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Returning from our two-week “WTA vacation,” we were delighted to see that many of you were eagerly anticipating our next entry.  Yet we were even more delighted to see that the Serbian Sleeping Beauty awakened in Cincinnati to overcome a recently revived Azarenka in a memorable three-set collision.  Forcing herself to remain positive after a lackluster first set, Ivanovic steadied her emotions and mentally outlasted the blazing-tempered Belarussian, who twice failed to serve out the match. Two points from defeat on three different occasions, Ana somehow found the inner steeliness necessary to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.   The Serb’s confidence surely will soar after winning the type of closely contested encounter that she had been losing all too frequently.  We hope that she can capitalize upon her triumph to profit from a second half during which she will have little to lose and much to gain in the rankings.  Meanwhile, though, we head back to the business of bracketology with a somewhat tardy analysis of the draws at the WTA Cincinnati and ATP Toronto events.

Cincinnati:

First quarter: Qualifiers and Serbs proliferate in this region, although we do not confuse them as did the Montreal tournament director.  Atop the section looms defending champion Jankovic, but a three-match losing streak prevents her from towering over the draw as would a typical top seed.  With Azarenka already headed to Montreal, however, few obstacles could prevent JJ from reaching the semifinals; Schiavone seems more than content (and rightfully so) to rest upon her French laurels, while Ivanovic, Shvedova, or Vesnina probably would feel satisfied simply to reach the quarters.  Owing in part to the vagaries of this bizarrely imbalanced draw, Jankovic won’t play anyone except a qualifier until that round, which should mean that she’ll be as rested as possible for the weekend.   One suspects that JJ won’t wait until then to find drama, though, perhaps spicing up our lives in another intra-Serbian duel with Ana.  Be sure to postmark your “ajdes” carefully.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Second quarter: Remember the notorious, tear-soaked clash between Pennetta and Zvonareva at last year’s US Open?  Beckoning at the base of this quarter is a probable rematch, but Zvonareva’s limp performance in San Diego suggests that an opportunity might open for second-round opponent Kirilenko.  In the 2009 edition of this tournament, the then-#1 Safina halted Clijsters in the first event of her comeback; the Belgian could exact a substantial revenge on Wednesday by thrusting the Russian out of the top 50 with a victory.  Clijsters has been just a top-25 player outside her US Open run last year (subtract her points from New York to see what we mean), and she accomplished little in the first half outside Miami and two other wins over Henin.  Nevertheless, bearing the Belgian banner alone might relax Kim a bit as she returns to her favored hard courts, and Safina hasn’t won consecutive matches since the Australian Open.  In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters for the first time in their careers.  Could she repeat the feat?  Not if she’s the same Vera whom we saw last week.

Semifinalist: Clijsters

Third quarter: Recuperating from leg injuries that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva may find herself tested by upwardly mobile compatriot Pavlyuchenkova in the second round.  Embedded on the other side is the next era of Belgian brilliance, also known as Yanina Wickmayer.  A future top-10 star, she won sets from Stosur at Stanford and Kuznetsova in San Diego but hasn’t quite broken through at a significant tournament.  Wickmayer’s third-round clash with Li Na should feature an avalanche of bludgeoned groundstrokes and court-stretching rallies; one ultimately must favor the Chinese star on account of her stellar season and superior experience.  While Dementieva holds the hard-court edge in her prior collisions with Li, she may not be sufficiently durable and consistent at this stage in her return to navigate past her fellow Beijing Olympic medalist.

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter: Even after Sharapova dispatched San Diego champion Kuznetsova, this quarter remains littered with stern competitors ranging from Maria to Radwanska, Wozniacki, and Bartoli.  If Maria can recover from her Tuesday night match with her energy intact for Wednesday afternoon, she probably will advance to a third-round meeting with the Pole.  Having won their last four clashes since a 2007 US Open fiasco, Sharapova possesses too much sheer power for Radwanska to deflect except when the Russian suffers an especially erratic outing.  On the other side, world #3 Wozniacki seeks to capitalize upon the momentum gained by capturing her home tournament last week.   But will her fatigue from the elongated matches that she played there undermine her against Bartoli’s relentless, double-barrelled offense?  An early loser in San Diego (courtesy of Hantuchova), the Frenchwoman has looked sharp in two victories here and would enjoy greater rest than the Dane entering their projected third-round duel.  This quarter probably will feature the most entertaining tennis, but its residents likely will exhaust each other before the week concludes, reducing the chances of the last woman standing here to win the title.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

