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As Murray’s final feeble forehand faded into the net, our thoughts wasted little time in turning towards the events that unfolded at the season’s first major.  We review the most dazzling success stories, the most courageous overachievers, and the most tepid underachievers of the 2011 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Djokovic:  Rarely forced to summon his finest tennis in the final, the third seed earned his second Slam title not only with his celebrated groundstroke offense but also with his often overlooked defense.  Frustrating the easily frustrated Scot, Djokovic not only tracked down potential point-ending shots but placed them in awkward positions that restored the rally to equilibrium.  Before the second straight anticlimactic final in Melbourne, however, the Serb had relied upon more familiar weapons and his enhanced serve to overwhelm Federer in a semifinal less competitive than the score suggested.  A round before that victory, Djokovic cruised past the ball-bruising Berdych with superior athleticism and versatility.  Gliding among his manifold talents as smoothly as a figure skater, the 2011 men’s champion stayed calmly confident throughout a fortnight that revealed his renewed self-belief.  Has he finally learned how to sharpen his focus at crucial moments?  Or was it merely the presence of Ivanovic in his box that lifted his morale?  We’ll find out on the North American hard courts that mirror his balanced style so well.  A+

Clijsters:  Whereas a Williams or an Henin can race effortlessly past their opponents, the four-time Slam champion has honed a meticulously constructed game perhaps more complete than any of her peers.   Absent from her arsenal during her first career, though, was the steely determination that defined the rivals who snatched Slam trophies while she meekly raised runner-up plates.  Still far from savage in her comeback, Clijsters nevertheless has found the mature poise to outlast adversity.  This trait emerged when she overcame unsteady sets against Cornet, Makarova, and Radwanska to comfortably ease through tiebreaks.  It emerged again when she raised her level several notches against a far more formidable Zvonareva in the semifinals.  But it emerged most strikingly when she patiently outlasted a surging Li after dropping the first set and struggling to hold serve in the second.  Gradually quelling the doubts that besieged her, this once fragile competitor navigated to a victory less gorgeous than gritty.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam, she might reconsider her retirement plans if these triumphs continue.   A

Li:  Shouldering the expectations of a nation with aplomb, the Chinese veteran dispatched her first five opponents with an efficiency that evoked a much more fabled champion.  When she confronted world #1 Wozniacki, Li delicately toed the line between exploiting opportunities to launch a swift strike and gradually maneuvering the Dane out of position.  After she seized the momentum late in the second set, she refused to relinquish it to an adversary renowned for her resilience.  Remarkably unflustered by the magnitude of the occasion, the Chinese star edged relentlessly towards her historic, hard-earned victory.  Li then dropped the first eight points of the final but clawed her way into the contest one penetrating groundstroke at a time.  Through the first set and a half, she comprehensively outplayed the three-time US Open champion before the nerves that she had suppressed for so long finally surfaced in a few tentative overheads and swing volleys.  Unless injury intervenes, one suspects that a second opportunity might not elude her.   A

Murray:  Nestled in a comfortable section of the draw, the two-time finalist enjoyed a relatively tranquil route through the first four rounds.  Despite a third-set lapse against Dolgopolov, Murray conquered the sort of bold shot-maker who has troubled him at previous hard-court majors.  Less convincing against Ferrer, Murray nevertheless relied upon his seamless movement and court coverage to outlast the Spaniard who lacked the ability to overpower him.  After Murray escaped an epic opening service game in the final, we expected him to draw confidence from the reprieve.  Instead, one poor game at 4-5 in the first set derailed him for good, leading to a slovenly comedy of errors in which even a bemused Djokovic participated at times.  While the first six rounds illustrated Murray’s vast reservoir of talent, the seventh round demonstrated his urgent need to dispel the negativity that continues to undermine his potential.  Flinging away an opportunity to win his first major without defeating either Federer or Nadal, he may struggle to recover from a Sunday debacle even more dismal than his defeat here last year.   A-

Wozniacki:  Unlike so many Slam-less #1s before her, the Dane marched resolutely through a moderately imposing section of the draw.  Disproving those who believed that she would wilt under the intensified scrutiny, Wozniacki secured the top ranking after Melbourne with a comeback quarterfinal victory over Schiavone.  That collision represented a triumph for her conservative, often criticized style against one of the most imaginative shot-makers in the draw, who acquitted herself impressively despite her starring role in the next entry on this list.  And one should recognize that Wozniacki came within a point of victory before Li Na snatched a finals berth away from her.  While playing percentages still has not won the Dane a major, it will propel her deep into most important draws.  But the 20-year-old may find her precocious maturity tested by the disappointment of failing to convert a match point in a Slam semifinal.  A-

Francesca Schiavone Francesca Schiavone of Italy is congratulated after the fourth round match by Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

4:44:  Just two majors after Isner-Mahut, Kuznetsova and Schiavone collaborated on a labyrinthine encounter that featured 50 break points, nearly 500 serves, and a third set longer than several five-set matches at this year’s Australian Open.  Vindicating the equal prize money system, this duo managed to maintain their scintillating all-court tennis as day turned to dusk while spectators  stayed transfixed by the suspense.  Buoyed by her upset over Henin a round earlier, Kuznetsova showed flashes of her Slam-winning form as she carved out six match points, only to watch the Italian methodically erase one after the next.  The Russian then resisted valiantly when Schiavone twice failed to serve out the match before rallying from a 0-30 deficit to capitalize on her third opportunity.  Unlike the Isner-Mahut exercise in futility, these long-time rivals accompanied their gaudy scoreline with engaging rallies that showcased a variety of talents.  One nearly forgot to watch the clock.  A-

