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After a prolonged sojourn in Europe, live tennis returns to California with tournaments in Stanford and San Diego.  While we prepare to visit those consecutive events, we reflect upon a few of the most striking differences between the spectator experience on TV and at the venue.  Be aware that these comments are highly subjective, so a different observer might leave a tournament with drastically divergent impressions. 

1)      More ebbs and flows / less constant drama:

Saturated with tense close-ups and portentous prattle, television broadcasts often attach excessive significance to each moment as it arrives.  To paraphrase Orwell, all points are equal, but some are more equal than others; a 1-2, 40-15 situation doesn’t carry the weight of 4-4, 15-30.  When one watches the match live, the peaks and valleys of its rhythm become more apparent, allowing the spectator to recognize the drama of those moments that matter the most.  Consequently, the suspense of a set’s climax accumulates more powerfully in person than on television, where announcers and cameramen alike attempt to maintain dramatic intrigue as relentlessly as possible.

2)      Serves, returns more impressive:

Seated in the comfortable detachment of one’s home, it’s difficult to appreciate just how rapidly the ball travels through the court and what a fast-paced sport tennis actually is.  At the stadium, the serve crackles through the court as a near-invisible blur, which in turn underscores the superb reflexes of the game’s finest returners.  First-strike tennis sometimes looks all too simple on television, but the live audience better understands the extraordinary degree of focus and timing essential to executing that style effectively.  (One caveat:  TV replays illustrate a serve’s placement better than anyone in the audience can discern.)

3)      Court appears smaller:

Hovering above the baseline, television cameras create the impression of a cavernous, vault-like stadium.  Yet even the largest venues in tennis, such as Indian Wells, seem rigidly confined in person and emphasize the proximity between the combatants, thus heightening the intensity of this individual competition.  As a consequence of the constricted court, one observes more clearly the contrast between conservative north-south baseliners and more audacious angle-creators, whose gambits seem more ambitious than on television. 

4)      Time between points seems longer:

Armed with an arsenal of technological tools, broadcasters relish multifaceted diagrams and charts that illuminate every statistical dimension of the sport.  Although this information certainly fascinates and dazzles, it also saturates the viewer with a ceaseless flow of data to process.  At the venue, by contrast, spectators can choose how they fill the time between points rather than finding themselves forced to follow the specific narrative presented to them.   Moreover, the absence of the seemingly obligatory post-rally replay breaks the continuous action loop created by television and encourages audiences to perceive the sport as an alternation between intense action and tranquil contemplation. 

***

Since we will attend the WTA events in California over the coming fortnight, we won’t be posting any articles of our own during that span.  Nevertheless, our Spanish friend Alvaro Rama plans to contribute here with a profile on rising German star Andrea Petkovic, which probably will be released around next weekend.  Alvaro currently doesn’t operate a blog, but you will agree with us that he should enter the blogging world after you read his insights!

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For this latest article in our series of player profiles, we have chosen a different format from the “five strength, five weakness” structure that we previously favored.  Discussing the towering American, we address eight key questions concerning his past, present, and future:

1)       What did we learn from the Marathon Match against Mahut?

From a strictly technical and tactical perspective, the match unfolded more or less as one would have imagined.  Few observers would have been surprised either by Isner’s ability to hold serve repeatedly against an indifferent returner or by his inability to break serve, considering his mediocre return.  Yet the remarkable and encouraging lesson from “70-68” was the fortitude and bulldog-like resolve that the American demonstrated by refusing to abandon the struggle even after it reached surreal proportions.  Just as valuable as his serve, this mental trait augurs well for his future in the tour’s most significant events and in his matches against marquee opponents.  Still winless against the ATP top 5, Isner displayed the sort of courage that he will need in order to break through against them.

2)      What effect will that match have upon his career?

One suspects that no second-round Wimbledon loser has received the degree of attention in which Isner was bathed upon his return, where he even participated in the Letterman Show.  Before his next tournament in Atlanta, he claimed to have grown weary of discussing “70-68” already, but he should brace himself for relentless rounds of questions on it throughout the summer.  Although this early taste of celebrity could erode the focus of a less mature player, we suspect that Isner won’t permit himself to be derailed.  Instead, he likely will reflect upon this match as proof that no mission is impossible, reinforcing his already sturdy work ethic.   During those eleven hours, he earned himself fresh legions of fans throughout the world, and their support will bolster this player who clearly benefits from an encouraging crowd.

3)      How does he compare to his compatriot Querrey?         

Impatiently awaiting its next men’s tennis champion, the American media has subjected these two friends to intense levels of scrutiny.  In short, Isner’s strengths are stronger than Querrey’s, while his weaknesses are weaker.  His additional three inches enable him to create even more audacious angles on his first serve, and his second serve penetrates the box with more depth and pace than does his compatriot’s.  Despite its lower net clearance, his flatter forehand also appears slightly more potent.  On the other hand, Isner can play several games in a row without making solid contact with his returns, whereas Querrey connects on that short with greater consistency.  Maneuvering Isner into his backhand corner reaps somewhat greater rewards than targeting Querrey’s backhand, a more developed and assured stroke although certainly not a weapon.  Mentally, the taller man possess a substantial edge over the Californian, whose focus can falter and whose motivation has been persuasively questioned; Querrey almost certainly would have abandoned “70-68” by 20-20 or so.  From this evidence, one imagines that Isner will remain more vulnerable to early-round upsets than his compatriot and record fewer career titles.  Conversely, he will prove more dangerous to higher-ranked players and more likely to record a startling run at a major reminiscent of Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon.

4)      What does he gain / lose by playing doubles regularly?

Attempting to qualify with Querrey for the doubles event at the year-end championships, Isner has committed himself to additional court time throughout the season.  Often denigrated by commentators and top singles players, doubles can prove a vital tool for honing unsteady components of one’s game.  During these matches, Isner will seek to sharpen his instincts and reflexes, which have hampered his ability to time returns with precision.  Doubles further offers numerous opportunities to finish points at the net, a region where he must venture in order to fully capitalize upon his overwhelming serve.  Beyond the additional fatigue induced by the extra court time, however, doubles can undermine the key trait of self-reliance in a singles star by providing constant mid-match encouragement from someone else (one’s partner).  Consequently, Isner should remain wary of dulling his mental edge and slipping into a more dependent mentality.

5)      What is the impact of his unconventional path to the ATP (via college tennis)?

For much of Isner’s breakthrough season in 2007, the element of surprise boosted his results against opponents unsure of how best to exploit his flaws.  When the scouting report gradually developed, his performance dipped temporarily before rising again.  By choosing to remain at Georgia until graduation, Isner escaped from the pressure-packed hothouse of tennis academies, where all other arenas of life are subordinated to the yellow ball.  Even if this decision took time away from his professional career, he probably has become a more balanced, mature personality as a result.  The sport’s history is littered with the cadavers of prodigies who adopted the opposite path before psychologically or physically collapsing without fulfilling their immense promise.  While Isner possesses less natural talent than Gasquet or Donald Young, for example, he has evolved into a far more imposing competitor; the significance of the game’s mental dimension heightens proportionally with the magnitude of a tournament. 

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6)      How much can he improve his weaknesses?

Determined to become more than a serve or serve-forehand machine, Isner has devoted considerable effort to refining his two-handed backhand with greater depth and accuracy.  If he can transform this stroke from a liability into at least a neutral shot, the American will find himself better equipped to stay in rallies and less easily dragged out of position.  Carrying 81 inches and 245 pounds around a tennis court is not an easy task, so don’t expect to ever see him scrambling along the baseline to outlast opponents after 20- or 30-shot rallies.  While his backhand definitely could improve and his movement probably won’t, his volleying potential is more difficult to discern.  On occasions such as his Davis Cup match against Djokovic, Isner’s net play looked startlingly adept, but on other occasions since then he has fluffed routine volleys in crucial situations.  Not a serve-and-volley specialist like Karlovic, he probably will integrate sporadic forecourt forays into his game but will remain more comfortable at the baseline. 

7)      Is he better designed for the best-of-three or the best-of-five format?

In the more abbreviated format, one can more easily ride a limited arsenal of weapons to victory over an elite adversary or on an indifferent day.  An example of the latter would be his win over Gilles Muller in Atlanta this week, during which he never broke the Luxembourger’s lefty delivery.  Allowing greater time for an opponent to adjust, the momentum-blunting five-set format often exposes a player’s lack of versatility.  Arguing for the American’s potential in the best-of-five format, however, are not only his mental grittiness but a scheduling feature distinctive to majors.  As several tournaments this year have revealed, Isner has developed excellent fitness within a single day or single match but often struggles to recover on the next day.  Therefore, the off-days between every round at Slams would enhance his chances to thrust deep into the draws at the calendar’s four most critical events. (An off-week after “70-68” wouldn’t have sufficed at Wimbledon, so one can’t justly draw conclusions from his one-sided second-round defeat there.)

