Peter Bodo: Serena Williams

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Serena Williams is still on track to begin the defense of her WTA Miami Premier title in Key Biscayne, Florida, although she knows she probably will have to manage persistent pain in her right knee.

Her opponents will have to manage the persistent pain of going toe-to-toe with perhaps the greatest female tennis player who ever lived, on a court where she’s already won the title seven times -- a court that represents the green, green asphalt of home.

If you’re Romania’s Monica Niculescu, who gets to play Serena for the second time in a Premier event in the span of two weeks, you’re probably giving thanks that Serena had a first-round bye, so that your trip to Miami wasn’t a complete waste of time. Or you may be wondering why fellow countrywoman Simona Halep has all the luck. She advanced to the final of Indian Wells last week when Serena pulled out of that tournament shortly before their scheduled semifinal meeting with a tender right knee.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Al Bello/Getty ImagesSerena Williams has won the Miami Open a remarkable seven times.

“I didn't think I would be doing this interview today,” Williams told reporters the other day. She explained that she’s still receiving treatment and experiencing pain in the damaged knee. However, this being Miami, her mood improved substantially and her plans changed when she first picked up a racket again earlier this week. “I stepped on the court and I was just like, ‘I love this place.’ You know, I love playing at home. I live just down the road.”

In fact, if you laid the women Serena has beaten end-to-end, the line would probably stretch from Crandon Park to Serena’s home in West Palm Beach, meaning the five women who have beaten her in Miami comprise a special sorority.

Those women are, starting with the most recent winner: Caroline Wozniacki (2012 quarterfinals), Victoria Azarenka (2009 final), Venus Williams (1999 final; quarterfinals of 2005), Jennifer Capriati (2000 fourth round; 2001 quarterfinals) and Martina Hingis (1998 quarterfinals).

Before you Capriati fans start yelling, “You go, girl!” let me remind you that after that loss in 2001, Serena won her first Miami title the following year, and then defended successfully in 2003. Guess who she beat in both of those finals?

Since Serena bagged that first title, she’s made it to the final every year she entered but three. And she’s been pretty effective in general against the women who have stopped her in Miami. Capriati is five years older and had an advantage in her prime. She also left the game at the relatively young age of 28, denying a mature Serena more chances. Serena still came out on top, 10-7.

Venus? Serena leads that head-to-head 14-11, but the sister vs. sister dynamic was always a little weird. Wozniacki’s win over Serena in Miami was the Dane’s only triumph in 11 matches, and the only thing that can make Azarenka feel better about her 3-14 record against Serena is that Maria Sharapova hasn’t beaten the world No. 1 at all in 10 years (and is 2-17 overall). It’s all relative with Serena, right?

It’s no wonder Serena said in her presser: “I don't feel any pressure because I have won this title a few times, so I feel good about being here. When I hit on the court today, just something about Miami, you know. I just feel so good out here.”

Interested in some other details regarding Serena’s performances in Miami?

She has four wins over Sharapova in Miami and has lost just one set to the Russian.

Serena’s very first win in the Miami main draw was over the Czech Republic’s Denisa Chladkova, who was ranked No. 59. Serena won 6-4, 6-0. Chladkova is 36 years old now and still playing.

In 1999, at age 18, Serena defeated then No. 3 Monica Seles and No. 1 Martina Hingis, but she didn’t win the tournament. Venus stopped Serena’s run in the final 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

Serena played former No. 1 and two-time US Open champ Kim Clijsters in Miami just twice. Clijsters never got closer in any set than losing 6-4 -- and that was just once.

The lowest-ranked player Serena ever defeated in Miami was No. 171 Zhang Shuai of China (second round, 2012). Zhang got five games in that one, three more than Clijsters collected in her first Miami meeting with Serena.

On two occasions, Serena lost to the world No. 1-ranked player only to bounce back the following year to beat the same woman. In 1998, the first year Serena played in the main draw, she lost a heartbreaking third-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinal to No. 1 Hingis. But with another year of experience under her belt, Serena beat No. 1 Hingis in straight sets in the 1999 semis.

The last time Serena played a No. 1-ranked woman was Justine Henin in 2008. Serena clobbered her 6-2, 6-0. The previous year, Serena had scratched out a tough, three-set final win over Henin.

Capriati was also No. 1 in 2002 when Serena finally got the best of her after a pair of losses in Miami. That year, Serena dispatched No. 3 Hingis in the quarters, No. 2 Venus Williams in the semis and top-ranked Capriati in the final.

Serena has never beaten any player love-and-love in Miami, but she logged the first of the three matches in which she lost just one game in her seventh main-draw match -- a 6-1, 6-0 win over then No. 25 Magui Serna of Spain.

There’s always a new goal to shoot for, right?

How Dr. Ivo makes a sweet living

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
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Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s only racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details recently generated by the sport.

Maybe it is all in Ivo’s head: Statistics in tennis tend to underscore how critical the “mental game” is to success. Take the “first-serve points won” numbers. The difference between 2015 tour leader Ivo Karlovic and second-place Milos Raonic is just two percentage points. (Karlovic was successful 85 percent of the time in 17 matches; Raonic won 83 percent in 14 matches.)

[+] EnlargeIvo Karlovic
Mal Fairclough/AFP/Getty ImagesIvo Karlovic not only serves huge, but he serves huge in clutch situations.

Roger Federer is No. 3 on that list with 81 percent in 12 matches. Three men, Sam Querrey, Tomas Berdych and Gilles Muller are all one measly percentage point behind Federer. The statistical margins in tennis tend to be very slim, as many as five or six players are often deadlocked with identical numbers.

Thus, Karlovic’s utter dominance in the “break points saved” category is striking. Going into Indian Wells (where the big fella lost to Steve Johnson), Karlovic had successfully fended off 90 percent of the break points he faced (57 of 63 in 17 matches). The next man on the list is Federer, who’s at 77 percent (33 of 43 in 12 matches). That’s an enormous gap that can’t simply be explained away by the fact that Ivo has a monster serve. Mullers does, too. And if Federer doesn’t, he’s certainly the craftiest server out there.

Karlovic got off to a great start this year, and this statistic helps explain why. He has served his best when he’s needed it most. And that’s not something everyone can do.

The Kournikova Factor: Anna Kournikova, the most frequently searched “term” on the Internet at one point back around the turn of the century, took a lot of criticism for never having won a WTA tournament. People simply forgot -- or preferred to ignore -- the fact that she was a Wimbledon singles semifinalist (1997) who was ranked as high as No. 8 in singles (2000) and No. 1 in doubles. If you had to choose, would you take the career of, oh, Karin Knapp (she won Tashkent last year) over Kournikova’s?

Anyway, the data miners over at the Tennis Abstract have searched out the best players who have yet to win a WTA event. The top five, starting with the highest ranked: No. 19 Shuai Peng of China, No. 30 Varvara Lepchenko, No. 32 Zarina Diyas, No. 33 Camila Giorgi and No. 35 Casey Dellacqua.

One name jumps out of that list of frustrated contenders -- No. 42 Sloane Stephens. She will have to wait longer after losing to Serena Williams in three sets at Indian Wells.

