You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2010.

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With all due respect to the veterans featured in the second semifinal, the first semifinal bears far more intriguing implications that range beyond this Premier Five title.  Rising to prominence almost simultaneously, Wozniacki and Azarenka have elevated themselves above their peers as the leading contenders of their generation.  Close friends outside the arena, they have honed divergent playing styles and crystallized into distinct personalities, thus providing the key ingredients for a scintillating rivalry.  The gentle, understated Dane patiently maneuvers her opponents into awkward positions, whereas the fierce, flamboyant Belarussian bristles with competitive vigor as she cracks her groundstrokes amid Sharapova-esque shrieks.  After the Williamses and the Belgians drift away, Wozniacki and Azarenka will find themselves at the reins of the WTA, so their semifinal collision in Tokyo presages future collisions in championship matches around the world.

Split at 2-2, their current head-to-head record traces the contrasts between their respective pathways towards the top.  Polished into a complete player earlier than Azarenka, Wozniacki comfortably eased through their initial clash at the 2008 US Open, but the Belarussian’s outstanding 2009 witnessed a pair of lopsided victories over the Dane.  Almost a year ago, they collaborated on one of the most memorable matches at the year-end championships.  Fully in control for a set and a half, a merciless Azarenka looked poised to deal a third consecutive blow to her friend’s self-belief.  Clawing back into contention with one grinding rally at a time, however, Wozniacki eroded Vika’s patience and unlocked her notorious temper.  Eventually, the Belarussian’s brittle façade of ruthlessness crumbled into a rubble heap of smashed rackets, code violations, and tears of rage.

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Whereas the placid Wozniacki has steadily climbed upward in the rankings, the volatile Azarenka has surged as dramatically as she has sagged.  Since the end of May, Vika has lost in the first round of Roland Garros, reached the Eastbourne final, lost in the third round of Wimbledon, won the Stanford title, lost in the first round of Cincinnati, reached the Rogers Cup semifinal, and quite literally knocked herself out of the US Open.  Considering these oscillations between peaks and valleys, one shouldn’t be surprised that she has arrived in the semifinal one event after that US Open disaster.  Meanwhile, the Dane gradually accumulated momentum after a tepid start to 2010.  Building upon her home title in Copenhagen, she captured the Premier Five crown at the Rogers Cup, reached the US Open semifinal, and now threatens Serena’s grasp upon the top ranking.  While her tempestuous friend has ridden an elevator up and down the rankings, moreover, the second seed has firmly entrenched herself within the top 5.  Yet many observers believe (rightly, we think) that Azarenka’s explosive offense will garner more majors than Wozniacki’s indefatigable but relatively power-drained counterpunching.  Although Vika often will fall lower than Caro, she also can soar higher once she matures.

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Will streaky conquer steady in Tokyo?  On the relatively fast hard court, the Belarussian’s formidable weaponry might penetrate the Dane’s defenses more effectively than in Doha.  Often practicing together, the semifinalists will enter their encounter familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Curious to contemplate is the choice that they will face between exploiting their sturdier groundstroke or targeting their opponent’s more vulnerable wing, for Wozniacki and Azarenka both prefer their backhand to their forehand.  Not among the game’s leading servers, the two friends have bolstered that shot in recent months but still will win many more points from the baseline than from the service notch.  More adept in the forecourt than the Dane, the Belarussian will hope to exploit her skill at the net in order to abbreviate rallies and exploit the opportunities created by her probing cross-court strokes.  When focused and poised, Vika showcases just as much intelligence with her shot selection and point construction as her friend and rival.  But if an extended match unfolds, as seems plausible, Azarenka must steel herself against succumbing to emotional fatigue again.  Don’t be deceived by Caro’s unassuming visage; her willpower runs as deep as Vika’s more overtly expressed determination.

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Perhaps the single most significant victory of Wozniacki’s career, her performance against Sharapova at the US Open might suggest that she should defuse a player popularly labeled as Sharapova’s descendant.  Yet the often overstated comparison between the Russian and the Belarussian provides only a limited tool with which to sketch the contours of the incipient rivalry between the Belarussian and the Dane.  Less willing than Sharapova to embrace risk at all costs, Azarenka strikes her groundstrokes slightly higher above the net and perceptibly further inside the lines.  Not quite as spectacular a shotmaker as the Russian, she moves much more fluidly and displays greater consistency in protracted baseline exchanges.  These qualities allow Azarenka to create openings gradually rather than pulling the trigger as early as did Sharapova in New York; in this case, Wozniacki can’t rely upon simply surviving the first few blows.  On a mental level, however, Vika hasn’t quite matched the unblinking intensity with which the three-time Slam champion assaulted every point and every shot when at her best.  Just as Wozniacki’s offense remains a work in progress, so is Azarenka’s mind.

Rather than recapitulating a familiar formula, therefore, the Wozniacki-Azarenka rivalry offers a distinctive spectacle with which tennis fans should acquaint themselves.  All signs suggest that we will witness many more such duels on stages grander than Tokyo.

***

Confronting Schiavone for the twelfth time, Dementieva targets revenge for their tense yet truncated Roland Garros semifinal.  On her favorite surface and restored to health, the Russian looks likely to reverse that outcome against an Italian probably weary from an epic victory over Kanepi.  Dominating three quality opponents in Shvedova, Pennetta, and Zvonareva, Elena has displayed some of her smoothest tennis in 2010.  On the other hand, Schiavone might undermine the steady, rhythmic ball-striking of Dementieva by refusing to give her the same stroke and spin throughout a rally.  While the Russian prefers to wage a lateral war of attrition from the backcourt, the Italian hopes that her sparkling forecourt skills can lure her adversary out of her baseline citadel.  Since both players have struggled on serve throughout their careers, we should see swarms of break points, enticing second serves, and a match in which no lead is safe.  Whatever the outcome, the Tokyo final will feature a tantalizing encounter between a seasoned veteran and a youthful upstart, charting a narrative that never fails to intrigue.  We explore that narrative tomorrow.

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Abdicating her Premier Five crown rather meekly, Sharapova strolls towards Beijing in the company of Stosur, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic.  Presented with the opportunity to succeed the Russian as a Tokyo champion, however, are a sprawling array of ladies-in-waiting with divergent playing styles and personalities.  We scan the ranks of these would-be Cinderellas and arrange them according to their chances of sliding into Maria’s vast slipper.

Azarenka:  Almost certainly a future Slam champion, the Belarussian regrouped sturdily from the concussion that prematurely ended her US Open.  After such an experience, one might expect hesitancy and awkwardness in a player’s next appearance, but Azarenka cruised past Safarova before benefiting from Bartoli’s retirement.  Vika has won two-thirds of her return games in the Japanese capital while saving 13 of 15 break points.  Similar to Sharapova in many respects, her playing style should suit the fast courts, and she might feel especially motivated to end the season impressively after a largely desultory 2010 campaign.  On the other hand, Azarenka has found herself threatened in numerous service games and may not be able to sustain this pressure when she confronts high-quality adversaries like Wozniacki.  Against Coco, she must seek to avoid the complacency that can arise from facing an unheralded foe.  Moreover, the Belarussian must restrain her volcanic temper when the American connects with unreturnable serves on key points.  If she accomplishes those two tasks, a semifinal spot beckons.  If her emotions don’t betray her through three more rounds, in fact, the slipper should fit her better than anyone else here.

Wozniacki: Historically, the fall season witnesses few achievements from the relentless warriors who have ground through tournament after tournament on every continent throughout the season (see N for Nadal).  But Wozniacki defied that trend a year ago by reaching the semifinals in Doha despite a debilitating injury, although she may have performed better with the injury than she would have without it—more on that thought when we reach this year’s Doha.  Clinching her spot in the year-end championships, the Pole-Dane eyes an excellent opportunity to seize the top ranking without overcoming a Williams sister or a Belgian.  She surrendered just seven games in the four sets that she has played here so far, expending little more energy against Pavlyuchenkova than she expended against Miss Bye in the first round.  Unless her consistency evaporates as notably as it did in the US Open semifinal, one doesn’t expect her to be troubled by Radwanska’s paper-cut tactics.  In a semifinal against Azarenka, though, she will confront an opponent with greater power but only slightly less fluid movement and consistency; the matchup thus recalls her ill-fated meeting with Zvonareva at the US Open.  If Wozniacki’s tenacity can destabilize her friend’s precarious psychological equilibrium, however, she should capture her fifth title of the year.

