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Vying for the vast pot of gold on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Wozniacki and Clijsters reprise their collision in the 2009 US Open final.  That match produced a scoreline less intriguing than its events would suggest, for the Dane came within a few points of winning the first set and tested the Belgian in a series of elongated rallies.  Slightly more poised when the US Open title hung in the balance, Clijsters hopes to reproduce that performance in Doha, but she faces a more mature and determined edition of Wozniacki this time.

Why Clijsters might win:  Entering only seven previous hard-court tournaments this year, the Belgian nevertheless won four titles on her favorite surface.  En route to the winner’s podium in Brisbane, Miami, Cincinnati, and New York, she overcame such luminaries as Henin (twice), Venus (twice), and Sharapova. In 2010, Clijsters has won not only all four of her finals but all nine of her meetings with opponents who have held the #1 ranking.     Intriguingly, each of Kim’s hard-court losses this year came against Russians (Petrova, Kleybanova, Zvonareva), so perhaps Wozniacki should consider changing her passport. Moreover, the Belgian seems unruffled by any potential off-court distractions, whether the absence of her family or the car accident just before her semifinal.  Playing just well enough to win for much of the week, the world #3 probably recognizes that little lies at stake for her here; a second title at the season-ending event adds little of consequence to the resume of a three-time Slam champion.  Rather than sapping her motivation, this circumstance should allow Clijsters to find the relaxed, flowing brand of tennis that she displays when at her best.  Not a devotee of drama like Serena and Sharapova or an acolyte of artistry like Henin, Kim functions most effectively when she keeps her emotions at bay.  Like most of Wozniacki’s opponents, she must balance patient point construction with aggressively stepping inside the baseline at opportune moments.  Unlike most of Wozniacki’s opponents, however, Clijsters possesses the ideal set of tools to solve this riddle, especially the lithe and explosive moment that alloss her to transition so swiftly from defense to offense.

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Why Wozniacki might win:  In contrast to her opponent, the world #1 can augment her reputation as much as her bank account with a title at the most important non-major on the calendar.  Although she can’t silence her critics until she captures a Slam, the Dane would deliver a compelling statement of intent by conquering the reigning US Open champion.  Having won six consecutive finals, Wozniacki has accumulated much more experience in championship matches—and consequently greater self-belief—than she had when she met Clijsters at the US Open a year ago.  Extended to three sets in her last two title tilts, she responds more resolutely to adversity than she did in that match, when she faltered slightly after the disappointment of losing the first set.  Somewhat fortunate to escape the first set of her semifinal against Zvonareva, Wozniacki has distributed four breadsticks and a bagel this week against three top-10 opponents.  While Clijsters has unleashed her share of aces in Doha, she won’t serve the Dane off the court as did Stosur.  The 20-year-old #1 can settle into baseline rallies and establish a groundstroke rhythm, aware that this match should feature plentiful service breaks.  Since their 2009 US Open clash, moreover, the Dane has elevated her own delivery into a more imposing weapon instead of simply a point-starting shot.  Her backhand has evolved into the equal of her opponent’s renowned two-hander, and she has forced herself against her instincts to strike some forehands with less spin and more conviction.   If she can generate aggression from that wing as well as from her backhand, she can mentally outlast Clijsters in a war of attrition.

***

Previews will proliferate on the blog next week (Bali, Fed Cup final, Paris Indoors), but first we rewind the most memorable moments of the 2008 Olympic gold medalist.

 

 

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Whether thundering or tiptoeing past the pitfalls distinct to the round-robin format, the top three women in the world join a plucky Australian in the Doha semifinals.  Who will edge one step closer to claiming the largest single paycheck in the sport?

Stosur vs. Clijsters:

Winless in four career meetings against Clijsters, the Australian fell to the Belgian during the latter’s title runs this year at Miami and the US Open.  Nevertheless, Stosur edged progressively closer to snapping the skid in New York, where she not only won a set from the defending champion but held multiple leads in the final set.  During the first two matches of her Doha debut, the Maroon Group winner recalled the explosive serve-forehand combinations that she regularly unleashed during the first half of the season.  Neither the quirky Schiavone nor the methodical Wozniacki could trouble Stosur on her serve after she recovered from an inauspicious opening to her first match.  Just as encouraging to her fans was the Aussie’s success in converting the few break points that she obtained on the world #1’s serve.  In a fraught clash with Dementieva, however, traces of frailty resurfaced as she failed to close out a straight-sets victory and staggered under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak.  At the US Open, Stosur’s serve (and, seemingly, her nerve) abandoned her when the Belgian’s mid-match ineptitude opened a pathway to a spectacular upset.   Suddenly unable to hold, the Aussie allowed Clijsters as many lives as a cat.  Yet their New York encounter occurred in the aftermath of a tepid summer for Stosur, whereas this clash will unfold at a moment when her self-belief should approach pre-Wimbledon heights.

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Idle since defending her US Open title, Clijsters settled somewhat tentatively into the week with a win over Jankovic that featured ten double faults.  The deceptively one-sided scoreline thus illustrated the Serb’s stutters as much as the Belgian’s brilliance.  In a three-set victory over the tempestuous Azarenka, moreover, the world #3 struggled to convert opportunities to finish the match in straight sets and profited from yet another third-set meltdown by the Belarussian.  While her loss to Zvonareva may have boosted the Russian’s confidence (see below), one suspects that Clijsters felt little urgency to win an essentially meaningless encounter.  But can she banish that complacency overnight?  Surely aware of her commanding head-to-head against Stosur, she should enter their semifinal confident that she can end the Aussie’s season.  If Clijsters rises to the level that she displayed late in the US Open, she should prevail as the more versatile, nuanced, and athletic player.  If she continues to wobble through adventurous service games, though, Stosur might connect with just enough timely returns to cement her breakthrough 2010 campaign with another head-turning triumph.