He actually does bleed red: Switzerland’s failure to defend the Davis Cup in a first-round tie with lowly Belgium a few weeks ago was a non-story. But we ought to acknowledge that the Swiss B-team, which is also the nation's C, D, E and F team, acquitted themselves honorably, forcing the host team to a fifth-and-decisive rubber to secure the 3-2 win.

Some complained about Federer's and Stan Wawrinka’s apparent lack of tennis patriotism when they chose to skip the tie. While it certainly looked like the two stars had secured the trophy for the Swiss for the first time merely so they could check off the accomplishment on a career bucket list, the reality is both men have given much to the Davis Cup through the years. Federer is 50-17 overall, 38-8 in singles. Wawrinka is 25-25, 21-13 in singles.

So let’s compare the numbers of some recently retired stars to see how they match up. Boris Becker of Germany was 54-12 (38-3 in singles), Andre Agassi was 30-6 (all in singles), Pete Sampras went 19-9 (15-8), while Andy Roddick was 33-12 (all in singles). Bjorn Borg was 45-11 (35-3). Among active players, most of whom are at least four years younger than Federer, Rafael Nadal is 24-5 (21-1), Novak Djokovic is 30-9 (27-7) and Andy Murray is 25-7 (21-2).

It doesn’t look like Federer owes Switzerland anything, does it?

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This is the most significant month of the year for American tennis players not named Williams. The prestigious 10-day hard-court combined events at Indian Wells and Miami offer players from the U.S. a familiar surface, the support of fellow countrymen and all the comforts associated with home, such as free Wi-Fi and drive-through fast food.

Trouble is, while Serena Williams or Roger Federer can grouse about how lonely it is at the top, it’s nothing compared to the crowded, desperate, cannibalistic conditions at the bottom. And that’s exactly where the bulk of American players currently toil -- albeit with good luck through the first two rounds at Indian Wells.

U.S. women went 13-11 through the first two full rounds of play. In a stroke of good fortune, there was only one first-round family feud between homegrown players (the same was true in the men’s draw). On the WTA side, 18-year-old Taylor Townsend won a battle of the wild cards 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 over Bethanie Mattek-Sands .

This looms as a potentially pivotal year for the left-handed Townsend, who made the third round at the French Open and won two ITF singles titles last year. As for Mattek-Sands, who turns 30 on March 23, she’s still trying to dial in her singles game after missing most of last year following hip surgery.

[+] EnlargeSloane Stephens
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSloane Stephens looks like she might finally be enjoying tennis again.

The second round produced one All-American WTA clash as well. After a noteworthy first-round win over Alla Kudryavtseva, wild card Sachia Vickery ran afoul of the No. 26 seed (and thus bye-holder) Varvara Lepchenko, who looked strong in logging a smooth straight-sets win.

The other U.S. women who survived the first round (we won’t count bye-holders) were Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske, Irina Falconi, Lauren Davis, Christina McHale and Madison Brengle. By the end of Round 2, though, only five remained: top-seed Serena Williams, No. 16 Madison Keys, Lepchenko, No. 30 seed Coco Vandeweghe and Stephens.

Keys is playing in her first event since her breakout Australian Open. After she won her first match over Klara Koukalova, the American was asked by the media how her life has changed in the wake of her sensational performance Down Under. She replied: “It’s pretty similar to before. I get recognized a couple times. It's the same. … As great as Australia was, I’m just trying to build from it and keep going and not just be really happy with what happened there.”

However, it was Stephens who made the most pronounced statement on the court among the U.S. women thus far. She knocked out No. 13 seed Angelique Kerber. Stephens has struggled after hitting a career-high singles ranking of No. 11 in October 2013. She’s outside the seeded group at No. 42. And she’s been criticized for getting lost in the funhouse since she shot to stardom with a resonant upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open of 2013.

True, Kerber has been in a swoon for some time now, but the win was tonic for Stephens, who late Sunday backed it up, advancing to the fourth round with a good win over two-time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova.

On the ATP side, it seemed a pity that the only clash between Yanks had resurgent Ryan Harrison meeting Mardy Fish, who was playing his first ATP match in more than 18 months -- and has spent the past three years battling somewhat mysterious heart and anxiety-related problems. Harrison survived two match points and won it in a 2 hour three-set marathon.

A four-time ATP Masters 1000 finalist (albeit never a winner), Fish has the strongest résumé of any active male American player and could probably still carve out a place for himself at or very close to the top of the American game -- if he can put in the time. Sure he’s 33 years old, but so is Roger Federer.

The encouraging news is that he’s been problem-free for more than three months. After the loss, Fish told reporters: “I worked extremely hard to put myself in the best position to not have to worry about things when I was out there. If I was out of shape or if I didn't feel well or if it was going to be a long match or a hot match or something like that, when a lot more things creep into your head.”

A pair of first-round matches that occurred simultaneously provided us with sharp images of a brace of American players heading in opposite directions. Sam Querrey seemed to have thing under control after winning the first set of his match with Sergiy Stakhovsky, but Querrey allowed the 29-year-old Ukrainian to turn the tables. By the end of the 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss, Querrey was in a funk.

[+] EnlargeDonald Young
Harry How/Getty ImagesA mature Donald Young has played the best tennis of his career so far in 2015.

While Querrey was wasting his chances, energetic Steve Johnson was putting the finishing touches on a crisp 6-2, 6-3 win over Marcel Granollers. Presently ranked No. 44, Johnson keeps accumulating experience and getting better at defending and even retaliating with his vulnerable one-handed backhand.

The overall record for U.S. players on the ATP after the first two rounds is 9-5 -- thanks largely to three rousing wins Sunday. Donald Young got the ball rolling with a convincing 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 31 seed Jeremy Chardy. Jack Sock showed great poise in fending off a match point in the course of dismissing Gilles Muller, and Johnson built on his good start with a win over No. 21 seed Ivo Karlovic.

Johnson told reporters after his first win: “Everything has just kind of come together. You put in a lot of time and a lot of aches and pains. … Once it kind of all kind of clicks and comes together, it's fun.”

Young put his emphasis on the mental aspects of the game: “The way I see myself [now] is totally different. I think I'm fighting a little better on the court and competing. I kind of know myself a little better than I did in the past. All those things combined, coming together on a more consistent basis, is helping out quite a bit.”

Sock, who deferred his planned return from hip surgery in December by almost a full month (he originally was to play first in Memphis), told reporters Thursday, “I had been practicing and working out, but there were still a few things that I wanted to polish up before coming out. I didn't want to put myself at 85 percent and put myself at risk for anything going out there [earlier], because obviously when the match starts there's no really going back.”

With Serena and Stephens on a roll, and a trio of U.S. men joining No. 18 seed John Isner in the third round, the outlook at the start of the big month is red, white and rosy.

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Two years ago, those rueing the demise of American men’s tennis could take some comfort in the fact that the U.S. women were still a force in the upper reaches of the game.

Serena Williams was queen of all she surveyed, and -- better yet -- it seemed that she would have a worthy, if not exactly comparable, successor. In August 2012, skillful 20-year-old newcomer Christina McHale was knocking on the door of the top 20. By early January 2013, Varvara Lepchenko hit No. 21 in the rankings. A few weeks later, highly touted Sloane Stephens upset Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Stephens, then 19, would go on to make the Sweet 16 (fourth round) or better at every other Grand Slam event as well that year. And there were other promising players in the top 100, including Jamie Hampton, Coco Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis.