Dementieva:  Swiftly overcoming her New York disappointment, the Olympic gold medalist looked as suffocating as ever when she demolished talented upstart Shvedova.  (Here’s your punishment for turning Kazakh, Yaroslava!)  While struggling to hold serve against Pennetta, Dementieva fought her way through the crucial games, found first serves when she most needed them, and never allowed the Italian to consolidate momentum.  Not a prototypical power hitter, the Russian relies upon her explosive movement and crisp footwork to control rallies on these fast surfaces; also, she anticipates her opponent’s gambits as well as anyone.  Yet a ghastly cascade of double faults always lurks around the corner, and the ensuing toll upon her self-belief has hampered her late in tournaments.  A win over Zvonareva might quell her inner doubts for the next few days, however, and provide her with the impetus required to score two more victories over credible but not intimidating opposition.  In the absence of top contenders, Dementieva has capitalized upon her opportunities more adroitly than many of the WTA’s rather maladroit opportunists.

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Zvonareva:  Encountering a pair of unprepossessing Italians, the two-time Slam finalist turned her first two matches into more complicated affairs than necessary by struggling to close out her service games.  As a result, what should have been a soporific cruise past Errani became an unsightly lurch from one break point to another.  In the second set against Vinci, Zvonareva finally translated “efficiency” into Russian with a satisfying bagel.  Unlike Jankovic, Vera doesn’t actively court drama, yet it seems to follow the lure of her piercingly blue eyes anyway.  Her all-Russian quarterfinal with Dementieva should feature plenty of drama, both visual and auditory.  Not sufficiently powerful to batter through her compatriot’s relentless defense, Zvonareva probably will fall a little short in an entertaining match littered with endless baseline exchanges and countless service breaks.  If she does navigate past Dementieva, however, she should reach the final, at which point anything can happen.  (It usually doesn’t for Vera, though, who is 1-4 in finals this year.)

Schiavone:  At a youthful 30, the top Italian continues to remind the tennis world that nothing is impossible.  Far in distance and time from her favored clay, she demonstrated her hard-court while halting the sentimental run of home hope Date.  Schiavone possesses both stronger mental resilience and a weaker set of offensive weapons than the other players in her half.  According to standard WTA logic, her week should end soon against someone with the capacity to outhit her from the baseline.  On the other hand, Schiavone has constructed a career out of defying such standards and expectations.  Her artful placement and uncanny knack for transitioning from defense to offense can unsettle players with more balanced, technically solid games.  Most importantly, she rises to the occasion rather than shrinking from it, a trait that distinguishes her from many of her rivals.  Although these factors usually aren’t enough to overcome her limitations, most notably an unimposing serve, they can spark unexpected moments of brilliance.  It’s unwise to count on her and equally unwise to count her out.

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Radwanska:  Last fall, the Asian hard-court season witnessed the crafty Pole’s surge to the Premier Mandatory final in Beijing.  Deceptively challenging on a fast surface, she strikes her groundstrokes early and revels in absorbing and redirecting the pace of her rivals. The fast surface also maximizes her improved but still underwhelming serve, allowing her to hold with greater regularity.  In order to progress deep into tournaments, however, the fleet-footed Radwanska usually relies upon clever counterpunching to extract untimely errors from her opponents.  While the Pole can frustrate impetuous shot-makers like Petkovic, she has yet to seize a significant title.  During the course of a six-round tournament, one of her more powerful foes almost always finds just enough consistency to overpower her from the baseline at key moments.  Against Wozniacki, Radwanska must find a way to outmaneuver the top seed, bring her to the net in uncomfortable situations, and outlast her in baseline exchanges.  Considering the relentless consistency of the world #2, it’s less than plausible that she can execute these tactics throughout an entire match.

Kanepi: Arguably the greatest surprise of the WTA season, the Estonian has become much more than just the best player from her nation.  Having reached consecutive Slam quarterfinals, Kanepi reprised her US Open ambush of 2009 finalist Jankovic in the third round after subduing Peer a day earlier.  Those two victories over capable counterpunchers confirmed her evolution from a mighty but wildly erratic ball-bruiser into a relatively complete player with reliable weapons on serve, return, and both groundstrokes.  Yet her patience will be thoroughly tested in a quarterfinal with Schiavone, who will be sure to drag Kanepi into uncomfortable positions on the court and force her to strike balls lower than the high contact point that she prefers.  Nevertheless, the Estonian’s style perhaps suits the surface better than the Italian, and her superior serve will allow her to win more free points.  Seeking her first Premier Five semifinal, Kanepi probably isn’t ready to overcome a series of experienced, versatile opponents.  At this stage, she remains a draw-detonating dark horse rather than a contender for prestigious titles.

Vandeweghe:  Perhaps Melanie Oudin isn’t the future of American women’s tennis after all.  Unremarkable since that stunning US Open charge, the Georgian has ceded the spotlight to a brash Californian with a percussive serve and forehand.  Riding those strengths to an upset over Zvonareva in San Diego, Vandeweghe hasn’t yet learned how to harness her weapons consistently.  Nevertheless, she qualified for the tournament and then slashed past Seoul finalist Zakopalova as well as the sagging Rezai.  Friendly to mighty serves, the surface rewards her preference for abbreviated, arrhythmic rallies.  But the American remains a raw albeit promising competitor when juxtaposed with the smooth, textured, and balanced style that Azarenka has crafted.  Vandeweghe has never won a WTA title of any level, so a breakthrough here would be shocking.

***

Whether you’re getting up early or staying up late, enjoy the quarterfinals from Tokyo!

Dwarfed by the lingering shadow of the US Open, four small tournaments came and went last week.  We outline one intriguing storyline from each of these geographically disparate events in the most recent edition of (TW)2.

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Allez les bleus (Metz): Just a week after France advanced to the Davis Cup final, two players who didn’t participate in any live rubbers dazzled in Metz.  Overcoming the tenacious Robredo in the quarterfinals, Gasquet temporarily conquered his aversion to playing before his compatriots and extended his momentum from a second-week run at the US Open.  But the more remarkable storyline came from the nearly forgotten Simon, who celebrated the birth of his first child with his first title of 2010.  Enduring an arid campaign this year, Gilles emphatically dispatched the formidable Kohlschreiber in the semifinals after the German had ousted Cilic with equal authority in the quarterfinals.  Accomplished on indoor hard courts, Simon enters the fall season fresher and more motivated than most of his rivals, having missed much of the spring and summer with injuries.  Don’t be surprised to see the new father spring an upset or two (or, in Simon-speak, “accidents”) during the Masters 1000 events.  If his star does continue to rise, Guy Forget may face some intriguing choices when assembling his squad for the Davis Cup final.

The clay season never ends (Bucharest): Between Wimbledon and the US Open, an assortment of small events throughout Europe allow dirt devils to gobble up rankings points while the top dogs play elsewhere.  Even after the US Open, though, the Bucharest event greets clay specialists with open arms at a time when Roland Garros lies far in the past or the future, depending on your perspective.  Unsurprisingly, three Spaniards capitalized upon this unlikely windfall to reach the semifinals, while the ageless Chela captured his second title of 2010.  Although these results bear little or no meaning for the impending Asian hard courts, one should note that not every player experiences the apparently seamless progression from hard courts to clay to grass to hard courts traced by the arc of the key events.  When contemplating schedule revisions, though, ATP officials might want to address this particular anomaly and relocate it to a more appropriate week in the calendar.

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One step forward, one step back for former #1s (Seoul): Following encouraging campaigns at Cincinnati and the US Open, Ivanovic should have entered Seoul filled with the confidence to move further on her winding road back to relevance.  Yet the Serb tumbled out of the tournament with an unsightly loss to Vera Dushevina, who has developed an odd habit for dragging top players down to her pedestrian level.  Despite winning a comfortable first set, Ivanovic lost the rhythm on her serve shortly thereafter and never regained it.  By contrast, her victim in the 2008 Roland Garros final recorded a pair of solid wins before falling to recurrent nemesis Zakopalova.  One of Safina’s more impressive victories since returning from a back injury, her commanding performance against Kirilenko boded well for her self-belief as 2010 edges towards its conclusion.  Neither Safina nor Ivanovic has anything significant to defend during the fall (Ivanovic, in fact, has nothing at all to defend); therefore, they should hope to exploit any advantageous draws that they receive in order to bolster their rankings for 2011.  (A round into Tokyo, the Serb scored another victory over Kleybanova, while the Russian endured a puzzling loss to Julia Goerges.  In other words, the rollercoaster continues.)