Zvonareva vs. Wozniacki:

The ultra-steady Dane faces the ultra-streaky Russian for the fifth time this year but for the first time during their respective tenures at #1 and #2.  Splitting her six previous collisions with Wozniacki, Zvonareva conquered her when they met in the US Open semifinal, a routine result that startled most observers.  Clearly fond of this tournament, the Russian reached the final of its 2008 edition without dropping a match and has lost just three of her last fifteen matches in the Persian Gulf state.  The most impressive performer of the round-robin stage, she efficiently dismantled the doomed Jankovic and delivered a poised performance to overcome a determined effort by Azarenka.  During the latter match, the Russian rallied from an early deficit before shrugging off an untimely double fault in the first-set tiebreak, the type of error that once would have ignited a match-turning tantrum from her.  Having not lost a set this week, Vera will have gained confidence from recapturing the momentum in her mini-rivalry with Clijsters after her crushing defeat in the US Open final.  Although she succumbed to Wozniacki in the Beijing final, Zvonareva extended that match to a third set with artful tactics that included targeting the Dane’s forehand corner.  Likely to craft a similarly thoughtful plan here, the Russian must adhere to it through adversity as she did in New York rather than retreating into passivity as she did in Beijing.

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Charting an oddly circuitous course to the semifinals, the world #1 initiated proceedings by overwhelming a listless Dementieva.  Nestled in the more placid group, Wozniacki seemed likely at that stage to reach the semifinals without much ado, but she looked fallible in failing to convert a single break point on Stosur’s serve.  Flustered in the first set against Schiavone, the 20-year-old suddenly found herself within a set of elimination before halting the Italian’s momentum in its tracks. Having escaped that ignominious fate, Wozniacki now stands within two victories of buttressing her controversial ranking upon the most significant title of her career.  Even at the end of an exhausting season, she should approach this weekend with ample motivation.  When Caro confronted Vera here last year, moreover, she overcame a melodramatic bout of cramping to battle past the Russian; on the other hand, Zvonareva comprises a much more imposing challenge now than she did then.  As a result of their Beijing meeting, the momentum in their blossoming rivalry rests squarely in Wozniacki’s corner.  Yet the momentum in this tournament lies just as firmly with Zvonareva.  Which context will prove more relevant on Saturday?

***

We return to preview the Doha final tomorrow while casting preliminary thoughts towards a Dementieva tribute to be published next week.

Filled with beguiling sequences such as Ivanovic scampering through the Pantheon, the WTA’s “Looking for a Hero” commercial promoted the 2008 edition of the opulent but often maligned year-end championships.  Ironically, though, the advertising campaign underscored the Tour’s most glaring weakness, the power vacuum atop its rankings that has produced seven different #1s in the last two and a half years.  As 2010 lurches to a conclusion, the search for a hero continues…

Maroon Group:

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Wozniacki:  Having won four of her last five tournaments and 23 of her last 24 matches, the world #1 enters Doha with maximum momentum.  But will fatigue settle into her game as it did when she last attempted to win three consecutive titles, at the US Open?  Wozniacki finds herself in the more comfortable section and theoretically should defeat all of her round-robin opponents, thus assuring herself the year-end #1 ranking.  Not until the semifinals can she encounter Clijsters, Jankovic, or Zvonareva, the three players here with relatively recent success against her at key events.  In last year’s edition, Wozniacki outlasted Azarenka in an epic duel and heroically battled through leg cramps to defeat Zvonareva before retiring in the semifinals against Serena.  Unless she faces Clijsters in that round this year, she’ll probably improve upon her 2009 performance.

Schiavone:  A member of the “elite eight” for the first time in her career, the Roland Garros champion certainly can threaten away from clay.  She defeated all of her round-robin opponents en route to that improbable major title, but she hasn’t defeated any of them anywhere else and has lost to both Wozniacki and Dementieva during the second half.  On the other hand, Schiavone enters Doha healthier than many of her rivals, while she rises to the occasion more confidently than the Aussie and the Russian in her group.  Moreover, she avoids the two players here who have completely baffled her in the past, Clijsters (0-11) and Zvonareva (0-10).  A key intangible in her situation, the Fed Cup final looms just a week after this event concludes.  At the core of that inspired Italian team, Schiavone may let her thoughts drift towards a competition that means more to her than it does to most WTA stars.  Yet she remains one of the most opportunistic players on the Tour, and opportunity knocks loudly in this group.

Stosur:  During the first half, the Aussie looked likely to establish herself in the top 5 with a serve-forehand combination among the best in the WTA.  After losing a Roland Garros final that she probably should have won, though, diffident play and a mysterious arm injury undermined her second half.  Although she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open with a tense, thrilling victory over group-mate Dementieva, one wonders how she will respond to meeting Schiavone for the first time since Paris.  Despite that US Open achievement, Stosur exited prematurely from all of her Asian tournaments and has not reached a semifinal since Stanford.  Unless the Aussie rediscovers the confidence that recently has eluded her, it’s hard to see her snapping that streak in her debut appearance at the singles event here.  After collecting herself during the offseason, Stosur should return with renewed purpose in 2011.

Dementieva:  Since the WTA instituted the eight-player draw in 2003, the star-crossed Russian has reached the semifinals just once in six appearances, compiling a 3-12 record in round-robin play.  Somewhat understandably, Dementieva hasn’t voiced much enthusiasm lately for the event, and she withdrew from last week’s tournament in Luxembourg with a foot inflammation.  But her balanced groundstroke game should suit the medium-speed hard courts in Doha; in fact, she defeated 2008 champion and 2009 finalist Venus there last year.  In 2010, Dementieva has engaged in tightly contested encounters with everyone in this group, suggesting that she will have a chance to win each of her round-robin battles.  Less promising for the Russian’s fans is her recent trend of falling painfully short in those encounters, including losses in third-set tiebreaks to both Wozniacki and Stosur.  Nevertheless, she defeated Schiavone in both of their hard-court meetings this year and has enjoyed a far stronger fall than Stosur, including an outstanding run to the Tokyo final.