Now, two years later, the closest thing the U.S. has to a legitimate successor to Serena Williams is -- at least going by the Week 1 results on the WTA Tour -- Venus Williams. That’s right. Venus, 34, a winner last week in Auckland. Serena’s older sister. Can your older sibling be your “successor"? I sure hope so, because if it weren’t for that possibility, it appears we would have none at all.

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Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesAlison Riske has showed she isn't afraid of the big moment since arriving on the WTA Tour.
While Venus was busy winning Auckland, Stephens was losing in the same event to Davis, who then lost to ... Venus. It was fitting to the point of symbolism. If you’re from the U.S., you’d better hope the Williams sisters can play singles into their 40s or 50s. Maybe beyond.

Right now, Serena is ranked No. 1 and Venus is No. 18. Lepchenko, one of the few bright spots last week (she made the semis in Brisbane), is next at No. 30. Stephens is down to No. 34, and McHale is languishing at No. 53. OK, it’s time to bring in some new, potential inheritors -- this time a trio that is moving in the right direction: Madison Keys, Vandeweghe and Alison Riske.

Keys is just a few ticks behind Lepchenko, a 28-year-old naturalized citizen (native of Uzbekistan) at No. 33. That’s already one ranking place better than Stephens, while Vandeweghe is breathing down Stephens’ neck at No. 37, and Riske also is in striking distance at 42.

Among these women, Keys appears to have the most upside. Just 19 years old, she’s now working with a Hall of Fame player (and fellow countrywoman) with whom she has much in common as an athlete: Lindsay Davenport.

Davenport may be 4 inches taller, but Keys is no shrimp at 5-foot-10. She’s also built on a similar, large frame. According to Keys, she and Davenport have already done some valuable work on an issue of major concern for almost every big player: movement. As if to punctuate their success, Keys upset Dominika Cibulkova -- one of the best movers on the tour -- last week in the first round of Brisbane.

Keys is also trying to master that champion’s knack for winning when she isn’t playing her A-game. As she said after her win over Cibulkova: “So I think just having a more consistent game, and when I'm not playing my best, having a B-game or C-game -- that isn't terrible. [Whether] I'm playing really well or I'm playing badly, [I’m] trying to find a middle ground for the days where it's not working."

Like Keys, Vandeweghe won her first WTA title on grass last year. (Keys won at Eastbourne, Vandeweghe at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.) Just 23 and a gifted athlete, Vandeweghe was outside the direct-acceptance ranking at the end of 2013 (No. 110), but she quietly vaulted all the way to No. 38 through the course of last year.

At 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, Vandeweghe is even closer to the Davenport model than Keys. She’s explosive and armed with a dangerous serve, eventual strengths that may have held her back while she was still growing and struggling to make all those moving parts act in concert. But Vandeweghe has matured and become more consistent. It seems her game and body are in greater sync now.

Riske, 24, more or less came out of nowhere -- deciding at the last moment to pass up a college scholarship in 2009 in favor of trying her hand on the WTA Tour. A hardworking, independent-minded player of 5-foot-9, Riske made her breakthrough in 2013. She bolted from No. 179 to No. 57. This is a player who will wring every drop of useful information out of her experience, and she isn’t afraid of big occasions. She made the third round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open last year.

Heading into the Australian Open, one of these three women seems most likely to join Venus and Serena at the helm of U.S. women’s tennis for 2015 -- unless Stephens can pull herself out of what has become a long, nightmarish slump (compounded by a wrist injury that ended her 2014 campaign in mid-September). McHale lost the only match she’s played this year and has trouble with her shoulder.

In real monarchies, queens do not retire. They are the national figureheads for life. If you’re an American, you probably wish it were that way in tennis, too.
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Judging from the first week of play in the new year, 2015 is less likely to be a year of sweeping change than one of business as usual. Sure, top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic was upset at Qatar. But isn’t that what Ivo Karlovic does for a living -- record the occasional resounding win, mostly at lower-tier events?

The reality is that Roger Federer winning his 1,000th match (the Brisbane final) was a more fitting comment on the state of the game. So let’s take a look at the evidence:

Juan Martin del Potro pulled out of Brisbane to kick off the new year, still experiencing pain in his left wrist despite having had surgery on the joint nine months ago. It just goes from bad to worse for the poor guy. The 2009 US Open champ, Delpo is a right-hander (but he uses his left on that two-handed backhand). He missed almost all of 2010 with a bad right wrist, and pulled the plug on 2014 in February of last year (this time because of his left wrist). Now the he’s down to No. 137.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Chris Hyde/Getty ImagesRoger Federer started 2015 in a very familiar fashion -- with a championship trophy.
The bulletin-board quote lives on in tennis. Borna Coric, a gifted 18-year-old eager beaver who has yet to win his 10th ATP main tour match, said something he may have trouble backing up. "I think my game is quite similar to Djokovic's,” the Croatian said at the Chennai tournament. “I move well, I don't miss many balls; I'm a fighter and my backhand is my best shot. Currently, I'm the best of my generation.” I’m not sure how he defines a generation, but I like his enthusiasm.

Once again Rafael Nadal declared that he’s on a mission to recapture his best form -- a refrain oft repeated in the past few injury-marred years. After he was upset in Qatar by No. 127 Michael Berrer, Nadal tried to reassure his fans and the media, saying “I am sure I’m gonna come back to my best.” Let’s hope he’s right. It’s easy to forget that a healthy Nadal is still the most electrifying player in the game.

Grigor Dimitrov, the player long touted as the game’s next big star (complete with that “Baby Federer” nickname), survived two match points in his opener in Brisbane and made it all the way to the semis, where he lost to Roger “Grown Up” Federer. The important thing, though, is that the 23-year-old Bulgarian has picked up where he left off following a very consistent 2014.

Denis Kudla and Irina Falconi landed the Australian Open wild cards reserved for U.S. players. You have to hand it to these two American pluggers -- they keep plugging away despite all the obstacles and frustrations. Each of them was the top performer in a designated suite of tournaments in the U.S.

Simona Halep continues to consolidate her position as a strong No. 3 despite having failed thus far to win a major. She handled the pressure of a No. 1 seeding well in Shenzhen, where she clobbered Timea Bacsinszky in the final.

Once again, Maria Sharapova fought her way through some ragged play to win a tournament (Brisbane). If you thought her slump to No. 9 last year was a harbinger, forget about it. Alert for Serena fans: Sharapova has crept to within 681 points of Williams.

Stan Wawrinka was 15-4 in Chennai, with two previous wins. He won the title again, this time over qualifier Aljaz Bedene.

David Ferrer won at Qatar, so anyone who feared that the Spanish dynamo, who’s 32 years old and down to No. 10, is going to go away can relax -- for now.

Williams won again. OK, so it wasn’t Serena but Venus who ran the table at Auckland (WTA), culminating with a hard-fought win over top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. During that same time, Serena was in the process of losing two out of three singles matches at the Hopman Cup mixed exhibition. I’m not reading too much into that, having been burned enough times in the past to know better than to underestimate Serena.

Hats off to Roger Federer for his great accomplishment in Brisbane; he now trails only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl in career wins. That’s great news for Federer and friends, not so great news for those clamoring to see a changing of the guard.

