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Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

***

We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

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Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

***

Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

In the final article of our offseason series, we look forward rather than backwards and unfurl a series of predictions for the season to come.  Will we go 11 for 11 in ’11?

1) Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

2) Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

3) Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

4) Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Novak Djokovic celebrates Davis cup HAIRCUTS! NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TEAM SERBIA CELEBRATE DAVIS CUP FINAL VICTORY

5) Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

6) Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

7) Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

9) Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

10) Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

***

Trying not to contradict anything that we said above, we now present the Slam champions of 2011.  Rest assured that we didn’t just pull names out of a hat.  We pulled them out of Serena’s mysterious cast.

Australian Open:  Djokovic, Clijsters

Roland Garros:  Nadal, Stosur

Wimbledon:  Nadal, Serena

US Open:  Federer, Sharapova

Happy Holidays!  After celebrating the first Christmas of this blog, we return next week with a Hopman Cup preview and more.

Having celebrated the most noteworthy accomplishments of this season, we now turn towards those who will approach 2011 determined to erase the memories of 2010.  Don’t worry if your favorite player lands on this list, for they find themselves in extremely exclusive company amidst five Slam champions, three former #1s…and one sheepish-looking GOAT.

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland breaks between sets during the men's singles Final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 6, 2008 in London, England.

Federer:  With a majestic dismissal of longtime nemesis Murray at the Australian Open, the Swiss legend once again seemed the monarch of all he surveyed.  But his Melbourne momentum melted away like a snowball in the Australian summer, leaving behind an unsightly puddle.  At the Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami, Federer suffered uncharacteristic, eerily similar defeats to Baghdatis and Berdych after holding match points on both occasions.  Neither the Cypriot nor the Czech had defeated the world #1 before, so their triumphs perceptibly emboldened their peers.  Before the season reached its midpoint, even moderately sharp-toothed sharks had sighted the blood in the water and converged upon the figure who once had terrorized them with a casual flick of his well-coiffed hair.  Amidst defeats to players like Montanes and Hewitt, the highlight of Federer’s clay and grass campaigns came with a charge to the Madrid final—where he whiffed a routine forehand on the last point.  In addition to the #1 ranking, Swiss master’s streaks tumbled in swift succession, from his 23 consecutive Slam semifinals and eight consecutive Slam finals to his seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, six consecutive US Open finals, and seven consecutive seasons of winning either Wimbledon or the US Open.  Stirring to life in the second half under the guidance of Paul Annacone, Federer exacted a measure of revenge from Berdych and Baghdatis during the US Open Series.  Nevertheless, he would lose two more encounters after holding match points, including a demoralizing, often absent-minded loss to Djokovic in New York.  Salvaging some dignity at the year-end championships, the 16-time major champion scored a crucial victory over Nadal that may have reinvigorated him for 2011.  And a first Christmas with his new family should dull the disappointments suffered by this unflinching perfectionist.

Del Potro:  Through no fault of his own, the 2009 US Open champion became the single greatest disappointment of 2010 when a nagging injury curtailed his season after Australia.  At the year’s first major, his uninspired performance bore scant resemblance to the fearlessness with which he had dismantled Nadal and Federer in New York.  Into the silence surrounding the Argentine’s status seeped malicious rumors on his psychological condition, which lingered longer than he would have wished.  A few aborted comebacks behind him, Del Potro launched an unconvincing return in the fall before choosing to regroup and reload for 2011.  Thrilled by his sensational fortnight at the US Open, one hopes that he can challenge the hegemony of the top 5 once again.

Cilic:  After beginning 2010 with a 15-1 record that included two titles and the Australian Open semifinal, the latest Croatian tower of power recorded just a 25-21 record over the rest of 2010.  Unlike Del Potro, he lacked an injury alibi as his serve and forehand wandered capriciously out of his grasp.  Cilic proved in Melbourne that he can muster the courage and fortitude to compete at the elite level, battling through three five-setters en route to the best Slam performance of his career thus far.  After a listless loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells, however, his season slowly disintegrated as foes such as Montanes, Seppi, Florian Mayer, and Andreas Haider-Maurer conquered an opponent who should have pulverized them with ease.  Deflated by a tepid summer, Cilic endured a five-set loss to the promising but limited Kei Nishikori at the US Open, where the Croat had upset Murray just one year before.  While he has too much talent to lie dormant for long, this extended period of stagnation (or worse) should invite him to address technical issues such as his awkwardly timed forehand swing.

Davydenko:  Like Federer, he began 2010 in sublime style before sagging thereafter.  A champion at last year’s World Tour Finals, the Russian battled past both of the top two in Doha before entering Melbourne as the trendy choice to win a maiden major.  For a set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, Davydenko’s stock soared higher than ever as he made the Swiss demigod look mortal with his crisp, breathless groundstrokes.  Offered a chance to establish a stranglehold upon the reigning #1, however, he shrank from the occasion in spectacular style by dropping the next 13 games.  Several weeks and an Indian Wells wrist injury later, his season slid inexorably downhill with several losses to players outside the top 50 and almost no pairs of consecutive victories until the fall, when he scored his first top-10 win since Australia over the wallowing Berdych.  Now adrift outside the top 20, Davydenko aims to recapture his former glory in 2011, but time is not on his side.  One senses that the Russian’s peak lies behind him.

