Tuesday August 31st, 2010

The draw holds many treasures. These are some of the matches I'd like to see if things break just right at the U.S. Open:

Maria Sharapova vs. Aravene Rezai (third round): There aren't nearly enough true fighters on tour. Sharapova is among the very few, and Rezai would love to be identified in that manner. As the French-born daughter of Iranian immigrants, she (and especially her father) has been constantly at odds with the French federation. She brings an underdog's defiance to the scene and hits with immense power. Big-time matchup.

Francesca Schiavone vs. Melanie Oudin (third round): Schiavone won me over, for life, at the French Open. Such élan, such all-court command under pressure. Such a cherished response from Italian tennis fans everywhere. Oudin still needs to get past Alona Bondarenko in the second round, and the way she has played this year (three match wins in her past 11 tournaments), that might be asking too much. But this would be quite a spectacle, and if Oudin were to win, we'd all be recalling her epic run to the quarterfinals last year.

Venus Williams vs. Tsvetana Pironkova (third round): There's a beguiling aspect to Pironkova's game, with its shades of eccentricity, and she wears a look of extreme confidence when she's on. Venus would know; she's lost to Pironkova in two of their last three meetings, including a straight-set shocker in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

Sharapova vs. Caroline Wozniacki (fourth round): What a wonderful opportunity for Wozniacki to validate her No. 1 seeding. But as hard as she works, there just isn't enough game. I'd take Sharapova from a power standpoint, and also on the strength of her will. A loss here, on the other hand, would nag at Sharapova all the way to the Australian Open.

Ana Ivanovic vs. Kim Clijsters (fourth round): Let's just breeze past all the damning evidence from 2010 and assume Ivanovic reaches this point. All year she's been ridiculed for her embarrassing losses and admitted lack of confidence. She has also maintained her legion of fans, for reasons quite obvious to all (and because she is an exceedingly nice human being). A match against Clijsters would be Ivanovic's shot at a legitimate breakthrough, something to erase all the bitter memories of the past few months. I'd take Clijsters, while hoping it goes three sets.

Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka (quarterfinals): So who falls apart here? Is it Venus, suddenly scattering her groundstrokes toward the distant boroughs? Or Azarenka, known for her past meltdowns, including a lamentable collapse against Serena at this year's Australian Open? Azarenka seemed wholly reinvented at the Stanford tournament last month, out-steadying Sharapova in the final and never showing a trace of nerves or petulance. Some wonder, though, if she's quite the finished product.

Sam Querrey vs. Andy Murray (fourth round): This would be the definitive look at Querrey, absolute truth-telling time for the man who hasn't convinced everyone that he'll remain a Top 20 player over the next few years. This is a winnable match for Querrey; after taking a straight-set loss in the Wimbledon Round of 16, he beat Murray in the recent Los Angeles final, and rather convincingly (6-3 in the third). Querrey should pray for some hot, steamy weather, a problem for Murray as recently as two weeks ago in Cincinnati. He should hope for a few breaks, as well. But he can do this, derailing Murray's plan to meet Rafael Nadal in the semifinals.

Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco (quarterfinals): Did you ever take a moment to list the five greatest matches you've ever seen? It never comes down to just five, of course. Most of us have at least 30 "top five" matches. But that was the general reaction after these Spanish countrymen staged a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal at the 2009 Australian Open, an ongoing saga of pure, often unbelievable shotmaking. Nadal finally prevailed, so moved by the occasion that he broke into tears. Anything close to that hardcourt masterpiece would be a pleasure to watch.

Andy Roddick vs. Novak Djokovic (quarterfinals): This pairing cuts to the heart of Djokovic's fall from grace. Back in 2007, when Djokovic unveiled his dead-on impressions of Nadal and Sharapova before a delighted late-night audience at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was an episode of comedic genius. It was executed in good-hearted fun, without a trace of malice, and Djokovic had already become a YouTube favorite for similarly hilarious characterizations of Roddick, Roger Federer and others.

I'd wager that in any sport where camaraderie matters -- say, rugby or basketball -- Djokovic would become a legend. Teammates would be begging for his impressions at parties and social functions. They'd all be howling with laughter at the videos. Not so in tennis. Roddick and Federer, among others, weren't at all amused by the show. They found it offensive, proving once again that in a sport of individuals, going it alone in insular worlds, you make fun of people at your own risk. And what a shame: Djokovic was forced to curtail his act, unveiling it only in private settings, because tennis didn't get the joke.

To make matters worse, Djokovic developed a well-deserved reputation as a hypochondriac, losing or pulling out of matches for any number of crazy reasons -- and it was Roddick who went public with the tour's disdain. Looking ahead to his quarterfinal against Djokovic at the 2008 U.S. Open, Roddick was asked if it appeared Djokovic was experiencing ankle and hip problems.

"Isn't it both of them?" Roddick said. "And a back and a hip?"

Reporter: "And when he said there are too many to count ..."

"And a cramp."

"Do you get a sense right now that he is ..."

"Bird flu. Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold."

What a bust. What a setup for Roddick to take the court and dispatch Djokovic with a flourish -- except it didn't happen that way. Djokovic won that quarterfinal, then made the mistake of making some angry, ungracious comments about the crowd during his on-court interview. The New York audience heckled him into a shell two days later, during his loss to Federer, and he has since been viewed as a sort of sad, tragic figure.

It speaks to Djokovic's resolve that he remains the No. 3 player in the world. But he has endured a hellish spell against Roddick, first retiring in the fourth set of their 2009 Australian Open quarterfinal, then losing the next three matches (including the recent Cincinnati quarterfinal) in straight sets. If you like a bit of conflict in your matches, a little more tension than usual, you'd love to see these two in an Arthur Ashe Stadium encore.

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