Played just two weeks apart, two of the sport’s most significant tournaments offer contenders little opportunity to regroup from one to the next. Like the stunning departure of Nadal, Sharapova’s defeat on Monday underscored the difficulty of descending from a Paris pinnacle to begin anew the task for marching through seven matches against elite competition. But these losses reflect less on the shortcomings of the Roland Garros champions than on just how impressive are the Channel Slams accomplished by Federer in 2009, Nadal in 2008 and 2010, and Serena in 2002. As the women’s quarterfinals begin, one wonders whether the woman who felled the #1 can build upon that achievement. We start with her match against someone who has foiled her repeatedly before.
Lisicki vs. Kerber: Fresh from the most impressive victories of their career on grass are these two compatriots, who will play on Centre Court for the first time this year. Halting Sharapova’s 15-match winning streak, Lisicki avenged her loss to the world #1 in a 2011 semifinal by finding her first serve and her return at timely moments. Despite the prolonged drought that beset her before the fortnight, she rediscovered her confidence on the lawns where she has reached three quarterfinals in the last four years, three more than her total at all other majors combined. Just as she ended a winless record against Sharapova on Monday, Lisicki will hope to snap a winless record against Kerber on Tuesday. Surpassed by her compatriot in each of their four previous meetings, she fell to her twice in 2012 (once via retirement) but even struggled against the lefty before the latter’s career soared less than a year ago. Their most recent meeting typified a trend for both women over the last several months, Lisicki winning the first set and losing the next two to a woman who has not lost a deciding set all season.
Facing a four-time major champion in the fourth round as well, Kerber rolled past Clijsters even more resoundingly than Lisicki advanced past Sharapova, although the Belgian offered less resistance than did the Russian. Unlike her countrywoman, who has played a pair of three-setters already, the lefty has needed just the minimum number of sets to advance while dropping more than five games in only one of four matches. A finalist at Eastbourne, Kerber has learned quickly how to exploit her left-handedness on this surface. While her serve lacks the sheer explosiveness that Lisicki can project, its wide slices can open the court conveniently for her first groundstrokes. A reasonably good defender for her size, Kerber nevertheless will not want to let her fellow German thrust her onto her back foot. Instead, she should look to take aggressive swings at second serves and win the battle of court positioning by stepping inside the baseline before her opponent does. That is far easier said than done against Lisicki, of course, who will expect to litter both sides of the stat sheet. Unless the emotional subtext of playing a compatriot hinders the two Germans, their competitive resilience should produce a quarterfinal filled with the opportunistic sort of tennis that grass rewards so richly.
Radwanska vs. Kirilenko: Quite the contrast to the other top-half quarterfinal, this meeting between two craftswomen of their trade should showcase the opposite dimension of grass: its susceptibility to finesse and deftness around the net. Whereas the Germans will hurtle forwards only when an easy point-ending shot awaits, these smaller women should maneuver backwards and forwards with as much ease as they scamper laterally. The leading plotline of this quarterfinal centers upon Radwanska, a wretched 0-5 in major quarterfinals with two previous losses here. Not until the world #3 discards that statistic can one consider her seriously as a major contender. On the other hand, she could finish the tournament at #1 depending on events in the bottom half, so Radwanska might lunge from bridesmaid to the penthouse in a matter of days. Through the first four rounds, however, one has struggled to gain a sense of her form as she has progressed through the easiest imaginable draw. Vaulting no opponent ranked higher than #79 Vesnina, the Pole has played three women outside the top 100 and spent Manic Monday demolishing a qualifier who never had won a match here before.
In a section where Venus and Li fell early, the route might not grow much more difficult for Aga in the quarterfinals. The other Russian Maria has lost their last four meetings in a span stretching back to the start of 2010, including two bagels. Thoroughly equipped to inflict such embarrassment on a foe is the Pole’s ultra-steady game, which sometimes donates only four or five unforced errors in a set. Although Kirilenko likewise has prioritized consistency, she clubbed some strikingly assertive groundstrokes in a slightly surprising victory over Peng, who would seem the superior player on the surface. When their finesse shines at the same time, though, the world #3 will glitter more brightly. Nothing does Kirilenko do better than her opponent, and she lacks the overwhelming power that frustrates the Pole both strategically and emotionally. Like Radwanska, the Russian never has reached a major semifinal, so this quarterfinal will produce a headline of note. But one doubts that it will match the quality of the other top-half match on Tuesday.