Zvonareva:  Like Wozniacki, she largely vindicated her elevated stature by reaching the semifinals, although the world #2 looked less convincing than the Dane for much of the fortnight.  Extended to a third set by Bojana Jovanovski in the second round, she regrouped to ease past three consecutive Czech lefties (see below).  But then she offered little meaningful resistance to Clijsters after a horrifically shanked smash prevented her from reaching 4-4 in the first set.  A solid player with no glaring flaws, Zvonareva should continue to dominate the journeywomen of the WTA, but she seems to lack the self-belief to break through at a major.  Nevertheless, her meltdowns clearly have grown both less frequent and less extreme, suggesting that she will contend for the top non-majors.  A-/B+

Ferrer:   A point and a set away from a debut Slam final, the Spaniard profited from the injury incurred by Nadal early in the quarterfinal.  On the other hand, he demonstrated his underestimated hard-court prowess before that stage with a series of resounding victories.  Also impressive was his ability to blunt the raw power of Milos Raonic, conceding just a dozen unforced errors across four sets.  Although his tiebreaks against Murray disappointed, he challenged the Scot more vigorously than one might have expected considering the gulf between them in talent and accomplishments.  A-/B+

German women:  Reaching her first career Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic extended the momentum of her second-week appearance at last year’s US Open.  Handed a walkover by Venus, she profited from a lackadaisical performance by Sharapova but deserves credit for withstanding the Russian’s predictable eleventh-hour surge.  Armed with a similarly combative attitude and fierce groundstrokes, Julia Goerges upset top-20 resident Kanepi in the second round before collaborating with Sharapova on one of the tournament’s most scintillating exercises in unvarnished baseline might.  Will they eventually restore their country to the limelight in a sport where it once stood tall?  B+

Dolgopolov:  We found much to appreciate in his insouciant swagger and audacious ball-striking, although his technique and focus require some refinement.  After consecutive five-set victories over Tsonga and Soderling, he sank his teeth into a quarterfinal against Murray with admirable confidence.  Even if his shot selection remains a bit puzzling at times, he should strike fear into the leading contenders on fast hard courts where he needs to hit fewer winners in each rally.  His peers may wish that they shared his effortless serve and a court coverage surprisingly comprehensive for an offense-oriented player.  B+

Radwanska:  Seemingly doomed against Date in her opener, the Pole climbed out of a double-break deficit in the final set and later would save two match points before outlasting Peng.  A canny counterpuncher with almost no first-strike power, Radwanska never will win a major but has earned her return to the top 10 with one of the most distinctive and nuanced games in the WTA.  Additional credit for reaching the quarterfinals of a major from which she tentatively had withdrawn last fall.  B+

WTA lefties:  Since virtually all of the last decade’s Slam champions have swung with their right hand, one found the first-week success of the southpaws surprising and a bit refreshing.  Running aground on the shoals of Zvonareva, the Czech lefties Benesova and Kvitova combined to dispatch no fewer than four seeded players, while their compatriot Safarova held set points against the world #2 in the second round.  The most likely to leave an impact on the WTA, Kvitova relied upon a versatile forehand and a harsh combative energy to topple Stosur and Pennetta.  And one should not forget the exploits of Russian lefty Makarova, generally considered a doubles specialist.  Before stretching Clijsters into a first-set tiebreak, she won two final sets against Ivanovic and Petova that totaled 32 games.  B+

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes his face with a towel in his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer:  Beginning another Slam semifinal streak, the defending champion oscillated between the divine and the mortal realms throughout the first week.  Two rounds after he squandered a two-set lead to Simon in a draining, nerve-jangling encounter, Federer needlessly tossed away a set to the unprepossessing Robredo.  Dominant against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, he shifted from predator to prey in his semifinal against Djokovic.  Had he found a way to win a second set in which he led 5-2, that encounter could have veered onto an entirely different trajectory.  At that stage, however, Federer proceeded to lose eight of the next nine games, a sin that he never would have committed in his prime.  Having heard similar statements after a similar loss here three years ago, we hesitate to proclaim the end of the Federer era, but for the first time since 2003 he holds none of the major titles.  B+/B

Berdych:  Having reached the final two majors ago and crashed out in the first round one major ago, the enigmatic Czech struck a balance between those two extremes in a quarterfinal run that included a victory over Verdasco.  Utterly unable to disturb Djokovic in the quarterfinals, though, he won just eight games from the eventual champion and remains vulnerable to anyone who can expose his monochromatic style.  The draw will need to unfold in his favor in order for him to win a major.  B+/B

Wawrinka:  Jettisoning his wife and child in order to extract as much as he could from his career, the Swiss #2 looked stronger than the Swiss #1 during a first week in which he did not drop a set to Monfils or Roddick.  Buttressed by pugnacious coach Peter Lundgren, the gentle Wawrinka seemed on the verge of igniting an inner fire.  Then he played the Swiss #1 and wilted again, winning just seven games.  B

Azarenka:  In our 2011 preview, we predicted that the Belarussian would rebound from a wildly erratic 2010 campaign.  From one perspective, reaching the second week of a major constituted a small step forward from her premature Slam losses last year.  From the other perspective, she should have found a way to muster more than perfunctory resistance to Li Na, an opponent whom Azarenka had severely tested and even defeated in the past.  Counterbalancing her outstanding backhand, footwork, and movement, her forehand disintegrates more readily than it once did, and her serve remains more a liability more often than a weapon.  B

Soderling:  Never having won consecutive matches the season’s first major, the Swede finally reached the second week  and appeared to struggle with a foot injury during his five-set loss to Dolgopolov.  While his embarrassingly error-strewn performance that day may have stemmed from the ailment, we expected more determination and less listlessness from a player who had dominated the Brisbane field and just captured the #4 ranking from Murray.  Soderling retains that status after the tournament, but the Scot has effectively regained fourth place in the ATP food chain for the moment.  B/B-

Sharapova:  Easily surpassing her abysmal performance here in 2010, the 2008 champion showed glimpses of her once-majestic form in the second set against Razzano and the last two sets against Goerges.  Defeated for the first time in a Slam night session, however, she never quite arrived on the court against Petkovic until she trailed by a set and 5-1.  Although (as Petkovic discovered) she remains a difficult foe to finish, her chances of winning seven straight matches at a major in the near future seem remote at best.  Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt rekindle the focus and intensity in a competitor who now seems sporadically disinterested?  B/B-

