As the assault of the rain continued, so did the assault of underdogs upon many of the leading women. Avoiding the fangs of grass snake Pironkova by the narrowest of margins, at least for now, Sharapova bent but refused to break even when she faced triple set point. Less fortunate were Wozniacki, Stosur, and Li, a talented trio who followed Venus, Kuznetsova, and others to the exit barely after the tournament began. For players like the former Roland Garros titlist from China, of course, an early-round loss at a major hardly comes as a surprise. We start our Day 4 preview with the player who ambushed Li this year at the scene of her greatest triumph.
Bertens vs. Shvedova: Bursting from nowhere to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, the former Wimbledon (and US Open) doubles champion completed a stunning resurgence when she ousted defending champion Li Na there. The worthy recipient of a wildcard here, Shvedova justified that honor by battling through her first match in two tiebreaks. Often struggling with consistency before, she will need to summon it more often in her effort to reaffirm herself in singles. While the grass reduces the reaction time that aided her cause at Roland Garros, her ability to strike every corner of the service box will keep her less experienced opponents off guard. The six-foot teenager from the Netherlands poses an intriguing test for Shvedova, having won 11 straight matches in April and May before losing her next two. And the first of those losses, a three-setter against McHale at Roland Garros, showcased a competitor buoyed by the momentum of her first title in Fes a month before. If Bertens continues to bask in the glow of that startling accomplishment, Shvedova could find herself confronted with a foe who knows little fear.
Pavlyuchenkova vs. Lepchenko: A proud American despite her surname, Lepchenko reveled in the honor of participating in her nation’s Olympic team, announced this week. Such a distinction should have come as no surprise to the suddenly surging 26-year-old, a quarterfinalist in Madrid who reached the second week of a major for the first time at Roland Garros. Defeating Schiavone in a taut three-setter there, Lepchenko has neared the fringes of the top 50, moving in the opposite direction from her next adversary. Mired in a season-long slump, Pavlyuchenkova trudged to a 9-16 record that nearly caused her to enter Wimbledon unseeded. But an Eastbourne quarterfinal cast a ray of hope upon her gloomy year, and she won consecutive matches at each of her last two tournaments. Not lacking for groundstroke power, she has struggled mightily with her serve for most of her still-budding career and cannot find much consistent confidence until she improves that stroke, the bane of so many Russian women. Pavlyuchenkova can outhit Lepchenko on this fast surface, however, and she may feel especially motivated to atone for her arid spell if her form has returned.
Baltacha vs. Kvitova: As much as the British spectators pillory its local players, they likely will take pride in the fact that their home hopes have survived longer at Wimbledon than anyone from their former penal colony. Among the Brits who have outlasted Australians like Stosur and Gajdosova is the Ukrainian-born Baltacha, who wept after a tense victory over Kerber four years ago on these lawns. Despite that match and a triumph over Barthel last year, she has created few uplifting memories from her eleven previous appearances at Wimbledon, from which she has extracted just six total victories. In just one campaign here, Kvitova won one more match than that total. The defending champion suffered an understandable bout of nerves early in the opening salvo of her defense, which nonetheless ended on a generally positive note under the anxious gaze of her parents. With that first step taken, perhaps Kvitova can unwind her own tension a little. Not often this year has she resembled the fearless free swinger who swept to the Venus Rosewater Dish in such electrifying fashion. On the other hand, the Czech has survived early-round threats at majors in 2012 (albeit not always convincingly), and Baltacha’s straightforward style should not fluster her.
