Taking Stock

Wednesday, August 01, 2012 /by

MSOne negative about Olympic tennis: It can be hard to keep up. You have singles, you have doubles, you have men, you have women, and starting today you had men and women together. Plus, two out of three setters on the men’s side don’t give you a chance to drift in and out of any one match (unless the third set lasts 48 games, of course). When the weather allows, things keep moving on the All England grounds, from morning until sundown.

After five days of on-again, off-again play, it’s a good time to survey the landscape as it stands at mid-week. The draws have been narrowed to a manageable eight players or teams each—even after just one day, the mixed, which began with only 16 entrants (win two matches and you play for a medal; they need a bigger draw in 2016), is almost there. While the Games have been different in many ways, and they’ve produced a few surprising results around the edges, the cream has mostly risen in the singles. Six of the world’s Top 8 women have survived to the quarters, while the men’s last eight features Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, and del Potro.

The doubles has been more predictably unpredictable, with teams featuring Murray, Djokovic, and now Federer eliminated early. But the American sibling acts in both draws, the Bryan brothers and the Williams sisters, remain. The mixed? Well, if you like the idea of seeing Juan Martin del Potro and Gisela Dulko lined up on the same side of the net—and who wouldn't?—this is an event for you. 

Here’s a look ahead at a few of the more notable matches to come.

***** 

Roger Federer vs. John Isner
The Big Enigma is trending again. It’s been a roller-coaster season, but for some reason Isner has shaken off whatever ailed him through the early part of the summer and rediscovered his cussed clutch self. Today the marathon man outlasted Janko Tipsarevic 16-14 in a second-set tiebreaker to reach the quarters. (How long can it be before Isner has a hand in smashing the record for the longest tiebreaker? And aren’t the Olympics tempting fate by playing out third sets when he’s in the draw? What if he had played Raonic?) Befitting Isner's hard-to-figure mentality, as soon as we say that he can’t play on grass, he shows us that he can.

As for Federer, there were some moments of slippage in his first set with Dennis Istomin today. Not with his footing, but with his consistency. The wayward ground strokes that he has mostly banished for the last month made a brief reappearance in the first set, before he authoritatively sent them away them again in the second. Is this a sign of more to come, or a temporary glitch? Either way, Federer will be playing a very different match against Isner than he would against anyone else. He can afford his share of shanks over the course of two or three sets against the big man, yet one or two mistakes at the wrong times could be fatal.

Isner stunned Federer in Davis Cup in February, but Federer avenged himself in Indian Wells a few weeks later. Since then, Federer has done a lot and Isner very little. I picked Federer to win the gold medal, and I’m sticking with that pick, but as I said above, Isner is winning the points he was winning when things were going well for him this year. I have a feeling he’ll make this interesting. Let’s see who wins the first-set tiebreaker. 

Maria Sharapova vs. Kim Clijsters
These two each appear determined to make up for disappointing Wimbledons. Sharapova fought even more fiercely than normal in her win over the woman who had beaten here there, Sabine Lisicki, and she reacted even more joyfully when it was over. Meanwhile, Clijsters matched Ana Ivanovic in fist-pumps and “Come ons!” in her straight-set win over the Serb.

Who will give in when they face each other on Centre Court tomorrow? Kim has a 6-3 edge in their head to head, though only one of those matches was played after 2007. Based on recent form, the percentage choice is Sharapova—she’s less likely than Kim to go walkabout. Whichever player ends up on top, this should be the battle of the women's tournament thus far. Neither has ever won an Olympic medal. 

Also alive:

Petra Kvitova has walked her own quietly circuitous path to the quarterfinals. Despite being a former Wimbledon champ, she’s been exiled from the big show courts thus far. That continues tomorrow, when she and Maria Kirilenko contest the only quarterfinal on Court 2, while a mixed match featuring Brits Andy Murray and Laura Robson gets Court 1 dibs. Look out for Petra, though; she’s not in Serena’s half, which means she could finish up inside Centre Court on Saturday.

—Speaking of Serena, with each day, each match, each blowout makes it seem more likely that she’ll walk out of London with two gold medals. But even after dropping just a single game to Vera Zvonareva today, she’s not a mortal lock. Tomorrow she plays Caroline Wozniacki, who beat her in Key Biscayne and took a set from her in Madrid this year. After that, Serena and Venus face Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci in the doubles quarters.

—How about Angelique Kerber, coming through in two tiebreakers against a Venus Williams who had spent the week turning back the clock to better days. That’s a gutsy win. Now she gets Azarenka. They’ve played once, this year at Indian Wells, where Vika won 4 and 3. 

—Remember the controversy over Indian men’s doubles? It's finished for the moment, as both teams, Bhupathi-Bopanna and Paes-Vardhan, have lost. It might have seemed more crucial before half the country lost power this week.

Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Each has run his share of miles. Each hopes to run a lot more. This one should be fun; each has beaten the other six times in their careers, and they're coming off a classic at Roland Garros. I picked Djokovic to win the silver, but I’m curious about Jo. Once again he’s at a point, after his victory over Raonic and the way he followed it up with wins in singles and doubles today, where you might start to believe he’s primed for that long-awaited breakthrough at a big event. Conversely, you also might start to believe that he's primed to run out of gas. 

Mixed Bag
Cool teams: Azarenka/Mirnyi are the top seeds, but I like the idea of Hewitt and Stosur, an odd couple who won their first round today; Dulko and del Potro, a long/short combo who did the same; and Murray/Robson, local favorites opening on Court 1. We’ll see how it plays out, and if the mixed makes any kind of mark. It has already been fun to see Agnieszka Radwanska fight off a Hewitt passing shot and win a point with a deft touch volley.

Enjoy it tomorrow. It feels like the Games are about to go from a novelty event to a seriously good tennis tournament.

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