Samantha Stosur Samantha Stosur of Australia serves in her third round match against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Stosur:  With the eyes of Australia upon her, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist crumbled embarrassingly against Kvitova in a Rod Laver night session.  Unable to sustain multiple leads in the first set, Stosur failed to test the Czech lefty thereafter and continues to struggle with self-belief.  We may not find out until the clay season whether this congenial veteran will stagnate or continue to climb.  B-

Roddick:  A principal reason why no Americans reached the quarterfinals at the season’s first major, he may have found himself fortunate to escape Robin Haase in the second round, when the Dutchman struggled with an ankle injury.  No such deus ex machina descended to save Roddick in the fourth round, though, when Wawrinka routinely menaced his serve and regularly outhit him from the baseline.  Unable to win as many points on his first serve as he once could, the American has not quite regained his energy after a bout of mono last year.  But at least he didn’t flame out in the opening round like the frustrating Querrey.  B-

Davydenko:  What a difference a year and a wrist injury make.  Last year, commentators labeled him a legitimate contender for the Melbourne crown.  After a first-round defeat at this year’s Australian Open, the Russian looks ready to recede into obscurity as his ranking dips outside the top 30.  C

Jankovic:  Still a threat on clay and the slowest hard courts, the Serb has a losing record since Wimbledon and must reverse her fortunes dramatically in order to mount a somewhat decent title defense at Indian Wells.  Always ill, injured, or exhausted, she may spend the rest of her career paying for her foolishly workaholic schedule during her peak.  C

Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Nadal:  At least for now, Rod Laver remains the only men’s player who has won four consecutive majors in the Open era.  Entering the tournament depleted by illness and an overextended offseason, Nadal nevertheless accelerated steadily through the first four rounds and seemed on the verge of launching  yet another second-week surge.   Rivals and fans alike must wonder what might have happened had his ever-beleaguered body not betrayed him as it did here in 2010.  Incomplete

Milos Raonic:  Charging out of nowhere through the qualifying draw, he won as many matches as did the eventual champions, conquered US Open semifinalist Youzhny, and took a set from a top-10 opponent (Ferrer).  Can this virtual unknown consolidate that success, or will he become the Gilles Muller of Melbourne?   Visitor Permit

Ivanovic:  Undone as much by an untimely abdominal injury as an inspired Makarova, the 2008 finalist competed doggedly throughout an epic first-round defeat far more creditable than last year’s second-round fiasco.  Having not reached a Slam quarterfinal in three years, she nevertheless showed sufficient self-belief to battle deep into the third set and save five match points.  If Ivanovic can restore her health, this setback should not derail her for long.  Guarded optimism still seems appropriate for Ana, although she must capitalize upon the impetus of her  impressive fall campaign before it dissipates.   Temporary leave of absence

Venus:  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men might not be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again after accumulating injuries forced her first career retirement at a major.  We have not yet penned her tennis obituary, but we have compiled preliminary notes.  Permanent leave of absence?

Henin:  Some loved her.  Others hated her.  Everyone will miss her.  Nobody should miss our retrospective article on her, coming soon in Australia Tennis Magazine.    Honorary degree

***

Still a trifle knackered from the first Slam of the season, we return by the end of the week with a Fed Cup preview of all World Group and at least some World Group II ties.  Until then, we wave a fond farewell to Melbourne!

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

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Just as he did in 2008, Novak Djokovic has advanced to the Australian Open final after charging to the US Open final the previous fall.  Just as he did in 2008, the Serb mercilessly dismantled the GOAT and reigning champion in a straight-set semifinal victory.  Just as he did in 2008, he faces a Slam-less opponent in the final after a premature exit by Nadal.  So, just as he did in 2008, will Djokovic nuzzle the trophy at the season’s opening major?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Andy Murray of the United States hug at the net during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Across the net awaits fellow crown prince Andy Murray, who has shared Djokovic’s plight throughout the golden age of Federer and Nadal.  Rare is the opportunity that now beckons before the Scot, who can end his Slam title drought without defeating either of the ATP legends.  Initially dominated by Djokovic in a mini-rivalry that has lain dormant for nearly two years, Murray has won their last six sets and both of their finals.  Although the Serb never has faced him in a best-of-five format, the fifth seed’s superior fitness should tilt that unknown factor in his favor should this match extend deep into the Melbourne night.  After tottering within a point of a two-set deficit against Ferrer, Murray saved his most compelling tennis for the pivotal tiebreaks and gradually ground down the ATP’s ultimate grinder.  Uneven in a four-set quarterfinal victory over Dolgopolov, last year’s finalist nearly allowed a routine first set to escape him and then breathed fleeting life into his opponent with a careless third set.  In his first four matches, however, his victims struggled to snatch a handful of games from the stingy Scot, who played with the lucid mind and opportunistic attitude that he must maintain in the final.

The distinct but not overwhelming favorite on Sunday, Djokovic announced himself as emphatically as Murray by conceding just five games to the competent Granollers in his opener.  Beyond a bizarre second-set wobble a round later, the 2008 champion has bludgeoned the belief out of his quivering prey with a series of nearly flawless performances.  Triggering memories of his title run four years ago, he reeled off six consecutive sets against top-8 opponents in the quarterfinals and semifinals.  Two days after Djokovic relied on his movement and versatility to baffle Berdych, he deployed his underestimated offensive firepower to fluster Federer.  The Serb comfortably won all three tiebreaks that he contested against the Czech and the Swiss, while he showed no traces of his chronic fatalism when confronting a second-set deficit in the semifinal.  Whereas Murray’s efficiency has declined across the fortnight, therefore, Djokovic’s intensity has risen with each match.  And one should not lean too heavily on the evidence of their recent history, for the Serb bears little resemblance to his tepid 2008-09 self.  In an ironic twist, a player who has loudly condemned the tour’s brief off-season profited from that brevity by importing his momentum from the US Open and the Davis Cup championship to Australia.