The Russians keep coming (Tashkent): Dwindling to just one member of the top 10, this mighty tennis nation continues to capture title after title at all levels of the WTA.  In Tashkent, Kudryavtseva reached her second straight final and then became the sixth different Russian to win a singles title this year…at the expense of compatriot Vesnina, who was contesting her second final of 2010.  Had Petrova not withdrawn from her Seoul semifinal, another all-Russian title tilt might have developed there.  As it was, Kleybanova thoroughly dominated the competition in the South Korean capital and showed flashes of the shot-making artistry that might lead her to the top 20.  While nobody would mistake Kudryavtseva, Vesnina, or arguably even Kleybanova for a Slam contender, these players remind observers that Russian women’s tennis possesses a depth equaled only by Spanish men’s tennis.  Wherever tennis balls are struck, it seems that someone from the land of Stravinsky and Stalin will stand poised to strike them.

***

On Wednesday, we preview the quarterfinals in Tokyo.  Who looks ready to open the fall with an imposing statement?

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Although the Slam season has ended, plenty of captivating action remains in the tennis calendar.  As the battlefields shift to Asia, the Tokyo event promises to reward the sport’s faithful followers.  We examine the promisingly balanced draw at the year’s final Premier Five event.

First quarter: Tantalizingly close to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki should enjoy a placid route to the quarterfinals after a bye, a qualifier, and probably Pavlyuchenkova.  After a dismal loss to Date in Seoul, the Russian teenager outlasted Cibulkova in the first round here but continues to struggle with her serve; moreover, she has lost all eight sets that she has played against the Pole-Dane, including six this year.  In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki most likely will face the enigmatic Kuznetsova, who will be favored to overcome Radwanska for the third time in five tournaments.  Before that potential third-round encounter, though, Sveta probably will need to navigate past the recently resurgent Szavay, previously a stern test for the Russian.  A 2008 finalist in Tokyo, Kuznetsova should relish the fast courts if she encounters Wozniacki, still centered around counterpunching despite a slightly enhanced offense.  On the other hand, the world #2 conquered the two-time major champion with ease at the Rogers Cup and edged her a year ago on another fast court—the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter: Stacked with fascinating first-round matchups, this section features two former #1s, three Roland Garros finalists, and no fewer than five 2010 titlists.  Of Bartoli, Wickmayer, Kleybanova, and Ivanovic, only one can reach a third-round collision with Azarenka, who must be eager to erase memories of her bizarre New York demise.  A near-ideal blend of power and movement, the Belarussian should prosper on Tokyo’s speedy surface, although she has lost both of her meetings with the Serb this year.  Injected with minor momentum after two quality wins in Seoul, 2008 champion Safina stares at a second-round meeting with Stosur.  The Aussie performed much more impressively than expected in New York, considering her historic aversion to fast hard courts and a mysterious arm injury.  Despite the Russian’s more balanced groundstroke game, Stosur should advance to a highly winnable clash with the weary Rezai.  Scheduled to meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Sam has never won a set from Vika in four meetings and has won just six games in the four sets that they have played this year.  Unless she serves exceptionally well, the Belarussian’s dominance should continue.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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Third quarter: Defending a title for the first time in her comeback, Sharapova finds herself in probably the weakest quarter of the draw.  If she stays alert to evade the ageless Date, Maria should ease past the ever-glamorous, ever-fragile Hantuchova to set up an intriguing encounter with Schiavone.  One of Sharapova’s six Tokyo victims last year, the Italian came closer than anyone to derailing that title run; she led by a set and 4-2 in the first round before fading sharply.  Fresh from an invigorating quarterfinal run at the US Open, she will seek to derail the Russian’s rhythm with artful placement, dogged defense, and a competitive intensity that almost (but not quite) matches Maria’s fabled ferocity.  A potential rematch of the 2009 final could lurk in the quarterfinals, yet Jankovic floundered ignominiously on the summer hard courts.  Before that round, in fact, she likely will need to defuse New York nemesis Kanepi, who seems determined to capitalize upon consecutive Slam quarterfinal appearances.  Despite a slightly disappointing US Open, Sharapova enters the tournament in distinctly superior form to the Serb, while the Estonian’s lack of subtlety would play directly into Maria’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter: Much ink has been spilled upon the perceived demise of the WTA’s Russian empire, but all three remaining seeds in this section are Russian, two of them hold Olympic medals, and one of them could gain the top ranking after Beijing.  In order to achieve that implausible objective, Vera must at least reach the final here.  After her Wimbledon heroics, she departed prematurely from her next two tournaments, so we won’t be surprised to see an early exit after another major final appearance at the US Open.  Rather than seriously targeting #1, Zvonareva probably will rest content with her unexpectedly stellar Slam campaign and drift quietly into Doha following an indifferent fall season.  She eyes a third-round encounter with Petrova, who reached the Seoul semifinals last week with three resounding victories…but then retired with an illness, not for the first time this year.  Removing a formidable dark horse threat, the withdrawal of Li Na eased the path of Dementieva, who suffered gallant losses against top-6 opponents in both New Haven and New York.  Familiar with the most excruciating forms of adversity, the resilient Russian should face the recently disappointing Shvedova and then Pennetta.  Probably more motivated than her compatriot to record a solid fall season, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist should trump the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist for the fifth time in seven meetings if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

***

We will revisit Tokyo by the quarterfinals, if not sooner.  Before then, however, we will discuss key events from last week’s four small tournaments that might outline trends for the fall.  Another edition of (TW)2 lies ahead…

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Responding to a pre-US Open request, we discuss this year’s surprise sensation in the ATP.  Will the Czech bounce, or is he here to stay?  Seven topics concerning the world #7 are explored below…

1) What was the turning point?

Having trudged through years of underachievement, Berdych looked ready to crumble once more when he handed Federer a match point in Miami by missing a routine forehand.  After a wry smile, however, Tomas stung a second-serve return into his opponent’s backhand corner, boldly ventured into the forecourt, and lashed a vicious forehand past the scrambling Swiss.  Perhaps startled by such unexpected resistance, Federer retreated into passivity during the next two rallies, while Berdych refused to relinquish the initiative.  Invigorated by this miracle in Miami, the Czech extended his momentum with inspired performances against Verdasco and Soderling there.  When the tour shifted to European clay, he ambushed Murray in Roland Garros before severely challenging Soderling in a five-set semifinal.  Perhaps most impressive, however, was his ability to repeat his triumph over Federer at Wimbledon, where he defied the magnitude of the occasion with a dispassionate but relentless determination.  These two matches against the Swiss #1 thus bookended Berdych’s mid-career metamorphosis.

2) Will he regress?

At the midpoint of 2010, Berdych loomed large among the leading candidates for the US Open title.  On the slick hard courts that he should relish, though, the Czech bounced ignominiously in a first-round loss to the charismatic Llodra.  Almost as concerning was his loss to Federer at the Rogers Cup, during which he served for the match and stood two points from victory on five different occasions.  In stark contrast to the Miami miracle, Berdych allowed the Swiss legend to control most critical rallies, while his shot selection grew increasingly tentative.  Dropping vital Davis Cup rubbers to Tipsarevic and Djokovic last weekend, Tomas again revealed mental frailty under pressure by donating untimely miscues and failing to exploit numerous opportunities.  Nevertheless, the surge from Miami through Wimbledon occurred on three different surfaces against a variety of opponents, so it seems unlikely to become an anomaly.  More probable is the inference that Berdych merely needs a few months to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere in which he now finds himself.

3) Is he a better best-of-three or best-of-five player?

Visibly weary towards the end of his five-set Roland Garros semifinal, Berdych won only one five-setter during his two Slam breakthroughs this summer.  Efficiently dispatching his first five Roland Garros adversaries in straight sets, he faltered temporarily against the unimposing duo of Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands at Wimbledon.  Not always the most focused competitor, the Czech can escape attention lapses more readily in a five-setter than a three-setter.  Yet the elevated focus demanded by the compressed format may spur him to perform at a higher level rather than lackadaisically allowing an overmatched opponent to outstay his welcome.  On the other hand, Berdych sometimes starts sluggishly before finding his range, and the best-of-five structure offers him more time to recover from such situations.  If he grows accustomed to deep Slam runs, his mental and physical endurance probably will rise, so the issue of his intermittent focus may eventually fade from relevance.

4) Is he an all-surface threat?