David Ferrer, John Isner and Gael Monfils all withdrew from Auckland (this week). Ferrer, who won at Qatar, cited a bad back. Isner said he was tired after the Hopman Cup. Monfils pulled out for “personal reasons.” The taboo against skipping tournament commitments for all but the most grave of reasons continues to break down. Prize money on the ATP Tour may be taking a big jump, but promoters are more at risk than ever before.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
video On Monday, we evaluated some of the top ATP stars in terms of what -- if anything -- they had at stake going into the new year. Now we’ll look at the women in the same three categories.

The Champions

No. 1 Serena Williams ended the frustrating Grand Slam season of 2014 with a flourish -- a win at her native US Open. With 18 major singles titles to her name, it’s hard to say anything at all is riding on 2015 for La Serena. She’s 33 years old now, and her most reasonable goal is breaking a three-way tie in the major title count with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

No. 2 Maria Sharapova is in a somewhat unusual situation. At 27, she has a career Grand Slam. That puts her in the history books, even though she’s won just five Grand Slam titles (most recently at the French Open) -- not nearly good enough to put her on the short list of great champions. What she can do, however, is add at least a win or two over Serena to her dismal 2-16 head-to-head record. Don’t ever forget that people always forget: Should Sharapova beat Williams on a big stage, it will do wonders overnight for her status.

[+] EnlargePetra Kvitova
CARL COURT/AFP/Getty ImagesThe question is: Can Petra Kvitova build off her Wimbledon title from last season?
No. 4 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic played a dream final to win the second Wimbledon title of her career in 2014 and played with consistency not seen since 2011. Did she hit a career reset button in 2014 -- that’s the big question hovering over the tall and rangy left-hander.

No. 7 Ana Ivanovic hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the one she bagged at the French Open in 2008. She’s had few resurgences since then. Give the diligent Serb credit for persistence and fidelity. It’s imperative for her to avoid backsliding once again. Her critical assignment: Find a way to win a big match or two at the most crucial of times.

No. 42 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champ, is hoping to recapture her form after an injury-plagued (knee and foot) 2014 that caused her ranking to plummet because of inactivity. To put it bluntly, her career is at stake given her history of frailty. If she can play pain-free, the rest will take care of itself.

The Contenders

No. 3 Simona Halep played an outstanding French Open final (losing to Sharapova) in 2014 and backed up the enormous strides she took in 2013. She’s nimble, swift and an excellent counter-puncher, but she let a few opportunities slip away after that performance at Roland Garros. The Romanian homebody also changed coaches despite her success last year. The question surrounding her now is: Can she close the deal and win a big one?

No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, a Wimbledon finalist in 2012, has been compared with a magician owing to her creative shot selection and general feel for the ball. But a number of players have figured out how she gets that rabbit out of the hat. With new coach Martina Navratilova at her side, Radwanska will try to add a little more aggression to her game. The best female player ever produced by Poland, Radwanska’s main job this year is to find more offense -- or perhaps accept that she doesn’t have enough ooomph to win a major.

No. 6 Eugenie Bouchard made the semifinals or better at three Grand Slam events in 2014, yet she’s won only one title in her entire career (Nurnberg). The 20-year-old Montreal native was the “it” girl in tennis in 2014. She’s so media-friendly and marketable that she’s already created a backlash, which also suggests that what Bouchard most needs to do this year is back up those results. No player will have as much pressure on her shoulders.

No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki’s A-game went AWOL during her relationship with Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, but it returned with a fury after their breakup in May 2014. Now the only woman ever to hold the year-end No. 1 ranking for two consecutive years without having won a single Grand Slam event has worked herself back into position to pick up where she left off. She’s older and wiser but needs to show she can be better as well.

Players of Interest

No. 13 Andrea Petkovic of Germany is not merely a fun-loving and charming personality (who can forget the “Petko dance”?) -- she’s an excellent athlete whose progress was derailed by injuries. (She clawed her way back from No. 149 to 39 in 2013.) She’s strong and blessed with a good competitive temperament; it’s time she laid all her cards on the table.

[+] EnlargeGarbine Muguruza
AP Photo/Aaron FavilaGarbine Muguruza showed some serious chops last season and is primed to be one of the game's top stars.
No. 20 Garbine Muguruza of Venezuela was outside the top 50 at the start of 2014, then she made headlines with a stunning second-round upset of French Open top seed Serena Williams. She’s just 21, so time is on her side; she can afford to slip up and make mistakes. But if she wants to establish herself a leader among the wave of young players, she needs to build on her present position and make a run at the top 10.

No. 30 Madison Keys spent the better part of 2014 becoming accustomed to her status as a top-30 player after a breakout 2013.The 5-foot-10 native of Rock Island, Illinois, has a potent serve and heavy forehand. She’s just 19, but that’s not too early to display the consistency of a contender at big tournaments.

No. 31 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland has people thinking that the nation isn’t too small to produce a female star to rival Roger Federer. At 17, she could still be competing in the juniors. Instead, this poised, clever youngster who started last year ranked No. 212 seems ready to contend for major titles thanks to a silken game and a cool Chris Evert-esque temperament. She’s one of those players who focuses on the fact that she has everything to gain rather than on the reality that she’s just a kid and has nothing to lose.

No. 35 Sloane Stephens, once the great American female hope, had a terrible year that started with her loss of status as a woman designed to shine on the biggest stages and ended with a nagging wrist injury and an uncertain coaching situation. Early this year, she hired Nick Saviano, who developed and brought Bouchard into the first-class car. Stephens needs to win -- it’s a simple as that.

It's all about Roger and Serena again

August, 18, 2014
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As the summer hard-court events got underway, the odds that the players going into the US Open with the greatest head of steam would be Roger Federer and Serena Williams didn’t seem very good. Now, with the last of the big hard-court tuneups concluded, guess who stands atop the heap of US Open contenders?

Roger and Serena. Federer recently turned 33; Williams is hot on his tail in a race she won’t ever win, about to hit the same age at the end of September. Or, if you’re a Williams fan, about the time the champagne high from having won the US Open begins to wear off.

Roger and Serena. A grand total of 34 Grand Slam singles titles, evenly split. The race is on for the bragging rights up on tennis Olympus, because even these two can’t go on forever.

Roger and Serena. The reliables. It’s got the makings of a good action movie. That was amply demonstrated in the two finals at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday. You would almost think that Federer watched Serena’s systematic, 6-4, 6-1 demolition of No. 6 seed Ana Ivanovic and took inspiration from it. He is surely not the kind of dude who would have been under the headphones listening to Macklemore or Black Sabbath.

Ivanovic, sweet soul that she is, smiled during the trophy presentation and began her runner-up acceptance speech by saying, “I think today I just got a lesson in how to serve.” The match lasted barely an hour and two minutes, yet Williams found the time to club a dozen aces. She also won 80 percent of the points when she put her first serve into the correct box. As ESPN’s Chris Evert so succinctly put it, Williams is unbeatable when she makes more winners than unforced errors. Sunday she was 23-11.

If he took notes, Federer made good use of them as he made No. 6 seed David Ferrer his patsy for the 16th consecutive time, beating him 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in the final. His serve was extremely effective, even in that throwaway second set. He made 65 percent of his first serves and won almost as high a percentage of those points (77 percent) as Serena did.

