by Craig Hickman
After the first uninterrupted day of play at SW19, rain is once again in the forecast for tomorrow. But it needs to stay in the clouds, because the only drooling I want to experience is my own as I feast upon a great plate of third-round matches.
Surely, much of the focus is on the Roger Federer, Marat Safin showdown. Is Raja, who just notched his 50th consecutive victory on the lawns, vulnerable? Which Safin will show up? Many people have said that their titanic 2005 semifinal in Melbourne was one of the best matches they've ever seen. Raja and Marat haven't played at a Slam since. Safin has been injured for much of that time. But even when he's been competing, the man with a circus in his head, as our own oddman is wont to say, has been as unpredictable as the lottery.
In interviews before the match, Raja has admitted that Marat, along with Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, is one of the players over whom he doesn't have total control in a match. If Safin makes up his mind and plays to his ability, he has more than enough game to beat anybody. Even if Raja plays well. "I hope he doesn't take me out," said Raja in an interview as honest and straightforward as I've ever seen from him. No bullshit. No preening. Just truth. As critical as I can be of the man, I give him his kudos today.
For his part, Safin said that, overall, he wasn't feeling particularly confident, "Why should I be? I've only been in one semfinal back in March," but he was focused on getting to the third round to take on Raja.
Safin gets up for big matches, on big stages, against top opponents. The last time he had that opporunity was in the third round of Melbourne in January against Roddick. This readership chose that match as the best of the entire event. Marat made Andy work for that victory.
Based upon his play today against Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, a Pakistani qualifier who had quipped before the match that he hoped Safin woke up on the wrong side of the bed. No such luck. The Russian's ground strokes were precise, his movement solid, his return of serve top-notch and his volleys crisp. His first serve wasn't as sharp as it could be but he still didn't drop serve in the match.
He'll be ready for tomorrow, weather permitting, and win or lose, he's going to make Raja work.
But wait, there's more.
We get Roddick vs. Fernando Verdasco, James Blake vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Janko Tipsarevic vs. Fernando Gonzalez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Feliciano Lopez, Paul-Henri Mathieu vs. Ivan Ljubicic, Dmitry Tursunov vs. Tommy Haas. If you can pick these winners, I applaud you. I can't.
Andy's the favorite, but Verdasco has been playing better off the ground. Andy has beaten Nando in six of their eight matches. One was a retirement, the other that match on clay in Rome where Roddick overruled a Verdasco double fault on match point. A much talked about show of sportsmanship. Their five-set US Open battle will be in the backs of both their minds.
Blake has never been beyond the third round in London. Ferrero has. Neither is a pillar of mental strength. The American has more weapons, but he can shoot himself with them fast as I can type. And I type fast. And he hasn't beaten Ferrero in two tries. Still, this one could go five, in which case it will be time for James to overcome the "anamoly" (his word, not mine) of his 0-9 record if fifth sets.
Janko claims that he's been motivated by positive jealously as a trio of compatriots have stepped to the front of the stage. He's due for his Slam breakthrough. No better time than on a surface he favors. Fena has been to the quarterfinals here and is playing like a warrior. Just last week, he beat Janko in a third-set breaker in Queen's on the Serb's double fault. Surely that won't happen again, will it? I see five-sets written all over this one.
Tsonga, the Muhammed Ali lookalike, is on a hot streak. With a cannonball serve, a blistering forehand, and all that French touch, grass is his best surface. He booted four-time Queen's champ and defending titlist Lleyton Hewitt right out of the club last week. In straight sets. Lopez, in a show with more plot twists than a Hollywood thriller, just sent the sentimental favorite packing and he won't have a day of rest. That is, if.... Lopez is rooming with Rafa, and as Mary Carillo observes, such determination can rub off. Ali and F-Lo have never met.
Mathieu knows he can beat Roddick, so he'll be eager to get past Ljubicic, who, till just last week, never contested even the quarterfinals of a grass court event. Both have big serves and big shots off the ground. With the grass bouncing up to 7.5 inches higher (and depending on who you ask, 7.5 inches is a big difference) than it did 3 years ago, Ivan won't be so rushed on his big-swinging, stiff forehand. Neither is a pillar of mental strength (is there an echo in here?), so this could go five sets, too. They split their two meetings, but they haven't played since 2003.
Tursunov has a machine-gun game tailor-made for grass and he plays well at Wimbledon. Haas is returning from more shoulder woes, but has looked strong in his opening two matches, depsite a few lapses that can most likely be attributed to lack of match play. Haas has won three of their four matches, but all their fast court encounters have gone the distance. They've never played on grass or in a Slam. Tursunov is more match tough, coming off a run to the Queen's semifinals last week, but the veteran is hungry as ever.
And that's just the men.
Most of women's third round matches on the schedule for tomorrow seem pretty straight forward with the higher ranked player expected to win comfortably.
If I had to pick two matches that might be more challenging than they appear, if even upsets don't happen, I'd go with Justine Henin vs. Elena Vesnina and Jelena Jankovic vs. Lucie Safarova.
Vesnina played Henin well in Paris a few weeks ago and has an attacking game that can pay dividends on grass. Justine will remember that and likely play first strike tennis, attacking the net before her opponent does. But Vesnina possess enough power to send Justine scrambling back to the baseline. I wouldn't be surprised if the Russian takes a set. And if Justine's shin or foot or whatever injury she might be nursing (clay is brutal) affects her movement at all....
Safarova has strapping from her upper groin to just below her knee on her right leg, so who knows how fit she'll be. Jelena, despite playing a ton of tennis, looks fresh as the grass up around the net. But Safarova has a deceptive serve and flat bullet groundstrokes that will shoot through the court, no matter how high the bounce. If she makes Jelena play defense, and the Drama Queen can play defense, Lucie may prove too much for the Serb to handle. And Safarova has that Safin thing going: she likes to beat big players on big stages, even if she can't follow it up. JJ beat Lucie in two close sets in their only meeting last year, but if Lucie can run, this one could go three.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
by Craig Hickman