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8)      Can he break through at a major?

Relying so heavily upon his serve, Isner confronts the challenge of maintaining extremely high efficiency on that shot throughout an entire fortnight against a variety of playing styles.  In order to win a Slam, he must find ways to break serve more frequently against lesser opponents, minimizing court time and mental pressure in the early rounds.  Predictably uneasy on clay, he can be largely discounted at Roland Garros, while the low bounces at Wimbledon may thwart a player of such height.  Isner’s most likely options thus are the two hard-court Slams and especially the US Open, where the fast surface as well as the compatriot crowd will heighten his hopes.  Although the American already has reached his mid-20s, he began much later than most of his peers (see above) and can be expected to endure longer; serve-based games generally age better than those centered around movement and counter-punching.  Isner almost certainly won’t reel off a string of majors, but one could plausibly imagine him winning a US Open someday, should he continue his upward progress and avoid serious injury.

***

Over the weekend, we plan to return with a discussion of the contrasts between attending tennis matches and watching them on television or internet, a relevant issue as we prepare to attend consecutive tournaments during the following fortnight.

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Spearheaded by American #1 Roddick, the fledgling Atlanta event initiates the US Open Series today.  Similar to the “Road to Roland Garros,” these eleven tournaments (six ATP, five WTA) attempt to serve the dual purpose of affording players ample preparation for the year’s final major while creating a crescendo of enthusiasm among the sport’s followers.  Despite the attendant pomp and circumstance, the USOS often falls a bit short of its lofty designation as “the greatest roadtrip in sports,” especially in comparison with its momentous clay counterpart.  Yet these events do play a pivotal role in the calendar as the threshold to the season’s second half, which frequently offers a jarringly divergent set of narratives from the first half.  We present five potential plotlines for the 2010 edition.

1a)  Can the ATP top two extend their momentum? 

After an indifferent beginning to 2010, vultures were circling around the Spaniard and the Serb as commentators queried whether either of them could recapitulate their 2008 peaks.  First to awaken was Nadal, whose literally perfect clay season foreshadowed his second career Channel Slam.  Still slumbering on much of the terre battue, Djokovic reinvigorated himself with a Wimbledon semifinal run that once again illustrated his stylish, multifaceted all-court style.  So will Rafa dominate the hard courts as he did the clay and grass, and will Novak justify his elevated ranking over the summer?  Often weary from first-half exertions, Nadal rarely displays his most brilliant tennis in this phase of the season, whereas Djokovic has garnered his most consistent results at the US Open (three consecutive semifinals).  Nevertheless, the world #1 will enter both Masters Series events as the distinct favorite, while the Serb will attract far less attention than a typical #2; such a role might benefit the easily diverted Djokovic, though, allowing him to focus upon forehands and backhands.  [Some sources suggest that Nadal will play only one event in the US Open Series, but he has not yet withdrawn from either Canada or Cincinnati.]

1b)  Can the next two reverse their momentum?

Since a sparkling Melbourne campaign, Federer has suffered a series of prodigious blows on all three surfaces, culminating in an uninspired quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon.  To be sure, a similar scenario unfolded two years ago before the Swiss grandmaster rallied to capture three of the next four Slams, so discussions of his demise sound a trifle premature.  Yet his mid-season swoon looked much more disquieting this time, for his Slam losses occurred against players whom he had formerly dominated instead of against long-time nemesis Nadal.  Inscribed on almost every meaningful page in the sport’s record book, Federer recently has struggled for motivation at Masters Series events and will be vulnerable to any ball-bruising baseliner brimming with confidence.  Positively horrific between Melbourne and Wimbledon, meanwhile, Murray must avoid the mental torpor that descended upon him after his previous Slam disappointment.  The Scot excelled in Canada and Cincinnati last year but has exited before the semis at all five Masters Series events in 2010.

2)  Which American will enjoy the strongest summer?

Had Serena remembered to look before she stepped, this question would have been easy to answer.  In her absence, can Venus and Roddick rebound from their tepid Wimbledons to lead the charge?  Falling just one victory short of an Indian Wells-Miami double, Andy has endured pre-quarterfinal exits in his last four tournaments, while Serena’s sister has not won a single North American hard-court event in nearly a decade.  The toast of New York a year ago, Melanie Oudin has faded into near-invisibility in 2010 with the exception of Fed Cup.  Fortunately for the stars and stripes, three moderately familiar ATP names seem poised to shine in their home nation.  Recently reaching two grass-court finals (Queens Club, Newport), Mardy Fish might ride his crackling serve to a key upset somewhere, just as he did against Murray in Miami this spring.  Yet the towering duo of Querrey and Isner may shoulder the principal burdens of American hopes; these rapidly maturing baseliners possess an ideal game for these fast hard courts and might well record a stirring performance or two.

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3)  How much will we miss Del Potro, Serena, and Henin?

Vanquishing Nadal, Roddick, and nearly Murray in Montreal, the lanky Argentine provided arguably the most compelling storyline of last year’s US Open Series.  His breakthrough not only delighted spectators with electrifying shotmaking but provided a refreshing counterpoint to the Roger-Rafa dichotomy.  In 2010, the task of creating an appetizing alternate narrative will fall instead to players like Soderling and Berdych, whom we expect to acquit themselves creditably in that role.  On the other hand, the injuries to 40% of the WTA’s Big Five severely undermined the women’s events.  We wouldn’t have foretold titles for either Serena or Henin, for Serena generally delivers lackadaisical, unpersausive tennis at venues like Cincinnati, and Henin’s comeback has faltered since its sensational beginning in Australia.  But the WTA Premier draws will look perceptibly depleted without those marquee names, whose mere presence infuses a stadium with intrigue regardless of their current form.

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4)  Can the Russian women rise again?

Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, only one Russian woman (Dementieva) remained in the top 10 from the legions who had populated that uppermost echelon in the WTA hierarchy.  Two-time major champion Kuznetsova has drifted to the fringes of the top 20 after recording a single quarterfinal in 2010, while three-time major finalist Safina could be unseeded for the US Open unless she regains her rhythm in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, Petrova has failed to find the necessary consistency to maintain a high ranking, and Dementieva herself has alternated impressive results (a French Open semifinal) with patches of listlessness.  At the All England Club, however, two Russians did perform convincingly.  To almost everyone’s surprise, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters en route to her first career Slam final; to almost nobody’s surprise, Sharapova built upon her scintillating French Open form to reach a fiercely contested second-week collision with Serena.  Do those two efforts signal a Russian resurgence, or has this nation’s tide of dominance definitively receded, leaving occasional achievements like driftwood on the shore rather than cresting into a mighty tsunami?

5)  Which (if any) WTA youngster / unknown will score the greatest impact?                    

Among the most intriguing and least predictable plotlines at Wimbledon was the emergence of Petra Kvitova and Tsvetana Pironkova as stern competitors who could test the WTA elite.  Moreover, Kaia Kanepi revived her sagging career with a quarterfinal run that preceded her maiden title in Palermo last week.  When the tour shifts from red and green to blue, we’ll follow these three figures in addition to nascent stars including Wickmayer and Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Wozniacki and Azarenka have struggled with injuries and erratic performance over the last few months, meanwhile, the post-Wimbledon hiatus might have reinvigorated the 2009 US Open finalist and 2009 Miami champion.  Yet the WTA’s veteran core looks likely to retain its stranglehold over the key events, where their superior mental fortitude separates them from the youthful upstarts.  Thus far, Generation Next has not demonstrated that it can regularly solve not only established champions like the Williams sisters, Clijsters, and Sharapova but also the tour’s ladies-in-waiting like Jankovic and Dementieva.  Eventually, however, youth must break through…mustn’t it?

5+1)  Are hard courts really faster than grass?

By the middle weekend at Wimbledon, the Centre Court baselines resembled a dusty clay court much more than pristine grass.  Over the past few years, commentators and players alike have remarked upon the slowing speed of the grass together with the accelerating speed of clay to explain the increasing ease with which players transition between these seemingly antithetical surfaces.  By contrast, the North American hard courts often play progressively faster as a tournament approaches its latter stages, aiding powerful servers and ultra-aggressive shotmakers against counterpunchers.  (This characteristic may have influenced Nadal’s struggle in New York as much as his second-half fatigue.)  Once considered a little slower than Wimbledon, therefore, the US Open now possesses an arguable claim to the speediest surface of any major.  Are the courts throughout the US Open Series equally fast?  Is there significant variation in speed among them?  How relevant are results from these preparatory tournaments if the ball travels perceptibly faster at the climactic event?  Cast a thought to those issues as the “greatest roadtrip in sports” unfolds.

***

In a few days, we return with an article on John Isner, which will differ in format from our previous player profiles but will cover most of the same issues.