Semifinalists:  Wozniacki, Dementieva

White Group:

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Zvonareva: The blue-eyed, ever-brooding #2 achieved the improbable feat of reaching two finals in Doha during the same year (2008), which witnessed the last edition of the regular-season event and the first edition of the year-end championships.  Vera being Vera, she lost both of those finals in angst-ridden fashion, a trend that has dogged her in 2010.  During last year’s edition of this event, moreover, Zvonareva watched with a mixture of shock and pity as Wozniacki hobbled helplessly around the court…and still managed to overcome the Russian.  Having won the first nine sets that she played against Azarenka, she surrendered the momentum in that mini-rivalry at the Australian Open but may have recaptured it at the Rogers Cup.  Most significantly, Zvonareva remains the only player to defeat Clijsters on a hard court since March and demonstrated at Wimbledon that she could conquer the Belgian on the grandest stage of all, as long as it isn’t a final.  But will the possibility of becoming the year-end #1 weigh heavily on her shoulders?

Clijsters:  The only hard-court Slam champion in Doha, Clijsters has lost just one match on this surface since Indian Wells.  Seemingly recovered from her own foot troubles, she entered no tournaments during the post-US Open season and thus arrives at the year-end championships fresh albeit perhaps a bit rusty.  The round-robin format will allow Kim to rid herself of rust without dire consequences, although she finds herself in the distinctly thornier group.  Dominant against Zvonareva before her comeback, she has dropped two of three meetings this year with the world #2, while she split her two clashes with Azarenka.  After winning the season finale in 2003, Clijsters performed reasonably well but not brilliantly in her last two appearances there.  Outside the US Open, her level at top tournaments has veered from the fantastic (Miami, Cincinnati) to the feckless (Australian Open, Indian Wells).  Will the absence of her family affect the Belgian, who appeared to draw emotional support from their presence at previous tournaments?

Jankovic: An apparent clay pigeon in a section with three avid sharpshooters, the Serb has won just eight matches since the clay season.  Jankovic owes her appearance here to sterling performances in Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, but she has struggled with a characteristic concatenation of injuries and illnesses during the second half.  While she can be most dangerous when most discounted, JJ has vanquished just two top-10 players this year (Kuznetsova, Wozniacki) and probably will need to double that total within three matches in order to advance.  In her last two appearances at the year-end championships, Jankovic did reach the semifinals before falling to Venus on both occasions.  Note that the Serb lost to Zvonareva here in 2008 and Azarenka here in 2009, however.

Azarenka: Having captured her second title of 2010 on Sunday, Vika seeks to finish an sporadically dazzling but generally disappointing season.  When she has gained momentum in recent months, Azarenka has almost invariably fallen flat on her face in the next tournament (sometimes literally).  In 2009, she edged within a few games of a semifinal berth after dismantling Jankovic and dominating the first half of her match against Wozniacki, but she let the opportunity slip away and then retired against Radwanska a match later.  Faced with a more daunting challenge this time, Azarenka must defeat one of the top three players in the world in order to emerge from her group.  Yet it’s not an impossible mission for a swaggering competitor who has conquered every Slam champion that she has played except Venus and seems perpetually poised for a breakthrough.

Semifinalists:  Zvonareva, Clijsters

***

Eight aspiring empresses, one set of imperial robes.  Can anyone wear them as regally as Ana?

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For the third time in just over two years, a Slam-less #1 hovers above the volatile WTA rankings.  Stemming the waves of scorn that routinely sweep across such players, we consider a few factors that might bolster the Great Dane’s newfound grandeur.

1) She has shone at the top WTA events: If one combines the Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments to create a “super-tier” of events, Wozniacki led the Tour in capturing three of the nine most important titles on the calendar outside the majors.  In 2010, the Dane became the only player to win one Premier Mandatory event and reach the final of another (Beijing, Indian Wells), while she also was the only player to win more than one Premier Five event.  Excluding the clay season, in fact, the new #1 reached at least the quarterfinals in six of seven hard-court Premier Mandatory and Premier Five events, a feat likewise unequaled by her rivals.  When Wozniacki gained the #1 ranking, she had won three consecutive Premier Mandatory/Premier Five tournaments.  Therefore, her rise to the top spot accompanied a sensational second-half surge at marquee tournaments with prestigious player fields.  Although the Dane continues to feast upon the Copenhagens and New Havens of the world, her diet extends well beyond them.

2) She knows how to compete in finals: Not just a serial semifinalist and finalist, Wozniacki has won her last six championship matches.  To be sure, the title tilts in Ponte Vedra Beach, Copenhagen, and New Haven bear few (if any) implications for the player who defeated Govortsova, Zakopalova, and Petrova at those events.  Yet Wozniacki’s victories over Zvonareva and Dementieva in Canada, Tokyo, and Beijing revealed dimensions in which this 20-year-old trumps many of her older, equally talented peers. At the Rogers Cup, she responded with consummate poise to the challenge of playing the semifinal and final not only in one day but on a Monday, a situation that clearly flustered opponents Kuznetsova and Zvonareva.  In the Tokyo final, she rebounded from a horrific first set during which she hit no winners at all, edging herself into the contest and patiently chipping away at Dementieva’s ever-brittle mind.  When the battleground shifted across the Sea of Japan, Wozniacki stayed confident and consistent in her tactics after losing the second set to Zvonareva.  Fortified with her self-belief, the Dane outlasted an opponent who drifted away from her own strategies as the final neared its climax.

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3) She can play with any Slam champion: Although many observers might imagine otherwise, an 18-year-old Wozniacki severely tested Serena when they met in Sydney just two weeks before the American won the 2009 Australian Open.  The 13-time major champion found herself forced to save three match points on that occasion before eking out a third-set tiebreak.  Against Henin at this year’s Miami tournament, Wozniacki rallied to win a first-set tiebreak after the Belgian had served for the first set.  Despite eventually losing that match, she competed resiliently throughout all three sets and compelled Henin to muster some of the most focused, fearless tennis of her comeback.  A few months later, Wozniacki finally scored that first victory over a Slam champion on a major stage by defusing Sharapova at the US Open.  And, when she reached her maiden Slam final in New York last year, she didn’t embarrass herself as have so many fellow arrivistes.  Had Wozniacki collected a few more key points late in the first set of that clash with Clijsters, the debate over yet another Slam-less #1 might never have occurred.  Still just 20, she has ample time to learn how to win those points in the future.