Ferrer’s entire career as a player aspiring to the highest of all levels was neatly -- and sadly -- summed up in the end of the first set. Serving to stay in it at 4-5, Ferrer played a game that he launched with an unforced inside-out forehand error, after which he smacked two double-faults -- the second at break point.

Federer fell behind 0-40 when he served for the set in the next game. But after a Federer winner, Ferrer made a sloppy backhand error on the second of the three break points and Federer took care of the last one with another winner. Ferrer would have another break point, but Federer saved that one, too -- with his best second serve of the afternoon. He went on to hold on a crosscourt backhand passing shot error.

OK, Federer’s concentration lapsed and Ferrer snatched away the second set. But Ferrer is always tough when playing catch-up, partly because staying ahead demands a lot more poise and confidence than trying to catch up.

Beyond that, Federer kept the match from becoming a track meet. That was partly because he’s found a new use for that backhand that everyone pounds away at nowadays. Instead of risking the unforced error with a big, one-handed, topspin cut, or allowing his opponent to take control of a point by playing a safe slice, Federer more and more uses the slice to get into the net to end the point there -- one way or another.

Federer is playing in a manner that people for years have been saying cannot be done anymore. We’ll see how right they are in a few weeks’ time at the US Open, for Federer has built up a lot of momentum starting at Wimbledon (four consecutive finals, with two wins).

Can it be that the American major will be all about Roger and Serena once again?

How much does Cincinnati matter?

August, 11, 2014
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The promoters of the Cincinnati Masters are going to be hard put to top the show the ATP and WTA put on in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, last week during the Canadian Open. Each tournament was like a jack-in-the-box; you just never knew when a high-quality match or stunning upset would pop up. Yet both tournaments were won by blue-chip players, each in his and her own way needing a big win.

No. 13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the men’s event; No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska won the women’s. OK, fate was rough on the Homecoming King and Queen, Milos Raonic. He was stunned by unseeded Feliciano Lopez, but at least Raonic survived to the fourth round. Eugenie Bouchard met her very own Carrie in the first round in the form of Shelby Rogers.

Eight of the final 14 WTA matches in Toronto were three-setters, the casualties including seeds No. 14, No. 11, No. 8 and, of particular note, No. 1 -- that was Serena Williams. The men put on some barn burners, too, not all of them thanks to No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

The one tower of consistency still standing when the smoke cleared was Tsonga’s victim, No. 2 seed Roger Federer. If the 33-year-old, all-time Grand Slam singles title champ isn’t careful, people are going to give him a nickname along the lines of “Old Reliable” or “Old Faithful.”

So once again, seers are suggesting that we’re coming to an end times in the ATP (how else would you describe the fracturing of the Big Four?) and witnessing an equally disruptive transition on the WTA Tour. The latter is much easier to imagine because -- let’s be frank about this -- that turnover will occur if and only if and when and only when Serena Williams is deposed.

The men are ruled by a committee; the WTA, however, is a simple and pure dictatorship. It’s a Big One -- not a Big Four.

But let’s not get carried away. We’ve had similar signs of transition in the recent past, including Stan Wawrinka’s win at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s unexpected failures on the Euroclay circuit and the emergence of the hard-charging Bouchard and Simona Halep. But look at how all that worked out this summer: Nadal and Maria Sharapova won the French Open while Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic each won another Wimbledon title.

Some skeptics suggest that the real reason the Canadian Open proved such a shootout is that nobody wants to go all out in back-to-back Masters/WTA Premier events -- not just a few weeks before the long, hot summer hits the high point of the US Open. The tradition of playing “tuneup” tournaments (even one, never mind a slew of them) may be vanishing. Top-ranked Djokovic in particular seems comfortable tuning up for the majors on the practice court.

It may be counterintuitive, but having a number of options going into the US Open may even work against players looking to round into shape for a major. All players would rather win than lose; it’s a fact. But you can play plenty of tennis in the weeks leading to the US Open, take a few losses and feel like you have plenty left in the tank come the Open in New York. And the better you are, the less urgent it is for you to win one of the run-up events. At the top of the game, it’s not really about the rankings points anymore.

Given that, it will be interesting to see how Cincinnati will play out. All the top 10 women with the exception of out-of-commission Li Na are entered in the Western & Southern Open. All the elite men are playing there, too, with the exception of No. 2 Nadal, who’s out with a bad wrist. They all are there for a number of reasons, but getting ready for the US Open isn’t the towering one. The events are mandatory for most of the men and a staple for the top women, and while rankings points aren’t the end-all, be-all for top 10 players, it’s pretty hard for the ATP stars to ignore the value of 1,000 rankings points.

Any player who feels a great sense of urgency about making a statement before the US Open is down to his or her last big opportunity -- even if the only player who really seems to be in a must-win situation of her own making is Serena Williams.
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Tennis will stage its own "Game of Thrones" this week in Montreal and Toronto, the equal-opportunity cities where the WTA and ATP alternate staging their simultaneous versions of the Rogers Cup -- or the Canadian Open. In recent months, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard have established themselves as, respectively, the king and queen of Canada, and this will be their homecoming.

But certain sinister forces, including but by no means restricted to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, have ambitions that would spoil the week for Canadians. Williams won the Stanford WTA event Sunday; she'll be in Bouchard's hometown of Montreal, top-seeded and hoping to usurp the throne. And Djokovic, the Wimbledon champ, leads the parade of ATP seeds in Toronto, where the U.S. hard-court circuit begins to truly matter, building critical mass until the big bang in New York. He knows that if Raonic isn't brought down a peg or two, who knows what damage he might wreak in the coming weeks?

Bouchard is the No. 5 seed in Montreal, partly because WTA No. 2 Li Na and No. 3 Simona Halep are both sidelined with injury. Ordinarily, that elevation in seeding would be a good thing. As luck would have it, though, Bouchard still fell short of the seeding (No. 4) that would keep her from meeting one of the top three seeds before the semifinals. And the upshot is a potential quarterfinal with Williams.

Bouchard can console herself with the fact that Williams looked somewhat ragged this week in her win at Stanford, or she can freak out because Williams looked ragged -- and still won the tournament with a straight-sets triumph over Angelique Kerber. Given that Bouchard is so combative and ambitious, I imagine she’ll focus on the glass that’s half full rather than the one that’s half empty.

The only woman to make at least the semifinals at the first three Grand Slam events this year, Bouchard also may be scheming to extract her pound of flesh from Petra Kvitova. The beating Kvitova gave Bouchard in the Wimbledon final must still be fresh in the Canadian’s mind, and she certainly has had plenty of time to brood about it -- having played no competitive matches in the interim.

Kvitova is seeded No. 2 and entrenched in the opposite, lower half of the draw, where her sternest test may come from either rusty Victoria Azarenka, flighty Jelena Jankovic or out-of-sync Agnieszka Radwanska.

If the draw gods weren't particularly kind to Bouchard, they certainly smiled upon the ATP No. 6 seed, Raonic. The 23-year-old world No. 7 couldn’t be rolling into Toronto in better form. He won in Washington, D.C., on Sunday over his fellow countryman Vasek Pospisil. That latter name may not have the same ring as Rafael Nadal, who ended Raonic's terrific run in the Montreal finals last year, but it was a difficult situation for the favorite and he handled it with aplomb.