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Moving from the WTA to the ATP and from defense to offense, we respond to a pre-Roland Garros request for a profile on the “little Safin,” Ernests Gulbis.  After a hideous 2009 campaign, this longtime underachiever finally began chipping into the vast iceberg of his talent during the spring of 2010, when he scored a possibly career-redefining victory over Federer en route to the Rome semifinals.  The scion of an affluent Latvian family, Gulbis was named after American author Ernest Hemingway, who entitled one of his minor novels To Have and Have Not.  We find the phrase especially apt to characterize this highly individual player, nearly as famous for quips and quirks as for power and precision.  Below are outlined five key traits that Ernests has, in addition to five that he has not.

What he has:

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1)       serve (+second serve):  Like most of the ATP’s elite servers, Gulbis has buttressed his rhythmic motion upon a reliable ball toss that allows him to target all four corners of the service box with equal ease.  Simple and fluid, his delivery incorporates none of the slight pauses with which erratic servers struggle.  Moreover, the Latvian’s second serve constitutes a far more formidable weapon than a standard second ball, for he strikes it aggressively without fear of double faults; an indifferent serving percentage thus doesn’t inevitably spell defeat as it does for many of his rivals.  Although Gulbis does concede the occasional double, he rarely commits these errors in clusters or at crucial moments.  His serve instead provides the ideal foundation for his almost exclusively offensive style, drawing a puny midcourt reply that he can confidently assault.

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2)      forehand:  One of the most explosive groundstroke in the ATP, this shot electrifies audiences while pulverizing opponents who are frozen by its majestic pace.  Among the remarkable features of the Latvian’s high-risk style is the effortlessness that he displays when swatting prodigious winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court.  The forehand represents the most stunning example of his shotmaking talents, for Gulbis can create stunning crosscourt angles while also pinpointing his opponent’s backhand corner with down-the-line blows.  When especially confident, he doesn’t miss this shot for games at a time, despite the risks associated with its low net clearance and audacious placement. 

3)      groundstroke symmetry:  Much to the chagrin of forehand-favoring veterans such as Roddick or Verdasco, this trait has become the hallmark of those players who have recently blossomed in the ATP (Berdych, Soderling, Del Potro, Cilic).  Although Gulbis’ backhand doesn’t equal his forehand in sheer weight or shotmaking capacity, his two-handed stroke isn’t an Achilles heel that his opponents can regularly target.  When he possesses the time to set his feet and lean into this shot (see below), the backhand crackles through the court with authority, complicating the tactical decisions of his adversaries.  During the Latvian’s 2009 slump, to be sure, the two-hander misfired too frequently, but his 2010 campaign has witnessed steady improvements in his control over the shot and more patience in its deployment. 

4)      drop shot:  A well-crafted complement to his percussive groundstrokes, this often unnoticed weapon in the Latvian’s arsenal reveals his ability to interweave deft finesse with bone-crushing power.  When Gulbis thrusts his opponents several feet behind the baseline, even moderately respectable execution would suffice to win a point.  Yet this bold shotmaker feathers his drop shots with breathtaking precision, drawing praise from such a demanding connoisseur of tennis technique as John McEnroe.  (As one might expect, he missed the next attempt dismally after McEnroe had effusively lauded it.)  Whereas Murray, Djokovic, and other renowned players often deploy the dropper only when nervous or desperate, its appearance in a Gulbis match indicates the Latvian’s confidence.  These exquisitely measured  shots will comprise a major key to his success on all surfaces, furthermore, for they prove especially effective on clay and grass.

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5)      rising to the occasion:  After defeating Djokovic in the 2009 Brisbane event, a rare triumph in that arid year, Gulbis commented that his greatest wins had accompanied  a series of “beautiful losses.”  This witty comment contains considerable truth, for he has twice won sets from Nadal (once during the Spaniard’s 2008 championship run at Wimbledon) and nearly held a two-set lead against Roddick at the US Open.  Early in 2010, he dragged Federer deep into a third set in Doha before scoring the Rome upset that may finally have signaled his breakthrough.  Often uninspired against ATP journeymen, Gulbis clearly relishes the experience of dueling with marquee opponents on the sport’s grandest stages—a characteristic that bodes extremely well for his future success at majors.  If the Latvian can avoid a lethargic early-round exit, his momentum will only accelerate into the second week.

What he has not:

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1)      return:  Not unlike his fellow shotmaker Jo-WIlfried Tsonga, Gulbis often will drift through game after game without connecting with more than a handful of cleanly struck returns.  Despite his superb shotmaking talents, swift reflexes and crisp eye-hand coordination do not constitute two of his strengths.  Occasionally annihilating a benign second serve, he nevertheless fails to convert too many of his second-ball opportunities.  Long struggling to discern the balance that divides aggression from recklessness throughout his game, the Latvian’s return of serve represents the arena in which this balance remains most fragile.  This stroke plays a crucial role on grass and therefore may undermine his chances at Wimbledon until he harnesses it.

2)      variety / versatility:  With the exception of his elegant drop shot, Gulbis essentially relies upon crushing as many balls as possible.  While these flat, penetrating groundstrokes wreak havoc, his game might become even more lethal if he could integrate a few variations such as a more topspin-heavy forehand or a sturdier set of conventional volleys to complement his drop shot.  At the moment, his opponents know exactly what to expect from him, which simplifies strategy for top-drawer competitors like Nadal or Murray.  The raw, unvarnished power that Gulbis currently displays will suffocate most garden-variety foes, but one senses that he might need a bit more texture and complexity in order to consistently conquer the ATP elite.

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3)      movement / footwork:  Not uncommon in players buttressed upon power, the Latvian’s indifferent movement hampers him against to an effective counterpuncher who can situate the ball in awkward positions.  When thrust onto defense, he struggles to transition points back into offense, as Murray illustrated during his two straight-sets Slam wins over Gulbis last year.  Awkward at reversing direction, he can be wrong-footed with relative ease and is notably vulnerable to sharply angled cross-court shots as well as with low, biting slices. Exacerbating this flaw is his occasionally lazy footwork, which forces him to rely upon his arm to generate pace more than is advisable, or even healthy.  If opponents can consistently take time away from Gulbis, they will expose his average technique more often than his outstanding ball-striking.

4)      shot selection:  Intelligent and articulate off the court, the Latvian can be a shade or two less than intelligent on the court.  Supremely confident in his abilities, he often pulls the trigger too soon in rallies and donates needless unforced errors to his opponent’s cause.  When a trifle less than his best, he sometimes refuses to recognize and respond to the situation, instead blindly hitting himself out of the match in an effort to hit his way into it.  After initiating a partnership with Safin’s former guru Hernan Gumy, however, Gulbis has somewhat curbed this youthful impetuosity, which springs in part from his tactical limitations.  When stretched off the court or pinned behind the baseline, his best option perhaps does constitute an all-or-nothing, extremely low-percentage gambit over the high part of the net.  Thus, the Latvian’s questionable shot selection on defense might evaporate if he addresses the previous two points, although his dubious shot selection on offense still requires attention.

5)      focus / motivation:  Repeatedly compared with the charmingly wayward Safin, Gulbis acquainted himself with a Stockholm jail during the ATP tournament there in 2009.  (“I’m never going back to that country,” said the Latvian.)  Throughout most of last year, his dismal results mirrored an apparent slump in his enthusiasm for the game, which sometimes seemed more of a diversion than a profession to him until his recent surge.  The effortlessness that characterizes his game can slide into slovenliness when his mind drifts from a sport that demands intense concentration.  Mentally fortifying him after bitter losses, the Latvian’s insouciance also separates him from relentless competitors such as Nadal, who will accept nothing less than victory.  Yet Gulbis’ more effortful, workmanlike triumphs in recent months may have demonstrated a recognition that the importance of being earnest trumps the importance of being Ernests.

***

Although one must peer into the future with a blurry lens on this occasion, it’s easy to imagine the charismatic Latvian claiming multiple Masters Series crowns, especially on fast surfaces.  Perhaps better suited for a best-of-three format than a best-of-five challenge, he may not prove able to rein in his mighty weapons for an entire fortnight at a major, but he’ll find himself in contention for those prestigious crowns if his relationship with Gumy continues to flourish.  Even if Gulbis doesn’t claim a Slam or embed himself within the top 10 (as he should considering his potential), he’ll often ambush players in both of those categories while providing exhilarating entertainment for spectators who share his affinity for drama and risk.  The question remains tantalizingly open, though, as to whether he can transform what he has not into what he has.

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As Spain exchanges the Davis Cup for the World Cup, we shift from our match-oriented analyses to another article in our series of player profiles.  Turning 20 today (July 11), Caroline Wozniacki already has embedded her name among the WTA elite, yet the engaging Dane still struggles to shed the label of “pusher.”  Employed to characterize counterpunchers with few offensive weapons, the term overlooks the manifold strengths that the precocious world #3 has developed already as a teenager.  We discuss those dimensions in her game as well as areas that she might wish to enhance in order to break through at majors and brand her imprint on tennis history. 