Venus:  Winning 18 of her first 19 matches, the elder Williams sister defended titles in Dubai and Acapulco, reached the Miami final, and appeared in the second week of every major.  So why does Venus find herself in this disreputable neighborhood?  Unable to harness either her serve or her groundstrokes for a prolonged period, she unleashed a torrent of double faults and unforced errors during her loss to Li Na at the Australian Open, where the Chinese star proved all too willing a partner in crime.  Scattered across that 18-1 period, in fact, were early-match or mid-match meltdowns that Venus often escaped through the frailties of her opponents rather than her own excellence.  For example, we recall her three-set meeting with Hantuchova in Miami, a quasi-unwatchable quagmire that even the Slovak’s leggy charms couldn’t save.  Whatever had happened to Venus elsewhere, though, grass always had remained her refuge.  But this year she collected just five games from the unheralded Pironkova at Wimbledon as her glittering decade of achievements at the All England Club crashed to a stunning conclusion.  To her credit, Venus then showed the resilience of a champion by surging within a tiebreak of the US Open final before her serve abandoned her once more.   Although she probably has won her final major, her experience and her still seismic serve render her a dangerous threat to any adversary in any draw.  (While we hesitate to critique fashion, we also feel obliged to note the American’s hilariously disastrous outfits at the non-grass majors, which left Venus only somewhat more effectively attired than the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale.)

Azarenka:  For the second straight season, the Belarussian volcano ignited her season splendidly at the Australian Open, where she took a set and nearly more from Serena.  In fact, Azarenka lost only to the eventual champion at each of her first three tournaments, suggesting that she might build upon a 2009 campaign during which she reached three Slam quarterfinals and won Miami.  But she predictably imploded under the pressure of defending her Miami title, and injuries crippled her clay campaign.  From the grass season onwards, Vika alternated stirring results at relatively minor tournaments such as Eastbourne and Stanford with debacles at significant events such as Wimbledon and Cincinnati.  Her vertiginously erratic summer culminated with a concussion-caused exit from the US Open as disturbing as it was bizarre.  From the third set of her compelling semifinal with Wozniacki in Tokyo surfaced a metaphor for Azarenka’s season.  Trailing her rival and best friend 5-0, she rallied to win the next four games before meekly losing the tenth game.  Likewise, the coquettish Belarussian continually awakened hope in her fans but failed to convert her 2010 opportunities when it mattered most.  More talented than almost all of her contemporaries, Azarenka must subdue a pugnacious streak that still consumes her from within when matches grow tense.

Henin:  Just like Clijsters, she reached the final of the first major after a highly anticipated return.  In her first four tournaments, moreover, Henin played a starring role in three of the season’s most dramatic matches:  the Brisbane final, the Australian Open final, and her Miami semifinal with Clijsters.  But the petite Belgian settled for best supporting actress in each of those encounters, and she struggled to hone her ultra-aggressive new style throughout a year truncated by her injury at Wimbledon.  Dominant over Kim during their first incarnations, Justine dropped all three of their meetings in 2010 while sustaining a loss to giant-killer Gisela Dulko and a third-set bagel against Aravane Rezai on her beloved clay.  Although she collected titles at Stuttgart and the Dutch Open, Henin returned to pursue objectives more prestigious than those minor tournaments.  Ever a fireball of emotion, she displayed an affinity for reckless shotmaking that undermined her late in many of her losses.  And her serve, albeit amplified, continued to cost her matches with untimely double faults, much as it had in the last few months before she retired.  More fragile than most of her rivals, Henin may reconsider this comeback if it continues to fall short of the lofty standards that she imposes upon herself.  The career Slam for which she yearns still looks extremely distant.

Kuznetsova:  Winning multiple matches in just seven of seventeen tournaments, the Russian bristles with athletic ability but contents herself with showing us just the tip of the iceberg.  Gone before the quarterfinals at every major and every Premier Mandatory event, Kuznetsova displayed few glimmers of last year’s Roland Garros champion.  Outside her San Diego title, she defeated only one top-20 opponent during the entire season while falling to four players outside the top 50.  Considering the mercurial Russian’s proclivity for streakiness, an impressive 2011 campaign may lie in store after the disappointments of 2010.  Having forged and dissolved partnerships with multiple coaches recently, Kuznetsova must` continue to search for a patient, dedicated guide who can unlock her potential without succumbing to frustration.  Submerged below Zheng in the rankings, the former #2 must gather her concentration and confidence in order to rise above swaggering but less talented opportunists like Rezai and Kanepi, who will salivate over a vulnerable foe with an impressive pedigree.

***

Having spent the last several articles looking backward at the year that was, we next look forward to the year that will (or might) be.  Our next article features 11 predictions for 2011.

 

As a collective effort, the WTA may not have produced a season to remember in 2010.  But many of its familiar and several of its less familiar denizens did.  We memorialize their achievements below.

Wozniacki:  Stagnant for most of the first half, the Pole-Dane reached her first Premier Mandatory final at Indian Wells but suffered an ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass campaigns.  After an embarrassing rout at Wimbledon, however, Wozniacki collected herself and reeled off an outstanding second-half surge, featuring six finals and five titles in eight tournaments.  Securing the inaugural edition of her home event in Copenhagen, the future #1 then swept to consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven within a six-day span.  At the US Open, she scored her first career victory over a former #1 before succumbing to fellow breakthrough artist Zvonareva in the semifinals.  Shrugging off that listless performance, Wozniacki thundered through the Asian fall season until she intersected with the equally scorching Clijsters in the Doha final.  Unruffled so far by the controversy surrounding her Slam-less #1 status, Caroline will face an increasingly polarized reception in 2011 until and unless she wins that elusive major.  The new #1 should refine her schedule in order to pursue that goal most effectively, but regrettably she has shown little sign of doing so.  On the other hand, Wozniacki just turned 20 this summer and has displayed a maturity exceptional for her age; her cherubic, ever-smiling visage also represents the WTA better than the churlishness of fellow Slam-less #1s Jankovic and Safina.