Ivanovic vs. Kateryna Bondarenko: Surviving an uneven three-setter against Martinez Sanchez, the former #1 continues to build her consistency in opening rounds under Nigel Sears. A small step in the larger picture, no doubt, improvement in this area will build her confidence more generally, as will that success in a third set. At the 2009 US Open, Ivanovic lost such a final stanza to Kateryna Bondarenko in a ghastly tragicomedy of errors, which each woman could have won more than once before its anticlimax. Winning both of her previous clashes with the Serb, the younger Bondarenko sister stunned Errani at the Dutch Open in her first match since the Roland Garros final. Among her other victims are Pennetta and Radwanska’s sister, Urszula, opponents well below Ivanovic’s level but still credible foes. On the other hand, Kateryna came close to breaking Sharapova’s double-fault record from the 2009 US Open in a loss to Hantuchova at Miami. If Ana continues to struggle on her own serve, a cascade of breaks could unfold in a most atypical match for the grass. Having avenged her loss to Martinez Sanchez in a Rome semifinal, Ivanovic hopes to continue the theme of revenge against an adversary who inflicted an even more stinging defeat upon her. As the smiling Serb has grown fond of saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Cilic vs. Kubot: A fine doubles player with plenty of first-strike power, Kubot has ruffled more familiar opponents by returning aggressively and with depth. Combined with sturdy technique around the net, his uncanny reflexes on return led to a victory over Karlovic and nearly a victory over Roddick in Miami this year. More studied than spontaneous, by contrast, Cilic conveys a methodical air less imposing than the presence of other players who tower so tall. Winning his first title of 2012 at Queens Club, he exploited a draw pockmarked with the craters of upsets and might well have finished runner-up if not for Nalbandian’s implosion. At his best on hard courts, Cilic sometimes recalls Del Potro in his reduced effectiveness on a surface where he earns fewer free points from his serve than he could and where the low bounce challenges his lanky limbs. Unlike the more enigmatic Kubot, though, the unassuming Croat invariably competes with a commitment born perhaps more of duty than of joy, but creditable all the same. In a relatively open section filled with giants (see below), this giant carries the most momentum of all.
Querrey vs. Raonic: Two savants of the serve, these North Americans take their talents to the lawns best suited to their games. Many have crowned Raonic a future Wimbledon champion, if and when one of the top three men deigns to relinquish the throne. Even through clay thunder the deliveries of the Tour’s ace leader, while Querrey combined with another Canadian, Vasek Pospisil, on 115 unreturnable serves in the first round. Once considered the likely heir to the generation of Roddick, Blake, and Fish, the Southern California native relinquished that position to Isner and perhaps Harrison shortly after a glass table failed to support his elongated frame. The implacable foe of furniture also has raised eyebrows at times over the level of his competitive desire (or lack thereof), wandering back and forth across the line between confident insouciance and complacent carelessness. As he matures through adversity, Querrey may acquire the quiet resolve that Raonic already seems to emanate. Despite his cherubic face and relative inexperience, rarely does the Canadian not compete with the poise of a veteran.
Dimitrov vs. Baghdatis: A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, the ebullient Cypriot bears some resemblance to fellow surprise Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez. Both men never quite reproduced their Melbourne performance as lingering injuries and questions about their commitment hovered around their ensuing slide to the edge of relevance, but their fiercely proud national fan bases supported them just as vociferously in decline. But Baghdatis became a fan favorite worldwide much more than Gonzalez ever did, entertaining audiences even with temper tantrums such as his racket-smashing outburst at the Australian Open this year. Aptly designed for grass are his flat, low groundstrokes, which some American viewers have likened to line drives. Barely skimming over the net, these shots dart through the court with an acceleration undiminished by spin. Among the Cypriot’s shortcomings is his lack of a consistently overpowering serve, something that Dimitrov found during his impressive four-set victory over Kevin Anderson. Never has the Federer facsimile reached the third round at a major, but the stage where he won a junior title in 2008 would offer a fitting setting for a milestone in the next Olympic year. His Swisstastic slice should bite viciously on the grass, and his self-belief must have soared following his first ATP semifinal appearance at Queens Club.
Karlovic vs. Murray: In one of the most striking contrasts of styles that men’s tennis can showcase in the current era, one of the game’s premier servers meets one of its premier returners. When we attended their first meeting, a final on the indoor hard courts of San Jose, Karlovic and Murray probably represented the twin pinnacles of each shot. Each man dropped serve just once across the course of three sets, two of which ended in tiebreaks, and several games ended in a minute or less. A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon before, Karlovic has defeated such superior overall talents there as Hewitt (then the defending champion) and Tsonga, keeping alive the tradition of serve-volley tennis that has become an endangered species. Nagged by injuries throughout his career, he still poses essentially the same challenge as he did a decade ago. For most of his own career, Murray has specialized in defusing the serving power of one-dimensional opponents like Karlovic, yet so formidable is the Croat’s serve that he has won sets from the Scot in two of their three previous meetings. To avoid a costly marathon in the first week, the home hope will need to vigilantly guard his serve while looking for patterns in his opponent’s placement and ensuring that he capitalizes on second-serve opportunities. Look for Murray to position himself closer to the baseline than he typically would in order to cut off the angle before the serve veers outside his reach.