Five key strengths:

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1)       backhand:  Struck with a compact, crisp swing, Wozniacki’s preferred groundstroke rarely crumbles under pressure.  The Dane times it cleanly for penetrating blows both cross court and down the line, while adeptly disguising the direction as long as possible.  A much more potent weapon than her forehand (see below), the backhand offers her the best opportunity to transition from defense into offense.  In fact, we’ve noticed that the world #3 recently has attempted to create more ambitious angles with the shot than the north-south, high-percentage strokes that long have defined her comfort zone.  When dragged out of position, moreover, she generally manages to keep both hands on the racket for maximum pace and depth.   As Wozniacki’s game matures, she might seek to incorporate a backhand slice for variety against especially monochromatic opponents, but this shot ranks among the top backhands in the WTA even without such an addition. 

2)       return:  Although she doesn’t pound the outright return winners of her mightier rivals, Wozniacki has honed a steady return that conforms with her counterpunching style in rallies.  When confronting top servers such as Serena in Sydney last year, she prioritizes solid contact over first-strike aggression (not unlike David Ferrer) and thus carves her way into more rallies than do riskier shotmakers.   Instead of targeting a line or corner, this rising star focuses upon creating sufficient depth to prevent her foe from striking an instant winner into the open court.  In addition to her excellent eye-hand coordination, the intelligent Dane seems equipped with above-average skills at anticipating the placement of an opponent’s serve from toss direction and other unwitting signals.  (Nevertheless, those apparent instincts could represent the product of advance research on her adversary’s preferences.)  On crucial moments such as break points, Wozniacki possesses the mental sturdiness to refrain from leaving her comfort zone and recklessly attempting return winners, a tactic prevalent among more anxiety-ridden peers (see I for Ivanovic).

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3)       movement / footwork:  Probably a shade more agile at lateral movement, the Dane still covers the forecourt skillfully when forced to retrieve drop shots.  During her Indian Wells semifinal with friend and rival Radwanska, she responded impressively to the Pole’s exquisite, feathery gambits in that region.  Armed with a somewhat uncommon combination of footwork and foot speed, Wozniacki usually gains sufficient time to position herself for her shots even when on the run, which enables her to strike balls with a fully balanced body weight more often than less lithe movers.  The centered, clean swings that result prevent her opponents from moving into the forecourt and seizing the initiative with imaginative angles.   Despite the Dane’s tendency to lean towards the open court, she reverses direction better than many other counterpunchers, so the tactic of hitting behind her doesn’t always reap the desired results.

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4)       fortitude:  From our perspective, the most memorable moment of the Doha year-end championships was not Serena’s pair wins over her sister.  Nor was it the spectacular implosion of Azarenka, as entertaining as it was.  Instead, the defining image was Wozniacki’s tearful but determined face after she overcame an excruciating hamstring injury during a three-set duel with Zvonareva, which rewarded her with an improbable semifinal berth.  Rare among the WTA’s younger generation is the Dane’s fortitude, which has served her well even against the tour’s veterans.  Clashing with Kuznetsova at last year’s US Open, the world #3 summoned her stingiest, most relentless brand of defense to outlast the Russian’s fiery shotmaking in a nerve-jangling final-set tiebreak.  When she faced Henin in a Miami quarterfinal this year, she lost a tight three-setter but demonstrated her willpower by wresting a ferociously contested first set from the Belgian.  While she faded a bit in the last two sets, Wozniacki nevertheless resolutely held her serve and forced Henin to serve out the match instead of meekly capitulating as one might have expected from a teenager.   Unlike her ancestor Jankovic, the Dane characteristically retains her focus on important stages and battles tenaciously in adverse conditions or circumstances.  Only occasionally has she become flustered by the situation, such as in the US Open final, and even at that moment she refused to collapse in the abject manner of many recent first-time finalists.   

5)       tennis IQ:  Much like her fellow counterpuncher Murray, the Dane meticulously targets an opponent’s flaws and has developed a knack for placing the ball in awkward positions, where an adversary would be tempted to unleash rash, low-percentage shots.  Wozniacki doesn’t flinch from hitting moonballs when stretched outside the sideline, displaying an ability to improvise during rallies and a keen understanding of court positioning.  Even when she doesn’t execute her intention, she normally attempts the correct or most viable shot and commits egregious unforced errors much less often than most of the WTA.  Often understated in an era of powerful ball-strikers, this court sense proves a valuable weapon against one-dimensional styles and can compensate for her lack of an overwhelming offensive strike against anyone outside the sport’s uppermost elite.

Five areas for improvement:

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1)   forehand:  Less reliably timed than her backhand, this loopier, elongated swing occasionally can break down under pressure.  In the 2009 Australian Open, Wozniacki’s forehand wilted against Dokic as her mental steadiness unexpectedly deserted her; in the US Open final, this shot once again drifted out to sea late in the first set after she gained an opportunity to seize control.  Reminding us of Murray, the forehand possesses much less sting than the aggressive drives of her rivals and probably comprises the single most significant area where the Dane must improve in order to capture a major title.  Forehand-to-forehand crosscourt rallies against fellow top-10 players almost invariably tilt to her disadvantage, whereas her foes find themselves far less able to overpower her in backhand-to-backhand rallies.

2)  finishing points:  During the 2010 Indian Wells final against Jankovic, Wozniacki confronted the principal challenge of a counterpuncher:  hitting through another counterpuncher.  This clear mismatch underscored her powerlessness against a player with a similar style but who enjoys slightly more strength and experience.  Trained to select high-percentage shots with ample net clearance, the Dane often struggles to deliver the coup de grace when in an offensive position.  Lacking the point-ending shot enjoyed by most Slam champions, she needs to hit two or three extra balls in order to set up a winner just as she compels her opponents to hit two or three extra balls in order to set up their winners.  If Wozniacki improves the next area on this list, however, this flaw in her game might disappear somewhat swiftly without specific attention.

3)  net play:  Cruelly exposed in the forecourt by the crafty Schiavone at Roland Garros, the Dane remains a strict baseliner in the conventional WTA mold, rarely venturing forwards unless lured there by an opponent.  Often too close to the net when she approaches, Wozniacki hopes to hit just one shot when she arrives in that uncomfortable vicinity and looks awkward at times when dispatching swing volleys or overheads.  Perhaps aggression doesn’t suit her affable personality, but she must familiarize herself with the forecourt in order to win points (and ultimately matches) more efficiently.  Since most of her rivals look equally marooned in such a setting, enhanced net skills would prove an especially valuable means of separating herself from the competition.

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4)  rising to the occasion:  Although one must admire her consistency and steadiness, those traits accompany a negative corollary that hinders Wozniacki in important matches.  On those occasions, she doesn’t lower her level like a Safina or Kuznetsova…but neither does she significantly raise it.  Her calm, workmanlike attitude assists her in winning the matches that she should win but not in overcoming the elite veterans who can ascend to rarely explored heights on the grandest stages.  Among the most convincing examples of this duality was the US Open finals run that witnessed the routine dismissal of several garden-variety opponents before an equally routine loss to Clijsters.  While Slam champions typically elevate their performance as the tournament progresses, Wozniacki is the same player in the first round against Olivia Rogowska that she is in the final against a Williams sister.

5)  scheduling:  Much like Davydenko in the ATP, the Dane enters far too many tournaments to produce her finest tennis at those that matter most.  For example, she followed deep runs at Indian Wells and Miami by participating in both green-clay events at Amelia Island and Charleston.  When she returned prematurely from an ankle injury at the latter event, she competed at four tournaments on the European clay before predictably departing prematurely at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Feasting upon mediocre opponents at these mid-level WTA events, she has secured a high ranking that should open up Slam draws for her.  Yet she arrives at majors too weary or battered to exploit such opportunities and consequently must set her priorities more judiciously in order to claim her first major.

***

What does the future hold for a player who just turned 20 on Sunday?  Readers might note that none of the players with whom we have compared her (Jankovic, Ferrer, Murray, Davydenko) have won a Slam, which portends ominously for the Dane.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki has dominated most of her peers over the last two years and more recently captured control of key budding rivalries, including those with Azarenka and Radwanska.  Although she continues to struggle against veterans such as the Belgians or the Williams sisters, time is on her side; when these champions and Sharapova retire, a void will open in the WTA.  Thus far, the younger generation possesses no shotmakers of the calibre attained by Venus or Sharapova, who can hit through Wozniacki’s defenses with ruthless first-strike tennis when firing on all cylinders.  Until such a player surfaces among her contemporaries, Wozniacki will find herself in the latter rounds of majors with increasing frequency, and it’s only a matter of time until she converts one of those opportunities.  Barring serious injury, we expect her to capture at least two or three majors, probably on the hard courts of Melbourne or New York, and remain in the top 10 for most of the next several years.