Zvonareva:  Never lacking in talent and versatility, the volatile Vera imploded in Melbourne yet erupted in a positive way just two majors later at Wimbledon.  After a stunning three-set upset over Clijsters, Zvonareva burst into her first Slam final on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club, where she mustered more resistance against Serena than the scoreline suggested.  Disproving the commentators who attributed her breakthrough to an upset-riddled Wimbledon draw, the Russian repeated the feat at the US Open with a smart, balanced brand of tennis that flustered less tactically subtle foes.  Nevertheless, her excruciating disintegration in the final revealed that her affinity for tear-soaked melodrama hasn’t entirely vanished.  (We’re waiting for the endorsement contract with Kleenex.)  More often poised than petulant during the fall, Zvonareva marched to her debut Premier Mandatory final in Beijing and another semifinal at the year-end championships, falling to #1 Wozniacki on both occasions.  Since she defends few points early in 2011, she could challenge the Pole-Dane for the top spot if her momentum continues.  With question marks currently surrounding most of the WTA elite, the Russian should carpe the diem while she can.  A former semifinalist at the Australian Open, she might find its medium-speed surface suited to her style.

Clijsters:  Brilliant in the final of the season-opening Brisbane event, the understated Belgian recaptured the momentum in her storied rivalry with Henin by seizing all three of their meetings in three sets, two in uncannily similar fourteen-point third-set tiebreaks.  Her next two hard-court events ended ignominiously with ambushes by Petrova and Kleybanova, demonstrating the inconsistency typical for such comebacks.  But Clijsters proceeded to win her next 18 matches in the United States, a run that extended from Miami through the US Open and included six victories over former #1s.  Despite a physically and emotionally exhausting semifinal against Henin at Key Biscayne, she dominated a hobbled Venus in the final.  Likewise, a labyrinthine three-set semifinal against Venus in New York did not deplete her reserves for a one-sided final against Zvonareva.  Thoroughly outclassed by Sharapova for nearly two sets in the Cincinnati final, the Belgian clawed herself back into the contest with a resilience too often absent from her rivals.  In many of her most notable victories, however, Clijsters looked commanding early, faltered when victory lay within her grasp, and then mentally regrouped to seal the match.  While this pattern doesn’t produce this crispest, most aesthetically laudable tennis, it does provide compelling drama.  Clearly most comfortable on the American hard courts, she now should attempt to consolidate her legacy by winning a major outside New York.

Serena:  Taking her strategy of “play a little, win a lot” to unprecedented heights, Serena entered just six tournaments in 2010 and still walked away with half of the season’s majors for the second consecutive year.  Her signature moment came in the Australian Open quarterfinal, when she trailed 6-4, 4-0 to a ferociously intent Azarenka before summoning her own ferocity and overcoming a deficit that almost any other player would have found insurmountable.  Together with Henin, Serena delivered the most scintillating final of the Grand Slam season (for men or women), relying on spine-tingling serving and her peerless willpower to conquer both the Belgian firecracker and an injury that soon forced her out of competition.  Setting new ace records with each successive Wimbledon, the 13-time Slam champion roared—often literally—through the fortnight, when she displayed the athleticism and shot-making talent that many have emulated but very few have equaled.  Then Serena abruptly disappeared.  If history serves as any guide, she should spring back into contention almost instantly when she returns.

French Open finalists:  Just a year before, few observers would have expected Stosur to reach the second Saturday at Roland Garros.  Just a week before, even fewer observers would have expected Schiavone to caress the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen with clay-smeared hands.  Yet the Australian courageously dethroned Henin in a tense three-setter before conquering Serena in an even more suspenseful epic.  The first two sets of that quarterfinal recalled the Serena-Azarenka encounter in Melbourne, in which the American somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Boldly rewriting the script, Stosur saved a match point with a sparkling forehand passing shot and then became the only player to defeat Serena at a Slam in 2010.  When she thumped a listless Jankovic a round later, a maiden major seemed firmly within her grasp.  Swaggering through the draw’s less star-studded lower half, though, Schiavone stunned Stosur and an international audience by rising to the occasion in the most important match of her life.  Rather than drifting complacently away after this most implausible triumph, the exuberant Italian notched a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open and another Fed Cup title for her beloved nation.  Despite an injury-plagued summer, Stosur likewise reached the quarterfinals in New York, where she took a set from eventual champion Clijsters.  Both players enjoyed their debuts at the year-end championships, where the Aussie avenged the Roland Garros defeat before reaching the semifinal.  A dark horse no longer, Stosur owns the second-best serve in the WTA after Serena and one of the finest forehands.

Li:  With consecutive Melbourne victories over future #1 Wozniacki and former #1 Venus, the Chinese superstar advanced to the first Slam semifinal of her career.  While the quality of tennis in those marquee wins oscillated between the uninspired and the abysmal, Li once again showed her competitive tenacity against heavily favored opponents. In the semifinals, moreover, she dragged defending champion Serena into two tiebreaks before reluctantly conceding the American’s superiority.  Coinciding with the semifinal dash of her compatriot Zheng, her Australian exploits garnered valuable attention for tennis in a region where the sport hopes to expand.  Fresh from a Birmingham title over Sharapova, Li dispatched two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska at the All England Club en route to the quarterfinals herself.  A proud patriot who fell one win short of a medal at the Beijing Olympics, she thrilled her compatriots again by reaching the semifinals at the Premier Mandatory event held in the same stadium.  Yet Li remains a mercurial, enigmatic shotmaker who sprinkled losses to Malek, Baltacha, Bacsinzky, and Zakopalova amidst her prestigious triumphs.  We expect equally jagged peaks and valleys in 2011.

Peer:  Whether or not a fan of Shahar, anyone who followed the Dubai Debacle of 2009 must have relished the Israeli’s unexpected semifinal run at the Persian Gulf tournament this year.  Victories there over Wozniacki and Li heralded a resurgent campaign for the promising but long-dormant Peer.  If she hadn’t collided with the Williams sisters more often than she would have preferred (five losses), she might have progressed even deeper into draws.  Nevertheless, Peer reached the second week at two majors and the semifinals at two Premier Mandatory events, not only placing herself close to contention for Doha in 2010 but in an auspicious position for 2011.