A sprightly counterpoint to the stately procession of Federer-Nadal finals, the 2011 title clash offers a dimension largely absent from the sport’s defining rivalry.  Divergent from the forehand-centered styles of the top two, Djokovic and Murray will unleash the two most stunning backhands in the ATP; in fact, last year’s finalist derives much greater offense from that wing than from his cautious forehand.  Ever crafty in point construction, the Scot will hope to resist the Serb’s mightier first-strike impact and disrupt his rhythm with a smorgasbord of spins and slices.  Much less averse to risk than the fifth seed, the third seed will aim to flatten his forehand and interweave safer cross-court strokes with intrepid rockets down the lines, robbing his opponent of the time required to construct his clever combinations.  These two gladiators share equally formidable first serves, although Djokovic enjoys greater consistency on that shot and complements it with a superior second serve.  Compensating for that disparity is Murray’s crackling return, which will subject the Serb to greater pressure than did any of his previous opponents.  Since both players prefer to wage war from the baseline, one expects them to decide few points at the net, and their seamless movement will thwart most drop shot attempts when this pair stands toe to toe.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia waits for Andy Murray of Great Britain to head the ball back during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Yet the intangible mental dimension probably will separate victor from vanquished.  Neither the Serb nor the Scot excels at concealing their emotions, either smirking in self-deprecation (the former) or moping disconsolately along the baseline (the latter) when the tide turns against them.  How will the two finalists respond to the adversity that surely will confront each of them in a closely contested encounter?  While one combatant seeks to cast aside the cloak of a one-Slam wonder, his adversary would delight in donning that mantle.

Two crown princes.  One throne.  Let the battle royale begin.

 

Na Li Na Li of China celebrates winning the womens final against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day six of the 2011 Medibank International at Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre on January 14, 2011 in Sydney, Australia.

Li vs. Clijsters:  The fifth first-time finalist in the last four majors, Li Na hopes to follow the yellow brick road to the same destination at which Schiavone arrived on the red dirt of Roland Garros.  Yet a maiden title for China’s “golden flower” would surprise much less than the Miracle on Clay, for the ninth seed regularly has ambushed higher-ranked foes on the sport’s grandest stages.  Her icy fortitude resurfaced when she confronted a match point in the second set of her semifinal against world #1 Wozniacki, a moment at which most 11th-ranked players would have contented themselves with the achievement of reaching a Slam semifinal.  Far from sauntering complacently to the exit, however, Li whipped a forehand winner past the Dane and never relinquished the initiative thereafter.  Determined to control her own destiny, she never retreated from her aggressive mentality throughout the tense final set, while Wozniacki shrank ever further into her shell of passivity.  And when Li served for the match, she played with the composure of a champion rather than exposing her nerves with either tentative or reckless ball-striking.  First among her compatriots to reach the final weekend at a Slam, she will bear not only her own expectations but those of her watchful compatriots, who impose lofty standards upon their athletes.  If she can channel the inevitable nerves into positive energy, Clijsters will find Li a sterner challenge than any of her six previous victims.  Whereas Radwanska and Zvonareva generally allowed the Belgian to dictate the rallies, she will receive no such courtesy from the ninth seed.  Further elevating the latter’s confidence, moreover, is her startling victory over Kim in the Sydney final after she reversed a monumental first-set deficit. 

Although this encounter looms much larger in the career of Li than of Clijsters, the world #3 would profit from this fourth major title more than one might first imagine.  A champion only under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium thus far, the Belgian would buttress her legacy by accompanying her three US Open trophies with the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  Since she claims to envision retirement after the 2012 Olympics, Clijsters may pursue her few remaining opportunities with an additional layer of urgency.  Slightly less authoritative than Li throughout the fortnight, she has meandered through unfocused interludes before restoring order just as a set or crucial service break seemed on the verge of slipping away from her.  Outside her farcically one-sided opener against Safina, however, Kim’s semifinal victory over world #2 Zvonareva unfolded her most convincing and complete performance in Melbourne.  Meticulously organizing the rallies one groundstroke at a time, she steadily outmaneuvered the Russian from the baseline and smoothly sallied into the forecourt whenever she received a meek riposte.  Such alert instincts could prove central to her fate in the final, where the player who finishes points more efficiently will prevail. 

Since both contenders couple their offense with sturdy defense, each of them must plant herself inside the baseline and pin her opponent behind it in order to prevent her from restarting the rally on neutral terms.  Counterbalancing the Chinese star’s somewhat more potent aggression is Kim’s somewhat more fluid movement, but the two finalists can exchange roles with ease.  Mirroring each other’s styles, both Clijsters and Li have assembled symmetrical groundstroke games, superb fitness, precisely timed returns, and serves that disintegrate as rarely as they dazzle.  Thus, the match should hinge less upon overall tactics than upon point-by-point execution.  After an understated beginning, we expect to watch them carefully probe each other’s vulnerabilities and the contours of the court as they determine the degree of risk that will bring them the greatest reward.  Can they choreograph a pas de deux worthy of last year’s championship clash?

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates a point in his first round match against Karol Beck of Slovakia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Ferrer vs. Murray:  Not the Spaniard whom most expected to spar with the Scot in the second semifinal, the world #7 has reached the final four for only the second time at a major.  Curiously, both of his appearances at this stage have come on hard courts rather than his favored clay, where he has conquered Murray three times.  Succumbing to the Spanish dirt devil at Rome and Madrid in 2010, the world #5 emphatically avenged those reverses at the year-end championships.  Their only hard-court meeting in nearly five years, that contest rushed swiftly towards its inevitable conclusion as Ferrer rarely threatened Murray on his serve while constantly sustaining pressure on his own delivery.  Like Nadal, the Scot can cover the court as thoroughly as the seventh seed, who has not developed the offensive arsenal to overpower his higher-ranked foe from the baseline.  In addition to his grinding resilience, Ferrer relies upon a steady barrage of inside-out forehands that often can trouble forehand-centered games but flies directly into the teeth of Murray’s greatest asset, his brisk two-handed backhand.  Although last year’s finalist has achieved little consistency with his first serve, he will collect far more free points with that imposing delivery than does Ferrer with a serve that merely opens the rally, similar to those of most clay-court specialists. 

