More exciting than the men’s matches on Manic Monday are the clashes scheduled in the women’s draw.  We discuss four of the eight in the second half of our preview on the fourth round of Wimbledon.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  For the third time in five majors collide these two ball-bruising blondes, who met in the Wimbledon semifinals last year and in this round at the Australian Open in January.  Despite a horrific serving performance in that semifinal, Sharapova somehow eased past Lisicki routinely on Centre Court as she relied on her superior experience and poise under pressure.  Extended to three sets by the German in Melbourne, where both women acquitted themselves more creditably, she defeated her for the third time in less than a year by denying her opponent crucial break points when the match hung in the balance.  The world #1 rose to a similar challenge in the second round last week against grass specialist Pironkova, saving triple set point in the first set with three thunderous serves before recording her 21st victory in 22 three-setters since the start of 2011.   Although she has looked more vulnerable on serve than she did at Roland Garros, even hitting a double fault that bounced before the net, Sharapova has struck some of her best deliveries when she most needed them, a trend that has lasted for most of her season. 

Narrowly escaping the strong-lunged Bojana Jovanovski two rounds ago, Lisicki seeks her third quarterfinal in the last four years at WImbledon.  (Moreover, she now has reached the second week at four of the last five majors, a fine accomplishment by a player notorious for her inconsistency.)  Not a quarterfinalist yet at any other major, she enjoys the extra velocity that the grass provides for her serve, the shot around which she constructed an otherwise raw game.  The German has outserved Venus Williams in the past and can light up the radar more than virtually any woman outside the Williams sisters, including Sharapova.  When she misses her first serve, though, the Venus-like drop in pace to her second serve exposes her to aggressive returners.  For that reason, Lisicki’s fortunes ebb and flow in direct proportion to her serving percentage.  Once she lands that first strike, a wealth of options from drop shots to penetrating forehands open for her to finish points, assuming that the serve has not finished it already.  Since she wins few points from neutral or defensive mode, meanwhile, opponents also have ample options in finishing points against her once they gain the upper hand.  Considering the sheer power of each woman on serve and return, in addition to their flat, risky strokes, most points should end with a few brisk blows.  The woman who steps inside the baseline on her own terms more often should hold a clear advantage, and Lisicki has ceded that role to the Russian in each of their three previous meetings.  Nevertheless, she has moved closer to challenging the mighty champion each time, so Sharapova can expect to face sterner resistance this year and must deliver a more sustained effort than she did in her first three victories.

Serena vs. Shvedova:  While one of these women hurtled past the Roland Garros runner-up for the loss of only four games, the other needed a 16-game final set to edge past the dogged Zheng.  In the former position was Shvedova, who recorded a historic Golden Set by not losing a single point through the first six games against Errani.  Quite the contrast was Serena’s memorable march, which also featured a historic achievement in her 23 aces, a new Wimbledon record.  Without those serving fireworks, she almost certainly would have suffered a third straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major, so her explosion of elation at the end looked not only characteristic but entirely appropriate.  Stung by Zheng’s uncanny ability to redirect the ball with depth, Serena cannot afford to take her fellow former Wimbledon doubles champion for granted either, notwithstanding her past dominance over her.

After spending much of 2012 on the ITF circuit and at small WTA tournaments with weak draws, Shvedova suddenly has won ten matches at the last two majors.  Defeating Li and winning a set from Kvitova at Roland Garros, her athleticism has translated just as effectively to the grass.  In no area of her game is she clearly superior to Serena, though, and thus she will struggle to sketch coherent tactics to discomfit the former champion.  As for her opponent, the narrow escape against Zheng could represent another example of her fabled survival skills or could represent an ominous sign of a stumble to come.  In her last match before the resistance grows extremely challenging, Serena will want to prove that we should interpret her third-round thriller as the former.

Schiavone vs. Kvitova:  On an indoor hard court in Fed Cup this spring, they engaged in a fascinating juxtaposition of unvarnished power with crafty artistry.  While Kvitova’s style accentuates the prevailing trend in the WTA, Schiavone personifies a bygone era when players caressed the court as often as they assaulted it.  But one should not overstate the differences between the Czech rising star and the 2010 Roland Garros titlist, for both indulge in flamboyant shot-making that borders on recklessness.  Whereas Schiavone punctuates her more aggressive blows with a nasal moan, Kvitova greets glad tidings in rallies with a shrill yelp.  Relegated to the unexpectedly distant venue of Court 3 on this overstuffed day, the defending champion may adjust to the assignment better than the veteran who relishes the spotlight.    Hardly winning a match on any court or surface for much of this season, Schiavone left no impact on the terre battue and exited her beloved tournament in Paris after just three rounds.  Thus, her appearance in the second-week of Wimbledon—historically the major where she has achieved the least—has raised more than a few eyebrows at a moment when most had raised the specter of imminent retirement. 

Apparently still emitting sparks from her competitive flame, Schiavone will spare no effort of imagination in the effort to fluster Kvitova, almost imperturbable for much of 2011 but rattled much more easily in 2012.  Especially lethal in this regard might be her backhand slice, which slides through the grass with more bite than it does elsewhere and will force the statuesque Kvitova to create her own pace from a lower contact point than she prefers.  Against Laura Robson, her subtle manipulation of pace during and between points reaped as many rewards as a series of conventional winners. All the same, most of the Wimbledon champion’s losses this year have come against much more powerful opponents, from Sharapova and Venus to her compatriot Lucie Hradecka.  Faced with opponent who rely more on wits than weaponry, such as Errani and Schiavone herself, Kvitova has imposed her suffocating will more successfully.  Conquering the Italian on hard courts in Fed Cup and clay in Stuttgart, she can complete the trio with a grass triumph at Wimbledon. 

Ivanovic vs. Azarenka:   Following a most unaccustomed trajectory, the Serb’s first week started when she won a third set, continued when she won a tiebreak, and culminated when she rallied from a one-set deficit to defeat a talented foe in Julia Goerges.  Twice facing break point late in that tense third set, Ivanovic found first serves and forehand winners under pressure to quell the threat and preserve her momentum until she converted her match point, created by an ace.  Into the second week for the third time in four majors, she has not reached a quarterfinal at the sport’s four leading tournaments after winning Roland Garros more than four years ago.  On Centre Court for the first time since she held the #1 ranking, the Serb will need that uncharacteristic composure to halt Azarenka and reach the top 10.

Not dropping a set through three matches against the lackluster opposition of Falconi, Oprandi, and Cepelova, the player who held the top ranking just a month ago may have regained her own composure as the spotlight has retreated from her.  A semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, the Australian Open champion has not won a title since her season-starting streak of 26 victories ended in Miami.  On the blue clay of Madrid, she moved past Ivanovic in straight sets but not before Ana had led by a break midway through the first set and come within a point of nullifying a double-break deficit in the second set.  That theme of momentum shifts recalled the Serb’s comeback in Cincinnati two years ago in a match for which Azarenka served twice.  Although they did not meet until well beyond the beginning of Ivanovic’s doldrums, they have split their four meetings on hard courts and clay.  In their first grass meeting, Vika will hope to exploit her far more symmetrical groundstrokes on the fast court to pin her forehand-reliant opponent into her backhand corner and take time away from her.  Across the net, Ana will hope to exploit her superior first-strike power on serve and return to prevent her rhythm-reliant opponent from extending their exchanges into rallies.  Ventures towards the forecourt to finish points would appear a dangerous gamble in view of Azarenka’s outstanding movement and skill at passing shots, but Ivanovic must accept such risks to earn her third victory over a top-10 foe this year.