Petrova:  Exactly one player defeated Serena, Venus, and Clijsters this year.  Overcoming the latter two opponents at majors, Nadia inflicted the most lopsided loss of Kim’s career at the Australian Open.   Her characteristic ebbs and flows continued with losses to such unremarkable names as Stefanie Voegele and Anastasija Sevastova, but the Russian veteran crafted plenty of satisfying memories to mull as she sips her vodka during the holiday season.  Having witnessed several of her feckless performances on grand stages, we enjoyed watching her disbelieving glee at these stunning upsets.

First-time Russian titlists:  Even as many of the more experienced countrywomen fizzled and floundered, a pair of rising Russians broke through to claim the first two titles of their career.  Ambushing Clijsters in a third-set tiebreak at Indian Wells, Kleybanova held her first trophy at Kuala Lumpur before continuing her Asian exploits at Seoul in the fall.  Also a finalist at Bali, the burly ball-bruiser aims to carve out a regular residence in the top 20, while her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova targets a loftier objective.  The former junior #1 first opened a window onto her brilliance at Indian Wells in 2009, but she had stalled somewhat until scoring titles at Monterrey and Istanbul this year, where she outlasted Vesnina in the longest final of the WTA season.  Sagging sharply towards the end of the 2010, Pavlyuchenkova probably can claim a position in the top 10 if she can resolve her recent serving woes and reduce an injury rate alarmingly high for such a young player.

Martinez Sanchez / Rezai / Pironkova / Kvitova:  Each of them had their week in the sun, or, in the case of the last two, their fortnight.  None of them has accomplished anything worthy of note since then, and they probably lack either the physical and mental consistency (Rezai, Kvitova) or the firepower (Martinez Sanchez, Pironkova) to impose themselves as consistent contenders.  But at Rome, Madrid, and in the great temple of tennis itself, however, they conquered no fewer than five players who have held the #1 ranking.  The improbability of those upsets and the magnitude of their setting converge to merit a mention here.

Kimiko Date Krumm:  Simply by returning to the battlefield at age 40, she would have deserved inclusion among the most memorable performers in an often pallid 2010.  The 40-year-old Japanese dynamo did far more, however, as Sharapova, Safina, Stosur, and Li can attest.  More durable than many players a generation her junior, Date battled through a gripping series of marathons and often unhinged rhythm-oriented baseliners with her distinctively arrhythmic, unpredictable style.  Here’s hoping that she continues to defy Father Time for at least another year, exhibiting her refreshingly unassuming joy for the game.

***

Our next article shifts from the nice to the naughty, reflecting upon the most notable disappointments of 2010.  Who hopes that the new year holds more promise than the old?  Answers to come.

In our first interview, we feature promising Dutch-Liberian junior Rhonda de Lang.  Born in the Ivory Coast, Rhonda hopes to emulate the ascent of the Williams sisters to the pinnacle of their sport.  Entering tennis relatively late at age eight, this charismatic junior quickly gained attention by finishing among the top ten in girls under 12 and signing a sponsorship contract with Wilson.  Could she become the first women’s Slam champion from either of her nations?  Together with her three trainers, she spares no effort in pursuing that goal.

1. What do you think is the strongest part of your game?  What part of your game do you most want to improve?

My greatest strength is the way I attack.  I want to give so much power from the baseline that my opponent gives me a short ball and then I can finish it.  (But my coach and I are still working on it).  I want to improve my service and the hard spin ball on the baseline.

2. What do you think is your strongest character trait?  What part of your character would you most like to improve?

I always want to win, but I must keep patience until I get the chance to score.

3. What type of opponent do you find the most challenging?  Why?

Baseliner, since I must be careful that I don’t lose my patience and wait for my chance.

4. Rank the following accomplishments in order from most to least meaningful to you:  Wimbledon, the #1 ranking, the Olympics.  Why?

Wimbledon – #1 ranking – Olympics. Wimbledon is for me the ultimate grand slam to win. #1 ranking is not everything because #1 position and winning no grand slam is nothing. Olympics is only once every 4 years so you can win that only one or two times in your tennis life.

5. You are serving at 5-4, 40-30 in the third set of the Wimbledon final.  What do you tell yourself that you need to do in order to win this point? What if you are serving at 4-5, 30-40?  What do you tell yourself?

Stay focused, don’t play an easy ball, and have patience. It’s the same answer for both situations.

6. You win the first set and then have a match point in the second set.  But you do not convert the match point and later lose the second set.  What do you tell yourself at the start of the third set?

Stay cool, play like the first set.  Try everything to win that game.

7. The WTA experiment with on-court coaching has generated much discussion and controversy.  What do you think about it?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?  Would you use it?

We had something similar during training as well and I love it.  If you don’t see what you do wrong, your coach/trainer can tell you, so you can improve it.  On the other hand the coach on the other side can give advice to beat you.  But if it’s possible I will use it.

8. Tennis has three highly distinct surfaces.  Do you prioritize any surface over the others?  What do you think are the challenges of each surface for you?  Do you wish that tennis were played on only one surface, or do you prefer the contrast?

I prefer clay and my second favorite is hard-court.  On grass I haven’t played yet, but if I want to win Wimbledon then I must work hard to play on that surface.

9. The life of a professional tennis player is demanding and can be all-consuming.  How do you balance your pursuit of tennis excellence with other interests?

That’s a choice that you make.  Most of your time you are busy with tennis and try to make time for nice things for yourself. You need to plan carefully.

10. If you were not a tennis player, what type of career path would you have chosen?

Then I want to be a doctor so I can help people.

11. You have mentioned that the Williams sisters are your greatest inspiration among active players.  If you could ask Serena and/or Venus one piece of advice to help you in your career, what would it be?

I am a little shy, and my father tells me to be aggressive and yell on the court when I make a good point. So maybe they can help me with that.

12. What question did I not ask that you would have liked to answer?

The only thing I wish is that I can play at Wimbledon against Venus and Serena, so I hope they will keep on playing tennis for a long time until we can meet each other on that court.