Among the two finest returners in the game, the fifth and seventh seeds view that shot from contrasting perspectives.  Whereas the Scot slaps benign second serves for outright winners, the Spaniard punches an unparalleled percentage of first serves into play with his compact strokes, frustrating opponents accustomed to aces.  On a surface far slower than the indoor court in London, Ferrer will sink his jaws into baseline exchanges more frequently than he could during their previous encounter.  Before the quarterfinal, moreover, the seventh seed reeled off victories nearly as authoritative as those of his opponent, who conceded just five games to Melzer and just 22 games in his first 12 sets.  Twice a runner-up to Federer at hard-court majors, Murray bears much greater expectations than does a Spaniard whose compatriots center their attention upon Nadal.  How will he respond to the role of the overwhelming favorite in a situation of this magnitude?  In a similar context against Cilic last year, he opened the match tense and irritable before finding his rhythm midway through the second set.  Without a thunderous serve to defuse, though, Murray should earn another opportunity to infuse British hearts with a bittersweet brew blending renewed hope and the anticipation of anguish.

Li Na Li Na of China reacts after winning a point against Alisa Kleybanova of Russia during day five of the 2010 China Open at the National Tennis Centre on October 5, 2010 in Beijing, China.

Wozniacki vs. Li:  Converging for the second straight Australian Open, these baseline gladiators collaborated upon an especially ghastly fourth-round encounter here last year.  While Wozniacki uncorked just three winners, Li repeatedly shanked swinging volleys and struggled to place her first serve throughout a match that featured more breaks than holds.  Dragging each other into final sets in their two prior meetings, they mirror each other in areas such as their stinging two-handed backhands and unremarkable but reliable serves, which will lead to elongated rallies that showcase their exceptional movement and court sense.  Whereas Wozniacki favors consistency over aggression on a forehand heavy with topspin, though, Li often flattens out her forehand to target lines and corners more ambitiously.  Stretching opponents off the court laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes, last year’s semifinalist must counter the Dane’s tactic of pushing opponents behind the baseline with deep but vertically oriented gambits.

Curiously, the 20-year-old already has compiled far greater experience at the sport’s highest level than the veteran who opposes her.  With one Slam final already to her credit, Wozniacki displayed the self-belief born of that experience in her quarterfinal comeback against Schiavone.  Down a set and a break, the world #1 did not despair during a deuce service game that almost certainly would have sealed her fate had she not secured it.  With a tenacity that resembled champions of the past, she found a way to navigate through those murky waters and soon found herself rewarded as fatigue nibbled away at Schiavone.  In a contrasting manner, Li Na also has resembled past champions through her utter dominance over her first five victims, none of whom could pry more than six games from the relentless Chinese star.  Never a paragon of consistency, she has wobbled for no more than one or two games at a time throughout the fortnight.  Li regrouped immediately when early adversity struck in her victories over Azarenka and Petkovic, demonstrating an appetite for battle that she shares with her adversary.  We expect a tense war of attrition that will jangle the nerves of Piotr and Jiang before the steelier competitor captures a hard-earned berth in the final.

Vera Zvonareva Kim Clijsters (L) of Belguim and Vera Zvonareva of Russia pose before their women's singles final on day thirteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 11, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Clijsters vs. Zvonareva:  A script all too familiar to casual fans, this burgeoning rivalry between two of the top three players in the world reaches its third consecutive major.  Despite their equally lofty rankings, they have produced tepid tennis in most of their recent encounters, even excluding the unsightly US Open final.   The Russian has scored more substantial successes against Clijsters than anyone else during the Belgian’s comeback, however, and the medium-speed courts in Melbourne may tilt in her direction more than the slick surface in New York.  Increasingly accustomed to reaching the latter stages of majors, Zvonareva will have grown in self-belief with each resounding result, while the relatively relaxed atmosphere in Australia will soothe her easily awakened anxieties.  With no fatal flaws yet no striking strengths, she can ambush heralded foes like Clijsters only by maintaining focus, patience, and emotional resilience, all of which she lacked until less than a year ago.  Those traits played a central role in her three 2010 victories over the Belgian, who staggered through both third sets that they contested while Zvonareva stayed unspectacular but solid.

Even if the world #2 does curb her nerves, not an easy task in a Slam semifinal, she probably will need assistance from an opponent who can do everything that she does with just a trifle more polish and precision.  While the Russian has looked more composed and authoritative with each match, Clijsters looked invincible when she routed Safina in the first round but has grown distinctly more human with each round since then.  Over her last three matches, in fact, the Belgian has donated more than 100 unforced errors to opponents who still could not capitalize upon that generosity to steal a set from her.  Subject to more mental lapses than most champions, Clijsters continues to experience moments of negativity or doubt that can cloud her normally acute sensibilities and lure her away from the lucid point construction that has won her three major titles.  On a brighter note, she has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has contested here with minimal ado, whereas Zvonareva has struggled at times near the end of sets and matches.  Rather than the electric shot-making of the Williams sisters, Henin, and Sharapova, Clijsters and Zvonareva excel at absorbing pace and redirecting the ball.  Since their physical skills parallel each other so closely, as in the first semifinal, the psychological dimension probably will decide this encounter.  We expect many more unforced errors than winners as the exhaustive court coverage of both players coaxes their opponent into low-percentage shot selection.

