On a busy Monday in Miami, all of the women’s fourth-round matches unfold. You can find a preview of all eight here in addition to a few of the remaining men’s third-round encounters.
Garbine Muguruza vs. Li Na: Into the fourth round for the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, the Spanish rising star continues to consolidate her position as a player to watch this year. Indian Wells finalist Caroline Wozniacki became the latest player to learn about Muguruza’s ascendancy the hard way, thoroughly dismantled on Sunday. A day later, the youngster trains her weapons on Li Na, who has produced consistently outstanding tennis in the few tournaments that she has played this year. The Australian Open runner-up has lost only to Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka in 2013, although a knee injury sidelined her for several weeks after Melbourne. When she returned this week, her ball-striking looked as clean if not as audacious as it had in January. Never at her best in Miami, Li could turn a page now.
Serena Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova: Awaiting the winner of the previous match in the quarterfinals is the world No. 1, assuming that she can survive the test posed by the shortest woman in the top 30. Cibulkova vanished from relevance after reaching the Sydney final, where Radwanska double-bageled her, but she pushed Serena’s predecessor in the spot to the brink in the same round here a year ago. That match against Azarenka, for which she served twice, revealed how much her explosive forehand can threaten taller opponents with more effortless power. Against a server like Serena, who struck 20 aces against her at Wimbledon in 2010, Cibulkova’s short wingspan may prevent her from creating pressure in return games and exploiting the erratic baseline play that Williams showed in the last round.
Grigor Dimitrov vs. Andy Murray: The memory of what unfolded when he faced Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells may reverberate through Dimitrov’s mind if he takes a lead against Murray. Serving for the first set that time, he conceded four double faults in a painful display of nerves. Dimitrov also took Murray to a first-set tiebreak wen they met in the Brisbane final this year, only to lose the tiebreak decisively and fade thereafter. Much more impressive than he looked at Indian Wells, Murray showed minimal mercy to another rising phenom in Bernard Tomic. His two-handed backhand should break down Dimitrov’s one-hander unless the Bulgarian enjoys an excellent serving day that allows him to dictate points with his forehand.
John Isner vs. Marin Cilic: Among the stranger statistics of the ATP is Cilic’s undefeated record against Americans, which includes victories over playesr like Roddick and Querrey. That perfection might continue against a giant exhausted from his epic victory over Ivan Dodig in the sweltering Miami heat. Mired in a slump for the last several months, Isner will have gained confidence from winning the type of close match that he so often plays, but he generally does not recover well after winning them and does not have an impressive history in Miami. The slow surface will blunt the serves of both men, a greater concern for Isner than the more balanced Cilic.
Maria Sharapova vs. Klara Zakopalova: The only woman in the lower half of the women’s draw who has defeated Sharapova on a hard court, Zakopalova halted the other Russian Maria in the wake of the latter’s strong fortnight at Indian Wells. That sole victory came a decade agao at the Australian Open, however, and the Czech subsided uneventfully when they met in Doha this February. Sharapova struggled on serve when Zakopalova took her to a third set at Roland Garros last year, and she struggled on serve again on the windy afternoon of her previous match. But she should break Zakopalova’s serve frequently with her rapier-like returns, keeping this counterpuncher on her heels from the outset.
Richard Gasquet vs. Mikhail Youzhny: These two men have developed a reputation for suffering ignominious meltdowns, including an occasion here when Youzhny drew blood from his head by smashing his racket against it. Another of those occasions featured the Frenchman surrendering a two-set lead to his fellow headcase at the Australian Open. Well past his prime, the Russian still can uncork one-handed backhands scarcely less lovely than Gasquet’s signature shot. Moreover, Youzhny has won four of their seven career meetings, surprising considering his opponent’s superior weapons.
Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sloane Stephens: The defending champion has suffered a lull in form since winning consecutive titles to start 2013, dominated by Li and Petra Kvitova before Kirilenko upset her at Indian Wells. Radwanska dropped a set in the third round to Magdalena Rybarikova, a talented player but still a journeywoman, so she must raise her level against an Australian Open semifinalist. That said, Stephens ate a bagel from Olga Govortsova in her first set of the tournament, and she had lost four of her previous five matches before that victory. At Cincinnati last summer, she extended Radwanska to a third set despite lacking the firepower that normally troubles the Pole. Something similar could happen here in a match filled with long rallies.
Milos Raonic vs. Sam Querrey: Meeting for the fourth time since the start of 2012, these two giants play essentially the same styles in a matchup determined by execution on the day. In that regard, one must give the edge to Raonic, who defeated Querrey comfortably at San Jose last month in avenging two losses to the American last year. The slow outdoor courts of Miami favor the Canadian’s massive weapons and preference for short points much less than does the indoor arena in San Jose. In rallying past former nemesis Lukasz Kubot, Querrey continued to look vulnerable in a year when few victories have come easily. (Or, the more pessimistic might say, at all.) This match should come down to first-serve percentage and focus, critical in a match that hinges upon a tiny handful of points and in which any mistake can prove fatal.
Ajla Tomljanovic vs. Kirsten Flipkens: Recovered from a serious issue with blood clots last year, Flipkens reached the second week of the Australian Open and upset Kvitova yesterday in an oddly oscillating three-setter. Some of her better results have come on grass, which showcases her biting slice and her fine hands at net. Aligned opposite her is a Croat who clawed past Petkovic in a third-set tiebreak after upsetting Julia Goerges in the previous round. Like Flipkens, Tomljanovic has struggled with sporadic injuries, and she has played only a handful of WTA tournaments in the last several months. Transitioning overnight from the underdog to the favorite, the Belgian should fancy her chances to reach the most significant quarterfinal of her career.
Roberta Vinci vs. Alize Cornet: In a section that imploded, either of these women plausibly could reach a semifinal and collect the valuable ranking points that come with it. The main question regarding this match concerns whether Cornet can recover in time from a three-set victory that forced her to leave the court in a wheelchair. On the other hand, Vinci needed plenty of energy to grind through a three-setter of her own against Suarez Navarro, testing the veteran’s stamina. Her backhand slices could prove vital in testing the patience of an ever-edgy Cornet.
Sara Errani vs. Ana Ivanovic: After the Serb had won their two previous meetings, the Italian turned the tables at Roland Garros last year in a match that Ivanovic controlled initially before letting it slip away. The steadiness of Errani has allowed her to outlast streaky shot-makers like the former Roland Garros champion over the last year, but the latter displayed her best form in several months during her two victories here. For her part, Errani has lost just five games in two matches, the fewest of any woman left in the draw. If Ivanovic bursts to a fast start and sustains it, as she did against Kuznetsova, she could overwhelm this opponent before she settles. If Errani can find her footing and extend the rallies, meanwhile, she could complicate the plot for a woman who prefers her matches straightforward.
Sorana Cirstea vs. Jelena Jankovic: Until Jankovic won their most recent encounter in Dallas last summer, Cirstea had swept all of her meetings against an opponent consistently ranked higher than her, although each stretched into a final set and none came on an outdoor hard court. The Romanian brunette managed to upset Kerber a round after barely eking out a victory over Silvia Soler-Espinosa, a pair of results that illustrates how wide her range of form extends. Almost as impressive as the Kerber upset was Jankovic’s victory over Nadia Petrova, her seventh win in her last eight matches with the only loss coming in an airtight clash with Kuznetsova. Both women thus should enter this match with confidence, and they eye a similar opportunity to Vinci and Cornet, the winner of whom would meet the winner of this match in the quarterfinals.
There are fewer matches that capture the imagination on Friday, but those that do offer plenty to discuss. Here’s a look at the end of the men’s second round and the start of the women’s third round.