Among the most impressive features of the Czech’s spring surge was his ability to translate his momentum from hard courts to clay to grass, rare among the sport’s elite.  At Roland Garros, the Czech profits from the additional time to plant his feet before unleashing his groundstrokes, which possess more than sufficient sting to penetrate even the slowest surface.  Although one might expect Wimbledon to expose his inconsistency at the net, the grass has grown steadily slower and rewarded aggressive baseliners as much as net-rushers.  Meanwhile, the low bounce there hampers a player of his height as much as the high bounce at the French Open assists him.  But the serve remains vital and points remain short at the All England Club, two characteristics that favored Berdych during his stirring run to the final.  But the Czech’s early loss at the US Open especially puzzles because hard courts should continue to prove his friendliest setting.  Having honed a largely programmatic style, he will relish the regular bounces and controlled conditions of the tour’s dominant surface, which provide a predictability distinct from the vagaries of clay and grass.

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5) How does he match up to the top players?

Equipped to trade baseline blows with anyone, Berdych should regularly trouble fellow juggernauts Soderling and Del Potro, who share his principal strengths and limitations.  Illustrated by his three matches with Federer this summer, the aging Swiss struggles to cope with the Czech’s massive first-strike power on a day when he falls short of his majestic best; those days will only become more frequent as Federer’s career wanes (together with his consistency).  Despite a resounding victory over Djokovic at Wimbledon, Berdych matches up less effectively with the Serb, who possesses a less reliable serve but a superior backhand and more fluid movement.  Similar issues should arise against Murray, although the Scot’s tendency towards passivity will provide Tomas with more opportunities to command points from the baseline.  Like most of his contemporaries, Berdych faces his sternest test against the world #1.  Armed with far greater versatility, Nadal not only outwitted but often outslugged the Czech in their one-sided Wimbledon final, and the Spaniard’s enhanced serve has negated the sole advantage that Berdych formerly held over him.  In order to take another step forward, Berdych literally should take a few steps forward and refine his net skills, thus separating himself from his baseline-bound peers.

6) How long can he contend?

Boyish in appearance and manner, Berdych has accumulated more years on the ATP than one might suppose.  Like his stylistic cousin Soderling, he fulfilled his potential later than most of his colleagues and thus faces a more constricted time window in which to achieve his goals.  That knowledge should infuse him with a sense of urgency during the next few years.  On the other hand, the Czech hasn’t accumulated any significant injuries, and a leg issue early in the clay season failed to forestall his Roland Garros heroics.  Relying on an explosive serve and forehand, he should enjoy greater durability than the ATP’s movement-based counterpunchers.  The enigmatic Berdych has seemed to struggle with motivation periodically, however, so his results may tumble dramatically once his career starts to fade, and success requires more intense effort.  Still less confident than the top five, the world #7 must construct a firmer barrier to psychologically insulate himself from adversity.  To be sure, the victories over Federer augured well in this regard, but the late summer undercut that evidence.  What will the fall portend?

7) What should he seek to accomplish in 2011?

Two more Slam semifinals would convincingly establish the Czech among the ATP elite, as would a Masters 1000 title or a pair of finals.  While winning a major certainly would dazzle, Berdych should strive to enhance his consistency at Slams and Masters 1000 tournaments.  In addition to improving his ranking, steadier results would enable him to shed his reputation for streakiness, upon which opponents have often relied.  Since he can threaten anyone except (arguably) Nadal, Berdych doesn’t depend upon the whims of a draw.  In fact, a more arduous draw can benefit him by preventing him from settling into complacency, a standard ingredient in upset recipes.  The clearest measure of Berdych’s maturation into a consistent contender will emerge not just from his ability to sporadically ambush Federer or Djokovic but also from his ability to regularly withstand Llodra, Tipsarevic, Baghdatis, and similarly opportunistic challengers.

***

We return tomorrow with a quarter-by-quarter preview of the WTA Tokyo event, which promises to intrigue from the very first ball struck.  On Sunday or Monday, we will release a shorter post on the key storylines that unfolded in Seoul, Tashkent, Metz, and Bucharest.

A week after the lights turned off at the year’s final major, we assess the five best performers among both the men and the women during the most important eight weeks of the season.  Hoping to be as objective as possible, we ranked both categories solely according to win-loss records.  After each entry, we forecast each player’s performance at the majors in 2011.

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1) Nadal (25-1)

En route to claiming a career Slam, Nadal became the first player in the Open era to win three consecutive majors on three different surfaces.  Most impressively, he regularly elevated his game with the level of his competition, erasing any trace of first-week fallibility with an emphatic second week.  In his three major semifinals and three major finals this year, the Spaniard surrendered just a single set.  Crucially for his confidence, Rafa’s title runs included victories over three of his leading tormentors during his 2009 slide:  Soderling, Murray, and Djokovic.  As he attempts to complete a “Rafa Slam” in Melbourne, his most significant concern might be his knees.  After a similarly spectacular surge in 2008 led to a lean 2009, though, the Mallorcan magician now schedules his appearances more sparingly and heeds the demands of his body more attentively. We expect Nadal to win Roland Garros and one other major in 2011.

2) Federer (20-3)

For the first time since 2004, an entire Slam season passed without a Federer-Nadal collision, and the explanation lay as much in Roger’s decline as in Rafa’s ascendancy.  In all of his Slam losses this year, Federer captured the first set before letting the momentum seep away with uncharacteristically unfocused tennis.  Nevertheless, he lost only to elite foes at this year’s majors  and still intimidates most of his adversaries with the aura of his accomplishments.  Fluid and fearless, his performance in the Australian Open final demonstrated his uncanny ability to summon his best tennis for the grandest stages, while his US Open victory over Soderling showcased his ability to adapt to adverse conditions.  As Nadal begins to encroach upon the GOAT debate, moreover, Federer may shed his complacency and unleash one last majestic surge.  But how much longer can he rely on his reputation to hold off the Fallas of the tour in early rounds, when his competitive desire burns less brightly?  We expect Federer to win one major and suffer one pre-quarterfinal loss in 2011.

3) Djokovic (19-4)

Exiting the Australian Open and Roland Garros with uninspired quarterfinal losses, Djokovic rediscovered his game at Wimbledon and his swagger at the US Open.  At both of the year’s first two majors, he squandered multiple leads before succumbing in five-set epics that exerted too severe a toll upon his fitness.  Nearly upset in the first round at both of the year’s last two majors, the Serb resolutely rallied to survive and then briskly dispatched his next several opponents with seamless, meticulous all-court tennis.  Ever inclined towards the dramatic, Djokovic should seek to replicate this efficiency at future majors in order to preserve his relatively fragile body.  Waxing steadily throughout the summer, his self-belief reached unexpected heights in his US Open semifinal against Federer, arguably the best men’s match of the Slam season.  Although his participation in the Davis Cup final will truncate his offseason, the highly patriotic Serb could gain an additional momentum boost for next year by securing this title for his country.  We expect Djokovic to win one of the hard-court majors in 2011.

4) Murray (16-4) / Tsonga (12-3)

A most unlikely duo, the scowling Scot and the sunny Frenchman alternately dazzled and disappointed their adherents.  Through six rounds in Australia, Murray accumulated stellar statistics and looked likely to capture his first Slam, but these expectations were sharply deflated with his limp performance in the final.  Although equally limp in the semifinals against Federer, Tsonga showcased his athletic brilliance in a blazing five-set shootout with Almagro before somehow finding the energy to outlast Djokovic in another five-setter a round later.  Typically dormant on clay, the Scot and the Frenchman exited Roland Garros without laurels but did reach the second week; in fact, Tsonga attained a bit of distinction as the last member of his nation in the draw.  At Wimbledon, they collided in a memorable quarterfinal that Tsonga probably should have won.  Leading by a set and by a mini-break in the second-set tiebreak, however, he startlingly failed to put away a floating volley and faded thereafter.  That match proved the end of Tsonga’s Slam campaign and might as well have been the end of Murray’s.  After a routine loss to Nadal in the semis, the world #4 endured a second straight first-week loss at the US Open.  (Maybe it’s time to select a new favorite major, Andy.)  We expect Murray to reach two Slam semifinals and Tsonga to reach one Slam semifinal in 2011.

5) Soderling (14-4)

A year after scoring the greatest upset in tennis history, the Swede delivered a worthy sequel by snapping Federer’s Slam semifinal streak.  Few players are more ruthless and seemingly invincible when playing at their best, and a confident Soderling possesses greater belief against the top four than anyone else outside that lofty category.  Throughout their four-set Wimbledon quarterfinal, Rafa looked much more anxious against Robin than the score would have suggested.  So why is Soderling still searching for a first major?  When lacking in confidence, the Swede can lose to anyone, as was illustrated by his first-round loss at the Australian Open and his near first-round loss at the US Open.  Relishing the villain’s role, he may derive greater satisfaction from marquee upsets than from pursuing titles.  As his quarterfinal loss to Federer in New York showed, moreover, he struggles to cope with any external adversity.  We expect Soderling to defeat Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray at a Slam in 2011 without capturing the ultimate prize himself.