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic - U.S. Open-Day 13

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Without Nadal awaiting the winner on Sunday night, this encounter becomes even more momentous than a typical Slam semifinal although not quite a de facto final.  Having split their previous four semifinals at hard-court majors, Federer and Djokovic both seek to build upon the confidence that they gained late in 2010, when the Serb’s Davis Cup heroics swiftly followed the Swiss legend’s march through the year-end championships.  Their US Open meeting reinvigorated not only Djokovic but this fiery rivalry, rife with savagely slashed forehands, improbable defensive retrievals, and epic rallies that sprawl both vertically and laterally across the court.  Among the key advantages that the third seed long has enjoyed over the second seed is the finest two-handed backhand in the ATP, which has hammered away at Federer’s vulnerable one-hander during the Serb’s victories over the Swiss.  Yet the defending champion has enhanced that lesser wing during the last several months, flicking cross-court winners at pivotal junctures during his victory over Nadal in London.  From our perspective, though, two-handers inherently possess greater penetrative capacity than their more elegant one-handed counterparts, so Federer cannot completely erase that power gap.

Snapping his streak of three straight US Open losses to the GOAT, Djokovic looked dazed with disbelief at his accomplishment despite having pounded his chest and pumped his fist with intimidating physicality throughout the final set.  Unable to summon the same fearlessness during his three fall clashes with Federer, the Serb lost six of the seven sets that they played in Shanghai, Basel, and London amidst shrugs and self-deprecating smirks.  The post-US Open malaise may have sprung in part from Djokovic’s focus upon the Davis Cup title as the fall events ebbed towards the anticlimactic conclusion in London.  Rather than basking in the glow of his December glory, the third seed has surged through the draw of the major that he won three years ago while conceding only a single set.  Comprehensively dominant against Berdych in the quarterfinals, Djokovic suggested that he may have recaptured the swagger that brought him to the US Open final as well as the Melbourne title three years ago.  A straight-sets victim of the Serb on that occasion, Federer looked chronically fallible in the first week before recording stunning service statistics a round ago against Wawrinka.  The defending champion will face heightened pressure from his opponent’s formidable second-serve return, however, which underscores the significance of his first-serve percentage.  And the suspenseful fifth set in their US Open semifinal might never have arrived had Federer not sagged in intensity for prolonged periods throughout the first four sets.  A far more experienced and somewhat more confident competitor than the Serb, he can avenge that defeat and reclaim the psychological edge in their rivalry only if he proves that he can maintain not just form but focus across a best-of-five encounter—an increasingly complicated challenge as the years drift past.

 

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain serves in his second round match against Ryan Sweeting of the United States of America during day four of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Ferrer:  Impeccable in their last seven meetings, the world #1 has dropped just one total set to a feisty grinder who sometimes can match him in consistency but not in power.  But their most recent meeting at a major came more than three years ago at the US Open, where Ferrer eagerly chipped away at his ailing compatriot like an zealous, unsophisticated sculptor with a block of Carrara marble.  From that gritty upset followed the finest few months of the diminutive Spaniard’s career, including not only a semifinal appearance in New York but a finals appearance at the year-end championships after another victory over Rafa.  Somewhat tentative in the first few sequels after those debacles, Nadal gradually rediscovered his comprehensive superiority in their rivalry, jerking David from side to side with harshly angled forehands.

An indifferent ball-striker with an average serve, Ferrer relies upon fitness, consistency, and competitive ferocity to nibble away at his opponents until they depart for less demanding pursuits.  In a healthy, confident Rafa, though, he confronts an opponent who runs as tirelessly as he does, retrieves as doggedly as he can, and covets each victory even more desperately than he does.  Although intrigue might develop if Nadal struggles once again with the illness that hampered during the first week, his emphatic performance against Cilic boded ill for Ferrer and the other six quarterfinalists.  Not quite convinced that the Rafa Slam will become reality, we remain firmly convinced that the world #7 will not disrupt his compatriot’s chance at history any more than Wawrinka succeeded in undermining Federer.

Dolgopolov vs. Murray:  In recent seasons, the Australian Open has featured a surprise success story in the men’s draw, and the charismatic Ukrainian became the flavor of the season with a rollercoaster five-set upset over world #4 Soderling.  Our first extended glimpse of Dolgopolov during that encounter left us with respect for his resilience but an ambivalent impression of his game.  Able to generate raw power as effortlessly as anyone, the only unseeded quarterfinalist can slap winners from anywhere on the court and often left the Swede flat-footed with his deceptive, compact strokes.  And yet his unrefined sense of point construction also spawns senseless unforced errors in shoals when his timing falters by just a fraction.  Likewise, Dolgopolov’s serve displays a fluid ease uninterrupted from toss to follow-through, but its technique lacks the structured precision of the ATP’s most formidable deliveries.

In contrast to Murray’s four feckless victims, the Ukrainian clearly has the ability to hit through him from the baseline when at his best.  Across the best-of-five format, the Scot remains vulnerable to ball-bruising, erratic foes who can spray groundstrokes for extended periods but survive to marshal their unruly weapons at crucial moments.  Toppled by volatile shot-makers like Verdasco, Cilic, and Wawrinka at hard-court majors, Murray nevertheless has looked as imperious this year as he did in 2010.  The world #5 likely will seek to stay within his counterpunching comfort zone for one more round until Nadal forces him out of it.  But will he leave that cozy haven if Dolgopolov reproduces the sporadically scintillating form that battered Tsonga and Soderling, or will he hope for his challenger to self-destruct?  If he has learned from his previous defeats at hard-court majors, he will choose the former approach.

Kim Clijsters - 2011 Australian Open - Day 8

Radwanska vs. Clijsters:  Twice clawing herself back from the edge of the cliff in this tournament, the petite Pole erased a double-break deficit in the final set against Date before swiping aside two match points against Peng.  Seemingly untroubled by the injury that nearly forestalled her entry here, she continues to unhinge the WTA’s baseline-bound journeywomen but did not face a top-50 opponent en route to her second Melbourne quarterfinal.  The competition spikes abruptly when she confronts the three-time US Open champion, although Clijsters has displayed somewhat less than commanding form in her last two matches against Cornet and Makarova.  Unable to exploit the early nerves of those untested opponents, the Belgian listlessly watched a first-set lead evaporate before collecting herself in the tiebreak.  