***

We look forward to following Rhonda’s future progress and wish her the best when she confronts the challenges that await her and all those determined to succeed in one of the world’s most demanding sports.  Our series of 2010 review articles resumes shortly with the WTA edition of “Seasons to Remember.”

We continue our backward glance at 2010 by reflecting upon the members of the ATP who crafted seasons that they (and we) should pause to remember even as the new year rushes towards us.

Nadal:  After the first three months of 2010, the Spaniard’s career seemingly hovered at a crossroads.  Starved of titles for nearly a year, he struggled to find his rhythm deep in three-set losses at Indian Wells and Miami to opponents whom he typically defeats.  But a fearsome charge through a depleted Monte Carlo field struck the spark that Rafa needed to revive his confidence just before the most important segment of his season.  The spark soon blazed into flames as he swept the three clay Masters tournaments for the first time in his career and avenged last year’s loss to Soderling in an authoritative Roland Garros final, one of the most stunning performances in his stunning career there.  Dropping just one total set in the Slam finals that he played, Nadal won three consecutive majors for the first time.  Famously fallible in the fall, he even countered that trend by defeating four top-10 foes at the year-end championships before dropping a three-set final to Federer.  Just months ago, the Spaniard’s career seemed in considerable peril.  By jolting from six majors to nine, he has positioned himself to enter the GOAT debate if he continues to carefully manage his physical condition and his schedule.  Qualitatively, in fact, he already has surpassed Federer by adding an Olympic gold medal and the Davis Cup to the career Slam and the #1 ranking.  The Swiss still has a considerable quantitative edge, but the gap should close swiftly in the next two or three years.

Djokovic:  Even shakier than Nadal early in the season, Djokovic surrounded the Dubai title with premature defeats in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Much more gradual than the Spaniard’s revival, the Serb’s awakening began with a Wimbledon semifinal run and continued with a sporadically brilliant duel with Federer at the Rogers Cup.  His momentum didn’t fully reverse until the US Open, where he swept aside the memories of three consecutive losses to Federer at the year’s final major.  In the most dramatic Slam match of 2010, Djokovic saved double match point before outlasting the Swiss star with the fearless shotmaking that won him the 2008 Australian Open.  Consistent although not dazzling during the fall, he conserved his energies for the Davis Cup final.  Effectively required to win both of his matches against France, the world #3 never allowed the visitors a flicker of hope with two comprehensive victories.  Undefeated in Davis Cup singles rubbers this year, Djokovic claimed that his nation’s first title in this team competition represented the most significant triumph of his career.  Objectively, 2010 fell short of the 2008 campaign in which he captured both the Australian Open and the year-end championships.  But the Davis Cup title offers the Serb a platform upon which to build for 2011.  The off-season’s much-lamented brevity will aid him by not allowing his impetus to decay.

Soderling:  The feral Swede likes Paris in the springtime and Paris in the fall.  For the second straight year, he dethroned the reigning Roland Garros champion in a barrage of bone-crushing groundstrokes.  A first-round flop in Melbourne, he recorded respectable but not remarkable results at Wimbledon and the US Open.  Still too erratic and moody to reach the #1 ranking, Sodering took another impressive step forward with his first Masters 1000 title at (where else?) the Paris Indoors, where the menacing trophy seemed designed specifically for him.  A career-high #4 ranking temporarily settled within the Swede’s mighty paws and might well return there early in 2011, considering his lack of points to defend at the Australian Open.  While Soderling failed to preserve the momentum in his mini-rivalries with Federer and Nadal, he consolidated his status as a permanent top-5 contender following his 2009 breakthrough.  If he can harness his weapons a shade more consistently, a major title lies in his future.

Berdych:  After arid years of underachievement, the Czech appeared to have cracked the code in Miami, where he ambushed Federer in the sort of cliff-hanger that he would have lost in previous seasons.  To his credit, Berdych wasted little time in capitalizing upon that triumph, battling past two more top-10 players in Verdasco and Soderling.  Still, one week does not a champion make, so we remained slightly skeptical about Berdych until Roland Garros, when he dispelled doubts by marching to his first career Slam semifinal.  Falling a set short of the final Sunday, he arrived there just one Slam later after a majestic Wimbledon campaign that toppled Federer and Djokovic consecutively.  Struggling to breathe the rarefied air of his elevated status, the world #6 left almost no impact on the second half of the season, which included a crucial Davis Cup loss to Djokovic.  2011 will play a similar role for him as 2010 did for Soderling.  Can he maintain his lofty position beneath the accumulating pressure of expectations?  A credible debut at the year-end championships suggested that his second-half hangover might lift sooner rather than later.

Ferrer:  Once dubbing himself “the least talented player in the top 100,” the diminutive Spaniard should inspire future stars to maximize their potential.  Rewarded for two ATP 500 titles and a Masters 1000 final in Rome, Ferrer qualified for the year-end championships and finished as the world #7, a remarkable feat considering his indifferent serve and straightforward style.  But he competes far more vigorously than many players with greater talent; his intensity wins at least as many matches as his shot-making.  A disappointment at Melbourne and Roland Garros, Ferrer did not disappoint at the year’s last two majors, where he reached the second week on surfaces unfriendly to his grinding game.  Even more impressively, he extended the mighty Soderling to a fifth set at Wimbledon and Verdasco to a fifth-set tiebreak at the US Open.  Squandering a two-set lead in the latter marathon, Ferrer nevertheless played a starring role in one of the season’s most compelling matches.

Melzer:  Few casual fans knew of the left-handed veteran until his implausible semifinal run at Roland Garros, which climaxed with a five-set quarterfinal victory over Djokovic.  Rather than fading afterwards like Ljubicic (see below), Melzer reached the second week at both Wimbledon and the US Open, falling to Federer on both occasions.  The Austrian then ambushed Nadal in a Shanghai three-setter, slapping forehands with uncanny precision and displaying deft technique at the net.  Moreover, he collected the Wimbledon doubles title with Petzschner, creating memories that will warm him through the bitter Austrian winter.  Just outside the top 10 at the season’s conclusion, he still doesn’t represent a legitimate threat at majors or Masters 1000 events, but few contenders other than Federer will want to face him in early rounds.

