Sweating it Out

by: Peter Bodo | January 25, 2011

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TENNIS.com

Petra by Pete Bodo

For those of you who have grown weary of the Roger vs. Rafa themes (the Fedal Wars, in the patois), how about if we return to something a little less controversial, like tennis' ATP/WTA  gender wars?

Actually, "gender" isn't event the correct noun, although common usage has trumped the dictionary in this one. Gender is a grammatical term, sex is a biological one. But I guess even hardcore feminists and male chauvinists balked at the idea of nakedly (npi) calling them "sex wars."

Anyway, it seems that some sort of truce has been in effect between the sex-based partisans in tennis. A lot of the hoo-hah about equal prize money has died down, and the main point of debate now is whether or not the lack of a reliable, dominant champ or rivalry on the WTA side is a good thing, especially when compared to the men's game, where Rafa and Roger have dominated for well-nigh five years now.

Only three men (Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic) have won a major since the start of 2005, and each of them has won just one measly major; that statistic is nothing short of mind-boggling—historic as well as epic. Somehow, I don't see the tennis historians of the future drooling over the Grand Slam event battles staged in the WTA over that same span.

But we live in the present, and one intriguing if not exactly self-evident question today is, "Who's got the better quarterfinal line-up for tonight, the WTA or the ATP? Who cares what the answer is? That we can ask the question is a wonderful thing.

So, the WTA quarters:

Agnieszka Radwanska (No. 12) vs. Kim Clijsters (No. 3): I hope Clijsters crushes the Polish lass because I'm danged tired of having to spell-check Radwanska's name. Seriously, though, Clijsters has been favored, with increasing conviction, to win this entire event and her progress has been undeniably smooth. Still, who can forget all those baffling Grand Slam misfires, starting with her loss to Petrova in Melbourne last year?

After losing just four games in the first two rounds last week, Clijsters has had to play a first set tiebreaker in her next two matches, against (respectively) Alize Cornet and Ekaterina Makarova. Note that neither of those opponents was a seeded player. That's not Clijsters' fault, but it does beg a few questions: What if Clijsters had lost one of those first-set breakers? And, how will Clijsters respond to second-week pressure applied by a player like Radwanska, who's of a higher caliber than any of her previous opponents?

The two have met but once, at Wimbledon in 2006, when Radwanska was outside the Top 200 and probably still reading the Polish-language version of Teen Beat magazine. Clijsters won 2 and 2. Radwanska is trying to regain ground she lost when she had to sit out the end of 2010 with a foot injury, which makes the first major of 2011 even more of a new beginning than usual—a chance similar, if of a lesser order of magnitude, to the one Clijsters had upon her return to tennis in 2009. I like what I've seen of the new Radwanska.

This as a tricky situation for Clijsters. Radwanska has had two gut-check matches against seasoned opponents, the ageless Kimiko Date Krumm and Shuai Peng; Radwasnska won both of them, 7-5 in the third. She drives the ball nicely off either side and plays solid defense, so it's unlikely that Clijsters will just roll through her. If this becomes a protracted war, I like Radwanska in an upset special.

Petra Kvitova (No. 25) vs. Vera Zvonareva (No. 2): The head-to-head is 1-1, with only one of those matches played within the last year, a 6-4, 6-0 win by Kvitova on the clay of Rome. The Australian Open is on hard courts, of course, but guess what? Kvitova is at her best on fast courts, as her terrific run to the semis at Wimbledon last year demonstrated.

It's tempting to call for the upset here, because Kvitova is a dangerous attacking player who's unafraid to serve and volley. She's played her way through a tough draw, highlighted by an upset of Australia's darling, No. 5 seed Sam Stosur. But Kvitova's record is littered with as many puzzling, blow-out losses as surprisingly decisive wins, and she struggled against seeding equal Flavia Pennetta (No. 22) in her last match. In short, you never really know what you're getting with Kvitova.

That unpredictability works in Zvonareva's favor, as does the No. 2 player's style and present level. Zvonareva has excellent skills, and that's always bad news for an attacker. She'll be able to keep the 6-foot Kvitova on the bend and running. And Zvonareva's repertoire of passing shots is impressive.