Raonic is in the bottom half, his main potential antagonists hardly the most antagonizing guys on the tour: No. 4 Tomas Berdych, who always finds a way to lose a big match; No. 5 David Ferrer, who no longer grinds as enthusiastically and consistently as in the past; and No. 2 Roger Federer, who is … Roger Federer, but still subject to veteran's blues and more easily overpowered than the three big guns in the top half.

That trio would be Djokovic, No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka and No. 8 Andy Murray. And don't forget the one player who seems capable of spoiling the Canadian party before it even begins: feckless, raw-boned and powerful No. 11 Ernests Gulbis, who could be waiting for Raonic in the third round.

Murray's seeding position is laughable, and Djokovic may be in a position to affirm that as the two could meet in the quarterfinals. But don't count out Wawrinka, who likes the hard courts. And No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov is a big win waiting to happen.

I don't know what the oddsmakers say about a Raonic-Bouchard double, but these two are making history for Canada (long a hapless giant in tennis) on a daily basis. They've demonstrated that they're unlikely to go to pieces under the press of expectations, but the big serves of a Serena Williams or the sledgehammer forehands of Novak Djokovic are a different thing altogether.
Is it too early for fans of the Williams sisters to begin obsessing over a quarterfinal clash at Stanford between Venus and her baby sister, Serena? They’re one match removed from rekindling one of the weirdest, most frustrating, least loved (by them) and yet most historic rivalries in tennis.

The sisters have met only once since they clashed in the WTA tour championships back in 2009, and that was over a year ago at the modest green-clay tournament in Charleston. But each of the women faces a significant stumbling block before they would have to play a match neither of them has enjoyed despite having had two dozen opportunities to make their peace with it. Serena currently leads the sororal rivalry 14-10.

But for the sisters to meet, Serena will have to eliminate Ana Ivanovic, and Venus will need to get by resurgent German Andrea Petkovic. As recently as a year ago, you could reasonably expect Serena to overpower that former No. 1 Ivanovic, whose game lacks the heft of Serena’s.

But surprise, surprise -- Serena has had a tough year so far, particularly in Grand Slam events. And it was Ivanovic who launched the trend, taking top-seeded Serena down in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Both women have been ranked No. 1, and both are Grand Slam champs. (OK, Serena has 16 more than Ana, but never mind.) And Ivanovic will have even greater motivation because, with Li Na pulling the plug through at least the US Open, Ivanovic has a great shot at getting back into the top 10 for the first time since May 2009.

Venus’s obstacle is no Grand Slam champ. The closest Petkovic has come to a Grand Slam singles trophy was walking past the guy polishing it up in Paris a few months ago. But the injury-prone, free-spirited German has rocketed back up to No. 18, and besides making the semifinals of the French Open (losing to Simona Halep), she was a recent winner at Bad Gastein. Raw-boned, naturally strong and fit, Petkovic is blessed with a big personality as well as good intentions. Petkovic won’t be intimidated by the Williams aura, either, so expect Venus to have her hands full.

Going on the evidence Thursday night, it doesn’t appear that Serena would be a lock to win against her big sister, who in years past had been suspected of rolling over for her younger sibling. True, Venus is 34 years old now (roughly 2 years older than Serena), but she appears to have wrestled down whatever doubts, inhibitions or ailments had been cramping her style. Venus is having an excellent year. She won in Dubai, and at her beloved Wimbledon, Venus took eventual champ Petra Kvitova the full three-set distance in one of the best matches of the entire tournament.

Venus is not just playing well; she appears to be wholly committed to the effort. She’s ripping serves, running like a gazelle and blasting forehands with the kind of authority and consistency we haven’t witnessed in a long time. The remote stare and that curious state suggesting supreme disinterest that we sometimes saw in recent years isn’t evident now.

In her win over Victoria Azarenka on Thursday night, Venus did something that for her has been truly unusual in the recent past: She stepped up her game a notch late in the struggle, when it was vital for her to do so. Instead of watching her run out of energy, as we had time and again in the past, we saw her come on strong and yank the match out of Azarenka’s hands.

Serena has had a rough and, in some ways, strange year. The last thing she needs at this point, as she tries to rally for her last shot at a Grand Slam this year, is the complication of another match with Venus. But it may be just what she gets. And that should be enough to make you stay tuned.

Big week for Serena Williams

July, 27, 2014
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The latest we saw of Serena Williams, the owner of the greatest serve any woman ever threw down at Wimbledon, she was feeling woozy and serving up balls that flew like bottle rockets and produced four straight double faults in a Wimbledon doubles match. She and her sister, Venus, defaulted that match immediately, while others ran for cover, convinced it was a sign of the End Times.

This week, we’ll see if those bottle rockets will be transformed once again into the familiar, Scud-like missiles that have so helped Serena establish the rule of law in the WTA kingdom.

There’s a lot of excellent talent breaking out all over the place in the WTA, but it says something about the gap between Serena and the rest of the pack that she still holds the No. 1 ranking (and has for 74 straight weeks, the longest run since Martin Hingis' 80 weeks in 1997 and ‘98), despite faltering before the quarterfinal stage at the first three Grand Slams of the year. Are we sure those seven dwarfs surrounding Snow White weren’t really girls named Li and Simona, Petra, Aga and Maria, Genie and Angelique?

Still, the recently unthinkable now looks a lot like the possible, if not the probable: The end of the Serena Williams era in tennis. Her back is against a wall, and the walls big players back into tend to be tall. And that’s without the intrigue and gossip that followed the Wimbledon doubles default, when the venerable club’s officials declared Williams was suffering from a “viral illness.”

Now that’s a pretty unassailable diagnosis, there being merely six billion different viral illnesses out there and new ones appearing daily. The cure for the one Serena contracted appears to have been a trip to the seaside resort town of Pula, Croatia. Let’s hope the holiday also helped alleviate how “emotional and sad” Serena felt (according to a press report) in the wake of her unexpected third-round loss at Wimbledon to Alize Cornet.

The side effects of viruses are many. If there’s a bright side to what Serena has been going through in recent weeks, it’s the possibility the virus wiped out her memory of that loss to Cornet and perhaps that second-round failure at Roland Garros against Garbine Muguruza. We might as well throw in that fourth-round loss at the Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic.

Stanford looms hugely important to Williams in light of all those frustrations. It marks the start of her quest for an 18th Grand Slam title, which she’ll try to earn at the US Open. Given that Williams leaves herself as little margin for error in her scheduling as she does when she dials in a backhand winner, at this point, another shocking loss might seriously imperil her ability to win that next major. You have to wonder how long she can hold onto the top ranking if she can’t win majors and plays a limited schedule (just nine events so far this year).

Given that Williams turns 33 in less than two months, each missed chance seems like another number ticked off in a final countdown. Although Williams is done with the heavy lifting of her career, going an entire year without winning a major championship (that’s only happened three times in the past dozen years) is likely to introduce the “R” word (retirement) into her press conferences -- unfair and impertinent as it might seem.

And that conversation, as numerous top players can attest, is a pretty bad virus unto itself.
Novak Djokovic is a great tennis champion, but merely the latest in a long line of people to learn the hard way that it’s always darkest before dawn.