4) Beware of Major Myopia: Tennis aficionados should hesitate to trivialize the non-Slams too contemptuously.  If one claims that only eight weeks in a 44-week season matter, one verges upon diminishing the status of the sport overall—as well as the status of the WTA, which doesn’t operate the majors.  Conversely, would Schiavone seem a more compelling #1 than Wozniacki?  Using Slam titles as the only criterion for determining #1, the Italian trumps the Dane, but few observers would consider her a superior player overall.  By focusing upon majors to the exclusion of all other credentials, however, one rewards unpredictable anomalies like Schiavone over consistent performers like Wozniacki.  The Dane’s laudable commitment to the Tour and its Roadmap represents a model that the WTA would much prefer to witness from its rising stars.

5) What does #1 actually signify? Derived from a 12-month period of performance, the top ranking doesn’t identify the best player on any given day.  If such were the case, Aravane Rezai and Martinez Sanchez would have captured it during the clay season.  Rather than a forward-looking predictor, #1 constitutes a retrospective measuring device that defines the woman who has compiled the steadiest, most predictable sequence of tournaments over the preceding year.  Since the current WTA culture glorifies individuality and hence unpredictability or idiosyncrasy, the top ranking no longer carries the same value that it once did.  On the other hand, Wozniacki’s determination to defy the flux around her testifies to a stubbornness that has characterized legions of Slam champions.  Before many more majors pass, this 20-year-old Dane seems likely to join their ranks.

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***

We return at the start of next week with a preview of the Doha field, which has shifted as much as the desert sands.

As a lull in both calendars approaches, we rewind the week in Shanghai and two WTA International events…

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1) Nadal is still human on hard courts…somewhat: Unnoticed by all but the most ardent fans, Rafa’s bizarre loss to compatriot Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok presaged his upset by Melzer in Shanghai.  Struggling to break his opponent’s serve on both occasions, the Spaniard fell to two players well beyond the orbit of his typical nemeses.  Before he acquired the Tokyo title a week ago, an unexpectedly inspired Troicki came within a point of ousting him from their semifinal there.  (What an excellent fall it’s proved for Serbia!) These two losses and one near-loss restore a bit of reality to Nadal’s situation, reminding us of his fallibility on this surface when he falls short of his electrifying best.  But it’s difficult to imagine Garcia-Lopez or Melzer defeating the world #1 at a hard-court Slam, so perhaps his precarious Asian performances suggest that Rafa has begun to peak at the majors more perceptibly than he did earlier in his career.  Like Federer a few years ago, Nadal soon will compete less with his colleagues than with history, and history enters exactly four events each year.

2) Federer has become predictably unpredictable: For the second straight tournament, he unleashed a stunning display of dominance in one round and an equally stunning display of frailty a round later.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far superior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger had slipped into an inevitable spiral of decline.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far inferior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger no longer could muster the motivation to dispatch adversaries unworthy of his steel.  Since Soderling, Djokovic, and Murray occupy roughly the same level, however, neither of those explanations apply.  Quite simply, one doesn’t know what to expect from Federer on any given day or even in any given set, which lends his matches an aura of intrigue absent from the clinical demolitions that he once delivered.  For those who relish dramatic suspense, the mighty one has become more engaging—and more sympathetic—now that he has become a little less mighty.

3) Tall men stand short:  When Soderling reached the Roland Garros final and Del Potro won the US Open a year ago, the towers of power seemed about to swallow up the ATP.  This trend gathered impetus when Berdych finally broke through on clay and grass this year, but the baseline behemoths have stumbled in the last several tournaments.  At an event where they should have prospered, Soderling mustered just two games against Federer, Tsonga collected just two games against Murray, Berdych crumbled against the aforementioned Garcia-Lopez, and Del Potro never appeared.  Viscerally thrilling to watch, their games may prove less durable and consistent than those of their more versatile, more modestly proportioned peers.

4) Time can stand still for some:  Still charging up the rankings into the top 50, Kimiko Date Krumm continues to baffle the WTA elite with her distinctive, arrhythmic style.  In Osaka, she battled past both Stosur and Peer before succumbing to fellow senior citizen (well, virtually) Tanasugarn after a ferociously contested final; Tanasugarn herself had ambushed Bartoli in the semifinals.  Perhaps the most remarkable element in Date’s implausible comeback is her physical and mental stamina, which more than once this year has enabled this intrepid 40-year-old to outlast far younger opponents in three-hour matches.  The results of this week included, she has accumulated a winning record against the top 20 since her return.  Far from a harmless, endearing anomaly, she constitutes a legitimate threat to almost anyone on any occasion.  Halfway around the world, moreover, the evergreen “Peppermint Patty” Schnyder reached her second final of 2010 with victories over Hantuchova and the burgeoning Petkovic at her home tournament in Linz.

5) The Sleeping Beauty awakens: When Serena’s withdrawal opened a wildcard for Ivanovic, the eager Serb seized her opportunity with both hands and romped to her first title since…Linz two years ago.  Building upon encouraging efforts in Cincinnati, New York, and Beijing, Ana unleashed a commanding performance behind her serve that featured 25 aces and plentiful service winners—several on key points—while surrendering just five breaks in five matches.  The engine of her post-2008 misfortunes, that shot fittingly has become the platform of her resurgence, testifying to her renewed confidence.  Undeterred by adversity this week, Ivanovic maneuvered around undigested yogurt in the second round and three squandered set points in her quarterfinal with her glowing smile intact.  While Linz featured few familiar names, the experience of winning a title again will rekindle the Serb’s self-belief and determination over the off-season by reminding her of what she can still accomplish.  After the shortest WTA final of 2010, the moment that Ana’s fans had feared might never come finally arrived:

Transmission reference: XKJ110

***

We return in a few days with an article on the new WTA #1, who may be less unworthy of her position than some would suppose.

No sooner did Rafael Nadal fasten his jaws around the US Open trophy than one wondered how his archrival would respond.  With his final Slam citadel ravaged by Rafa, would the lion roar with renewed appetite or lope quietly into the wilderness?  We have received our first answer to this question in Shanghai, and it should thrill even those tennis fans who don’t worship at the altar of the GOAT.  Subduing consecutive top-five opponents for the first time in over a year, Federer already has reclaimed the #2 ranking and emphatically reaffirmed his position among the leading challengers to Nadal.  If he captures the Shanghai title, in fact, he will equal the Spaniard’s record-breaking compilation of 18 Masters 1000 crowns.