Tomic vs. Murray: The Aussie prodigy has all of the elements that should make him a future star: a balanced but distinctive and aesthetically pleasing game, a personality oozing with charisma, and more than a whiff of controversy. All of the elements, that is, but competitive toughness, although Tomic has begun to remedy that flaw this year with somewhat more consistent results. He has yet to leave his mark on a Masters 1000 tournament, however, unlike a few of his fellowing rising stars, nor has he scored a signature win over one of the Big Four somewhere other than an exhibition. Such an opportunity might await against Murray, who was fortunate to avoid an exit earlier than the quarterfinals at Indian Wells amid notably scratchy form. Since both men know virtually every shot and tactic in the book, a display of all-court tennis should ensue that suits this notably slow surface.
Venus vs. Stephens: The past and future of American women’s tennis collide in a match of two women separated by over a decade. Having just turned 20 this week, Stephens may have catapulted into celebrity a little too early with her victory over Serena at the Australian Open. She now attempts to echo what Kerber did last year by sweeping the two Williams sisters on hard courts, a task probably within range considering the arduous evening to which Kimiko Date-Krumm subjected Venus in her first match. The contrast in their serves should boost the veteran’s chances, albeit less than it would on a faster hard court. And Sloane also has looked mortal as she has struggled to find her best form in the wake of that Australian accomplishment. She will rely on her consistency to extend the points longer than the erratic Venus can harness her weapons.
Kubot vs. Querrey: Now the top-ranked American man, Querrey has some work to do in justifying the expectations associated with that label. His results this year have toed the line between mildly disappointing and unremarkable, and he lost his only previous meeting with Kubot in a five-setter at the 2011 Australian Open. The doubles specialist from Poland kept Querrey’s serve at bay with penetrating returns and took time away from him by capitalizing on short balls to approach the net. But these are the types of matches that the top-ranked American man is supposed to win, and the excuses for Querrey’s apparent lulls in motivation will grow less convincing with the increased spotlight on him.
Bellucci vs. Janowicz: A fairly straightforward lefty, the leading man from Brazil had lost five straight match before rallying from losing the first set to oust lucky loser Daniel Brands here. Curiously, considering his clay origins, he defeated Janowicz on the indoor hard courts of Moscow last fall, near the time that the latter launched himself on his charge through the Paris Masters 1000 draw. The superior server and arguably superior competitor, the youngster from Poland should fear little if he can unravel the wrinkles of a lefty’s game and put a reasonable number of returns in play. An intriguing rendezvous with Murray could await in the next round.
Petkovic vs. Tomljanovic: Reaching the Miami semifinals in her last appearance, two years ago, Petkovic justified her wildcard at this tournament by not only winning her first match but also upsetting top-15 opponent Bartoli (admittedly, by retirement). Since she played only a tiny handful of matches in the first half of 2012, she certainly would relish the opportunity to collect more points to boost her ranking. Petkovic will enter this match as the favorite, but Tomljanovic enters with plenty of momentum as well. The 19-year-old Croat defeated both Pervak and Goerges in straight sets to justify her own wildcard, producing a level of form well above her ranking of #242.
Wozniacki vs. Muguruza: Virtually unknown before the last few months, Garbine Muguruza raised a few eyebrows when she slugged groundstrokes fearlessly against Serena in Melbourne. Then she raised many more eyebrows by reaching the fourth round of Indian Wells as a qualifier, the best result that any qualifier had garnered in the desert for nearly a decade. Armed with much more potent weapons than most of her compatriots, Muguruza aims to duplicate that achievement at a second sraight Premier Mandatory tournament. Consecutive three-setters in the first two rounds may have sapped her energies for a physical matches ahead, although Wozniacki also opened the tournament with a taxing battle. Extended to a final set in her Indian Wells opener too, she hopes to bounce back again from that uninspired start but has no more margin for error on the eve of collisions with Li Na and then Serena.