A sturdier competitor than Cornet or Makarova, Radwanska will capitalize upon any uneven blemishes on the third seed’s game, which otherwise should prove amply sufficient to dispatch her.  During the Pole’s stirring comeback over Peng, we observed her growing eagerness to step inside the baseline and punish mid-court replies, formerly an area in which she had struggled.  If she can master her counterpunching instincts to finish points with offense, her deft, wily finesse will become ever more lethal and unpredictable for her foes.  Less encouragingly, her chronic negativity also resurfaced with wails of dismay when rash forehands found the net.  A heavy underdog in her duel with Clijsters, Radwanska cannot afford to succumb to defeatism as she has in past clashes with the Williams sisters.

Kvitova vs. Zvonareva:   Igniting or perhaps reigniting their careers during the same fortnight, the 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist and 2010 Wimbledon finalist have split their two previous meetings with equally lopsided scorelines.  This statistic should not surprise, for both the Russian and the Czech bring moody, passionate personalities to the court that erupt in bursts of either positive or negative energy.  Despite the gap in their rankings, Kvitova has looked sharper for most of the tournament as she rifled forehand winners down the line and hooked them cross court at angles that only lefties can create.  The third consecutive Czech southpaw to face the world #2, her superior first-strike power should enable her to capture the initiative in rallies and dictate play from the baseline for better or for worse.  Aiding her in that endeavor is a versatile serve that can pinpoint both corners of each service box.

Much as she did against Kvitova’s compatriots and the emerging Jovanovski, Zvonareva will play intelligent, high-percentage tennis designed to expose her opponent’s inconsistency.  Can the Czech answer the challenging questions that the Russian poses?  More often than not, Zvonareva’s carefully engineered all-court game outlasts the sparks that fly from her shot-making foes, but her elevated ranking also stems from her talent at trading defense for offense when an opportunity arrives.  Like Li Na, her strength lies in her lack of a glaring weakness for opponents to target, buttressed as she is by symmetrical groundstrokes, a generally sturdy (albeit recently shaky) serve, and suffocating court coverage that has improved even further since her ankle surgery.  Nevertheless, this tougher, more confident Czech will not bounce as easily as the two before her.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia serves in his fourth round match against Nicolas Almagro of Spain during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Berdych vs. Djokovic:    Meeting on two notable occasions in 2010, their encounters spiraled in strikingly divergent directions.  In a Wimbledon semifinal, the Czech fired the first salvo with a comprehensive performance that cruelly contrasted his newfound confidence with the mental foibles that plagued the Serb throughout the first half.  Just a few months later, though,  Djokovic reversed the momentum emphatically with an emotional four-set victory in a Davis Cup semifinal that revealed his revitalized self-belief after his US Open surge while illustrated Berdych’s second-half slump.  With both contestants seemingly rejuvenated, spectators should brace themselves for an encounter more compelling than either of its prequels.

When at his best, the 2008 champion showcases a more complete game than last year’s Wimbledon finalist, who relies more heavily on his forehand despite improving his two-hander.   In addition to his more symmetrical groundstroke arsenal, Djokovic can unleash a lithe movement that trumps his opponent’s ungainly strides, although the surface will allow the Czech a shade more time to arrange limbs that resemble the Pillars of Hercules.   Nevertheless, Berdych has looked impressively poised during his first four rounds, especially when he defused the  volatile shotmakers Gasquet and Verdasco in straight (and straightforward) sets.  Unlikely to ever shed the reputation of mental unreliability, Djokovic slumped in his last two Australian Open quarterfinals after imposing first weeks, so one never knows when another stumble could occur.  The percussive serves of Roddick and Tsonga eventually eroded the Serb’s confidence on those earlier occasions, and Berdych will bring an equally potent weapon to the service notch.  But this surface offers an ideal venue for Djokovic’s ball-redirecting talents and his effortless transitions from defense to offense.

Wawrinka vs. Federer:  While one of these two Swiss players has dropped sets with a casual profligacy, the other has smothered opponents without dropping a set.  Those who didn’t watch the first week almost certainly would cast Federer in the latter role, yet in fact the defending champion has meandered into the quarterfinals in a pedestrian manner.  After a five-set rollercoaster against former nemesis Simon, Roger carelessly tossed a set to Robredo before dispatching the unassuming Spaniard.  Although his serve and net play have remained characteristically crisp, Federer’s groundstrokes have wandered out of his control for extended periods and shone rays of hope onto his opponents.  Quite the contrary, Wawrinka blistered winners from both wings and every corner of the court as he hammered Roddick out of Melbourne.  At the core of that relentless barrage lay a sturdy serve that allowed him to dictate rallies from the outset.  Since Wawrinka regularly threaded the needle with scintillating passing shots, Federer must time his forecourt approaches more judiciously than in his first few rounds.  The Swiss #2’s sole victory over the Swiss #1 came on clay at Monte Carlo, however, in a surface and a setting far from Rod Laver Arena.  Seemingly dulled by a career of subservient status, Wawrinka may not summon the audacity to overthrow his fabled compatriot at one of the calendar’s most prestigious tournaments.  If Federer looks mortal in the early stages, though, his long-time understudy now has the self-belief to exploit his fallibility.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates a point in her third round match against  Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during day five of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Wozniacki vs. Schiavone:  As “4:44” joins “70-68” in the lexicon of tennis lore, the 2010 Roland Garros champion has little time to wallow jubilantly in bottles of Barolo.  Like Berdych and Djokovic, Wozniacki and Schiavone collided in two starkly contrasting meetings last year.  En route to the Miracle on Clay, the Italian wove a spiderweb of slices, drop shots, lobs, and looping forehands around the flustered Dane, who revealed not only her ineptitude on clay but her strategic immaturity.  Just as resounding was Wozniacki’s victory at the Rogers Cup early in her outstanding second half; on that occasion, a jaded Schiavone failed to fracture her opponent’s bulletproof baseline.  With the exception of Vania King, the world #1’s adversaries have competed with her on relatively even terms for much of their matches but failed to capitalize upon openings when they emerged.  The ceaselessly alert Schiavone will not hesitate to strike if opportunity knocks, but significant questions hover above her fitness after the longest women’s match at a major.  Most dangerous when she can meticulously construct a rally, the Italian veteran may feel pressed to attempt a risky maneuver too early in a point if she has not fully recovered from her Sunday exertions, which seems likely.  Feasting upon reckless or impatient foes, Wozniacki stands especially well situated to profit from an opponent who scored a historic but Pyrrhic victory. 