Serena vs. Kvitova: The most anticipated potential quarterfinal when the draw appeared, this collision of massive ball-strikers becomes the only meeting at this stage between the two highest-ranked players in this section. Midway through their matches on Monday, many must have doubted that it would happen. Extended to 5-5 in the third set for the second straight match, Serena hardly has resembled her usual relentless grass-court self—except in one vital department. Forced to serve to stay in the match four times over the last three days, she executed that task with an aplomb superior to anyone else in the WTA, holding comfortably every time and striking bundles of aces. Only a little less of a serving leviathan, Kvitova trailed Schiavone by a set and a break in an understandably nervy performance from a young player defending a major title for the first time against a canny veteran who knows every trick of her trade. Perhaps the unlikely survival of each woman will liberate her to swing freely in this quarterfinal, for each cannot expect to survive here unless she elevates her level. In this fascinating clash of immensely talented yet clearly vulnerable champions, one wonders whose imperfections will surface an inopportune junctures.
Cracking groundstrokes with minimal margin for error, Kvitova threatened to ambush Serena on this court two years ago in one of the most magnificent championship fortnights in a career stuffed with them. That tournament also launched the Czech onto the international stage, highlighted by victories over Azarenka and the then-dangerous Wozniacki that started a sequence in which she has won 16 of her last 17 matches on these lawns. Not normally associated with the concept of consistency, the world #4 aims to become the only woman to reach a semifinal at every major this year. Falling to Sharapova on each of the first two occasions, she must have exulted at the sight of a draw without the Russian and with last year’s semifinal victim Azarenka awaiting in that round again. Kvitova looked slightly more impressive than Serena through her first four matches overall, but the 13-time major champion surely enjoys a mental advantage. While the Czech likely feels little sense of urgency in a career well before its midpoint, the American knows that her window of opportunity for a 14th crown will not lie open much longer. Pressure is a privilege, as Billie Jean King once said, but Serena has worn it less like a privilege than as a burden lately, a telling sign of a legend finally becoming normal. If she ever recaptures her magic, though, it will happen here.
Paszek vs. Azarenka: Implausible enough when it happened last year, this encounter looks even more implausible when it happens in the same round for the second straight year. Since the original produced minimal entertainment other than a net-rounding shot by Azarenka, one must feel hopeful that the sequel will surpass it. More dangerous on grass in 2012 than she even was in 2011, Paszek not only won Eastbourne with victories over Bartoli and Kerber but continued her torrid stretch with an opening-round triumph over Wozniacki here. Against the last two of those opponents, she saved multiple match points before battling across the finish line with a resilience unexpected in a woman of her modest credentials. Yet her game has looked anything but modest on this surface, where she has hammered her backhand through the court with natural power. Epic after epic may have left a toll on Paszek, though, for she rarely has won a match easily over the last two weeks and sooner or later must succumb to fatigue mental as well as physical.
Not fatigued at all through four matches is the world #2 who held the world #1 ranking for the last major and may hold it again for the next. Leading the tournament in efficiency, Azarenka has dropped just 14 games in a thunderous charge culminating with her thoroughly dominant Centre Court debut this year. For a woman without an imposing serve, she still can impose her game effectively through her efficient footwork, compact groundstrokes, and an intimidating return. Little has intimidated Azarenka other than Serena and Kvitova over the last twelve months. Although she must find a way to intimidate one of the intimidators in the next round, Paszek surely will not detain her for long here. Expect Vika to maul her vulnerable serve and keep her pinned helplessly behind the baseline as she displays the same relentlessness that defined her before the clay season began.