Sporting a suitably Visigothic coiffure, Ernests Gulbis swept down from the north and sacked the Rome draw by conquering Federer on Tuesday. As the rest of the second round unfolded, fellow Visigoths such as Giraldo, Wawrinka, and Lopez plundered the palaces of patricians like Ferrero, Berdych, and Cilic; in fact, only half of the tournament’s sixteen seeds survived into Thursday. We’ll preview the unpredictable matchups that have developed here, starting with the Latvian who spearheaded the assault of the underdogs.
Gulbis vs. Volandri (W): Confronting the most recent Federer-killer is a Federer-killer from the past, who dethroned him here in 2007. Since that career highlight, however, Volandri has accomplished little of significance, while Gulbis finally looks determined to unlock at least some of his immense potential. Only two factors could hinder Ernests: the post-Federer hangover and the Italian crowd. In the past, he has struggled to capitalize upon triumphs over top players and lost immediately after defeating Djokovic in Brisbane last year. However, the crowd will not be a factor unless the match stays tight, an unlikely scenario because the Italian has few weapons with which to counter the massive blows from Gulbis, named after Ernest Hemingway. The bell tolls for Volandri. Pick: Gulbis.
Ljubicic (11) vs. Lopez: Credit the Croat for refusing to rest on his laurels after winning the Indian Wells title. His victory over dirt devil Nicolas Almagro bodes well for his chances over the upcoming weeks, but he shouldn’t underestimate the challenge posed by yet another left-handed Spaniard. a 4-2 record against Ljubicic, Lopez consistently has troubled Ivan and won their only clay meeting. Rebounding after losing a lopsided first set to Cilic, the Spaniard rose to the occasion late in the match and closed it out impressively. Neither player enjoys the consistency necessary to grind from the baseline, so whoever serves more effectively and takes command early in the rallies will prevail. Recently, few players have served better than Ljubicic. Pick: Ljubicic.
Nadal (3) vs. Hanescu: The feat of clay vs. the feet of clay. The Romanian startlingly won a set from Federer at Indian Wells, but it’s hard to imagine him making an impact against a player who will ruthlessly expose his abysmal movement. Pick: Nadal.
Wawrinka vs. Soderling (5): You’ll want to leave the stadium to witness this potentially spectacular battle over on Pietrangeli. Ever demanding on dirt, Wawrinka ambushed the resurgent Berdych in an epic secound-round encounter. His resilience will test the Swede’s shotmaking prowess, which has been on scintillating display since Rotterdam on February. While the relatively slow surface will aid the best Swiss player still in the singles, Djokovic found ways to hit through him rather comfortably in Monte Carlo. Also, Soderling constructs points more carefully now than in the past and rarely succumbs to the impatient recklessness that once undermined him against ball-retrievers like Wawrinka. Pick: Soderling.
Tsonga (7) vs. Giraldo (Q): This match resembles a duel between a battleship and a tugboat. Although Tsonga did suffer a DeBakkle in Barcelona, he smothered Troicki rather efficiently and should enjoy another routine victory unless his groundstrokes desert him entirely. Check out the Colombian’s crisp two-handed backhand if you find the opportunity, however; you might see more of it in the future. Pick: Tsonga.
Ferrer (13) vs. Murray (4): This match is the only contest of the day between two seeded players, and it should vie with the Wawrinka-Soderling duel for the most compelling entertainment. Halting an brutal three-match losing streak with an opening win over Seppi, the fourth seed is seeking to regain confidence before the annual crusade at the All England Club. Never at ease on this surface, he lost to the clay specialist Juan Monaco here last year and must serve impressively in order to overcome Ferrer. On a hot streak since Miami, the indefatigable Spaniard relishes the dirt as much as anyone. If Ferrer can work his way into rallies and wage a war of attrition, he’ll have a strong chance to pull off the upset. Pick: Ferrer.
Verdasco (6) vs. Garcia-Lopez: Reaching the Monte Carlo final and snatching the Barcelona title from Soderling, Verdasco hasn’t lost on clay this year to anyone not named Nadal. Despite a solid win over Hewitt in the previous round, Garcia-Lopez lacks the ability to pull off a convincing Rafa impersonation. Pick: Verdasco.
Bellucci vs. Djokovic (2): The 2008 champion and 2009 runner-up may be rather relieved to have been spared the ordeal of taming Isner’s serve. Steadily progressing during the last several months, the Brazilian lefty might create some engaging rallies and showcased an intelligent all-court game during his first two rounds. Nevertheless, he lacks both the consistency and the experience to discomfit Djokovic if the Serb’s serve proves even modestly effective. Pick: Djokovic.
Most of the Stuttgart matches tomorrow seem rather predictable, but the all-Belgian clash between Henin and Wickmayer stands as an exception. Although Henin won their three-set meeting in Melbourne this year, Wickmayer demonstrated not only her sturdy technique and judicious shot selection but a degree of self-belief impressive for her age. After winning Auckland and playing the Australian Open qualifying, she faded physically late in that match; now, the younger Belgian has the physical advantage as a result of Henin’s injured finger. One has to favor the four-time French Open champion to ultimately prevail, yet we expect to see a fiercely competitive encounter contested at a consistently high level.
We’ll be back with a joint preview of the quarterfinals in both Rome and Stuttgart. Enjoy the round of 16!