Fields of Glory (III): Wimbledon Day 3 Preview
Unlike the fusillade of upsets that ripped through Day 1, the steady progress of the top seeds on Day 2 featured little drama other than the question of whether the rain or the darkness would descend sooner. Surviving potentially challenging opening tests with ease were Nadal, Murray, and Tsonga, while Serena and Kvitova did more than enough to move an initial step towards a marquee quarterfinal. The other former champion remaining in the women’s draw stood tall as fellow contenders fell around her on Monday, but this time she faces a more credible opponent with a history of anomalistic achievement on this surface. We start in style with Sharapova.
Sharapova vs. Pironkova: Sixteen days after she kneeled with joy on the red dirt of Roland Garros, the proud owner of a career Grand Slam started the long march through a major all over again. While many a champion would have rested on her laurels in the wake of that accomplishment, Sharapova exuded little complacency in an intimidating statement of intent to open her Wimbledon campaign. No time did she need to adjust to grass, as she has in other years. The new world #1 held serve at love four times, fired forehands off every line, and can reproach herself only for two-game lulls near the end of each set. From a woman who has won nine matches at the last two Wimbledons should spring greater resistance. Defeating Venus on these lawns not once but twice, Pironkova started her 2012 grass campaign by dominating the third-ranked Radwanska in Eastbourne, although she barely survived her opener here. A clean ball-striker who specializes in control and point construction rather than pace, she tested Sharapova in two of their three previous meetings despite not winning a set in any of them. Those two convincing victories over Venus proved that she can deflect the power of any titanic server, but she must place her own softer serve more creatively than usual, or she will spend the afternoon dodging bullets from her opponent’s return.
Cetkovska vs. Stephens: Enjoying a stirring surge through three victories at Roland Garros, the plucky American hopes to avoid the fate of fellow second-week sensation in Paris Petra Martic. Across the net, Cetkovska seeks to repeat her almost equally unforeseen appearance in the second week at Wimbledon last year, built upon upsets of Radwanska and Ivanovic. The much less famous of the Czech Petras has struck down each of those formidable foes again this year but has earned few other laurels. Whereas her straightforward serving power should translate well to the grass, so should the lithe movement and smooth strokes of Stephens. An entertaining personality who acts her age but plays like someone of much more experience, she has responded to success with poise early in her career, handling elite opponents and prestigious settings fearlessly. Nevertheless, Stephens lacks an imposing serve to set up her penetrating groundstrokes, so her game remains a work more in progress than the arsenal of Cetkovska.
Makarova vs. Kerber: On the calendar’s most uncommon surface will have unfolded all three of their meetings at WTA events, one at each of the British tournaments. Just last week, Kerber overcame her fellow lefty early in her journey to the Eastbourne final, by far her best performance to date on grass. Conquering that same tournament as a qualifier two years ago, Makarova wields weapons arguably more effective on the surface. She strikes the ball lower to the net rather than with the German’s spin and finds greater comfort in the forecourt, even serving and volleying on grass at times in a tactic rare among any of the women. A surprise quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Makarova overcame Zvonareva and stunned Serena in what seemed a possible breakthrough. Too many desultory efforts since January have blunted her momentum, yet she remains a fierce competitor dangerous when she finds her first serve. By contrast, Kerber has evolved into one of the WTA’s steadiest figures as she has relentlessly climbed the rankings. Unlike Makarova’s Australian Open quarterfinal, the eighth seed’s US Open semifinal last fall has not proved an anomaly. But grass sometimes favors the streaky over the steady.
Petrova vs. Babos: At opposite ends of the spectrum stand two formidable servers, each of whom has won a title this year. Pounding her way to a semifinal in Bogota and the title in Monterrey, the 19-year-old Hungarian toppled more familiar names like Cirstea, Errani, and Shvedova. After those results catapulted her well inside the top 100, she receded over the last few months in a typical adjustment to her new status. Although she won only one match on grass before Wimbledon, Babos defeated Birmingham champion in a three-set opener and should earn plenty of free points on this surface with her serve. Fresh from a title on Saturday at the Dutch Open, Petrova had not reached a semifinal at her first eleven tournaments of 2012 before that breakthrough. Although her prime lies well behind her, the Russian veteran continues to compete with the same stubbornness that has defined her for better and for worse. A former quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, she will appreciate the shorter points on grass that mask her waning groundstroke consistency. Known for scintillating serves and backhands, Petrova will last only until her less reliable forehand and her infamous temper betray her. Even when she fails to summon her sturdiest tennis, though, her matches never lack for drama and personality.
Djokovic vs. Harrison: Outside a single poor service game early in the first set, the defending champion looked surprisingly polished on grass despite not having played since Roland Garros. Rather than from the match itself, the most entertaining moment came from his playful unearthing of a golf club from his racket bag, an allusion to the resemblance between the All England Club’s pristine grass and a golf course. Far more intense than Djokovic’s mood on Monday is the personality of his next challenger, an American who has taken Federer to a tiebreak and, at the Australian Open, won a set from Murray. In a tournament where young Americans have met with mixed success, Harrison dispatched the aging Yen-Hsun Lu without undue turmoil. Yielding a five-setter to Ferrer in the second round last year, he would register a symbolic victory simply by winning a set from the Serb. At Wimbledon 2011, the similarly budding Tomic gave Djokovic plenty to ponder, but Harrison has advanced more gradually if perhaps more steadily. His fiery determination distinguishes himself from the Australian and most peers, providing a valuable weapon that often compensates for his unremarkable game.
Falla vs. Mahut: Forestalling the match that many had anticipated, the Colombian clay specialist mastered Isner’s towering serve just well enough to escape a fourth-set tiebreak in which he saved a match point. A game short of an upset over Federer in the same round two years ago, Falla must have found this lesser but still significant upset especially satisfying. Despite fitness issues that cost him the second set, he still preserved sufficient focus to escape two fateful break points at 5-5 in the decider and needed no second chances when match point arrived. Better designed for grass than Falla, Mahut has defeated both Nadal and Murray on the surface, the latter at Queens Club this year. The aging Frenchman aims to repeat his third-round appearance at Roland Garros after rallying to defeat another clay specialist, Lorenzi, in five sets. Both already extended in their first matches, Falla and Mahut each will hope for a shorter affair in a match where fitness could play a key role.
Malisse vs. Simon: Near the top 10 again after a strong clay campaign, the second-ranked Frenchman crumbled in his first Queens Club match against Bolelli, hardly a threat on grass. In his six previous appearances at Wimbledon, Simon has reached the second week just once and has a losing record against top-50 opponents. Somewhat below that level lurks the Belgian backhand artist Malisse, who has gained greater attention in recent years for his exploits in doubles than in singles. All the same, he followed a quarterfinal at Queens Club with a semifinal at the Dutch Open, defeating Troicki, Gilles Muller, and Simon’s nemesis Bolelli during that fortnight. Injuries and an apparent lack of focus have limited Malisse to a minimal impact at majors and a career-high ranking of #25, whereas Simon arguably has overachieved in view of his modest natural talents. Will the Frenchman reap the rewards of his sturdier work ethic here, or can Malisse build upon his recent surge? One of his compatriots, Olivier Rochus, nearly ambushed the 12th-seeded Almagro before yielding in five sets, and this Belgian could make French toast of the 13th seed unless his mind waffles.