Featured on Thursday in the Magic Box are six current or former #1s, 47 total major titles, and three sparkling one-handed backhands, a shot fading rapidly towards extinction. This embarrassment of riches yields four intriguing matches that we preview in addition to two from other courts that offer something to ponder.
Sharapova vs. Safarova: In a curious quirk of fate, these two women meet for only the second time in their extended careers—but for the second time on this court. Two years ago, when red clay still ruled, Safarova comfortably defeated the Russian during a match in which she never lost her serve. Still riding that shot to sporadic upsets, she ranks third among the WTA in service games won this season and must have welcomed the shift to the more serve-friendly blue clay. After roaring through the Stuttgart draw and the first round of this tournament, Sharapova slowed to a form more functional than fierce in her last match against Zakopalova. With an upward spike in competition looming after Safarova, she must aim to regain her intensity while continuing her clay dominance on serve. The prospect of revenge might inject her with an extra jolt of motivation, although that setback likely did not fester in her mind for long. Mired in injuries and inconsistent play for much of 2010, Sharapova has established herself as a far steadier, more focused competitor since Safarova last faced her.
Wozniacki vs. Serena: Hardly a devotee of the dirt, Serena nevertheless will play on green, blue, and red clay before this spring ends. Frighteningly dismissive near the end of her Charleston title run, she wasted no time in translating that imperiousness to her first two matches in Madrid, where she lost seven total games to Vesnina and Pavlyuchenkova. Outside a tired Stosur, though, Serena defeated no serious contender for Roland Garros at either of her clay tournaments, and she has fallen dramatically short at the two most significant events that she has contested in 2012. Both the Australian Open and Miami ended with tepid losses to opponents that contrasted starkly with her reputation for tenacity under pressure. The second of those defeats, her ghastly carnival of errors against Wozniacki at her home tournament sparked questions about her commitment and determination. On the eve of her stunning loss to Stosur at the US Open, Serena crushed her fellow former #1 in a performance imperfect but still impressive. Also considering clay her weakest surface, Wozniacki needed three hours to elude Pervak in her opener before recording a creditable victory over Barthel in a match that many thought might produce an upset. But Serena surely does not want to fall twice in three tournaments to the same player, nearly a decade her junior, and she has imposed her fast-court brand of tennis on the blue clay with authority.
Federer vs. Gasquet: Down a set and down break point early in the second set, the 2009 champion tottered on the verge of following his fellow third seed Kvitova to a premature exit. Unable to earn a single break point until the twelfth game of the second set, Federer may have breathed a sigh of relief at escaping an inspired upstart who outplayed him for most of their scintillating encounter. The test may have stiffened his resilience effectively for what lies ahead, recalling his brush with disaster in a third-set tiebreak against 2011 Madrid second-round opponent Lopez. Once he had maneuvered past that obstacle, Federer proceeded to deliver more commanding tennis and ultimately won a set from Nadal in their semifinal. Displaying a resilience not commonly associated with him, Gasquet also rallied from losing the first set to win a third-set tiebreak in the first round. While the Frenchman has lost nine of his eleven clashes with the Swiss star, both of his victories have come at clay Masters 1000 tournaments (Monte Carlo in 2005 and Rome last year). An unusual hat trick would await if Gasquet can add Madrid to that group, for which he would need some assistance from Federer. While he has suffered at least one disconcerting loss on clay in each of the last several years, the 16-time major champion holds the advantage in every dimension of the game when fully engaged.
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Armed with a record against Wawrinka identical to Federer’s record against Gasquet, the world #1 likewise can consider himself superior to his opponent from every possible perspective. All the same, Djokovic scarcely resembled his formidable self in a three-set trudge past a qualifier notable mostly for his condemnation of the blue clay that followed. Clearly not a believer in creating positive energy, he still manages to excel in situations when his negativity over externalities (the surface, the weather, the crowd) threatens to consume him. On three occasions, including the Rome final three years ago, Wawrinka has won the first set from Djokovic only to let him slowly regain his equilibrium and tighten his grip upon the match. Winless against the Serb since 2006, the Swiss #2 wins most points by grinding through rallies rather than unleashing the explosive power necessary to hit through Djokovic’s defenses. Moreover, a career spent in Federer’s shadow from start to finish has inured Wawrinka to the inevitability of defeat when he faces the best in the sport.
Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga: At the tournament personified by an eccentric, polarizing showman somewhere between genius and buffoon, it seems merely fitting that two of the ATP’s most audacious showmen should engage in a match filled with ingenious artistry. Amidst the sport’s general shift towards straightforward power, Dolgopolov defies the prevailing trend with his reliance on timing and placement, made possible by his sensitivity to the contours of the court. His smooth, flowing style turns tennis from an athletic competition into an art form and an antidote to the relentless physicality seen elsewhere. No less thrilling in a different sense is Tsonga’s leaping, lunging display of first-strike power and acrobatic shot-making, which has allowed him to flirt with true greatness without ever quite attaining it. A trait shared by the two men, their buoyant effortlessness defines them in both the positive and negative senses of the word.
Almagro vs. Ferrer: One of two all-Spanish matches on Thursday, it should feature much more rousing competition than its counterpart, Nadal-Verdasco. Or will it? All nine of their previous meetings have ended in favor of the world #6, who has filled the role of Rafa’s leading understudy with greater valor than Wawrinka has for Federer. Considered mentally and physically fallible earlier in his career, Almagro has extended Ferrer to final sets in five of those nine encounters but eventually fallen short every time. Not since the 2006 US Open, however, have they collided on a surface as fast and inclined towards offense as the blue clay. Those factors should assist Almagro in halting his futility against his compatriot, a natural counterpuncher who projects much less power behind the serve. Ever a businesslike competitor, Ferrer has not allowed the controversy over the surface to distract him but instead has accepted the challenge with his usual resolve. A shot-maker inferior to Almagro, he will harness that resolve in hopes of outlasting a foe still vulnerable to ebbs and flows.