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We return later in the week with a parallel essay on Ernests Gulbis!

Conventionally considered a second-tier competition populated by mid-level players, the Davis Cup also can be perceived as a theater where those outside the ATP elite can seize a rare chance for immortality.  Contrasting with most tournaments in this individual sport, the raucous atmosphere of the national team competition often christens unexpected heroes.  Studded with several marquee attractions, though, will the quarterfinals perpetuate or diverge from this pattern?

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France vs. Spain:  Surely thrilled not to see the Wizard of Wimbledon and Ruler of Roland Garros (aka Nadal), the French will be disappointed to contest this tie without the services of fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Likely to rise to the occasion is Gael Monfils, who delighted his compatriots last year by reaching the final of the Paris Indoors.  Yet one never knows precisely what to expect from the mercurial “La Monf,” who exited prematurely at the last two majors while his first-rubber opponent, David Ferrer, excelled even on his worst surface.  Surging within a set of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the second Spanish singles player has thrived in Davis Cup and can be expected to deliver as sturdy an effort as possible despite the fast indoor court.  This first rubber must be claimed by the home nation, for the visitors will be heavily favored to win the Verdasco-Llodra clash that follows it.  Although the left-handed Llodra did claim the Eastbourne title before testing Roddick at Wimbledon, Fernando will relish the surface speed and enjoys a far more imposing arsenal of weapons than his opponent.

Somewhat unusually in Davis Cup, the doubles match will oppose two teams who often compete together at ATP events (Benneteau/Llodra vs. Verdasco/Lopez) , so one should expect a hotly contested match at the pivot point of the weekend.  If France can secure the 2-1 lead, the hosts will head into the reverse singles with a vital boost of confidence, but Spain’s greater experience in crucial Davis Cup ties must provide them with a slight edge.  One of the key factors in the tie will be Verdasco’s ability to win three best-of-five matches in three days (albeit one in doubles), a feat that he nearly performed last year against Germany.  Potentially tasked with closing out the tie against Monfils in the fourth rubber, the highest-ranked Spaniard outside Nadal generally responds with aplomb to the demands of Davis Cup.  In the 2008 final, he scored the clinching victory over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso after a poorly played but suspenseful five-setter.  Since Ferrer will struggle to win either of his singles rubbers, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Spanish captain Albert Costa substitute the superior fast-court player Almagro for him in the fifth rubber should it prove decisive.  It probably won’t, for the Spanish team’s far superior teamwork and shared experience should prevail over their flaky trans-Pyrenean rivals.  Spain, 70-30.

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Serbia vs. Croatia:  As volatile as this intra-Balkans rivalry might be at a national level, all of the competition’s participants have developed personal friendships that should defuse the hostility bubbling around them.  Fresh (or not fresh) from a Wimbledon semifinal run, Djokovic enters the weekend in his best form of the season, whereas his first-rubber foe Ljubicic has fallen well short of his Indian Wells success thereafter, losing his Wimbledon opener to an anonymous Pole.  The Croatian veteran won their last meeting during that magical Indian Wells surge, though, so recent history might play a factor; otherwise, Djokovic has dominated their collisions.  During the Davis Cup first round in Belgrade, the Serb embraced this competition’s combative atmosphere and played forceful tennis against American giants Querrey and Isner.  After he scores the first point of Serbia, Croatia’s top singles player Marin Cilic should even the tie despite his recently underwhelming form.  An easily disheartened, mentally fragile competitor, his opponent Victor Troicki lacks the emotional poise to vanquish a distinctly superior foe before a hostile crowd.  Sometimes a little fragile himself, Cilic recorded two sturdy wins in the quarterfinals at home last year, when Croatia hosted the United States.

In the unlikely event that Serbia leads 2-0 after the first day, expect Croatian captain Goran Prpic to substitute Ljubicic and Cilic in the doubles, where Serbia’s doubles star Nenad Zimonjic provides the visitors with a clear advantage.  If Prpic sticks with Dodig and Veic, his team likely will be forced to win both of the reverse singles on Sunday, an imposing but not impossible challenge.  Serbia will want to finish the job immediately in the fourth rubber, a marquee clash between Djokovic and Cilic.  Although the budding Croat sternly tested the world #2 at the 2008 US Open, the Djoker has dominated their fledgling rivalry by winning all four meetings and nine of ten total sets.  If the tie comes down to a fifth rubber, Ljubicic would be distinctly favored over Troicki on a fast indoor court, so Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic might consider substituting Tipsarevic, a sturdier competitor and superior server despite his lower ranking.  The efforts of Djokovic and Zimonjic should render such speculation unnecessary, however.  Serbia, 60-40.

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Russia vs. Argentina:  In this tie that might be labeled “Russia vs. Nalbandian,” the Argentine will be expected to win all three rubbers in order to propel his nation into the semifinals.  Relishing heroic roles, he skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare for this weekend, which opens with a stunning matchup against Davydenko, who also recently returned from injury.  Although their head-to-head is nearly even, Nalbandian has won three of their four non-clay meetings as well as two of their three Davis Cup clashes.  Having developed a highly similar style predicated upon early ball-striking and audacious angles, these bold shotmakers should produce scintillating tennis if both can shed the rust from their prolonged absences.  The second rubber should swing definitively towards the hosts, for Leonardo Mayer displays a far less complete game than Mikhail Youzhny, who often has shone in team competition. 

Far more adept in singles than doubles, Russia probably will surrender the doubles to Nalbandian and Horacio Zeballos while pinning their hopes upon the reverse singles.  If Nalbandian has defeated Davydenko at that stage, one should expect a decisive fifth rubber between the Argentine and Youzhny.  But if Davydenko starts the weekend with a victory, he should finish the task in the fourth rubber against Mayer.  Even supposing that Nalbandian does win the first rubber and the doubles, he would enter the reverse singles a little weary considering his lack of match play over the last few months.  Although he might deplete Youzhny’s limited reserves of patience and extend their encounter to a thrilling conclusion, he might struggle to win three sets from the versatile Russian.  Although Nalbandian played the hero expertly in the first round against Sweden, there is significantly more pressure on his shoulders when Argentina faces this much more formidable foe.  Russia, 60-40.

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Chile vs. Czech Republic:  Who are these people, and what did they do with Gonzalez, Berdych, and Stepanek?  While Fernando and Radek battle injuries, Tomas understandably proved reluctant to test his footing on red clay during the transition from grass to hard courts.  During the Czech Republic’s slightly surprising run to the 2009 Davis Cup final, Berdych and Stepanek played virtually every rubber including the doubles, which suggests that Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil possesses hardly any other weapons at all.  None of the visiting names here ring a bell except doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy, so the home nation will be favored to prevail in all four singles matches, contested on their favorite surface and before a partisan crowd.  Capturing the 2004 Olympic gold medal for Chile, Nicolas Massu has competed impressively at the national level even as his ATP results have sagged.  Once a notorious under-performer in Davis Cup, Paul Capdeville has shown signs of dispelling that reputation with a few key recent wins.  If the Czechs can somehow find a way to survive this round, of course, they could catapult directly back into contention with Berdych’s return for the semifinals against Serbia or Croatia.  Therefore, a literally gritty performance by its B-team could reap greater rewards than simply survival into the next round.  But it’s difficult to see the Czech journeymen winning three rubbers from the Chilean veterans on a surface barely familiar to them, thousands of miles from home.  Chile, 80-20.

***

Over the weekend, we’ll compile the first of next week’s two player profiles, which will feature Wozniacki and Gulbis.  They’ll follow the trademark five-strength, five-weakness format with which we have prospered thus far.

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

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Standing head and shoulders above their respective challengers (figuratively in Nadal’s case), the two #1s asserted their authority with emphatic victories in Wimbledon’s final weekend.  As the victors bask in the glow of their well-deserved triumphs, we present report cards for the principal contenders as well as those who surprised us, for better or for worse.  Brace yourselves for a lengthy but hopefully entertaining read.

A:

Nadal:  For the third consecutive year, the men’s tour witnessed a Channel Slam as the same player swept Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but this feat may become commonplace considering Nadal’s dominance at both venues.  Especially important to his legacy are his non-clay majors, which cement his reputation as a magnificent all-surface player and eventually will incorporate him in the GOAT debate if he remains healthy.  Also significant were his straight-sets triumphs over ball-bruising behemoths in the last two Slam finals, for the style of Soderling and Berdych will characterize most of the opponents whom he must vanquish in the later rounds of majors.  Finally, we saw Nadal outside the stifling context of his evaporating rivalry with Federer, the narrative of which often cast him as the foil to the Swiss legend’s majesty, an upstart who courageously sought to dethrone the king.  Now Rafa reigns supreme, fortified in the #1 ranking for the foreseeable future and ideally positioned to pursue the elusive career Slam at the US Open. 