Gael Monfils Gael Monfils of France during his 1-6,6-7 defeat against  Robin Soderling of Sweden in the final during Day Eight of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports  on November 14, 2010 in Paris, France.

Monfils:  The core of a French Davis Cup team that came within one rubber of the title, the acrobatic Frenchman scored victories in that competition over such Davis Cup stalwarts as Ferrer and Nalbandian.  Facing a virtual must-win situation in the first rubber of the final, he defused the dangerous Tipsarevic with exemplary efficiency.  Not unlike Djokovic, Monfils played his best tennis of the season from the US Open onwards, following a quarterfinal appearance in New York with three finals in the fall.  As he did in 2009, the Frenchman electrified his compatriots by reaching the final at Paris Masters.  Saving match points against two different opponents there, his prestigious victims included not only Murray but Federer, whom he never had defeated before.  The numerous detractors of Monfils feel that his bent for whimsical entertainment and relative disinterest in outcomes has little place in tennis.  We disagree, believing that his carefree attitude provides a refreshing antidote to the stoical demeanors so often displayed by the sport’s champions.

Ljubicic:  With one glaring exception, his year proved thoroughly and predictably forgettable.  Yet Ljubicic will remember 2010 for his startling surge at Indian Wells, during which he dispatched Djokovic and Nadal.  Winning his last three sets there in tiebreaks, the Croat relied upon a serve that crashed through this extremely slow hard court with a force that belied his unassuming visage. His first and likely last Masters 1000 title, Indian Wells represented a dome on Ljubicic’s career rather than a foundation for future exploits.  After Federer and other had repeatedly frustrated him at such events, however, he can stroll towards retirement much more contentedly than he could have a year ago.

Baghdatis:  Climbing back into the top 20 after a medley of injuries and dips in motivation, the charismatic Cypriot sometimes recalls Davydenko with his flat, early groundstrokes strikes.  After securing the Sydney title in January, he scored his first career victories over Federer and Nadal, both in tense three-setters that tested his once-suspect nerves.  Still suspect is his fitness, which did not prevent from winning a five-setter against Ferrer in Melbourne but led to his retirement against Hewitt a round later.  The Bag Man still hasn’t learned how to pack lightly.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France during his straight sets victory against John Isner of USA during Day Four of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports on November 10, 2010 in Paris, France.

Llodra:  Although his 2010 ended in heartbreaking fashion, he vindicated the ossifying serve-and-volley style with two small titles and a semifinal appearance in Paris.  Before holding three match points against eventual champion Soderling, Llodra upset the resurgent Djokovic and familiar fall fiend Davydenko.  The extremely fast surface in Bercy mirrored his leaping, lunging, darting flair more than anywhere else on the calendar, and the controlled indoor conditions assisted his laboratory-like style.  Defying the stereotypes typically applied to his compatriots, Llodra never fails to expend all of the effort and energy available to him.

American men:  They may have won scant Slam glory for the Stars and Stripes, but the quartet of Roddick, Querrey, Isner, and Fish collected nine titles among them, more than any nation except Spain and an impressive quantity for a tennis power in decline.  Capturing four of those trophies, Querrey trailed only Federer and Nadal in that category, although he has yet to win a tournament of any significance.  Coming within a single victory of the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double, Roddick won his most significant title since 2006 when he triumphed at the latter event.  Eschewing his beloved carbohydrate-saturated diet, Fish devoted himself to improving his fitness and subsequently reached four finals on grass and North American hard courts.  Outshone in total titles by his compatriots, Isner produced the single most astonishing headline of the year with his three-day hallucination at Wimbledon.  While that match offered little aesthetic entertainment, its rococo statistics and Hollywood-worthy drama ensured that people who didn’t know the meaning of “forehand” or “backhand” knew the meaning of “Isner” and “Mahut.”

***

We continue this series with a WTA edition of “seasons to remember” before chronicling “seasons to forget” in both the ATP and the WTA.

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

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Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

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After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

At first glance, the numbers look more than respectable.  Few eyebrows would furrow over a 33-11 record that included two titles and five total finals across the span of just thirteen tournaments.  While  seven of the eleven losses came against players who have reached the top 10, four of those seven losses came against a current #1 (Serena), two former #1s (Henin, Clijsters), and a soon-to-be #1 (Wozniacki).  Yet circumstances converged to ensure that we will remember Sharapova’s 2010 campaign more for what she didn’t accomplish than what she did.

Elevating expectations before the season even began, victories over Venus and Wozniacki in January exhibitions extended Maria’s momentum from a Tokyo title the previous fall.  In a section of the Melbourne draw far from the Williams sisters, her recurrent nemeses, she seemed destined to reach the semifinal or perhaps the final of the major that she conquered in 2008.  On the first day of the tournament, however, Sharapova endured one of the longest and ugliest matches of her career.  This first-round defeat to Kirilenko hinged less upon her much-dissected serve than upon her groundstrokes, which erred by margins proportional to the significance of the points.  Equally ominous was Sharapova’s failure to tuck away a first set that seemed well within her control as Kirilenko served at 2-4, 15-40.   But the wasted opportunity would have receded into irrelevance had Maria completed the comeback that she began when Kirilenko served for the match.  Breaking her compatriot with fiery returns, she could not capitalize upon this momentum shift, as she had in a comparably epic Melbourne opener three years ago; instead, she meekly surrendered her own serve a game later at 4-5.