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Toronto:

First quarter: Following the premature demises of Cilic and Roddick, Nadal’s path to the semifinals suddenly yawns open before him.  His only potential seeded opponent is Querrey, who won the LA tournament from Murray but so far has fallen a little short in his meetings with the Spaniard.  Moreover, the four-time titlist this year may be fatigued from his recent heroics; the unheralded Michael Russell managed to extend him into a third set on Tuesday.  With a reinvigorated, freshly treated pair of knees, Nadal should be able to wear down Wawrinka with minimal ado before confronting the American.  If he progresses past Querrey to the final eight, he shouldn’t be excessively challenged by the likes of Troicki or Lu, credible all-court players without the physicality, groundstroke depth, or relentless focus vital to conquering the world #1.  Although Querrey possesses the groundstroke depth, he remains lacking in the other departments despite maturing steadily this year.  (Interesting fact:  a Nadal-Querrey meeting would feature the two players who have won more titles in 2010 than anyone else in the ATP.)

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: Question marks hover ominously above the two main dramatis personae in this section; Murray must adjust to his separation from coach Miles Maclagan, while Soderling withdrew from Washington for “personal reasons” and only narrowly withstood the weapons of Gulbis in his opener.  Lurking in the shadows is the Washington champion, David Nalbandian, who is riding a nine-match winning streak that started with Davis Cup and who already has dispatched the ever-tenacious Ferrer.  The third-round duel between the Argentine and the Swede should enthrall, as should the encounter between Murray and Monfils.  Flamboyant, enigmatic, and notoriously unreliable, Nalbandian has developed a habit of alternating prolonged surges with prolonged slides, and he’s in the midst of a surge at the moment.  When one ventures out on a limb to expect something from him, he generally cuts the limb down himself.  Nevertheless, the current uncertainty surrounding Murray and Soderling persuades us to perch out there anyway.

Semifinalist:  Nalbandian

Third quarter: Upon sinking to world #3, Federer has encouraged his supporters by breaking free from complacency to explore a coaching partnership with Paul Annacone.  Despite the strong season enjoyed by Nicolas Almagro, the Spaniard never has recorded a victory over a member of the game’s elite and will enter his third-round clash with the Swiss as a heavy underdog.  During his opener against Chela, Federer’s serve delivered at the most vital moments as it regularly has in the past, but his backhand sporadically deserted him.  In a likely quarterfinal with Berdych, the Czech’s equally explosive serve, newfound self-belief, and much steadier backhand might well vault him past the 16-time major champion for the second straight tournament and the third time in 2010.  Concerning the probable Berdych-Youzhny third-round confrontation, one suspects that the Russian’s fluid movement and shot-making versatility will not compensate for his relatively unimpressive serve and first-strike potential any more than when he met Berdych at Roland Garros.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Fourth quarter: Reportedly sluggish and uninspired during his doubles with Nadal, Djokovic has been handed a draw that will provide him with ample time to rouse himself.  Benneteau can threaten the top players with his distinctive style, even upsetting Federer last fall, but the Serb will not find his consistency or fitness severely tested by the French doubles specialist.  Not until the quarterfinals will Djokovic face a seeded opponent, which would be either the struggling Davydenko or the exhausted-looking Verdasco.  While the Russian recently returned from an extended injury absence, the Spanish lefty substantially overloaded his schedule during the clay season and slogged through an uninspired opener against journeyman Eduardo Schwank.  On one hand, both Davydenko and Verdasco have enjoyed recent success against Djokovic, so they could profit from one of the inexplicably flat performances that he has delivered chronically ever since winning the 2008 Australian Open.  On the other hand, they’re just as likely to submit an inexplicably flat performance themselves, and a mediocre effort from the Serb trumps a mediocre effort from either the Russian or the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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We return on Thursday for quarterfinal previews in both cities, followed by semifinal and final previews over the weekend.

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