Serena:  “Dependable” and “steady” might not be the first words that spring to mind when describing the flamboyant Serena, yet they accurately evoke the order and continuity that she has brought to the mercurial WTA.  While Belgians bomb, Russians reel, and a sister sinks, the world #1 fires ace after ace, makes top-50 players look like practice partners, and wins virtually at will.  During her seven victories here, she lost her serve just three times and faced ten total break points (none in the final); only once, against Sharapova, was the American in any real danger of losing so much as a set.  Having won five of the last six non-clay majors, Serena will enter the US Open as the clear favorite to record a 14th major.  We’ll be curious to see whether she ends her career with more Slams than Federer.

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Berdych:  Proving that Miami was no accident, the enigmatic Czech appears to have solved his own riddle and finally assembled his mighty game, which for so long was less than the sum of its parts.  At the core of his last two Slam performances was his vastly improved confidence, which carried him past the six-time champion in a quarterfinal that offered multiple opportunities to falter.  In future majors, he’ll want to take care of business more efficiently in the first week, during which he played a five-setter against Istomin and a four-setter against Brands.  But his achievements in the most pressure-laden environment of all demonstrated that he’s ready to breathe the rarefied air at the top of the game.  With few points to defend on the American hard courts, his ranking should keep rising.

Zvonareva:  She didn’t hold the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, but in a personal sense Zvonareva achieved even more than did Serena during this fortnight.  Whereas we’ve accustomed ourselves to the younger Williams sister delivering such performances, the rebirth of this volatile Russian as a mature competitor should have elated the WTA.  Armed with a complete arsenal of weapons and an excellent tennis IQ, Zvonareva should build upon this tournament as Berdych built upon his Miami breakthrough.  Even in the final, she competed courageously rather than folding as have so many of Serena’s craven foes, while her two previous matches featured n uncharacteristically sturdy comebacks  by a player formerly most famous for her meltdowns.   It’s a pleasure to see the prettiest pair of eyes in women’s tennis sparkling with joy rather than brimming with tears.

A-:

Murray:  Just as in Australia, the Scot was the best player of the men’s tournament until the semis, conceding one lone set en route to that stage.  During his first five matches, he looked nearly invincible as he defused the explosive offenses of Querrey and Tsonga after dismissing a trio of garden-variety foes.  Murray’s emergence from a prolonged post-Australian Open slump will have boosted his confidence at a timely moment before the shift to American hard courts, where he generally prospers.  And his post-defeat press conference was far more gracious than one would have expected from the often truculent Scot.  Nevertheless, he continues to fall just short at Slams and oddly seemed reluctant to carpe the diem against Rafa as he did so expertly in Melbourne.

Surprise WTA semifinalists:  Nadal wasn’t the only lefty who shone on the lawns of the All England Club, nor was Berdych the only Czech.  En route to a surprisingly respectable loss to Serena, Kvitova overwhelmed both Azarenka and Wozniacki as well as 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie.  Presaged by a trip to the second week of last year’s US Open, the quirky shotmaker’s triumphs against these three diverse playing styles bodes well for her future as a dark horse in key tournaments.  Told that one player other than Serena would reach the semis without dropping a set, few spectators would have guessed Tsvetana Pironkova.  Despite a counterpunching, movement-based game seemingly antithetical to grass, the Bulgarian radiated calm poise throughout her upsets of Bartoli and Venus.  She doesn’t hit anyone off the court, but she makes those who do win points three times or more in order to oust her.

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Sharapova:  Why is a fourth-round loser in this prestigious category?  We grade on improvement (or “dis-improvement”—see below), and that ghastly first-round debacle in Melbourne has receded into distant memory after Maria’s sterling competitive efforts in the last two majors.  If she hadn’t netted a routine forehand on set point in the tiebreak against Serena, she might well have scored a stunning victory last Monday in what became the de facto final; afterwards, the Russian likely would have navigated to a second Wimbledon title.  Even more of a confidence player than Nadal, she proved a shade tentative on key moments in the Serena encounter but looked sharper at Wimbledon than she has since 2006.  When she translates those fearsome serve-groundstroke combinations to her best surface, the hard courts, Sharapova could prove Serena’s primary challenger again at the US Open.

Isner / Mahut / Mohammed Lahyani:  The longest match ever was far from the greatest match ever, yet its B-level tennis shouldn’t detract from the spectacular resilience of its participants.  Kudos to perhaps the most good-natured umpire of all for withstanding seven stiff hours on his lonely perch.  Greater kudos to Isner for defying exhaustion and finding the willpower to propel his massive frames through 118 games in a single day.  And greatest kudos of all to Mahut, who gallantly held serve to stay alive not once, not twice, not thrice, but 64 times.  Perhaps the French World Cup team should watch the spectacular feat of their compatriot, who offered a splendid lesson in how to lose with grace and glory.

B+:

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Djokovic:  He was excellent at times and solid at others, but he doesn’t quite seem like the second-best player in the world, as the rankings would suggest.  Escaping a potential first-round catastrophe against Miami nemesis Rochus, the Serb seemed to settle into the tournament with each successive match, of which the most impressive was his four-set win over the ever-tenacious Hewitt.  In the quarterfinals, Djokovic suffocated the sprightly challenge of Yen-Hsun Lu with arguably his strongest, steadiest single-match performance of 2010 thus far.  Two days later, his serve unraveled ignominiously against Berdych with a double fault to lose the second-set tiebreak and consecutive doubles to drop serve in the third set.  Still uneasy against confident, big-serving opponents, Djokovic stubbornly stuck to an unintelligent game plan in the semis despite possessing ample alternatives.  Most concerning, though, was his fitness; after two hours, he looked more drained than did Mahut after seven.  

Kanepi:  While reaching the quarterfinals was more than sufficient cause for celebration, consider that Kaia Kanepi accomplished that feat after qualifying and while playing doubles.  The indefatigable Estonian reminded us that a crunching serve and mountains of first-strike power often can compensate for an otherwise one-dimensional style on this surface.  Once in the top 20, Kanepi has played with conviction since defeating Henin in Fed Cup  this spring, and her momentum should extend onto the fast hard courts.

Querrey:  After collecting the Queens Club title, the lanky Californian reached the second week of a major for just the second time, an achievement especially remarkable considering his bizarre French fadeout.  In the third round against the ever-dangerous Malisse, he refused to buckle after squandering opportunities in the fourth and fifth sets, instead calmly continuing to hold serve until the Belgian blinked.  When he wasted an opportunity to build an early lead against Murray, however, the Scot swiftly punished him for his profligacy.

Li:  Capitalizing upon her Birmingham title just as Querrey capitalized upon his Queens Club triumph, Li scored a commanding win over two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska in the final 16.  She managed to keep pace with Serena before unaccountably letting a service game slip away late in the first set, after which she faded swiftly.  But the Chinese star has now reached the quarterfinals or better at three of the last four majors, summoning her best tennis for the grandest stages and finally accumulating the consistency that long has constituted her greatest flaw.

B:

Tsonga:  Despite an injury that endangered his participation here, the acrobatic Frenchman leaped and lunged through an eventful first week to reach the quarters.  Had he closed out the second-set tiebreak against Murray, a semifinal spot almost surely would have awaited.  An embarrassing  (but unfortunately not uncharacteristic) faux pas at 5-5 in that tiebreak cost him dearly, though; positioned to demolish a floating return, Tsonga motionlessly watched it sail past him in the expectation that it would land out.  It didn’t, and Murray took full advantage of the reprieve.

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Soderling:  The Swedish juggernaut still exposes the frailties in Nadal, who looked unduly anxious during much of their quarterfinal.  Yet the Spaniard has distinctly recaptured the edge in this mini-rivalry, while Soderling’s temper returned in an unnecessarily prolonged five-set win over Ferrer.  After he refused to drop serve throughout the entire first week, one expected a bit more confidence in the second week.  Nevertheless, a foot injury clearly undermined him against the eventual champion, so look for him to wield an impact again at the US Open.

Melzer:  Winning just eight games from a clearly less-than-flawless Federer in the round of 16:  C+.  Seizing the doubles title with Petzschner:  A-.  Those divergent performances average to a B for this maddeningly mercurial but fascinatingly distinctive veteran, who now has won consecutive third-round matches at Slams after dropping his previous eleven.

Hewitt:  Following his superlative performance in Halle, many observers (including ourselves) expected him to record an upset over Djokovic last Monday.  Although he proved unable to do so, his previous win over Monfils illustrated the dogged determination that he brings to every point of every match.  While that unflinching intensity alone would justify watching him, his superb court sense and point-construction skills scintillate on a more intellectual level.  Rarely does the Australian beat himself, which is a description that one can’t apply to several higher-ranked players.