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1) Serena (18-1)

Had Serena played the US Open, she might plausibly have matched the 2010 achievements of fellow #1 Nadal.  Winning yet another Australian Open, she displayed her redoubtable survival instincts in escaping a hungry Azarenka in the quarterfinals.  Then, she played the starring role in the year’s most engaging Slam final, which renewed her fierce rivalry with Henin and exposed just enough of her vulnerability to appreciate her willpower.  Even on her least comfortable surface, she nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Stosur before the Aussie rose impressively to the challenge.  Cruising through a largely placid Wimbledon draw, the younger Williams sister faced a set point in only one set and eclipsed the tournament’s previous ace record, set by…Serena Williams.  Relying on sparkling shotmaking and steely focus, her game hasn’t aged nearly as soon as her rivals would hope.  While her schedule has shrunk to a tiny handful of non-majors, her motivation continues to soar during the most important eight weeks of the season.  We expect Serena to win Wimbledon and one hard-court major in 2011.

2) Clijsters (13-2)

Measuring by Slam success, the Belgian already has accomplished more in her second career than in her first.  Clearly most comfortable in North America, she moved seamlessly and constructed points intelligently during her second straight US Open title run.  Particularly impressive was her semifinal win over Venus, in which she steadied her nerves and calmly outmaneuvered the American during the encounter’s climactic stages.  Nevertheless, Kim has yet to win a major outside New York, a fact that will undermine her legacy unless corrected .  Although her victory over archrival Henin at Wimbledon must have provided ample satisfaction, her quarterfinal meltdown against Zvonareva perplexed most observers.  Absent from Roland Garros, the Belgian slumped to an embarrassing loss against an admittedly crisp Petrova at the Australian Open.  More adjusted to her comeback now, she may bring greater intensity to early rounds that may seem inconsequential but can become perilous.  We expect Clijsters to reach two major finals, winning one, and suffer one pre-quarterfinal loss in 2011.

3) Schiavone (14-3)

Transcending her reputation as a fabled Fed Cup warrior, Schiavone lost the first set of her Roland Garros campaign and did not drop another set through the rest of the fortnight.  Unlike so many first-time Slam finalists, she delivered a courageous, flamboyant but not reckless performance in the championship match.  Before that miraculous run, however, the Italian reached the second week of the Australian Open and even won a set from Venus with her textured, unpredictable arsenal.  Still soaked in euphoria after the French Open, Schiavone exited Wimbledon immediately but regrouped more swiftly than one would have expected with a quarterfinal run at the US Open.  Losing to Venus again, this veteran still showed how guile and imagination can trouble even the WTA’s most powerful shotmakers.  Although lightning almost certainly won’t strike twice for the Italian, she seems far from content to fade away into a future of polishing her Roland Garros trophy.  We expect Schiavone to reach at least one major quarterfinal and play at least one scintillating match against a top contender in 2011.

4) Zvonareva/Venus (16-4)

Having reached just one Slam semifinal before this year, the Russian suddenly reached consecutive Slam finals in 2010.  Once affectionately regarded as one of the WTA’s leading head-cases, she was the only woman to reach consecutive finals at any pair of majors this year.  Although Zvonareva won just eight total games in the two finals, her fortnights at Wimbledon and the US Open included victories over Clijsters and Wozniacki, catapulting Vera into a career-high ranking of #4.  Achieving only modest results at the year’s first two majors, she should attempt to consolidate her elevated position with solid performances there before the pressure mounts in the second half.  In a year that witnessed widespread struggles among her more renowned compatriots, Zvonareva represented a ray of hope for Russian tennis.  Meanwhile, Venus suffered no first-week upset at any major and came within a tiebreak of her first US Open final since 2002.  While her erratic serve and forehand ultimately undid her at each Slam, they still can carry her past most opponents on fast surfaces and very nearly carried her past Clijsters in New York.  On the other hand, her alarmingly one-sided loss to Pironkova at Wimbledon probably spelled the end of her grass-court dominance.  We expect both Zvonareva and Venus to reach at least one major semifinal but continue to fall short of a title in 2011.

5) Wozniacki (15-4)

Widely noted for her consistency, the world #2 (nearly world #1) justified that reputation by reaching the second week at every major in 2010.  Reaching  the Roland Garros quarterfinals, Wozniacki demonstrated increased comfort on her least favorite surface in a tense three-set victory over dirt devil Pennetta.  In New York, she responded admirably to the pressure of defending her finals appearance and justifying her top seeding.  Although she fell just short of those lofty goals, the Pole-Dane scored one of the most impressive wins of her career over Sharapova, her first victory over a former #1.  Somewhat concerning, however, was the manner of her losses, which ranged from routine (the hard-court majors) to comprehensive (Roland Garros) to horrific (Wimbledon).  Still just 20, the bubbly blonde should step back for a moment and reset her priorities in order to shield herself from the injuries that already have played a role in her career.  Does chasing a fourth consecutive title in New Haven justify reducing her chances in New York?  We expect Wozniacki to reach a second final at a hard-court Slam in 2011.

***

Later this week, we return with an article on Tomas Berdych, who fell just short of securing a position in the men’s top-five list.  Will the Czech bounce, or can he be cashed?  Analysis to come…

Just days removed from the US Open’s climax, several of its notable performers descend upon Europe for a weekend of intriguing Davis Cup semifinals, saturated with intense personalities and stylistic variety.  We discuss the key players and matchups in the two ties, unfolding the most plausible narratives that might unfold in Lyon and Belgrade:

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Argentina at France:

Without lanky superstar Del Potro for its entire 2010 campaign, the Argentine team may in fact be stronger in his absence, which cloaks the temperamental Nalbandian in the hero’s mantle.  Relishing this role, the infamously “grouchy gaucho” splendidly rose to the occasion during the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Russia, when he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in a weekend that signaled his summer resurgence.  Buttressed by the momentum of his recent exploits on the American hard courts, the former Wimbledon finalist also may suffer from fatigue after the US Open.  Although captain Tito Vazquez will want to conserve Nalbandian’s energy for the singles, he will be tempted to enlist his team’s only hard-court threat for doubles if the tie stays tense; thus, a difficult choice may loom on Saturday.  Cast as supporting actors, the trio of Monaco, Schwank, and Zeballos has accumulated respectable clay-court credentials but should struggle against the French shotmakers on the fast, indoor surface.

Not usually celebrated for teamwork and Davis Cup camaraderie, les bleus countered their reputation during their stunning whitewash of defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals, to which almost the entire squad contributed.  Even Gilles Simon, who didn’t play a live rubber that weekend, enthusiastically supported his compatriots and (tastefully) exhorted the spectators on their behalf.  In the often vital doubles rubber, France enjoys a significant edge with former Wimbledon titlists Clement and Llodra.  Yet captain Guy Forget has gambled by asking Llodra to play three rubbers, including the potentially decisive fifth rubber against Nalbandian.  If Argentina remains in contention until that stage, they would be favored to upset their hosts and advance to their second Davis Cup final in three years.  In order to split the first four rubbers, however, the visitors will need either the doubles rubber or a win from their clay specialists over Monfils or Llodra, both of whom have excelled on fast surfaces and recorded impressive results this summer.  Buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, Monfils might even defeat Nalbandian on Friday and effectively clinch the tie for France.  While the Argentine veteran probably wants a Davis Cup title more than anyone else in Lyon this weekend, the much superior depth and fast-surface talent of the French squad should comprise an insurmountable advantage.

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Czech Republic at Serbia:

Fresh (or not) from his sparkling New York performance, Djokovic opens this tie against a player whom he defeated in two of the last three US Opens.  Extending the Serb to the brink of defeat on the first of those occasions, Stepanek offered little resistance in their second meeting there and has faded dramatically this year.  Reliant on agility and timing, the idiosyncratic Czech has enjoyed extensive Davis Cup success but will struggle to cope with Djokovic’s superior consistency, versatility, and technique.  In the midst of a breakthrough season, Berdych will seek to level the tie against the unpredictable, ever-dangerous Tipsarevic.  Probably invigorated by a first-rubber victory, the Belgrade crowd will seek to fluster the Czech, who hasn’t entirely shed his reputation for mental fragility.  Although Tipsarevic hopes to recapitulate his scintillating upset over Roddick in New York, Berdych should control most rallies with his superior first-strike weaponry and pin the Serb behind the baseline.

