Two pieces of advice for Verdasco: 

1)  Relax.  All of the pressure in this match rests squarely on Nadal’s shoulders, for whom anything less than a win would be inexcusable.  Few would have expected Verdasco to reach this point, so he has nothing at all to prove on Sunday and can swing freely, knowing that he has overachieved here regardless of what happens.

2)  Sit on the power button.  As Soderling, Del Potro and to a lesser extent Djokovic have shown, the way to tackle Nadal is to bury him under a barrage of flat, deep baseline bombs.  Verdasco’s forehand-centric style differs from the symmetrical groundstroke game of those players, but he’ll want to take massive swings whenever possible.  Cleverness and subtlety play straight into Rafa’s hands.

Two pieces of advice for Nadal:

1)  Stay focused.  Mental lapses cost Rafa dearly at both of the first two Masters 1000 events this year; neither Ljubicic nor Roddick seemed to have a chance until the Spaniard handed one to them.  Although he might well recover from a donation or two against Verdasco (generally rather charitable himself), this habit needs to die a swift death before he settles into such a routine regularly.  This match offers an excellent opportunity for him to prove–not to us, but to himself and to his opponents–that he can maintain his intensity through an entire match against a top player.

2)  Pin Verdasco behind the baseline.  If this match turns into a war of attrition and stamina, Nadal will have a distinct edge, since he’s far more consistent and arguably more fit than his compatriot.  He doesn’t need to do anything extraordinary to win, just to make sure that Verdasco doesn’t do anything extraordinary.  The best means to pre-empt a flashy string of winners is to keep Fernando at a distance from which he can’t hit winners with margin and will become reckless in frustrated impatience.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Verdasco

Return:  Nadal, slightly (although Verdasco is more aggressive, Nadal makes fewer errors on it, which better suits clay)

Forehand:  Nadal, slightly (Nadal’s greater versatility trumps Verdasco’s greater power on clay)

Backhand:  Nadal

Volleys:  Both

Movement:  Nadal

Mental:  Nadal

Pic(k):

***

Shifting back to Charleston across the volcanic plume, here’s a briefer preview of the final there between Zvonareva and Stosur:

Head-to-head:  Stosur has won their last four meetings, while Zvonareva hasn’t defeated her since 2004, but they’ve never played on clay.  Probably the only meaningful meeting occurred last month in Indian Wells, when the Australian halted Vera’s title defense in straight sets.  Injuries and illness have played significant roles in both of their careers, and it’s hard to recall which one was ailing at any given moment in their earlier matches.  Even when Stosur was the lower-ranked player, though, she enjoyed success against Zvonareva.

Recent form:  Dropping just 14 games in the entire tournament, Zvonareva should feel quite fresh following Wozniacki’s semifinal retirement.  In only one of her seven sets this week did the Russian lose more than two games, suggesting that she may be back on track after recent hard-court disappointments.  The event’s informal atmosphere suits her relaxed personality, enabling her to play without the pressure that so often cripples her at major tournaments.  Meanwhile, Stosur saved two set points and rallied impressively from a 2-5 deficit in the second set of her semifinal against Hantuchova, but she hasn’t lost a set this week either.  All three of her losses in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami came against the eventual champions in those events, so a superb performance is required to navigate past her.  It’s clear that (bar injury) she’ll remain near the top of the women’s game for the foreseeable future.

Two pieces of advice for Stosur:

1)  Vary rhythm and pace.  A sturdy, consistent baseliner, Zvonareva would settle into a comfortable rhythm if she can trade flat, crisp groundstrokes from a respectable distance.  Stosur needs to find ways to disrupt the Russian’s timing and footwork, both among her greatest strengths; backhand slices, chipped returns, and heavy topspin forehands are a few of the weapons that she could deploy.

2)  Finish points at the net.   Another way in which Stosur can ruffle the fragile Zvonareva is by cutting points short and charging the net whenever she has an opening to exploit her excellent volleying skills.  This arhythmic style flustered Hantuchova at crucial moments in the semifinal by rushing her out of her comfort zone.  Less leisurely than the Slovak, Zvonareva nevertheless prefers a more flowing style of rally.

Two pieces of advice for Zvonareva: 

1)  Extend the rallies.  Far more consistent than the Australian, the Russian has a significant advantage in the longer points.  She won’t want to go for too much too soon and definitely will want to target Stosur’s unimposing backhand; crosscourt backhand-to-backhand exchanges will reap rewards for her.  As long as the points are played in a conventional manner from the baseline, Zvonareva should be able to wear down Stosur and expose her asymmetrical groundstroke game as well as her questionable movement.  Here, the green clay will serve Vera’s purpose much better than did the hard courts on which she previously has played Stosur.

2)  Stay positive.  Notorious for tearful tantrums, Zvonareva rarely has responded well to adversity and repeatedly has allowed minor setbacks to permanently derail her concentration (cf. her US Open loss to Pennetta last year).  When she’s achieved her best results (cf. her Indian Wells title run last year), her calm demeanor mirrors her crisp, precisely measured groundstrokes.  The Australian’s fast-paced game encourages momentum to mushroom in either direction, so Vera will need to stay as composed and self-assured as she has for most of the week.   There will be stretches when Stosur’s serve is clicking relentlessly, but there also will be stretches when her game unravels wildly.  Zvonareva should accept the inevitability of the former situations, steel herself to survive them, remind herself that opportunities inevitably will arise, and concentrate on exploiting them when they do.

Shot-by-shot breakdown: 

Serve:  Stosur

Return:  Zvonareva (less powerful but more reliable = better on clay)

Forehand:  Stosur

Backhand:  Zvonareva

Volleys:  Stosur

Movement:  Zvonareva

Mental:  Neither (Stosur historically is a dismal performer in finals, but Zvonareva has the reputation sketched above)

As you can tell from this dissection, the matchup is quite difficult to call.  It’s our job, though, so…

Pic(k):

We’re nominating Vera for the most beautiful eyes in women’s tennis.  Here’s a glimpse of her greatest triumph, by the way:

We’re so sorry that someone else happens to be in the picture.  ;)

As they say in Monte Carlo, a bientot…