Groth:  Like Melzer, she reached the second week for the second consecutive major, pounding last year’s sensation Melanie Oudin into submission en route.  Although her competitive fourth-round encounter with Venus looked less impressive two days later, she showed greater poise than she formerly had on such occasions…until she served for the second set, when her game predictably fell apart.  All the same, the Slovak-turned-Australian is steadily learning how to channel her prodigious power, ominous news for whoever draws her early in New York.

Clijsters:  Losing to a pair of mentally dubious Russians (Petrova, Zvonareva) at her last two Slams, the 2009 US Open champion will be hard-pressed to defend her title unless her level rises distinctly in Cincinnati and Canada.  Sluggish and seemingly disinterested for much of her quarterfinal here, Clijsters looked more like a mom who plays tennis than a tennis player who is a mom.  Yet perhaps she was mentally drained from yet another three-set triumph over Henin on the previous day, a match that reaffirmed her position as currently the Best in Belgium.  Kim won’t need to worry about such a hangover at the next major, where she’ll gain the psychological boost of flying her country’s flag alone.

Haase / Petzschner:  Unknown outside the inner circle of aficionados, these northern European sluggers both won two sets from Nadal.  Those five-set losses represent greater accomplishments than any of their prior victories and should inspire them to future exploits.

Wimbledon crowd:  A thunderous standing ovation for the six-time men’s champion as he trudged off Centre Court in defeat:  A.  Boos for the five-time women’s champion when she arrived ten minutes late on Court 2:  C.  Does that sixth title really garner so much additional respect?  Apparently not, since nobody dared to boo Sharapova when she appeared ten minutes late on the same court (and probably for the same, perfectly justifiable reason).

B-:

Federer:  After nearly finding himself on the wrong side of history in the first round, the defending champion seemed to be playing his way into the tournament when he crashed into Berdych and out of Wimbledon.  That Sampras record of total weeks at #1 may be safe after all unless the Swiss legend suddenly reinvigorates himself as he did in 2008.  Leading us to expect otherwise, however, are these consecutive pre-quarterfinal losses at majors to players whom Federer formerly had dominated, losses that he rationalized a little too glibly in his post-match interview.  His final unforced error of the day, that sour press conference revealed a much less gracious personality than we had identified with the former #1.  Not unlike Serena at her worst, he attributed his loss to everything—from injuries to simple bad luck—except his opponent.  Has Federer perhaps been concealing a churlish streak beneath his genteel veneer?  It’s not hard to look and sound classy when you’re always holding a trophy.

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Henin:  We’ve reached a key crossroads in her comeback, which has garnered two minor titles and the Australian Open final but has fallen well short of most expectations.  During her protracted injury absence, she might want to assess the state of her game and consider what could be changed to take the next step forward.  But a third loss to Clijsters in six months—at the tournament for which this entire project is designed—must have struck a heavy blow to her easily deflated morale.

Azarenka / Wozniacki:  Once described as the future faces of women’s tennis, the Belarussian and the Dane have taken winding detours on their respective routes to what seemed inevitable Slam glory.  Both of them gulped down bagels courtesy of Kvitova, and both remain chronically hampered by injuries that restrict their movement.  Let’s hope that the post-Wimbledon hiatus provides a much-needed physical and mental respite.

Roland Garros women’s finalists:  The toasts of France quickly became French toast at Wimbledon, garnering just one set between them.  While Schiavone doesn’t need to win another match if she doesn’t want, Stosur needs to dispel the lingering aftermath of her Paris disappointment before it festers too long.

C:

Roddick:  For the second straight Wimbledon, he held his serve through five sets until losing it in the final game of the match.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he lost two of three tiebreaks.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to force a final set.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he came within a point of serving for the match.  But this time he was playing Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round instead of Federer in the final.  A major setback for the top-ranked American, Roddick’s tournament effectively erased his momentum from Indian Wells and Miami while intensifying the pressure that he’ll confront at the US Open.  Just beyond his grasp a year ago, that second Slam now looks as far away as ever.

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Venus:  Accustomed to routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament, the elder Williams is not accustomed to being the victim of routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament.  Facing break point in all but two of her service games, she never found her range against an energetic but far from overpowering Pironkova, the type of player whom she must conquer in order to contend for majors again.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine her harnessing those unruly groundstrokes throughout an entire fortnight.  In the twilight stages of Venus’ career, her game is hideous when it is anything less than sublime.

Men’s doubles stars:  Seeking to break the Woodies’ titles record, the Bryans let a potentially magical moment slip away in the quarterfinals.  Their perennial nemeses, defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic departed even earlier. 

F:

Blake / Pam Shriver:  Both of them forfeited considerable respect by stooping to engage in a mid-match war of words after Pam’s biting critique of James.  Credit Robin Haase for not allowing the fracas to distract him from the task of pulverizing Blake, whose career has drifted out to sea for good. 

Hanescu:  Keep your saliva to yourself.  Nobody wants to be infected with the type of malady that engenders such disrespect for the sport.  Or did you confuse Wimbledon with the World Cup, where such antics might be applauded?

***

Although most of the top players now embark upon quasi-summer vacations, we will not vanish into the London mist.  Here are some of the articles that you can expect to read here in the next few weeks:

Five to Frame:  The Five Most Memorable Matches of the First Half (ATP edition and WTA edition)

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder:  US Open Series Edition

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

To Have and Have Not:  Ernests Gulbis (player profile)  [Sorry for the delay on this article, a pre-Roland Garros request.  We didn’t forget, though!]

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)

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For a second straight day, a first-time Slam finalist targets perhaps the most coveted prize in the sport; can Tomas Berdych succeed where Vera Zvonareva failed?  Confronted with a similar conundrum of tackling the world #1 (although not the top seed in his case), the rising Czech shares the Russian’s reputation as a former mental midget who recently has surmounted emotional foibles to unlock previously unexploited potential.  In a more relevant sense, though, Berdych differs dramatically from the 2010 ladies’ runner-up, whose serving and shot-making abilities fell far short of those displayed by her opponent.  Superior to Nadal in serving and at least equal in shot-making, the nemesis of Federer and Djokovic possesses a game much more aligned with grass-court tennis than Zvonareva’s style.   Also unlike his Russian counterpart, the Czech has resoundingly proclaimed his right to play for the title by defeating two of the top three players in the world here, including the six-time champion.  Nevertheless, he has lost his last six meetings and last fourteen sets against the Spaniard, who ousted him from the All England Club three years ago.  The three wins that Berdych did score over Nadal occurred on hard courts in 2005 and 2006, when Rafa remained well below his scintillating best on what is still his least comfortable surface.

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But the towering Czech whom the 2008 champion will face on Sunday has evolved into a far more complete and confident player since his dazzling upset over Federer in Miami, during which he saved a match point.  As the Swiss star learned once again this week, Berdych now reacts to tense situations with a patience and poise that have dramatically reduced the unforced errors formerly at the core of his underachievement.  In the excruciatingly elongated second-set tiebreak against Djokovic, he demonstrated his newfound fortitude by shrugging off four squandered set points and calmly held his nerve until the Serb flinched.  Although he does continue to donate a few more double faults than he should, the Czech rarely concedes them at potentially back-breaking moments.  Striking high balls and low balls with equal conviction, he also has devoted considerable effort to improving his mobility as well as his court positioning.  Berdych has developed an acute instinct for when to approach the net (a crucial dimension of grass-court tennis) in addition to crisper execution when he arrives in the forecourt; he easily discerns when an opponent will hit a floating, off-balance reply and when he must await a more inviting opportunity.  On the other hand, he doesn’t match Nadal’s intensity on every point, often relaxing after having established substantial leads and allowing his opponents to creep back into such situations with careless shot selection or execution.  Whereas the less urgent Federer and Djokovic allowed him to escape these lapses, it’s unlikely that the perennially focused Rafa will prove so generous.  Instead of constantly hitting to the open court, Berdych should attempt to hit behind Nadal and force him to reverse direction occasionally.  Despite the world #1’s superlative movement, such a ploy would prevent him from settling into rallies as well as testing those still-dubious knees.  Yet the Czech must be prepared to hit one or two additional shots to finish rallies, a skill largely untested by his two marquee victims; brilliant at retrieving overheads, Nadal possesses greater speed and superior eye-hand coordination to anyone in the top 10.  Rather than allowing Rafa to probe the angles of the court, Berdych must pull the trigger early in the rally, pin the Spaniard behind the baseline, and smother him with a steady diet of flat, penetrating bombs, eschewing the slices to which he sporadically resorted in the semifinal.  This match must become a staccato, arhythmic exercise in first-strike tennis in order for him to prevail, so his mighty first serve might well prove the decisive factor in the outcome, whether for better or for worse.  When that shot is flowing as smoothly as it has for most of this fortnight, Berdych can rest comfortably in a citadel of routine service games while occasionally sallying forth when his opponents waver on their own serve.