Flipkens vs. Kvitova: Never at her best at the spring North American tournaments, the former Wimbledon champion has struggled with the heat and her breathing in previous appearances. An Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance struck a more hopeful note, although her serving debacle at that stage did not. Opponents who can disrupt her baseline rhythm with something unexpected tend to trouble the Czech more than those with straightforward styles, and Flipkens can offer some unconventional looks with her backhand slice and occasional forays to the net. Those tactics should work better on a faster, lower-bouncing surface, though, while the Miami court should present Kvitova with balls at a comfortable height and time to target the lines.
While eight of the top ten men are active in the week before Indian Wells, only two of the top ten women have chosen live matches over practice sessions. Two clay tournaments in the Western Hemisphere accompany an Asian hard-court tournament as the last chance to reverse or extend momentum before the March mini-majors.
Acapulco: One of those two top-ten women playing this week, Errani hopes to begin repeating last year’s success on red clay while extending her success from reaching the Dubai final. Little about her section suggests that she should not, although she stumbled unexpectedly on clay against Lepchenko in Fed Cup. Considering that mishap, she might find Arantxa Rus a worthy test in the quarterfinals. Rus once upset Clijsters at Roland Garros and owns a lefty forehand smothered with topspin that cause damage on this surface. She might struggle to survive an all-Dutch encounter in the opening round against Kiki Bertens, though, who broke through to win her first career title at a clay tournament in Morocoo last year.
Gone early in Bogota, where she held the second seed, Alize Cornet will hope for a more productive week in a draw where she holds the third seed. The Frenchwoman lacks weapons to overpower her opponents but will find few in this section who can overpower her. The most notable name here (probably more notable than Cornet) belongs to the returning Flavia Pennetta, who got through one three-setter in Bogota before fading in a second. Tiny Lourdes Dominguez Lino hopes that this first-round opponent still needs to shake off more rust.
An odd sight it is to see an American, a Croat, and a Swede all playing on clay during a week with a hard-court tournament, and yet all of them occupy the same section in Acapulco. Perhaps more notable than Glatch or Larsson is Ajla Tomljanovic, a heavy hitter from a nation of heavy hitters who once looked like a sure rising star before recent setbacks. Facing this Croatian wildcard in the first round, fourth seed Irina-Camelia Begu knows better how to play on clay, as 2011 finals in Marbella and Budapest showed. Begu won her first career title last fall in Tashkent, which places her a notch above the other seed in this quarter. Spending most of her career at the ITF level, Romina Oprandi recorded a strong result in Beijing last fall.
Handed a wildcard to accompany her sixth seed, Schiavone searches for relevance after a long stretch in which she has struggled to string together victories. The sporadically intriguing Sesil Karatantcheva should pose a test less stern than second seed Suarez Navarro, who shares Schiavone’s affinity for the surface. Humiliated twice in one week at Dubai, where she lost resoundingly in both the singles and the doubles draws, the small Spaniard owns one of the loveliest one-handed backhands in the WTA since Henin’s retirement. Schiavone owns another, which should make their quarterfinal pleasant viewing for tennis purists.
Final: Errani vs. Begu
Florianopolis: In the first year of a new tournament, the presence of a marquee player always helps to establish its legitimacy. The outdoor hard courts at this Brazilian resort will welcome seven-time major champion and former #1 Venus Williams as the top seed, and her draw looks accommodating in its early stages. While young Spaniard Garbine Muguruza showed potential at the Australian Open, the American’s sternest challenge may come from a much older woman. Extending Venus deep into a third set at Wimbledon in 2011, Kimiko Date-Krumm could unsettle her fellow veteran with her clever angles and crisp net play, although her serve should fall prey to her opponent’s returning power.
