When the Rome draw first appeared, eyes swept downward to a marquee match in the making that now has materialized. Nevertheless, the third round has produced several other matches that intrigue from a variety of perspectives, sometimes extending beyond the court.
Sharapova vs. Ivanovic: A rivalry that never took root as many had expected, all four of its completed matches occurred during a year and a half between late 2006 and the 2008 Australian Open. While Sharapova swept their trio of hard-court meetings without dropping a set, Ivanovic dominated their only clay encounter at Roland Garros in 2007, a year before she won the only major that does not yet belong to Maria. Since that title, however, the Serb has found little cause to smile on the surface that she once preferred, reaching no clay finals in the last four years and suffering several unsightly losses in early rounds. Tracing the opposite trajectory, the Russian has won a title on red clay in each of the last three years and has accumulated the best career winning percentage on this surface of any active woman.
Hampered by her modest backhand on faster surfaces, Ana relishes the opportunity that the terre battue offered to control points with her forehand, which she now hits with more margin but no less power than during her slump. That forehand remains one of the most explosive in the WTA, whereas Sharapova’s backhand ranks high on a similar short list of two-handers. Therefore, much will hinge upon how well their two weaker wings withstand pressure in forehand-to-forehand and backhand-to-backhand rallies, and how many of each develop. Also of note is the duel between Sharapova’s serve and Ivanovic’s return, which propelled the latter to an early lead in the aborted Indian Wells meeting. Once the Russian settled into a steady serving rhythm, though, that contest swung in her direction. Only a slightly superior shot-maker, Maria has proved herself a far superior competitor more trustworthy in tight games, sets, and matches, as her 18-1 record since the start of 2011 demonstrates. A tepid 4-11 in third sets during the same period, Ivanovic must establish herself early or not at all.
Stosur vs. Venus: After she won her first eight sets against the Australian, Venus conceded a three-set rollercoaster to her in Charleston last month. When they clashed in Rome four years ago, the American held a ranking inside the top 10, while her opponent languished outside the top 100. Almost the opposite dynamic prevails now between a reigning US Open champion who has lodged herself in the top five and an aging warrior seeking to extract the last few drops of glory from a stirring career. Without a major for nearly four years, Venus has notched a handful of entertaining victories during the past year despite her battles with a draining illness. This disorder prevents her from battering through draws with her former effortlessness, although her serve remains undimmed and her net game almost as lethal. Even when at her best, Venus rarely showcased her best tennis on the surface that most punishes her for the waywardness into which her groundstrokes can veer. Far more comfortable on red clay, Stosur has honed a kick serve and a spin-slathered forehand that exploit the court’s high bounce, pivotal in her surges to finals at Rome and Roland Garros. Less spectacular than her opponent’s flat rockets on those strokes, the Australian’s heavy balls seem much better designed for this particular forum.
Gasquet vs. Murray: Personifying the personalities of their respective nations are the Frenchman’s fusion of flair with flakiness and the Scot’s reserved, sometimes bland style. Not once but twice at majors, Gallic panache swept the first two sets from a moping Murray before the latter grimly chipped away until his opponent’s fragile self-belief collapsed. This predictable narrative in a sense represented a microcosm of their careers, during which Gasquet initially seemed a much more promising talent but gradually ceded superiority to a rival born in the same month. No longer castigated as an underachiever who never fulfilled his potential, he has descended from the rubble of lofty expectations to a netherworld of mediocrity where he neither dazzles nor disappoints. Although he has not always sparkled under the spotlight that blinded the Frenchman, Murray at least has survived and often thrived. He has thrived rather less on clay than on other surfaces, though, so the past could outshine the present on this relatively less significant stage, especially if the fourth seed’s back injury recurs.
Del Potro vs. Tsonga: As one might expect from two such imposing servers, tiebreaks have proliferated across their last five meetings. As one might not expect from two players seemingly comparable in talent, Del Potro has dominated their history with only a single loss on a fast indoor court last year. That match came midway through Tsonga’s torrid fall stretch, which included finals at the Paris Indoors and the World Tour Finals before extending to a year-starting title in Doha—and then crashed to a halt. Falling to Nishikori at the Australian Open and Stepanek at Indian Wells, the world #5 reverted to his familiarly frustrating self just when many observers had trumpeted his emergence into a consistent contender. Likely never to cross that bridge from trendy dark horse to genuine threat, Tsonga ricocheted buoyantly around the red clay as he routed Troicki in his opener. But his electrifying style strikes a jarring contrast with the patience and tenacity required to succeed on clay, a challenge to which Del Potro has committed himself more fully with much stronger results. A titlist in Estoril and a semifinalist in Madrid, the former US Open champion looms behind Berdych as currently the second-most credible threat to the top three at Roland Garros. Calm on court to a fault, his tranquility and businesslike demeanor offer a stronger shield than Tsonga’s volatility against the adversity that can spring from the clay. Of similar significance is his much more reliable return, which will deny the Frenchman more free (or cheap) points than usual and allow Del Potro to sink his teeth into the baseline exchanges where his superior consistency should prevail. Armed with a mental edge and a surface edge, the Tower of Tandil should record a mini-upset that would lead to an intriguing quarterfinal against the world #1.
Berdych vs. Almagro: More reminiscent of the WTA than the ATP, a vicious feud might have emerged between these two men at the Australian Open. Irked that Almagro attempted to aim a passing shot at him rather than down the line, Berdych refused to shake his hand after the match amidst the vociferous objections of the Melbourne crowd. Surely determined to vindicate his honor, Almagro then demolished his higher-ranked foe at Indian Wells in perhaps the darkest blot on a generally impressive 2012 campaign for the latter. Other than gobbling up South American clay tournaments once again, the Spaniard has not distinguished himself in the matches that matter most, such as a Madrid marathon against Ferrer that he failed to finish after holding multiple match points. Likewise on the losing side of an epic there, Berdych should have soared in confidence when he reflected on his tournament overall. Not accustomed to delivering sequences of sturdy performances week after week, he has won all ten of his clay matches this year against opponents other than the top three in a span stretching across three tournaments and a Davis Cup quarterfinal. Perhaps just as impressively, he won sets from both Djokovic and Federer on a surface seemingly more in their favor than his. Neutral spectators thus should hope for Berdych to advance so that he can test his rediscovered resilience against the man who epitomizes the trait: Rafael Nadal.