Currently listing the unprepossessing duo of Hajek and Minar as his doubles team, Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil almost certainly will substitute Berdych and Stepanek once Saturday arrives.  Superb together in Davis Cup doubles, these singles specialists will confront the slightly odd pairing of Troicki and the perceptibly aging Zimonjic.  While the visitors might well win this battle, they probably will lose the war, for both of Serbia’s singles players will rest on Saturday as the Czech singles players continue their exertions without respite.  Reprising his Wimbledon semifinal with Berdych in the fourth rubber, Djokovic may face the task not of clinching the tie but of ensuring his nation’s survival into a decisive fifth rubber.  Despite his disappointingly passive loss to the world #7 a few months ago, one suspects that the new world #2 would outlast his weary opponent in an encounter of ferocious ball-striking and scintillating shot-making.  Ranked only two slots apart, Stepanek and Tipsarevic have split their two previous encounters and share a propensity for alternating the ridiculous with the sublime.  When so little separates two opponents in a Davis Cup fifth rubber, though, home-court advantage can play a pivotal role.

Davis Cup Final:  France at Serbia

***

Over the weekend, we will return with an article on leading Slam performers in 2010. Who were the top five men and top five women at the year’s four most important tournaments?  As you will find out, we take an extremely objective approach…

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Renowned for spectacular groundstrokes, lithe movement, and competitive ferocity long before this US Open, Nadal’s game had lacked just one dimension:  an imposing serve.  Therefore, it seems especially fitting that he surmounted this final obstacle in his evolution as a player at the same time that he built the final pillar in his Grand Slam pantheon.  Broken just twice in his first six matches, the Spaniard relied upon his delivery to escape most of the predicaments in which he found himself during the final, most notably when he served for the pivotal third set.  Finally earning the free points that always had eluded him on his own serve, Nadal subjected Djokovic and the rest of his victims to constant pressure in their own service games.  In the best-of-five format, even the most relentless competitors will struggle to survive the mental and physical exertions required to protect their serve one grueling rally at a time.  Although Rafa endured a poor break-point conversion rate for most of the championship match, the efficiency of his holds compared with Djokovic’s elongated service games must have psychologically deflated the Serb over the course of four sets.  Moreover, the enhanced serve should play a vital role in Nadal’s longevity by enabling him to progress through early rounds more expeditiously and thus limit the burden upon his knees.

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Mounting inexorably during the fortnight, the world #1’s confidence diffused from the serve to the rest of his game.  Determined to curb his instinctive caution early in rallies, Nadal attacked both forehand and backhand with conviction as soon as opportunities presented themselves.  He positioned himself fearlessly on top of or inside the baseline rather than ceding territory to his opponents on this fast surface as he has in the past.  Casting a skeptical glance towards this triumph, skeptics will note that the Spaniard evaded sluggers including Soderling and Del Potro in addition to recent hard-court nemesis Murray; his pre-final draw couldn’t have been much cozier if Uncle Toni had designed it.  Yet the question remains as to whether even a Soderling or a Del Potro could have withstood the seamless blend of offense and defense anchored by Nadal’s newfound serving might.  While the US Open marks the conclusion of Rafa’s transformation from clay-court magician to all-surface master, it also signals the beginning of his status as one of the sport’s all-time legends.  Setting his accomplishments against those of Federer, in fact, the only category in which he significantly trails his archrival is the sheer volume of major titles won.  Otherwise, he not only has accomplished the career Slam at a younger age but has won three straight majors on three different surfaces and has captured an Olympic gold medal, achievements that Federer probably never will attain.  Although a product of the Spaniard’s precocity might be complacency, one senses that Nadal will continue to motivate himself with ever loftier goals as his career progresses.  If he continues to schedule judiciously and carefully monitor his knees, there’s no reason why GOATs can’t live on Mallorca.

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No longer content to meander through a career as a lovable loser, Djokovic regained his intensity during this US Open and rediscovered the crisp, clean elegance that characterized his game before recent travails.  This resurgence impressed even more than his initial breakthrough in late 2007-early 2008, when fans and commentators first acquainted themselves with a brash upstart unruffled by Federer and Nadal.  Had afternoon shadows not intervened in the fourth set of his New York opener, we might well be lamenting a premature exit at the hands of his compatriot Troicki, who once stood within three service holds of an upset.  Offered the reprieve, Djokovic gradually played his way into the tournament with increasingly authoritative wins against increasingly formidable foes.  Despite his accumulating momentum, few observers (including ourselves) believed that he would threaten Federer in the semifinals, for the five-time champion hadn’t dropped even a set until that stage.  On that Saturday afternoon, however, Djokovic emphatically reasserted his relevance as a contender.

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On at least five occasions in the labyrinthine semifinal, the Djokovic who competed half-heartedly against Federer at last year’s US Open would have succumbed to the seemingly inevitable.  First, when he lost the first set after having held a 4-2 lead and double-faulted to start the second set.  Second, when he lost the third set with a ghastly string of forehand errors as he served to force a tiebreak.  Third, when he failed to break Federer in a multiple-deuce game midway through the fifth set, during which both players displayed uncanny defense and impeccable timing.  (The fifth set surely ranks as the most thrilling single set played at any major this year.)  Fourth, when he slammed an overhead into the net and donated a pair of backhand errors when serving at 4-5.  At this stage, we actually had typed “Completely predictable brain cramp by Djokovic in the last game” on our Twitter page, ready to hit “Tweet”—except that it wasn’t the last game, and what followed wasn’t predictable at all.  In a consummate display of relentless aggression and intelligent shot selection, the Serb defied a crowd hungry for a Federer-Nadal final and snatched the match from his longtime New York nemesis.  Justifiably weary from the physical and mental toll exacted by this breathtaking encounter, Djokovic nevertheless summoned a valiant effort against Nadal in the final and threatened the Spaniard through the first three sets.  After dropping the first set, he rallied vigorously in the second set with shotmaking that occasionally left even Rafa frozen.  When the Serb finally yielded, furthermore, his polished, graceful attitude before and during the trophy ceremony drew deserved praise from his conqueror.  As the Federer-Nadal rivalry fades, an equally dazzling rivalry may rise to replace it.

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While Nadal heads home for a well-merited rest, Djokovic prepares to lead the Serbian Davis Cup team against the Czech Republic.  Will Novak lift his nation to its first World Group final, and who might meet them in November?  A Davis Cup semifinal preview arrives on Thursday…

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A:

Clijsters:  Rewinding from the listless women’s final, the key to her tournament lay in her third-set performances against Stosur and Venus.  Seemingly in control of her quarterfinal with the Australian midway through the second set, Clijsters suddenly dropped serve five times in a row as both women struggled to find their rhythm amidst blustery conditions.  When the break-a-thon reached 3-3 in the decider, however, she summoned the fortitude and determination to eke out those last three precious games.  Similarly threatened after she squandered  a 4-2 third-set lead against Venus a round later, Clijsters again reined in her mind and her shots to deliver her best tennis in the semifinal’s climactic stages.  A trait only occasionally witnessed during her comeback, this resilience under pressure enabled the Belgian to defend a major title for the first time in her career.  Even if she doesn’t win a Slam outside New York, the last twelve months have allowed Clijsters to finally emerge from Henin’s shadow as a formidable competitor and champion.

Zvonareva:  Almost as surprising as her Wimbledon run was its counterpart here, in which Vera didn’t drop a set until the final.  While her draw may have looked less than fearsome, she adapted even more expertly to the adverse conditions than she did in the Indian Wells final a year ago.  Despite this offense-friendly surface, she fused sound tactics with steady execution in intelligently crafted victories over several players with significantly greater first-strike potential than her.  Difficult to thrust off balance, the Russian showcased her skills with virtually every shot and every area of the court, even the forecourt where many of her rivals struggle.  Through six rounds, she overcame a full spectrum of playing styles and established herself as the leading Russian, a status that she clearly values.  While the old, tempestuous Vera returned in the final, she should depart from New York filled with confidence for her 2011 campaign as well as the rewarding sensation of having fulfilled her vast potential.

A-:

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Federer:  On the eve of Super Saturday, he had matched and perhaps surpassed Nadal in the ruthless efficiency of his progress through the draw, which culminated with an emphatic victory over his Roland Garros conqueror.  In the quarterfinal against Soderling, the five-time US Open champion ascended close to the pinnacle of his former glory with pinpoint serving, feathery volleys, and forehand winners of every variety.  Two days later, hubris turned to nemesis when he succumbed to Djokovic for the first time in four US Open meetings.  Mentally absent for much of the second and fourth sets, Federer then became flustered when historically he has been poised; deep in the fifth set, he donated three egregious forehand errors to drop serve and two more on the last two points of the match.  The moral of his puzzling 2010 Slam campaign?  Don’t count him out at majors, but don’t count on him either.