In the quarter below lies Kirsten Flipkens, who lost early as the top seed in Memphis after reaching the second week of the Australian Open. Also a potential semifinal opponent for Venus, Caroline Garcia possesses much more potential than her current ranking of #165 would suggest. Unlike most of the counterpunchers in Florianopolis, she will not flinch from trading baseline missiles with the top seed should she earn the opportunity. Another young star in the eighth-seeded Annika Beck might produce an intriguing quarterfinal with Garcia.
Counterpunchers dominate the third quarter, bookended by Medina Garrigues and Chanelle Scheepers. When the two met at the Hopman Cup this year, endless rallies and endless service games characterized a match filled with breaks. The heavy serve of Timea Babos might intercept Scheepers in the second round, while Medina Garrigues could encounter some early resistance from the quirky Niculescu or Shahar Peer. With her best years well behind her, the Israeli continues to show her familiar grittiness in attempting to reclaim her relevance.
Midway through 2012, the second-seeded Shvedova climbed back into singles prominence by reaching the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Starting with her three-set loss to Serena at the latter major, she has suffered a series of demoralizing setbacks in early rounds since then, often in tightly contested matches that hinged on a handful of points. Shvedova once led the WTA’s rankings for overall pace of shot, though, and her power might overwhelm those around her. Aligned to meet her in the quarterfinals is Kristina Mladenovic, the surprise semifinalist at the Paris Indoors who delivered the first signature win of her career there over Kvitova.
Final: Williams vs. Mladenovic
Kuala Lumpur: With a direct-entry cutoff even lower than Florianopolis, this tournament features only eight players in the top 100. Headlining the list, however, is a former #1 who still occupies the fringes of the top 10. After she produced solid results in the Middle East, reaching a quarterfinal in Doha and a semifinal in Dubai, Wozniacki should feel confident in her ability to secure a first title of 2013. Few of the names in her quarter will strike chords with most fans, although some might remember lefty Misaki Doi as the woman who upset Petra Martic in Melbourne before eating a Sharapova double bagel. Aussie lefty Casey Dellacqua sometimes can challenge higher-ranked foes but has struggled with injury too often to maintain consistency.
Doi’s highest-ranked compatriot, the double-fister Ayumi Morita holds the fourth seed in Kuala Lumpur. Like Wozniacki, she could face an Aussie in the quarterfinals, and, like Wozniacki, she should not find the test too severe. Although she has won the Australian Open wildcard playoff twice, Olivia Rogowska has stagnated over the past few years since winning a set from then -#1 Safina at the US Open. Evergreen veteran Eleni Daniilidou rounds out this section with one of the WTA’s more powerful one-handed backhands—and not much else.
Surely pleased to recruit another player of international familiarity beyond Wozniacki, Kuala Lumpur welcomes Pavlyuchenkova as a third-seeded wildcard entrant. The Russian often has excelled at this time of year, reaching the Indian Wells semifinals before and winning consecutive titles at the Monterrey tournament that has shifted after Miami. This year, Pavlyuchenkova has shown a little of her promising 2011 form by reaching the final in Brisbane to start the season and much more of her dismal 2012 form by dropping three straight matches thereafter. She could end her four-match losing streak here in a section filled with qualifiers. But yet another Aussie in Ashleigh Barty hopes to continue what so far has become an encouraging season for WTA future stars.
When not conversing on Twitter with our colleague David Kane, 16-year-old phenom Donna Vekic has compiled some notable results. Seeded at a WTA tournament for the first time, she will look to build upon her final in Tashkent last year, a win over Hlavackova at the Australian Open, and a solid week in Fed Cup zonal play. Vekic does face a challenging first-round test in the powerful serve of American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but no match in her section looks unwinnable. While second seed and potential quarterfinal opponent Hsieh Su-wei won her first two titles last year, the late-blossoming star from Chinese Taipei still does not intimidate despite her presence in the top 25.
Final: Wozniacki vs. Pavlyuchenkova
(Actually, can we just combine these last two draws and have Venus play a super-final against Caro?)