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Entering this clash with equal confidence, Nadal should have gained considerable momentum from winning six consecutive sets against Soderling and Murray, responsible for three of his last four Slam defeats.  It’s probable that the match will feature at least one tiebreak, and the world #1 has won four of the six tiebreaks that he has contested with Berdych.  In order to discomfit the Czech when he strides to the service notch, Nadal must position himself aggressively on second-serve returns; he could light a flicker of doubt in his adversary’s mind that might impel him to seek greater consistency on the first serve and consequently diminish its sting.  As semifinal spectators will have observed, Berdych’s backhand falters more often than his forehand under pressure, so the former champion will hope to target that wing on crucial points.  A curious product of the Spaniard’s left-handedness, cross-court rallies will match each player’s strength (their forehands) to their opponent’s weakness (their backhands), so deuce-court-to-deuce-court exchanges favor Berdych while ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges benefit Nadal.  Just as when facing Soderling here and at Roland Garros, Rafa will seek to stretch the Czech wide of the sidelines in order to tempt him into low-percentage attempts to win points with one swing.  Unlike Soderling, however, Berdych ambitiously redirects the ball with regularity and remarkable accuracy, forcing his opponents to prepare for down-the-line missiles into the corners.  When we previewed the quarterfinals and semis, we advised both Federer and Djokovic to pull the Czech forward into the forecourt in uncomfortable situations, but they followed this recommendations far less often than we would have hoped.  Unleashing several sparkling passing shots in his own semifinal, Nadal will want to invite Berdych forward with dipping backhand slices and the occasional drop shot.  In neutral rallies, though, he must refrain from topspin-heavy shots that bounce halfway between the service line and the baseline, allowing Tomas to hit down on his groundstrokes as he prefers whenever possible.  Above all, Nadal can’t afford to settle into the passive, retrieving mentality that doomed Djokovic against Berdych, for no longer can he wait for the Czech to implode in a convenient shower of unforced errors.  The Spaniard must seize control of the rallies when the opportunity arises, or he will find himself the victim of a ruthless target practice session.  Here, his sublime talent for fluidly transitioning from defense to offense will prove pivotal.

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Armed with the immense serve and flat, bone-crushing groundstrokes of a Soderling, Del Potro, or Gulbis, Berdych closely adheres to the profile of those players who most trouble Nadal, although he may yet lack the swaggering fearlessness with which to approach this challenge.  Nevertheless, Rafa should draw upon his vastly deeper experience in such pressure-laden situations to compensate for his opponent’s electrifying offense.  In his last four appearances at Wimbledon, he has reached the final on every occasion and climbed to a perceptibly higher level of tennis each year.  While it would be virtually impossible to surpass the vertiginous heights that he reached in his epic 2008 triumph, we expect that Berdych’s ferocious offense will bring out the best in Nadal’s unrivaled counterpunching skills.  After four gritty (albeit grassy) sets, Rafa should reclaim the throne that he poignantly abdicated a year ago.

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After four high-quality but largely straightforward semifinals, the two Wimbledon singles finals present remarkably similar narratives.  Both matches oppose a world #1 and former champion against a challenger from outside the top 10 whose exertions here will carry them into that elite group in next week’s rankings.  Although the two top dogs will be heavily favored to reclaim the Wimbledon crowns this weekend, their adversaries enjoy a greater than negligible chance to achieve an upset to remember.  We discuss the women’s final today before returning to outline the men’s final tomorrow…

What feats must Vera Zvonareva perform in order to solve top seed Serena Williams, who has dropped just three services games in her first six matches and faced just ten break points in the tournament?  The task may seem monumental to her, but it shouldn’t; six years ago, a little-known Russian scored an unexpected breakthrough here in her first Slam final, so Zvonareva has a precedent from which to extract confidence.  Likewise, Schiavone’s stunning victory on the Parisian clay should remind her that nothing is impossible on any given day in this sport.  Further bolstering her belief will be her win over Serena and Venus in the doubles quarterfinals a few days ago, when she partnered Elena Vesnina to snap the sisters’ 27-match Slam winning streak in doubles.  Through six previous meetings with the 12-time Slam champion, Zvonareva has won on just one occasion, yet she captured sets from her fabled foe in three other meetings and rigorously tested her on the fast hard courts of the US Open.  Long notorious for mental lapses, the world #21 has exhibited none of the emotional frailty that caused her downfall as recently as this year’s Australian Open, when she dominated Azarenka for a set and a half before suddenly losing the last nine games.  Sinking into one-set deficits in both of her previous matches, the Russian continued her tactic of burying her head in the towel at each changeover.  This time, however, the strategy seemed an intelligent bid to refocus herself rather than a desperate attempt to escape from her surroundings.  A clear underdog against Clijsters and a massive favorite against Pironkova, she responded impressively to those divergent contexts without wilting under the pressure of her surroundings. 

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According to traditional tennis wisdom, lower-ranked players must leave their comfort zones and relentlessly aim for the lines when seeking to upset favorites, for they have nothing to lose in such circumstances.  While we agree with that advice, we think that the line that Zvonareva should target is not the sideline but the baseline.  There, she can expose Serena’s often shaky footwork and prevent her from opening up the angles that allow the American to showcase her unrivaled shotmaking talents.  The Russian’s strongest chance for victory is to center this collision around unforced errors instead of winners—the uglier the tennis, the better where she is concerned.  Rather than playing to her own strengths, therefore, she should concentrate on playing to Serena’s weaknesses, for her flaws against Serena’s flaws are a less lopsided contest than her weapons against Serena’s weapons.  That said, Zvonareva must take the initiative fearlessly when openings do emerge, especially on the American’s forehand side.  When Serena is a trifle tense, as one suspects that she will be, that wing breaks down more often than the technically superior backhand.  Although the Russian lacks the versatility that could frustrate Serena and disrupt her rhythm, she does possess the consistency to profit from any lapses in the top seed’s form.  Whether she can exploit her opportunities remains an open question, but we think that she will see an opening or two during the course of the final.

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Across the net, Serena’s job is relatively simple:  take care of business on her serve, reach into the vast reservoir of her experience to take the confidence that she needs, and she will hold the Venus Rosewater Dish for the fourth time.  Simple does not mean easy, however, and the world #1 noted at her pre-final press conferences that she’ll need to avoid burdening herself with undue pressure.  Whereas Zvonareva can swing freely in the knowledge that nobody expects anything remarkable from her, genius is almost as routinely expected from Serena as from Federer.  Yet nerves have bothered the defending champion more at Wimbledon than any of the majors; she’s 3-2 in finals there while compiling a 9-1 record everywhere else.  Clearly suffering from the pressure in the 2004 championship match, the American hit several two-handed forehands, stumbled during key rallies, and generally looked as though she were waiting for order to restore itself on its own, which it never did.  During this fortnight, Serena looked completely impenetrable in her early rounds before dropping her level a notch or two in the quarterfinals and semifinals.  Kvitova deserves considerable credit for dragging her into a first-set tiebreak, but we were surprised that the American allowed that situation to unfold.  More often, Serena grinds through some unsightly early victories before steamrolling the competition in the second week.  Many commentators have attributed that trend to the process of shaking rust from her magnificent offense, yet it’s also possible that she doesn’t bring her full focus to such encounters, feeling ever so slightly complacent beneath her ferocious demeanor.   Sensational through the first four rounds, her serve has dropped a bit in the last two matches, and the bandages that she wore on her right arm during the doubles suggested that fatigue may have settled into that crucial limb.

Having discussed all of the primary reasons why an upset could occur, we nevertheless doubt that Serena will let this title slip away.  Beyond the obvious motivation of adding to her already stellar Slam title list (and passing Billie Jean King in that category), she’ll surely be eager to climb within one Wimbledon crown of her sister, clearly the second-best player in the family everywhere but at this tournament.  If Serena can master her nerves and unleash her game at its fullest height, there’s little that Zvonareva can do to contain her power.  Despite illustrating the defending champion’s superiority in most areas, these statistics from the fortnight suggest that the Russian won’t find herself completely overwhelmed in the championship match:

Service games lost:  Serena 3; Zvonareva 5

Winners / errors:  Serena 167/72; Zvonareva 141/72

Break points converted:  Serena 26/36; Zvonareva 23/48

Break points saved:  Serena 7/10; Zvonareva 20/25

On the other hand, this statistic is overwhelming indeed:

Aces / DFs:  Serena 80/12; Zvonareva 23/22

Once again, we expect Serena to rely upon the best shot in women’s tennis to separate herself from a determined challenger at pivotal moments.  The world #1 probably will be able to combine her electric delivery with an adequate supply of penetrating returns, vanquishing Zvonareva in a pair of reasonably competitive sets.  If she starts the match a little off-key, however, a highly compelling encounter could develop. 

Serena may be sniffing the victory champagne, but can a new Schiavone spoil her party?  We can’t be sure, but we are sure that nothing could spoil the party below.  😉

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