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But Federer must overcome one of the most persistent thorns in his side over the last several years, a player who has won four of their five collisions at Masters 1000 events, including the Toronto title match this year.  Just as in Canada, the Swiss legend confronts the task of defeating Murray and Djokovic on consecutive days.  Nevertheless, his suffocating semifinal performance against the Serb will have depleted his reserves much less than their edgy Canadian collision, while the more sensible Shanghai schedule affords the evening semifinalist greater rest before the final.  Never seriously threatened by his US Open nemesis, Federer never dropped his serve until the match lay well within his grasp at a set and double-break advantage.  If he delivers an equally impeccable performance against Murray, their encounter might resemble the Toronto final less than the Australian Open final.  On that occasion, the Scot sagged under the pressure of Federer’s flowing, routine holds, which often forced him back to the service notch after just a one- or two-minute reprieve.

Despite Murray’s overall edge in their rivalry, moreover, Federer has won four of their five finals and has won ten of the twelve sets that they have contested in championship matches.  Aware that his counterpunching adversary won’t outhit him from the baseline, the 16-time Slam champion knows that the match lies on his racket and should relish the opportunity to dictate rallies.  During the rain-addled final in Canada, Federer’s slovenly start allowed Murray to relax by handing him an early lead, but his crisp, focused groundstrokes against Soderling and Djokovic suggest that the Swiss will prove less generous this weekend.  Frequently the instrument of Federer’s demise, his slice did not betray him in Shanghai under the assault of Djokovic’s forehand, a more intimidating weapon than anything in the fourth seed’s arsenal.

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Recently eclipsed by Djokovic, Murray often has seemed the heir apparent to Federer and the primary hard-court threat to Nadal’s hegemony among the Spaniard’s peers.  Having floundered woefully since Canada, he can reassert his status as the crown prince with a second straight victory over the Swiss in a Masters 1000 final.  While his finals record against Federer may not dazzle, Murray’s finals record in Masters 1000 events stands at an imposing 5-1.  Amidst the attention showered upon Federer’s serving exploits, one should note that Murray has dropped his serve only twice in the tournament—just like Federer—and has denied break points with similar stinginess.  In order to capture a sixth shield, though, the Scot also must punish his opponent’s second serve with a return that accumulated sting throughout the week, not only on the backhand side but also on the forehand.

During victories over Chardy and Tsonga, the Scot displayed an encouraging readiness to flatten his forehand rather than smothering it with risk-averse spin.  Although he retreated from this tactic against Monaco, he should revive it against Federer, who surely expects to target that wing with impunity as he did in Melbourne.  If Murray can find Federer’s backhand with his own crisp two-hander, moreover, the fourth seed might lure the third seed into running around his forehand too often.  When the Scot has defeated the Swiss before, his down-the-line backhand has exposed the latter’s movement towards his forehand corner, slightly less agile in recent years.  Demonstrating his renewed confidence, the fourth seed has capitalized upon opportunities to finish points in the forecourt this week and should continue to exercise that skill in the final.  Naturally inclined to retreat into passivity, Murray must remember that fortune favors the brave, an adage that he has obeyed against Nadal more often than against Federer.

***

We return shortly with a recap of the week in Shanghai, Linz, and Osaka in the (TW)2 style.

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Brimming with confidence after a commanding quarterfinal victory over Soderling, Federer faces Djokovic in a semifinal that will decide next week’s ownership of the #2 ranking.  If that scenario sounds familiar, it should.  Exactly the same events unfolded a month ago at the US Open, which produced the most memorable single match of 2010 so far.  While their Shanghai encounter probably will fall short of that standard, one might also recall the suspenseful clash between the Swiss and the Serb at the Rogers Cup this summer.  Decided in Federer’s favor after whiplash-inducing momentum shifts, the Canadian semifinal perhaps marked the beginning of Djokovic’s reawakening from a listless lull in his career.  Curiously, the matches in Toronto and New York followed similar trajectories until their final moments.  On both occasions, Federer seized an early lead with assistance from his opponent’s early nerves, Djokovic then capitalized on his opponent’s mid-match complacency to equalize proceedings, and the two players combined to produce their finest tennis in the final set—an ideal outcome for the audience.  Also perceptible on both occasions was the Serb’s determination to dictate rallies during the late, crucial stages, a strategy as vital to his US Open success as his Rogers Cup loss.  Although Federer profited from Djokovic’s profligacy at the Canadian event, he should enter this semifinal intent upon recapturing that aggressive role from the second seed.  Since the Serb’s confidence has soared after his recent surge, the tactic of patiently waiting—and hoping—for untimely errors probably won’t reap rewards in Shanghai.  Whereas Federer must guard against a mid-match lapse in focus, Djokovic must attempt to open the match more assertively than he did in their two previous meetings, when he allowed the Swiss to settle too swiftly into a smooth baseline rhythm.

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During the first three rounds, Federer and Djokovic have compiled remarkably similar statistics, each having lost serve only once in the tournament.  Neither the Swiss nor the Serb has dropped a set or lost more than four games in any set, towering above their opponents throughout victories that have ranged from routine to resounding.  Since Federer’s draw has proved the more challenging, one might argue that it has prepared him for this encounter more effectively than the trio of Ljubicic, Gasquet, and Garcia-Lopez have prepared Djokovic for a steep rise in competition.  While the third seed has won 12 of his last 13 matches overall, the second seed has claimed 14 of his last 15.  The principal threats to Nadal’s dominance, the Swiss and the Serb intend to deliver imposing statements during the fall from which they can launch their 2011 campaigns.  While Federer hopes to avenge the indignities of a Saturday in New York on a Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic seeks to record consecutive victories for just the second time in their rivalry (2009 Miami, Rome).  Brazenly complacent before their US Open semifinal, the Swiss now knows that he can’t afford to casually dismiss the Serb.  Meanwhile, Djokovic knows that he can’t afford to coast through four sets before striking his inner spark.  This extremely even matchup likely will hinge upon a few key moments when one player reveals a tiny crack in his nearly bulletproof armor—a benign second serve on break point, an overly cautious net approach, a slightly mistimed forehand.  Against most opponents, Federer and Djokovic can circumvent such minute stumbles with their vast, versatile talents.  When they intersect with each other, though, the gap between victory and defeat often can be measured in millimeters.

