As the women turn the corner into the second week on Sunday, the men complete their unfinished business from the first week. We investigate the most compelling pairings in both draws.
Benneteau vs. Djokovic: Among the most indelible memories of Wimbledon was the spectacle of Federer rallying from the brink of defeat against the French doubles specialist. Leading by two sets to none and later a fourth-set tiebreak from victory, Benneteau conformed to national stereotypes in allowing the champion to surge all the way back. Although he has not defeated Djokovic since 2006, a precedent essentially meaningless by now, the Frenchman did win a set from the Serb at Wimledon tree years ago and came within a tiebreak of a two-set lead before fading. (Sound familiar?) Farcically superior to his two previous opponents, the defending champion would benefit from more credible competition before his key rivals appear from the quarterfinals onward. On Saturday, fellow doubles specialist Lopez showed how a relentlessly attacking style could reap rewards against as talented a returner as Murray on this surface. Faced with a similar challenge, Benneteau must dictate behind a high percentage of first serves to keep Djokovic off balance and pinned behind the baseline.
Sharapova vs. Petrova: Saturated with searing offense and searing bursts of temper, clashes between two Russian women invariably entertain crowds ready for drama as much as technical proficiency. This rivalry has offered relatively little intrigue, though, for Sharapova has won seven of their last eight encounters and ten of their last eleven sets. During the early stages of her comeback, the 2006 champion defeated Petrova three times in rapid succession, including two straight-setters on North American hard courts. Similar in their basic approach to the game, each Russian will attempt to exploit their shot-making talents and their opponent’s indifferent movement by striking the first clean blow close to a line or corner. Explaining Sharapova’s command over her compatriot is her superiority in virtually every department of the game, at least when her serve functions effectively. Outside a brief stutter early in the second set of her last match, she has dictated behind that shot in addition to her uniquely lethal return, and the night conditions should assist her in controlling it. Neither woman dropped a set in the first week, but Sharapova yielded only seven games through three rounds as she seeks her first quarterfinal here in six years.
Kohlschreiber vs. Isner: Played entirely in the best-of-three format, each of their previous meetings has extended to a final set. Each of them has tilted eventually in the direction of the towering American, and each featured a tiebreak that lasted ten points. Beyond these parallels, Kohlschreiber also won the first set in both of their 2012 battles, at Masters 1000 tournaments in Rome and Toronto. On the latter occasion, he accomplished the rare feat of losing to Isner despite breaking his serve three times over the course of two sets. Gifted with an un-German flair for the dramatic, this German sometimes puzzles with his shot selection and, nearly a foot shorter than his opponent on Sunday, lacks a consistently imposing serve with which to withstand pressure or consolidate leads. Thus, Isner should aim to dictate play on both serve and return, taking aggressive swings that intimidate the physically unprepossessing Kohlschreiber. The home hope has dropped sets to unremarkable opponents in each of his first two matches, and a best-of-five match usually includes at least one lull in his monochromatic game. While Isner must limit that lull, Kohlschreiber must pounce on it.
Hewitt vs. Ferrer: Despite their long years of ATP service, these players with a combined age of 61 and nearly 1,500 professional singles matches between them have collided only twice—and never on a hard court. After tomorrow, on the other hand, they will have met at every major except the Australian Open. As one would expect, Ferrer won their Roland Garros meeting, while Hewitt triumphed at Wimbledon, but both matches extended well beyond the straightforward in a tribute to the willpower of both men. Surviving innumerable injuries that might have shortened the career of a lesser competitor, Hewitt languishes outside the top 100 while playing a limited schedule, and yet he has not lost his appetite for the game. Characteristic of his later career was a five-set battle with Gilles Muller in the previous round that became the longest match of the tournament, recalling Australian Open epics against Safin and Baghdatis. At his best on clay, Ferrer brings not only the body but the mentality of a terrier to the court. Enjoying the strongest season of his career, he hopes to reach the quarterfinals at every major in a single year for the first time. Since these two men will win only a meager number of free points from their serves, even on this fast surface, one can expect a grueling battle of endless baseline rallies and relentlessly contested games. The task of outlasting the ultimate grinder likely lies beyond the power of Hewitt’s battered body, although he has continued to threaten the elite in his decline with efforts such as his near-upset of Djokovic in the Olympics.
Robson vs. Stosur: Across the net from a major champion for a third consecutive match, the British teenager will attempt to do the same to the reigning titlist that she did to three-time US Open champion Clijsters and to Li Na. This fortnight has signaled Robson’s breakthrough, which arrived without warning after a year of thoroughly pedestrian results. A player designed for fast surfaces, she has pounded her lefty forehand with greater accuracy and depth than before while learning how to maximize her serve. Robson also responded to pressure impressively against both Clijsters and Li, eking out two tiebreaks from the first and battling through a long game in the third set before securing the critical service break. For her part, Stosur has surprised with her ability to embrace the role of the defending champion rather than succumbing to the implicit pressure. Emphatic in her first three victories, she has not met an opponent who can disrupt her rhythm or force her outside her comfort zone of programmatic serve-groundstroke combinations. The clean, steady hitting of Robson features no quirks or snares to unsettle Stosur, so she need focus only on sustaining her current level of execution.
Bartoli vs. Kvitova: The most promising women’s match of the day on paper, this encounter between two players who will end the tournament in the top 10 duplicates a rout at the Rogers Cup. In her resounding victory over Bartoli there, Kvitova capitalized upon her opponent’s serving woes and denied her the time necessary to aim her flat lasers. Throughout this summer, in fact, the double-fister has won matches in spite of rather than because of her eccentric serve, which always has oscillated between a weapon and a weakness. Since she cannot afford to rely on her defensive skills, Bartoli needs to take control of rallies at the earliest opportunity. Although probably a better mover, Kvitova subscribes to the same philosophy and often crosses the line separating bold from reckless. The Czech has advanced less eventfully through the draw than usual, extending a remarkable post-Olympics stretch in which she has won two titles and 15 of 16 matches. That said, Kvitova’s form can disintegrate abruptly, so she will hope that—like Li—she did not peak too soon. With a victory here, she would become the only woman to reach the quarterfinal stage at every major in 2012.