There Djokovic was, midway through the fifth set in the Wimbledon final, swinging the stringed stick while trying his best to suppress what creeping doubts, anger and disappointment nibbled away at his heart and will.

It was all caused by the fact that Djokovic had let Roger Federer -- the great Roger Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon champ -- off the hook late in the fourth set, when Djokovic failed to convert a match point with Federer serving for his life at 4-5 and Djokovic up two sets to one.

Up in the player box, the fleshy face of Djokovic’s co-coach Boris Becker was turning lobster red (Boris don’t need no stinkin’ SPF 40!). Across the net, Federer was cracking aces like a regular Lazarus. Rafael Nadal probably was bobbing around in his yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean, watching on his cellphone and chortling. Would this be the day when Nadal's nemesis, gifted as he is, would earn the humiliating moniker Novak Chokevic?

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Carl Court/AFP/Getty ImagesPreviously unseen fortitude and determination helped lift Novak Djokovic past Roger Federer.
Going into Wimbledon, Djokovic had a 6-7 career record in Grand Slam finals. Early in the year, he had failed to defend his Australian Open title (he didn’t even make the final, for the first time in four years). In Paris, his main goal for the year of completing a career Grand Slam with a French Open victory was blown to smithereens thanks to another beating administered by Nadal, the King of Clay.

Now here was Djokovic, on the verge of becoming the guy who held the gate open as Federer marched through to become the first man in 66 years to win a Wimbledon final after being down match point -- just another line item to add to Federer’s phone-book-sized list of accomplishment at a huge cost to Djokovic’s legacy.

However, if all of this put a certain amount of strain on Djokovic, he didn’t show it as the fifth set came to a climax. Ultimately, his composure and refusal to lose faith won him the Wimbledon title (with a little help from his service return, if you want to get all technical about it). It was the previous lack of those very intangibles that led Becker, one of the most courageous if not the most successful of champions, to his seat in the player’s box on a sunny, hot day in London.

It was easy to forget the women’s final in the wake of the spectacular show put on by Djokovic and Federer, yet in some ways the wins by Djokovic and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova -- just a lowly No. 6 seed -- had some commonality.

Djokovic had accomplished far more than Kvitova leading up to this tournament (although at a comparable age, Djokovic was also struggling), and his star power exceeds Kvitova by a few orders of magnitude. But anyone who took account of the power and precision Kvitova showed when she won the Wimbledon title in 2011 surely had to be baffled by how infrequently she’s been able to summon that game on the big stages in recent years.

Painfully shy (something Djokovic has never been accused of) and forced by her nerves to wage a constant battle against anxiety, Kvitova hadn’t even been to the semifinals of a major since the spring of 2012. Granted, she was barely 21 when she first won Wimbledon. But just how much time does a player need to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere at the top?

The reality is that people were acknowledging Kvitova as a contender only when goaded into it. She just found too many ways to lose, too often. Until last weekend.

Kvitova put on a display of aggressive tennis as formidable as anything we’ve seen pouring off the racket of Serena Williams. Kvitova took Eugenie Bouchard, a genius at competing and a young lady destined for greatness, and simply demolished her. Now, Kvitova is back in the conversation that begins with the question “What happens when Serena and Venus retire?”

For Djokovic and Kvitova, the theme of this Wimbledon was vindication. Each of them achieved it, albeit in vastly different ways.
We live in an age of speed reading, speed dialing and even speed dating. So why not speed draw analysis as well?

Let’s not waste any more time before looking at the 2014 Wimbledon draw.

Men's singles

Top quarter: The Djokovic section
Promoted to the top spot thanks to Wimbledon’s seeding formula (despite ranking behind world No. 1 Rafael Nadal), Novak Djokovic might end up saying “Thanks for nothing.”

His quarter is loaded with tricky players (Radek Stepanek, Gilles Simon, even lost boy Bernard Tomic) as well as power hitters (No. 26 seed Marin Cilic, No. 12 Ernests Gulbis, No. 14 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 18 Fernando Verdasco). Djokovic will be lucky to make it through to the quarters, where he might have to lock horns with yet another bombardier, No. 6 Tomas Berdych.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesAndy Murray's title defense at Wimbledon could run into a roadblock in the form of David Ferrer.
Second quarter: The Murray section
You could just as well call this the mercurial section because it contains a dazzling array of shot makers including No. 16 seed Fabio Fognini, No. 21 Alexandr Dolgopolov, Dominic Thiem, No. 27 Roberto Bautista Agut and flavor-of-the-month in the ATP, No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov.

Andy Murray’s versatility will come in handy. Unlike Djokovic, his promotion to the No. 3 seed despite a world ranking of no. 5 was still a net plus, even though nobody could possibly look forward to a quarterfinal date with No. 7 seed David Ferrer.

Third quarter: The Federer section
What is this, the anniversary reunion for some tennis academy? The “old guys” in this section include No. 4 Roger Federer, No. 23 Tommy Robredo, No. 19 Feliciano Lopez, Julien Benneteau, hoary old Lleyton Hewitt and even never-say-die Michael Russell.

Young ace-makers John Isner (No. 9 seed) and No. 15 Jerzy Janowicz inhabit this quarter as well. But the biggest threat to Federer’s hopes of making the semis is his countryman and No. 5 seed Stan Wawrinka.

Fourth quarter: The Nadal section
This one is real mixed bag, with mercurial players such as No. 13 Richard Gasquet and No. 25 Gael Monfils mixed freely with volatile elements such as No. 29 Ivo Karlovic, Benoit Paire, and (if all goes according to plan) Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent, No. 8 Milos Raonic.

The semis: Djokovic-Ferrer, Wawrinka-Nadal

Women's singles

Top quarter: The Serena section
This is a highly navigable section for top-seeded Serena Williams with one potential roadblock: No. 13 Eugenie Bouchard.

Other dangerous players include resurgent No. 20 seed Andrea Petkovic and perhaps No. 9 (but slumping) Angelique Kerber. There are some dangerous floaters here, too, including Camila Giorgi, Daniela Hantuchova and Christina McHale.

Second quarter: The Halep section
This seems a soft section, which will be great news for last year’s finalist, No. 19 seed Sabine Lisicki, as well as No. 3 seed Simona Halep. No. 7 Jelena Jankovic, No. 11 Ana Ivanovic and No. 21 Roberta Vinci all are vulnerable.

There are three additional players of interest in this section: former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, a wild card, and a pair of American 18-year-olds in wild card Taylor Townsend and qualifier Victoria Duval.

Third quarter: The Radwanska section
Victoria Azarenka, returning from a long injury layoff and seeded No. 8, has to be happy with this draw. She has a history of just hammering No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, which means there might be a clear passage to the semis.

The biggest obstacle could be No. 10 Dominika Cibulkova, who has upped her game significantly this year. Sure, No. 27 Garbine Muguruza is an up-and-coming talent and the section also has No. 14 Sara Errani, but both are better on clay than grass.

Fourth quarter: The Li section
Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champion, is a wildly unpredictable player who has struggled with illness and injury. She is seeded No. 6, and if she finds her game and gets hold of her emotions she could win the whole thing again. That’s an unlikely development, though, which means No. 2 seed Li Na is looking pretty good.