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Following the spectacular implosion of a quarter where Nadal, Davydenko, and Verdasco once resided, Juan Monaco wanders out of the rubble into a most unexpected semifinal appearance at a hard-court Masters 1000 event.  Don’t consign him to the dustbin of Shanghai history just yet, for he extended Murray to three sets in Miami last year and (less surprisingly) upset the Scot on clay.  A Ferrer-like counterpuncher with meager offensive potential, the Argentine outlasted Nadal-killer Melzer and retrieves impressively even on faster surfaces.  Nevertheless, the fourth seed has flattened his first three victims as ruthlessly as did Federer and Djokovic, seizing attention with a 54-minute demolition of former Slam nemesis Tsonga.  If he requires further motivation, the prospect of winning a Masters 1000 tournament without facing Nadal should inspire him to redouble his exertions.  After dismal performances at Cincinnati, the US Open, and Beijing, Murray has elevated his level with each ensuing match and now resembles the player who defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days in Toronto.  Without sacrificing his consistency, he has cracked his forehand with greater ambition while displaying his ball-redirecting talents more freely.  Although he hasn’t cruised through his service games as regularly as the GOAT and the Djoker, he likewise has dropped serve only once in the tournament.  Broken four times in his quarterfinal alone, Monaco might stay even with the Scot for a set or so but eventually will crumble beneath the pressure of his opponent’s more multifaceted arsenal, much as he did a year ago in Miami.  The Argentine’s grinding game tests fitness and consistency, subjects that Murray typically aces.

***

We return tomorrow with a preview of the Shanghai final, which should offer a rousing climax to a tournament greatly improved over last year’s edition.

 

 

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As the ATP spirals towards the close of its season, intriguing questions surround the four players atop its rankings.  Will Federer mitigate his Slam disappointment with an emphatic fall and a second straight Masters 1000 title?  Will Djokovic build upon his US Open heroics and conquer one of his three major rivals again?  Can Murray shrug off recent adversity more swiftly than after the Australian Open?  Or will Nadal continue to brush aside any and all challenges to his now unquestioned hegemony?  (Clearly, Uncle Toni never taught him the virtue of sharing with others.)

Nadal’s quarter:  With very little to motivate him this fall, Rafa nevertheless displayed largely focused tennis in Tokyo last week after a puzzling wobble in Bangkok.  A Shanghai finalist last year, the top seed begins against Wawrinka, who hasn’t defeated Nadal in six attempts but severely tested him earlier this summer at the Rogers Cup.  Beyond that initial challenge, few significant obstacles loom between the Spaniard and the final four, although defending champion Davydenko will seek to repeat his mini-upset over Rafa in the quarterfinals.  Posting an 11-11 record after returning from wrist surgery, the Russian hasn’t won more than two consecutive matches since February and has lost eight matches to players outside the top 50.  Like Wawrinka, he could challenge Nadal for a set or so, but he currently doesn’t possess the confidence or the consistency necessary to repeat the feat of 2009.  While opponents such as the burgeoning Istomin might seize inspiration from the ambush sprung by Garcia-Lopez and the near-ambush sprung by Troicki, Nadal rarely tolerates such unwelcome surprises early in Masters 1000 events.

Murray’s quarter:  This section seems the weakest in the draw, not least because the Scot is in it.  Moping his way to defeat against Ljubicic in Beijing, Murray still seems (understandably) disheartened by his New York disaster, much as he exuded deflation after losing the Melbourne final.  Judging by that earlier episode, he will spend the rest of his season nursing his fragile self-esteem back to health for 2011.  But a quirky collection of frail, enigmatic performers populate the fourth seed’s neighborhood, already a bit defanged by the first-round upset of the inflammable Almagro.  Mostly dormant since the grass season, Tsonga looked chronically fallible in a first-round victory over Lopez.  On the other hand, he has threatened Murray on fast courts and arguably should have won their Wimbledon quarterfinal if not for an untimely bit of carelessness in the second-set tiebreak.  A semifinalist at the US Open, Youzhny vindicated that victory with a title in Kuala Lumpur, although he struggled for much of that week against opponents well below his stature; in Beijing, he succumbed immediately to Ljubicic.  If Murray avoids spoilers like Chardy or Dolgopolov, he will hope to face the Russian rather than the Frenchman, for Youzhny’s artful style lacks the tectonic serve-groundstroke combinations that typically trouble the Scot…and that define Tsonga’s game.

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Federer’s quarter:  Apparently fascinated with the spectacle of the Swiss and the Swede, the draw deities again have situated them in the same section.  Nevertheless, these two bookends might find themselves toppled by one of the names between them, including the towering Isner.  Emboldened by a Beijing semifinal appearance, the American poses a perilous conundrum for Federer in his opener.  In order to capitalize upon his opportunities, the third seed must find his rhythm immediately and avoid any of his recently chronic profligacy.  Since he surged to the Australian Open semifinal, Cilic has stagnated if not regressed for much of 2010, so one suspects that Federer could handle him comfortably en route to a quarterfinal with Soderling or Ferrer.  Comprehensively dominating the world #5 in Beijing, the Spaniard reminded viewers of his underestimated hard-court talents by reaching the final of that event.  Meanwhile, the Swede has underachieved notably since Wimbledon.  Armed with a 23-1 record against Soderling and Ferrer combined, Federer might be forgiven for feeling a trifle complacent about his situation.  Complacency undermined him in his US Open semifinal with Djokovic, however, and he fell to the pedestrian Julien Benneteau at about this stage last year.  His thirst for majors only sparingly quenched in 2010, Federer should enter the fall season hungrier and more focused in 2011.