After this limp denouement, Maria marched into Memphis with much to prove.  Five mercilessly masticated opponents later, the Siberian lioness collected the second title of her comeback but had not defeated any foe more impressive than future Newcomer of the Year Kvitova.  Nevertheless, Sharapova surely arrived at Indian Wells hopeful that the tide had turned and that her Australian debacle was no more than an untimely hallucination.  Fortunate to escape an error-riddled opener against Dushevina, she then suffered an elbow injury in the third set of a battle with the tenacious Zheng.  Audiences would not see the Russian again until shortly before Roland Garros, when she broke from her routine by adding Strasbourg to her schedule after a premature return in Madrid.  At Strasbourg, Sharapova claimed her first career title on red clay, the surface that famously has baffled her throughout her career.  As in Memphis, she did not overcome a marquee opponent, but a three-set semifinal victory over clay specialist Medina Garrigues augured well for the fortnight in Paris.

Contrasting with her placid Melbourne draw, Sharapova’s draw at Roland Garros resembled a minefield, littered with not only Serena but four-time champion Henin and the surging Stosur.  Armed with a seven-match winning streak, she entered a third-round collision with the Belgian that thoroughly justified the anticipation surrounding it.  Extending over two days, this memorable encounter illustrated the potential congruency between the surface and Sharapova’s gritty determination, which enabled her to reverse the momentum after a disappointing first set and snap Henin’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her jaws firmly fastened around the Belgian as the latter served at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set, however, the Russian let those three pivotal break points evaporate and dropped six of the next seven games, unable to hold her serve again.

Maria Sharapova Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after the women's singles third round match between Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2010 in Paris, France.

Her competitive appetite undiminished, Sharapova built upon this valiant effort when the season shifted to grass.  Although she fell to Li Na in the Birmingham final, her serve crackled with renewed vigor throughout her preceding matches there; she also scored a satisfying revenge against her 2008 Wimbledon nemesis Alla Kudryavtseva.  When the All England Club released its draw, all eyes turned towards the uppermost section, which scheduled a Monday meeting between Sharapova and three-time champion, world #1 Serena Williams.  While Serena had resoundingly dispatched Maria in their most recent Slam final, British spectators recalled the Russian’s stunning upset over the American in the 2004 Wimbledon final.  As the Centre Court audience had hoped, Maria rose to the challenge during a first set defined by percussive serves and terse, emphatically terminated rallies.  In one of the season’s most meaningful tiebreaks, the two champions dueled on equal terms through the first eighteen points, three of which offered keys for Sharapova to unlock the first set.  At 9-9, however, a double fault and a Williams ace brought this suspenseful set to its conclusion, leaving the Russian to ponder what might have unfolded had she converted one of her three set points.  Although another set remained to play, the excitement soon ebbed as Serena secured the only break that she would need to escape this tense encounter.  Threatened much less severely by her later foes, she exploited the carnage that occurred at this year’s wildly unpredictable Wimbledon.  In retrospect, therefore, not only a match but perhaps a fourth major title might have slipped through Sharapova’s fingers with that pivotal tiebreak.  Had she eluded Serena, one would have fancied her chances against the trio of Li, Kvitova, and Zvonareva, whom the American defused in her place.

Nevertheless, Sharapova seemed less discouraged by the outcome than reassured by her ability to compete with the world #1 at a major.  Leveling her heavy-lidded glare at Indian Wells nemesis Zheng, she avenged that defeat in her Stanford opener before navigating through a three-set, 165-minute rollercoaster against Dementieva that hung in the balance until her last savage forehand.  Weary from consecutive evening epics, Maria would fall to Azarenka in the final, but the momentum from Stanford flowed into Cincinnati two weeks later.  On a slick surface friendly to her style, she outlasted newly crowned San Diego champion Kuznetsova and then trampled upon Radwanska and Bartoli with suffocating serving and impenetrable concentration.  Suddenly resembling her vintage self more than she had for most of her comeback, Sharapova reached a second straight final and a third meeting with a fellow Slam champion during a three-month period.

This momentous clash with Clijsters, however, set the stage for the frustrating performances that followed throughout the rest of 2010.  Racing through a comfortable first set, Sharapova looked nearly invulnerable on her own serve, while the off-key Belgian struggled to harness her strokes.  At 6-2, 5-3, victory lay within the Russian’s grasp as her opponent confronted three championship points.  Although Clijsters erased two of those chances with imposing serves, a relatively neutral rally evolved on the third point.  When an opening first beckoned, Sharapova didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice but hammered her favored backhand towards the edge of the line, hoping to end the match with one mighty blow.  The ball fell wide.  After a rain delay, the tide turned slowly but inexorably against the Russian, who suffered the most demoralizing defeat of her comeback so far.  Melancholy in its immediate aftermath, she showed scars of the disappointment in her unconvincing play at the season’s three remaining tournaments.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after a point played against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the women's singles match on day eight of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

A little lucky to escape the plucky Jarmila Groth in her 2010 US Open debut, Sharapova did record the second double bagel of her career during the middle weekend.  When she met top seed Wozniacki a round later, though, her performance sagged well below the level that she achieved against Henin and Serena at the two previous majors.  While the match stayed respectably competitive and featured numerous long games, Sharapova couldn’t summon her trademark precision and focus for more than two or three points at a time, playing into the hands of her tightly controlled opponent.  To Wozniacki’s credit, she maintained her poise as she sealed the most impressive single victory of her career thus far, but the inconsistency that infected almost every area of the Russian’s game reduced the pressure on the Dane.  As her season drifted towards a tepid conclusion, Sharapova won just one match in her last two events of 2010.  Her uneventful loss to Vesnina in Beijing seemed to come almost as a relief from the painful reverses that she had suffered over the preceding months.  When the offseason finally arrived, it provided a respite necessary to rekindle her appetite for the sport before a crucial campaign in 2011.