Youzhny:   Over the course of the fortnight, New York fans unexpectedly discovered that the Russian can create a scintillating spectacle when he deploys his racket in the manner for which it was designed.  To be sure, Youzhny didn’t face either of the top two seeds in his section (see below), and his modest albeit graceful game will almost always fall short against the ATP’s current elite.  That said, he seized the opportunity of a benign draw with both hands, a task more demanding than it seems.  Slowly defusing the mighty serves of Isner in an entertaining four-setter, Youzhny displayed impressive resourcefulness as he relentlessly outmaneuvered the American.  In the quarterfinals, his fitness and tenacity shone brightly in a five-set epic against Wawrinka, during which he twice rallied from deficits.  A strong performer in the 2009 fall season, he’ll be a notable dark horse again this year.

Wozniacki:  During her breakthrough performance against Sharapova, the ugly, “pushing” duckling from the land of Hans Christian Andersen turned into a swan on the largest arena in the sport.  There, the world #2 resolutely shouldered the burden associated with her top seeding to record arguably the most impressive single victory of her career.  When the Russian launched an inevitable late charge, her 20-year-old conqueror firmly refused to be intimidated by the occasion or the opponent.  Two rounds later, the swan turned back into an ugly duckling with a ghastly, wind-addled loss to Zvonareva, whom she had dominated just weeks before in the Montreal final.  Before winning a maiden major, Wozniacki still must add just a few more ounces of baseline aggression, but coveted Slam glory now lies within her reach.

Venus:  A tiebreak away from her first US Open final since 2002, the elder Williams imploded in spectacular fashion and played from behind for the rest of the semifinal.  Before that fateful tiebreak, however, Venus served stunningly and found just enough lines with her forehand to suffocate the defending champion.  A round earlier against Schiavone, moreover, she refused to let the WTA’s craftiest artisan derail her high-precision, high-risk groundstrokes at key moments.  Perhaps psychologically aided by the absence of her sister, Venus exceeded expectations considering that she entered the tournament with no hard-court practice at all. Her dress, on the other hand,…

French Open women’s finalists:  First-round losers at Wimbledon, Stosur and Schiavone rediscovered themselves much earlier than most observers had anticipated.  Reaching the quarterfinals on a surface alien to her style, the Italian routed a series of credible opponents before sternly testing Venus in two extremely tight sets.  (She also receives additional points for replicating Federer’s between-the-legs trick shot.)  If Schiavone continues to perform at this level, the American Fed Cup team will need at least one of the Williams sisters in order to capture the title from Italy.  Rebounding from a mysterious shoulder issue, the Australian rallied from the brink of defeat in her opener to compile a confidence-boosting run headlined by the match of the women’s tournament, a nail-biting victory over Dementieva.  Since Stosur never had advanced past the second round in previous US Opens, her fortnight illustrated the immense strides that she has accomplished in the past year.  Can she handle the pressure of competing before an Australian fan base starved for a home champion?  We can’t wait to find out.

B+:

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Soderling:  Despite an opening-round wobble, the Swede reached his third consecutive Slam quarterfinal and second straight US Open quarterfinal.  Thrashing future star de Bakker before patiently chipping away at Montanes’ defense, he displayed consistency as well as focus and determination.  Much less impressive was his quarterfinal performance against Federer, during which Soderling never seriously challenged the second seed after squandering break points in the Swiss legend’s opening service game.  Irritated by linespeople and the gusts that swirled around Arthur Ashe, the Swede showed traces of the brittleness that undermined him against elite opponents before 2009.  Nevertheless, his fortnight dramatically improved upon his limp performances of the past few tournaments, restoring him to the conversation for the fall indoor season that he relishes.

Kanepi:  Unlike fellow Wimbledon surprises Kvitova and Pironkova, the Estonian continued her journey into relevance with another upset over Jankovic and an even more impressive win over the rising Wickmayer.  Fed a bagel in the first set of that encounter, Kanepi revealed noteworthy grittiness by battling back to win the second set in a tiebreak before coasting through the third set.  Fickle gusts and a smart, experienced opponent frustrated her in the quarterfinals, yet consider how far she has progressed since qualifying for Roland Garros.  While Kanepi’s game is not the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasurable to watch, she has vastly improved her footwork and shot selection, from which she now is reaping well-deserved rewards.

Cibulkova:  Toppling 2004 champion and San Diego titlist Kuznetsova in the final sixteen, she was the only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals in either the men’s or the women’s draw.  A former Roland Garros semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak relied on her low center of gravity and seamless movement to unhinge the far more powerful Russian.  While Cibulkova’s inescapable physical limitations will prevent her from contending for major titles, she’s as ready as anyone to punish an erratic shotmaker.  Credit new coach Zeljko Krajan (of Safina fame/notoriety) for her welcome resurgence.

Wawrinka:  After falling meekly to Murray here two years ago, the Swiss #2 boldly attacked his occasional practice partner from the outset of their third-round encounter.  Aided by former Federer coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka then outlasted Querrey in a rollercoaster five-setter that demonstrated not only his enhanced baseline aggression but a newfound determination.  It can’t be easy to share both a profession and a passport with Federer, but New York fans could observe that Belgium isn’t the only tiny country with more than one tennis talent.

Verdasco:  Leading by a break seven games into his quarterfinal with Nadal, he crumbled in familiar fashion with a cascade of characteristic ineptitude, from consecutive double faults to an overhead that sailed several rows into the crowd.  Before that match, though, the flamboyant Spaniard obtained satisfying revenge over Wimbledon nemesis Fognini, stifled summer sensation Nalbandian, and rallied from a two-set deficit against indefatigable compatriot Ferrer.  Trailing 4-2 in the final set of that match and 4-2 in the final-set tiebreak, the eighth seed mustered an improbable burst of energy to win the last five points of their epic encounter.  Spectators won’t remember his 90 unforced errors as long as they remember the last winner that he hit:  an electrifying forehand passing shot that curled around a frozen Ferrer as Verdasco sprawled on the court in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.

B:

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Ivanovic:  Building upon her startling Cincinnati run, the stylish Serb comprehensively dominated three quality opponents, including past tormentor Zheng Jie.  Comprehensively dominated herself by Clijsters in the fourth round, Ivanovic left New York having moved another step forward in her winding road back to the top.  While her shot selection still puzzled at times, her backhand and return of serve looked crisper than they have since 2008, while her forays towards the net reaped regular rewards.

Sharapova:  For the second straight major, she fell to top seed in the fourth round in a valiant effort marred by untimely double faults.  If Sharapova seeks to add another Slam to her trio of titles, she must be able to rely on her serve as an asset rather than compensating for it as a weakness; at the moment, however, it’s uncertain whether this concern can be permanently resolved.  On the other hand, her competitive fearlessness remains undimmed, she adapted surprisingly well to the windy conditions, and her two-outfit ensemble dazzled as much as the explosive groundstroke winners that she still can crack at will from anywhere on the court.  Whether Sharapova wins or loses, her flair for the dramatic and the audacious provide greater entertainment value than many of her higher-ranked, less flamboyant colleagues.

Dementieva:  Having experienced nearly every flavor of heartbreak by now, Elena battled tooth and nail with Stosur in the most compelling women’s match of the tournament.  True to her familiar patterns, she ultimately snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but she deserves credit for continuing to compete with unflinching resolve despite her endless series of past disappointments.  If she ends her career as the best player of her generation never to win a major, it won’t be for lack of effort or desire.

Gasquet/Monfils:  Ever the consummate entertainers, these two Frenchmen delighted the New York crowd with inspired, often surreal shotmaking.  After a lengthy arid spell at majors, Gasquet returned to the second week with a resounding upset over Davydenko, which he consolidated with an authoritative win over quirky South African giant Kevin Anderson.  When the former prodigy fell to his compatriot in the final sixteen, however, Gael noted Richard’s preference for form over function and style over substance as well as his struggle to cope with pressure or adverse conditions.  Ironically, the same description fit Monfils himself perfectly in his loss to Djokovic a round later.  More concerned with the journey than the destination, these Frenchmen lack the motivation or concentration to contend for key titles, yet the first weeks of majors would be duller without them.

Nalbandian:  Entering the tournament, a trendy topic of discussion concerned not whether the enigmatic Argentine would reach a quarterfinal with Nadal but how severely he would test Rafa once he reached their rendezvous.  We never found out, as Nalbandian nearly crashed out to the anonymous Rik de Voest in his opener and mustered little resistance against a mortal-looking Verdasco in the third round.  In the twilight of his career, the best-of-five format clearly burdens his fragile body and mind with excessive pressure.