Djokovic’s quarter:  Having seized the Beijing title without the loss of a set, the Serb eyes an opener with Beijing semifinalist Ljubcic, who stunned him early in a fairytale fortnight at Indian Wells.  Restored to human form, the veteran Croat shouldn’t muster the relentless effort required to dispatch the reinvigorated Djokovic.  Much of the drama in this section may happen before the quarterfinal, including a first-round clash between Gulbis and Gasquet that opposes visceral force to deft versatility.  Also colliding in the first round are Roddick and Kohlschreiber, who delivered an entertaining four-setter at Wimbledon this year and a dazzling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open.  Although Bangkok titlist and nascent Nadal-killer Garcia-Lopez might intend otherwise, either Kohlschreiber or Roddick likely will advance to a final-16 meeting with Berdych, brilliant in the first half but familiarly vulnerable in the second half.  (In fact, don’t be shocked if he falls to the tenacious Robredo on Tuesday.)  On the other side of the quarter, Djokovic could face Tokyo runner-up Monfils, who offered little resistance to the Serb at the US Open and flirts with drama too often to become a serious contender.  Dominated by Roddick since early 2009, the Serb probably would prefer a quarterfinal with Berdych.  Considering the American’s underwhelming second half, however, Djokovic might relish an opportunity to trumpet his revival by settling an old score.

***

As strongly as we’re tempted to choose a trendy draw-breaker in one of these sections, we have decided to unimaginatively stick with the top four seeds to reach their appointed destinations on Saturday.  We will return to Shanghai for semifinal and final previews (if not sooner) before reflecting upon the WTA’s new #1 early next week.

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Staring at an ominous deficit early in his semifinal against Isner, Djokovic demonstrated his revived willpower by breaking back after a marathon game that featured as many crisp returns as aces.  When he arrived at the tiebreak, the top seed struck a blow for versatility over one-dimensionality by dominating the American in a series of intelligently constructed rallies.  Throughout the match, in fact, Djokovic exerted firmer pressure upon Isner’s serve than he experienced on his own delivery, a reversal of expectations and an encouraging omen for 2011  Earlier this year, the Serb had struggled to hold serve at crucial moments, but his confidence in the shot clearly has returned.  His serve should play a key role against an exceptionally gifted returner in Ferrer, who compensates for his unprepossessing delivery by frequently breaking his opponents.  Grinding down less mentally sturdy opponents, the Spaniard followed an oddly lopsided victory over world #5 Soderling with a more characteristic nail-biter against Ljubicic.

Armed with improved fitness and focus, Djokovic should control most baseline exchanges with his superior first-strike power on both sets of groundstrokes.  Despite Ferrer’s compact, efficient two-hander, the top seed’s backhand probably stands without peer in the ATP, providing him with a weapon as formidable as his forehand.  Fond of pounding inside-out forehands, the remorseless Spaniard should beware of the top seed’s ball-redirecting skills, which could punish Ferrer if he exposes too much territory by running around his backhand to unleash his favorite shot.  If Djokovic exploits openings to approach the net, however, he will find his newfound forecourt talents sternly tested by the fifth seed’s pinpoint passing shots.  Although they have split their four previous meetings, the Serb has won four of their five hard-court collisions and ten of the twelve sets that they have played on this surface.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s lone ambush occurred in similar circumstances; he conquered a diffident Djokovic in the 2007 year-end championships after Novak had reached the US Open final.  Three years later, the Serb has gained maturity through adversity and should generate sufficient intensity to defend his title in the Chinese capital.

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As even as the record between Djokovic and Ferrer stands the record between Wozniacki and Zvonareva, who have split their four completed meetings and their two completed meetings this year.  But the scorelines of these last two encounters testify to their odd dynamic, featuring one occasion when the Russian sprayed balls everywhere except inside the lines (Montreal) and another occasion when the Dane never saw a mid-court forehand that she couldn’t shank.  Far more scintillating, their three-set clash in Doha last year illustrated the heights that this mini-rivalry could reach when both competitors deliver their best efforts.  Having dropped just one set through five matches, Zvonareva overcame a more arduous array of opponents yet surrendered just eight total games to Schiavone and home favorite Li Na.  In both of those matches, nevertheless, she thoroughly throttled those opponents during the early stages before faltering on serve once the finish line loomed.  The Russian must guard against a mental lull if she establishes an early advantage over Wozniacki, who exploited such a lapse a week ago in the Tokyo final against Dementieva.  Somewhat more powerful than the new #1, Zvonareva poses an especially formidable challenge for her because she can match the Dane’s consistency from the baseline.  Her dangerous but sometimes unreliable forehand might play a central role in the match’s outcome, as will her ability to jerk Wozniacki forwards out of her baseline comfort zone.  In their US Open semifinal, Vera not only strategized brilliantly beforehand but executed her tactics confident from beginning to end.  With an equally poised effort, Zvonareva can claim the second Premier Mandatory title of her career.  Despite her recent, deservedly lauded triumph over the emotional frailties that long beset her, the Russian’s poise still deserts her during finals and allows those inner demons to rear up from her psyche again.

 

Having won her last five finals, by contrast, Wozniacki has compiled a spectacular second-half winning streak at non-majors that began with her home tournament in Copenhagen and continued with titles in Montreal, New Haven, and Tokyo.  She contests her second Premier Mandatory final of 2010, having fallen to Jankovic in the Indian Wells championship match.  Conquering a player who will join her among the top three on Monday, the new #1 could consolidate her precarious status at the top while sending the returning Serena a message of intent.  Incurred in the quarterfinals, a knee injury chronically hampered her in a semifinal victory over Peer.  Beyond its impact upon her movement, the uncertain knee seemed to undermine her focus during the first set, when she uncharacteristically squandered a commanding lead.  On the other hand, her uncertainty over the injury impelled her to sting her groundstrokes more fiercely than usual, an exercise in aggression that could serve her well against Zvonareva.  In addition to her penetrating backhand, Wozniacki demonstrated an ability to flatten out her forehand that rarely surfaces when she enjoys maximum fitness.  (Why can’t we see this shot more often?)  Vital to her rise through the rankings, moreover, is an inner determination belied by her blonde braid and well-manicured nails.  Combining that trait with the confidence inspired by her four recent titles, the Dane hopes to outlast the one-woman Russian rollercoaster across the net.  By shoveling shots deep down the center and incorporating rhythm-blunting moonballs, she can lure the impetuous Zvonareva into attempting overly aggressive angles.  Wozniacki won’t do anything especially eye-opening on a key point, but she also won’t do anything especially horrific. While this unglamorous style doesn’t win her many fans, it has won and will continue to win her many matches as long as the WTA remains in its current state of flux.  Unless Zvonareva swiftly sweeps her aside in a pair of unblinkingly dominant sets, Wozniacki will be the last woman standing once again.