Although Zvonareva has beaten just one seeded player through four rounds (No. 31 Lucie Safarova), she hasn't lost a set in her last two matches. Zvonareva came into this event with a lot to prove. She lost in two Grand Slam finals last year (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and won just one final (Pattaya City) in five appearances. Clearly, she's on a mission of affirmation, not unlike top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. Zvonareva has avoided the first-week upset, tightened up her game after a second round three-setter, and positioned herself to win that elusive first major. I think she gets by Kvitova.

The ATP quarters:

Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Andy Murray (No. 5): For about ten days now, it's been Andy Murray this, Andy Murray that. I'm sick of it! Seriously, though, while the attention lavished on Murray has been justified by his form, doesn't anybody remember that unlike Murray, that other fella Novak Djokovic has actually won this thing?

The outlook seems bleak for Dolgopolov. Forgive me for having a Greg Sharko moment here, but when was the last time an unseeded player has beaten a pair of former Grand Slam finalists (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray) in back-to-back matches in the fourth round and quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event?

The head-to-head? Ha, ha, ha...But wait—they have met, in a Davis Cup tie way back in 2006, before the 22-year-old Ukrainian started wearing big-boy pants.

By those figures, things don't look good for Dolgopolov, but then let's remember that they didn't look all that rosy for Gaston Gaudio before the 2004 French Open, either. And you know what?  Dolgopolov is crazy and don't care about nothin'. He's remarkably swift, seemingly fearless, and capable of burying anyone in a blizzard of winners. Laugh if you will at that spring-loaded service action; the velocity of the serve may not blow you away, but it sure comes at the other guy in a hurry.

The matchup promises to give Murray a marvelous chance to demonstrate his defensive and retrieving skills because, unless the pressure gets to Dolgopolov, you can expect him to unload on every ball. I'm really curious to see how this one plays out, even though Murray's defensive skills and superior serve ought to be enough to tide him through.

You know what, I'm taking a flyer. Dolgopolov in one of the all-time Open-era Grand Slam upsets.

Ferrer Rafael Nadal (No. 1) vs. David Ferrer (No. 7): On paper, this is a walk in the park for Rafa. He's 11-3 against Ferrer, and there's also the "Federer factor" here. (It seems almost perverse to write about Rafa without working Roger into it somehow these days.)

The Federer factor was on display last night, when his fellow Swiss and Olympic doubles partner, Stanislas Wawrinka, folded up like a cheap jacknife when presented with the opportunity to spoil a much anticipated if not yet scripted Federer vs. Nadal showdown.

The idea of Wawrinka beating Federer is comparable to the notion of Janko Tisparevic or Viktor Troicki taking down Novak Djokovic, which is like the concept of Ferrer licking Nadal. It might happen at a minor tournament, but at a major? There's a pecking order in place here, even if it's entirely psychological. So in the interest of equal time, we'll now change it to the "Rafa factor." The chance that Ferrer is going to violate it is remote. But...

What is it with Nadal and this fatigue/sweating thing? The theme blossomed after Nadal's straight-sets win over Bernard Tomic and now the mystery ailment, if such a thing actually exists, threatens to dominate the conversation. If Nadal does suffer from an ailment that causes fatigue (let's remember that Federer, John Isner and others have succumbed to glandular fever in recent times), Ferrer may be the worst opponent of all to face. Nadal could be sweating this out in more ways than one. Verdasco-Nadal, 2009 Aussie Open, anyone?

Ferrer, over the years, has departed from his grinder's roots into a much more dangerous player. He may have the best serve of any 5-9 player in the Open era, he really cracks the forehand, and he's become a capable attacker. His main obstacle now seems as much psychological as tactical; this is a guy who's always seemed happy to take what he can, and then skulk off when the big dogs approach the bowl of kibble. At some point, though, all dogs learn to growl.

Layers of Ferrer's quality and consistency (think Nikolay Davydenko) almost always manage to have a few moments in a big sun, and one of the odd things about Ferrer's CV is that he hasn't had that many. I'd say he's due, but I still like Nadal.

***

This is as compelling a quartet of second-week matches as I can remember. It's driven less by technical issues and head-to-heads (only Nadal and Ferrer have a signficant body of results) than by a variety of unknowns, although each of the matches features a player with great name value. The ATP and WTA have both done themselves proud at this tournament.

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