B-:

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Jankovic:  Nearly dragging Serena into the third set during their 2008 final here, the Serb has won just three total matches in her last two appearances at the US Open and has never been quite herself since the controversy surrounding her short-lived status as #1.  Once able to wear down all but the most relentless offenses on any surface, Jankovic now struggles against even standard-issue aggressors on surfaces other than clay or the slowest of hard courts.  Although she will continue to challenge at Roland Garros, her decline should serve as a cautionary tale to Wozniacki and other rising players with a similar affinity for counterpunching.

Kuznetsova:  While we didn’t consider Sveta  a serious title contender, we expected a modestly noteworthy from the San Diego champion and Montreal semifinalist, bolstered by a new coach.  Having led Cibulkova in both sets of their fourth-round encounter, she still found ways to lose to an opponent ranked barely inside the top 50 and whose game is far less suited to the fast courts in New York.  Perhaps she should consider the example of her compatriot Zvonareva, much less athletically talented but much more sturdy in the muscle that matters most.  (Hint:  it’s inside the skull.)

Davydenko:  After he sagged to a listless defeat against Gasquet, he said that he was discarding all of his rackets and equipment in order to have a completely fresh start.  It’s certainly needed after a summer that effectively erased his momentum from his heroics in late 2009 and early 2010, but regrettably the clock is ticking on this scintillating veteran.

American men:  Hobbled by an ankle injury, Isner nevertheless competed valiantly during his third-round loss to Youzhny, which is more than can be said of his compatriots.  Preoccupied with distinguishing his right foot from his left, Roddick ponderously plodded to a second-round exit against the sprightly Tipsarevic.  Despite the exhortations of thousands of his countrymen, Blake failed to recapture any shreds of his former New York magic during a routine loss to Djokovic; a round later, Fish showed little spark or backbone against the Serb, who looked vulnerable early in the tournament.  The last home hope, Querrey flirted tantalizingly with reaching a first career Slam quarterfinal before lethargically succumbing to the more versatile and—critically—more intense Wawrinka.

C:

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Murray:  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by mighty sluggers such as Soderling or Del Potro, one can understand.  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by the not-so-mighty Wawrinka, we have a problem.  Like Sharapova’s serve, this issue may not lie within the power (haha) of the Scot to resolve, but flattening his forehand and staying closer to the baseline would be essential steps towards winning the maiden major that once seemed inevitable.

Berdych:  When was the last time that an ATP player reached the Wimbledon final and exited the US Open without winning a set?  Just as it seemed that the Czech had conquered his inner demons and had crossed the threshold of realizing his potential, he Czeched out again against the admittedly surging Llodra (yet another of those entertaining, enigmatic Frenchmen).

Mother Nature:  Not content to co-star in a commercial with Serena, she felt compelled to interfere in match after match on Arthur Ashe by unleashing unexpected gusts from all directions.  The fickle wind played mischievously with the balls and the minds of the players, creating curious exercises in improvisation rather than meticulously constructed points.  Among its most prominent victims were Soderling and Wozniacki, but a host of players found themselves forced to eschew precise shot-making for the not-so-simple objective of keeping the ball in the court.  Nevertheless, the wind’s merry mayhem did lead to some attractive and atmospheric tableaux:

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***

Did anyone seem strangely absent from this article?  Tomorrow, we return with a more extensive look at the best of the best, the two players who received an A+ from their exploits at the final Slam of 2010.

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As Saturday careened from Soporific to Super to Super-Soporific, one could only wonder what the final Sunday of the Slam season might hold.  At the center of this conundrum stands Novak Djokovic, who boldly shattered anticipations of a Federer-Nadal final with his most stunning Slam performance since the 2008 Australian Open, or perhaps ever.  Reigniting the rivalry with Rafa that witnessed such epics as the 2009 Madrid semifinal, Novak displayed greater physical endurance and mental fortitude against Federer than all but his most ardent supporters could have expected.  In stark contrast with the Serb’s three previous clashes against the Swiss here was the plotline that unfolded during the climactic stages of their 2010 meeting.  Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fifth set, all initially went according to the projected script; a fragile Djokovic shanked an overhead, floated a pair of aimless backhands, and rapidly found himself facing two match points.  But the match turned almost at that instant as he unleashed a series of ferocious forehands to save the first match point and then a spine-tinglingly audacious bomb that left Federer flat-footed on the second match point.  Visibly and understandably disconcerted, the five-time champion surrendered his service game with little ado, yet one more test remained.  When Djokovic served for one of the most important victories of his career, he saved a predictable break point with another confident forehand and then patiently outlasted Federer in a 21-shot exchange on match point.

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Whether or not the Serb seizes the ultimate prize tomorrow, this victory signals a second breakthrough and the end of a protracted “sophomore slump.”  Saving further thoughts on that topic until the tournament recap, however, we turn our attention towards his potential fortunes against Nadal.  The victor in seven of his ten hard-court clashes with the Spaniard, Djokovic has dominated him as much as anyone dominates Rafa on any surface.  None of those meetings occurred in majors, however, where the third seed never has conquered the world #1.  Just as importantly, Nadal has won all of the finals that they have played and all of their clashes at majors in addition to their semifinal at the Beijing Olympics two years ago.  Balancing the surface advantage for the Serb, therefore, is the indisputable fact that Rafa remains the superior competitor at the most critical stages of the most critical tournaments.  Throughout their compelling rivalry, Djokovic has delivered some of his most breathtaking, fearless offense against the Spaniard, which in turn has showcased his opponent’s legendary counterpunching and retrieving talents.  In order to capture his second major, the Serb should build upon the adrenaline burst from his epic triumph on Saturday and seek to establish an early lead.  The third seed will need to target lines and corners with a precision equal to his shot-making in the semifinal, but the fast surface will reward him more than almost all of the other courts where he has dueled with Nadal.  Beyond ordinary fatigue, his greatest enemy may be complacency after deposing the monarch whose throne he long has coveted and who was his New York nemesis until this weekend.  If he doesn’t intend to content himself with that accomplishment, he must cede no territory and stand firmly on top of the baseline, pounding his inside-out forehand and two-handed backhand into Nadal’s forehand corner.  Functioning reliably for Murray in Toronto, that tactic exposes the Spaniard’s backhand corner, towards which his movement is slightly less seamless.

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Despite his hard-court record against Djokovic, Nadal enters this final as the clear if not prohibitive favorite, an unusual position for him to occupy in the championship match of a non-clay major.  Confronting the pressure of completing a career Slam (or “career Golden Slam,” in fact), the top seed has enjoyed a far smoother draw than the Serb and has faced nobody more intimidating than Verdasco.  A sudden upward spike in competition did not trouble the Spaniard at Roland Garros this year, but we’ll be curious to note whether he starts the final a little flat before finding his range.  Aware of his opponent’s probable physical and emotional fatigue, Nadal surely will attempt to prolong the rallies early in the match.  Undefeated against Djokovic in a best-of-five format, the world #1 knows that a lost first set might not prove fatal if he ensures that the Serb expends considerable energy in securing it.  On the other hand, Rafa has dropped serve just twice in six matches this week and will not succumb to the pressure of Novak’s sparkling return as easily as he did when his serve constituted just a point-starting shot.  Content to play defense in most of their previous meetings, Nadal should attempt to dictate a greater proportion of the points this time, not only because of the speedier court but to send a message to Djokovic.  If he knows that his adversary will pounce upon opportunities to transition from defense to offense, the Serb will sense greater pressure and attempt riskier gambits in order to avoid surrendering the initiative.  From a psychological perspective, Nadal’s unglamorous but undemanding task is to maintain his bulletproof intensity from point to point as rigorously as his physicality, staying alert for the sporadic lulls into which Djokovic almost surely will stagger.  One of the most opportunistic players in the sport, the Spaniard is ideally suited to that mission and should become the first player since Rod Laver to win three consecutive majors in the same calendar year.

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No, the final won’t be Federer-Nadal, and the US Open probably never will witness an episode of “the greatest rivalry in sports.”  What it will witness tomorrow, though, might well be more intriguing than anything that the weary albeit classic Fedal saga could provide in its twilight stage.  New York always has been a city of the present rather than the past, and this concluding collision eschews the sepia nostalgia of Rafa-Roger for the neon swagger of Rafa-Novak.  Few conclusions could be better suited to the biggest, loudest, brightest Slam of all.

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