***

We return tomorrow with a preview of the Masters 1000 draw in Shanghai, but now it’s time to wave goodbye to a sometimes inspiring, often bizarre, and constantly scintillating week in Beijing!

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As the twin tournaments in Beijing escalate towards a climax, the action shifts from Moon Court to Lotus Court.  Which two men and two women will blossom in the Chinese capital?  Semifinal previews ahead…

Djokovic vs. Isner:  Maintaining the intensity that he displayed at the US Open, the defending champion here cruised past a Chinese qualifier and then easily overcame Simon, who had flustered him in four of their five previous meetings.  More motivated and purposeful than during the first half, Djokovic unleashed suffocating groundstrokes on both wings that pinned his victims well behind the baseline while regularly threatening them on their service games.  The latter objective probably lies beyond the Serb’s grasp when he confronts a towering American who nearly toppled him in a memorable Davis Cup clash this year.  Even on the Belgrade clay, Isner tested Djokovic’s resolve by relentlessly holding serve and exploiting openings with penetrating forehands.  Saving all six break points against Davydenko a round ago, he benefits from an especially effective wide serve in the ad court, where almost all break points are decided.  Generally sturdy on serve this week, the defending champion did suffer occasional lapses such as his attempt to serve out the first set against Simon, a game that witnessed seven deuces and several break points.  In order to destabilize Djokovic’s fluid, rhythmic style, Isner must serve aggressively on second balls as well as first balls, vigorously attack the Serb’s own second serve, and shield his indifferent backhand.  A threat to upset almost anyone when at his best, the distinctive challenge posed by the American will compel the top seed to sharpen his focus and guard his patience.  Most of Isner’s matches are decided by a few key points, adding a layer of dramatic suspense that compensates in part for his stylistic monotony.  In these encounters of short points and comfortable holds, very few significant moments will arrive, but those that do will be extremely significant.

Ferrer vs. Ljubicic:  Although the Spaniard has won all but one of their previous meetings, they have met just once on a surface other than Ferrer’s beloved clay.  The diminutive David did win that Dubai clash in three sets, but Ljubicic’s crackling serve has dispatched two top-10 players already this week in echoes of his implausible fortnight at Indian Wells.  Mellow and leisurely while Ferrer is fiery and frenzied, the Croat overcame both US Open semifinalist Youzhny and a rather tepid Murray, probably still pondering his New York demise.  Also limp this week was the Spaniard’s most recent victim, Soderling, who normally excels on this surface and during this stage of the season.  One of the finest returners in the ATP, Ferrer’s sparkling reflexes and compact strokes will force Ljubicic into more rallies than he would prefer.  Possessing a serve vastly inferior to his opponent’s delivery, the Spaniard proved equal to a similar dynamic in his victory over the world #5.  Despite his limited power, he continues to compete with an unflinching tenacity matched by few opponents—and certainly not by this particular opponent.  Far from feckless on fast surfaces, Ferrer recorded his best Slam performance at the swiftest major of all when he reached a semifinal at the 2007 US Open.  But will his admirable willpower outweigh the avalanche of aces that Ljubicic can casually unleash?  The amiable Croat ultimately holds the key to his own destiny, for a stellar serve generally trumps a stellar return game in the ATP.

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Li vs. Zvonareva:  Splitting their six previous meetings, all on hard courts, the Chinese and the Russian should engage in a scintillating battle of backhands.  Li strikes her groundstrokes a little earlier than Zvonareva, creating bolder angles but allowing herself less margin for error.  Delighting her compatriot fans, the ninth seed rampaged through her first few rounds before a less dominant victory in her quarterfinal against Sevastova.  By contrast, Zvonareva recorded her most emphatic win of the week in her preceding match, a stunningly one-sided demolition of fellow top-10 resident Schiavone.  Both players can fall prey to their nerves as often as their opponents and can donate perplexing gaffes when seemingly in a commanding position.  When they dueled for the bronze medal in Beijing two years ago, Li staggered through a ghastly first set but then nearly snatched the second set from a visibly tightening Zvonareva before crumbling in its final moments.  With two such volatile and unpredictable competitors, any outcome could result from a 50-minute rout to a third-set tiebreak.  If the Chinese and the Russian display their impressive talents at the same time, however, captivating rallies and tensely contested service games should ensue.  And no lead will be safe.

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Now 22-1 at non-majors since Wimbledon, the Great Dane seeks revenge for an unexpected loss to the Israeli in Dubai.  To the chagrin of Ivanovic fans worldwide, Wozniacki suffered no wobble after clinching the #1 ranking with a victory over Kvitova.  On the other hand, she did suffer a second-set tumble that didn’t hamper her movement for the rest of that match but might return to haunt her a day later.  Having not dropped a set through four rounds, Peer has equaled her best career performance at an event of this magnitude, a 2007 semifinal at Indian Wells.  Dormant until Dubai, she had lost both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki that had reached completion (a third meeting ended in a retirement).  Breaking down their games one shot at a time, one can’t discern any area in which she enjoys a discernible advantage over the Dane.  When they met in the Middle East, Wozniacki’s game had sagged to a particularly low ebb, underscored by an Australian Open loss to Li Na that featured just three winners from the then-teenager.  Unless Wozniacki delivers an inexplicably hapless performance like her US Open semifinal, she should ease through to a Tour-leading seventh final of 2010. Since Peer can’t outhit her from the baseline, the new #1 should consider elevating her own aggression in order to gain experience that could aid her against more formidable opponents ahead.

***

The lights may have dimmed on the Moon Court, but several stars remain upon which to gaze in thoughtful contemplation.

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