Li’s biggest enemy is herself, however, and she has lost to that rival many times, so who knows?

The semis: Bouchard-Halep, Azarenka-Li

Grand Slam events never go as expected; we all know that. Your odds of predicting all the brackets might be slightly better than those you faced filling in your NCAA basketball tournament bracket with a trembling hand (it was visions of Warren Buffett’s billion bucks dancing in your brain). But they still ain’t good, pal. Those of you who are already whining about the tough draw doled out to your favorite -- or about the free ticket to the final issued to said favorite’s bitter rival -- need to keep just two words in mind: Virginie Razzano.

Every draw is great -- or horrible -- until it isn’t. That’s the reality.

Remember how Serena Williams’ projected stroll to the French Open title in 2012 started -- and ended -- with the daughter of a French magician, No. 111-ranked wild card Virginie Razzano?

Well, guess what? They could, but probably won’t, meet again this year -- this time in the quarterfinals. But note that, once again, Williams is paired with a French wild card in her first match. This time, it’s 23-year-old Alize Lim. I doubt her father also is a magician, which is just one of the reasons I’m not going out on a Lim to predict the upset.

In fact, let me tell you some of the other things that just aren't going to happen at Roland Garros, according to what I see in my crystal ball.

• No. 17 seed Tommy Robredo will not equal the feat he turned last year, when he won three consecutive matches from two sets to love down. The last time that happened was 1927; the next it happens will be the year 3000.

• We will not see another Serena vs. Venus Williams Grand Slam final. We won’t even see them clash in the third round, as the draw suggests. Venus, who will be 34 just days after the end of the tournament, has a potentially tough second round against China’s Jie Zheng.

• Former US Open champ Samantha Stosur, seeded No. 19, will not allow No. 17 Roberta Vinci to get away with “softest seed” honors. Stosur will be upset in the first round by Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig.

• Lenny and Myla Rose Federer will not be upset by Leo and Charlene Federer in the 4-and-under invitational mixed doubles. Mirka will sit in the guest box of Lenny and Myla, Roger will be in the one assigned to Leo and Charlene. Tony Godsick will dash madly between the two, and the winners’ trophy will be presented by twins Bob and Mike Bryan.

• No. 10 seed John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will meet in the third round. But they will not establish a new record by playing a 71-69 in-the-fifth set.

• Maria Sharapova, the No. 7 seed, will not beat Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, but she will launch a new line of candy to commemorate their non-rivalry, Bitterpova.

• Andy Murray, seeded No. 7, will not win Roland Garros. Ernests Gulbis, who knows? Tomas Berdych, could happen! Teymuraz Gabashvili? You never, ever write anyone off. Except, in this case, poor Andy, who hasn’t won three consecutive matches since Miami.

• Ana Ivanovic, seeded No. 11, will not make it past French youngster Caroline Garcia, but Ivanovic will get the opportunity to clench and pump her fist enough times to establish a new personal record.

• Rafael Nadal will not have to play all three men who beat him on clay this year, as the draw suggests (Nicolas Almagro, fourth round; David Ferrer, semis; Novak Djokovic, final). Well, the joke’s on them. Nadal will be upset in the second round by hard-charging Austrian youngster Dominic Thiem.

• Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand will not get far enough into the tournament to have WTA officials scrambling to double-check their spelling of her name.

• Ferrer, seeded No. 5, will not win the French Open this year, even though the top four men, Nadal, No. 2 seed Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer will all be upset victims. When 32-year-old Ferrer walks out on the Chatrier court and sees that the only thing standing between him and that long-sought Grand Slam singles title is Germany’s Tobias Kamke, his head will explode.
The way things are shaping up in Rome, a lot of quality pros will spend less time during this next, quiet week kicking back and enjoying Paris than obsessing about whether to make those reservations for the Tour d’Argent on the early or late side.

In recent years, the major question heading into the French Open was, “Which poor ATP schmo is destined to get crushed in the final by Rafael Nadal this year?” But now, whether Nadal will survive to reach the final is as legitimate a query as wondering whether any French man or woman will last more than two rounds.

Nobody, but nobody, among the ATP or WTA elites seems destined to embark upon the second Grand Slam of the year with a full head of steam. Significant question marks hover like storm clouds over every one of them. Here’s the short version:

ATP No. 1 and French Open top seed Nadal: Even if Nadal wins in Rome, completing yet another set of back-to-back wins in Masters 1000 events (he won in Madrid last week), his form since the very start of the clay season has been, at best, ragged -- at least by the standard he himself set and maintained for years until this spring. Make no mistake: Those early Euroclay losses to David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) have shaken him, and although Nadal is winning, he’s been struggling -- and providing infusions of hope to all his rivals.

WTA No. 1 Serena Williams is 32 years old and had to pull out of Madrid last week with a nagging thigh injury. Clay has never been her preferred surface, especially when it comes to the two-week grind of Roland Garros -- where she’s collected just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles. It’s never easy for Williams in Paris; it’s as simple as that.

ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic made no secret of his main ambition for 2014, which is to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam. He got off to a rocky start this year but seemed to build momentum by winning the two U.S. hard-court Masters events.

Since then, though, he’s stalled -- partly because of a sore right wrist. He took a loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and pulled out of Madrid to rest and rehab that right wrist. Just how that joint holds up to the stress of two weeks of five-set matches looms as a major question.

WTA No. 2 Li Na won this tournament a few years ago, and as the winner of the Australian Open, she’s the only woman who could complete a calendar-year Grand Slam. Whoa! Li has also been puzzlingly inconsistent. You just can’t count on her one way or the other.

ATP No. 3 Stan Wawrinka stepped up in Monte Carlo and launched his spring campaign with a big win in the final over Federer. Since then, though, he’s been upset in the first round of Madrid by emerging Austrian talent -- but still just No. 70 -- Dominic Thiem. He also lost in the third round at Rome to 36-year-old Tommy Haas. Well, nobody can say he won’t be well-rested for Paris anyway.

WTA No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has had a lot of trouble finding her A-game in semis and finals lately. And No. 7 Maria Sharapova has become something of a nemesis, with straight-set wins over Radwanska in their two recent meetings on clay.

ATP No. 4 Federer is a new dad again, and his plan to get a few matches in before Paris went afoul in Rome, where he was upset in the second round (but his first match, thanks to a bye) by Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. But Federer did reach the final in Monte Carlo, and he has all the experience in the world. And everything at this stage in his career is gravy -- which basically means, “Who knows?”

WTA No. 4 Victoria Azarenka is entered in Roland Garros, but she hasn’t played because of a foot injury since the Indian Wells combined Premier event.

WTA No. 7 Maria Sharapova was generating a lot of buzz until this week thanks to that outstanding record on clay. Only Serena Williams had beaten her on the red stuff since 2011. However, Sharapova has been winning but struggling and relying on her grit and determination rather than her superior shot-making or strategy. It all caught up to her in Rome the other day, where she was beaten convincingly by another former French Open champ, Ana Ivanovic.

That loss will leave a bad taste in Sharapova’s mouth in the coming week, and her up-and-down nature lately suggests that she may have trouble playing consistent winning tennis over two weeks in Paris. But she’ll have this consolation in the coming days: Many of her fellow stars will be in a similar quagmire.

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