Although injuries, thorny draws, and other factors beyond her control played a perceptible role in her 2010 struggles, Sharapova never has relied upon excuses during adversity.  A mature competitor, she recognizes that champions design their own destiny rather than allowing fate to forge their fortunes.  In 2011, she must demonstrate that she still possesses the steely core of willpower and fortitude that propelled her to greatness and upon which she must rely in order to return there.

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We resume our look back at the year that was with a review of 2010 as experienced by the second half of our pseudonym!

Armed with a perfect record in Davis Cup live rubbers this year, the French team now leaves its homeland for the first time this season.  Entering Novak’s lair, Monfils and his supporting cast must target victories in the three matches not contested by the world #3.  The task looms somewhat less large than it seems at first glance, however, for the visitors hold modest advantages in each of those encounters.  But will the notoriously flaky French buckle under the pressure of the vociferous Belgrade multitudes?  As Monfils noted, Djokovic and his compatriots face the perhaps more intimidating mission of capturing their nation’s first Davis Cup amidst the lofty expectations swirling around them, both inside and outside Serbia.  We unfold a potential weekend narrative below.

Day 1:  After an uncharacteristically consistent fall, Monfils must overcome Tipsarevic in order to prevent this final from becoming The Novak Show with Guest Appearances from Gael and Gilles.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, the world #49 has proved a difficult test in national team competition, toppling both Berdych and Stepanek in the semifinals this year.  A quirky, intelligent player who never shrinks from the spotlight, Tipsarevic has split his four previous meetings with Monfils and clearly thrives upon the electrified atmosphere unique to Davis Cup.  On the other hand, the top-ranked Frenchman has showcased some of the best tennis of his career over a fall that has featured a US open quarterfinal, three finals, and just one loss to a player outside the top 10 (Gasquet).  At the US Open, in fact, Monfils outlasted Tipsarevic just a round after the Serb upset Roddick.  He opened a crucial quarterfinal tie against Spain with a victory over Ferrer that became more adventurous than it should have, though, so stay alert for drama.  France leads 1-0.

Encountering Simon in a best-of-five format for the first time, Djokovic has won their last five matches but surrendered sets in three of them.  A history of regularly defeating the Frenchman in close matches should serve the Serb well, as will the recent memory of a resounding victory in Beijing from which Gilles extracted only games.  Either mediocre or indifferent in his previous Davis Cup appearances, Simon principally functions as a means to preserve Llodra for what might become a title-deciding fifth rubber.  While he probably can’t win this battle, he might aid France in winning the war if he can collect a set or deplete Djokovic’s physical and mental reserves prior to a more demanding clash with Monfils.  Tied 1-1.

Day 2:  With the tie delicately poised, we expect former Wimbledon champions Clement and Llodra to seize center stage on Saturday.  A regular Davis Cup partnership that defeated the Bryans in the United States during this competition, they likely will overcome a Serbian team comprised of one doubles player and a singles player who has played just two Davis Cup doubles rubbers.  Seemingly fragile in tense situations, Troicki generally has represented the most vulnerable component of an otherwise sturdy squad.  Will Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic replace him with Djokovic in order to avoid a probable 1-2 deficit?  Even if he partners the world #3 with Zimonjic, such a tactic failed markedly in the semifinals against the Czech Republic, so we would advise Obradovic to spare his superstar and rely upon winning the two Sunday matches.  Offering a ray of hope for the home team is Zimonjic’s recent triumph at the World Tour Finals, which concluded his memorable collaboration with Nestor.  Moreover, a debut title at the Kremlin Cup this fall may allow Troicki to settle his nerves.  Exhorting him relentlessly, the crowd ironically won’t benefit him.  France leads 2-1.

Day 3: Just as in the semifinals, Serbia probably will face the challenge of winning the last two matches.  Entrusted with ensuring survival for the second straight tie, Djokovic will hope to prolong his mastery over Monfils, who never has won a match against him and has lost all three of their tiebreaks.  Two rounds after defeated Tipsarevic at the US Open, curiously, the Frenchman mustered just nine games from the Serb in an unfocused, listless effort.  While Monfils has reached three finals since September, so has Djokovic.  Revitalized with his victory over Federer at the US Open, the world #3 rode that momentum to the Beijing title and the Basel final before faltering in Paris.  While his loss to Llodra there raised eyebrows, the medium-speed hard courts in Belgrade align much more closely with Djokovic’s game than the lightning-fast courts in Bercy, although he won the title there last year.  Initially tentative when seeking to preserve a tie against Berdych in the Davis Cup semifinal, Djokovic recovered before the match slipped too far out of his grasp; he also profited from untimely errors by his opponent and likely will do so again.  During their only indoors meeting, though, Monfils dragged the Serb deep into a third-set tiebreak before surrendering, so this match should offer the highest-quality tennis of the weekend, mingling formidable serving with explosive forehands and lithe defense.  Tied 2-2.

Eyeing the hero’s mantle for the second straight Davis Cup tie, Tipsarevic probably won’t know until shortly before the match whether he will face Simon or Llodra.  Since the two Frenchmen display almost diametrically opposite styles, Guy Forget might want to delay his announcement as long as possible in order to diminish the Serb’s preparation time.  In addition to Llodra’s greater Davis Cup experience, his outstanding performance in Paris should compel his captain to select him for the championship-deciding match, yet an eye-opening effort from Simon could cause Forget to ponder carefully.  Among further variables to consider are the length of Llodra’s doubles match, the more Simon-friendly surface, and Tipsarevic’s dominance over the Llodra-like Stepanek in the decisive fifth rubber of the semifinals.  Unless a significant talent gap yawns between the two competitors, an impassioned audience beating thundersticks, blowing horns, and chanting national slogans should play a vital role in the outcome of this decisive rubber.  After a fiercely contested series of matches, a scarred, long-beleaguered nation should fling itself into cathartic celebration.  Serbia wins the Davis Cup, 3-2.

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We now regret to announce a week-long interval before our next article.  Next Friday, we open a series of reflections on the season that has just concluded.