Petkovic vs. Li:  A round after halting the ride of the Valkyrie, “Petkorazzi” contests her first Slam quarterfinal against an adversary seeking her second straight Australian Open semifinal.  A physically hampered Venus and a mentally absent Sharapova posed few challenges for the German, who has played just 18 games and 86 minutes of tennis since the second round last Wednesday.  Riding a nine-match winning streak, Li thoroughly dominated world #10 Azarenka with reliable serving and groundstrokes that skidded off the baseline, extracting benign mid-court replies.   A competitor nearly as intense as the Chinese star, Petkovic strikes her groundstrokes with equal conviction while bolstering them with a more formidable serve.  Whereas Li showcases one of the finest two-handed backhands in the WTA, the German has refined one of its more penetrating forehands.   This quarterfinal thus may hinge upon whether cross-court rallies pit forehand against forehand or backhand against backhand; both players strike their weapons extremely early and thus rarely concede the initiative in a rally once seizing it.  Contrasting with Petkovic’s extroverted personality is Li’s understated demeanor, which springs in part from her extensive experience on these momentous stages.  Bearing the scars of many memorable encounters as an underdog against elite contenders, she now has become an elite contender herself with an excellent prospect not only to win this match but perhaps to reach the final.  How will she respond to that status as a first Slam title lies so invitingly within her grasp?

Rafael Nadal of Spaincelebrates a point during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Cilic:  Far more talented than the Spaniard’s previous victims, the Croat routed him late in 2009 but will find a far more determined opponent this time.  Not quite rising to his vintage brilliance, the top seed still has cruised almost casually through his first three encounters against overmatched opponents.  In the sole exception, Tomic raced to a double-break lead in the second set before discovering what happened to the mouse who pulled the tiger’s tail.  Rafa’s fitness remains somewhat dubious following an illness in Doha that has left him looking a bit wearied at times and seems to have depleted his confidence in his normally superb physical condition.  Yet his lanky foe found himself dragged through five physically and emotionally draining sets in a third-round meeting with Isner, who came within a tiebreak of supplanting Cilic in the second week.  Also raising questions over the Croat are the erratic results that he posted last year as his technique startlingly disintegrated.  Although his forceful two-handed backhand could knock Rafa onto his heels, Cilic’s loopy forehand can fracture under the pressure that a resilient baseliner like Nadal will apply.  Only in the serving department does the challenger hold an advantage over the champion, who has not recaptured the percussive delivery that he unleashed so unexpectedly in New York.

Raonic vs. Ferrer:  The first qualifier to reach the second round of a major since 1999, the newfound pride of Canadian tennis won as many matches to reach this stage (seven) as the eventual champion in Melbourne will require.  Once leading the tournament in aces, Raonic must establish control over their exchanges with that opening shot before the grittier, far more experienced, and far fresher Ferrer subjects him to death by paper cut in a series of endlessly extended rallies.  Successful in the past against mighty servers, the Spaniard seeks to atone for his second-round disappointment here last year, when he surrendered a two-set lead to Baghdatis.  In 2011, by contrast, Ferrer dropped just one set in the first week  as he flung bagels and breadsticks at his hapless foes.  Unless Raonic can assert himself from the outset, one imagines  that his Cinderella run will end rather meekly at the hands of the ATP’s steadiest returner.

Soderling vs. Dolgopolov:  Spared from facing Tsonga at this stage, the Swede will target a charismatic Ukrainian thoroughly unfamiliar to him and to less devout fans.  But Dolgopolov’s commanding performance in the last two sets against the 2008 finalist, befuddled by his curiously timed groundstrokes that resembles swings less than swipes.  In the second week of the season’s first major for the first time in his career, Soderling has preserved the scintillating form that carried him to the Brisbane title two weeks ago, although his previous opponents lacked the baseline firepower to test him.  Instead, he could arrange his clumsy feet and measure his targets with effortless precision, under no pressure to prevent an opponent from regaining the initiative in the rally.  A vicious ball-striker who almost (but not quite) rivals the fourth seed, Dolgopolov will unsettle the Swede with a bit of his own medicine.  The key to this match may lie in Soderling’s superior serve, though, which has befriended him at crucial moments in 2011.

Melzer vs. Murray:  Two years ago at the Australian Open, the counterpunching Scot mercilessly dispatched the volatile lefty.  More intriguing to recall is their surly third-round collision at the 2008 US Open, when Melzer edged within two points of what then constituted a monumental upset over a surly Scot.  Friction sparked between their personalities on that occasion and may again if Melzer maintains the explosive shot-making that will bring him to the top 10 after the tournament ends.  Despite a victory over Nadal in Shanghai and Djokovic at Roland Garros, the Austrian has arrived only recently in the ATP elite after four consecutive second-week appearances at majors.  Troubled by Baghdatis until injury overtook the Cypriot, his audacious gambits reap fewer rewards on this medium-speed court than on the slicker fall surfaces where he prospered.  The fifth seed contrastingly should thrive on a surface with a bounce friendly to his high contact point and a speed suitable to his lithe movement. Winless in four meetings with Murray, Melzer may rest content with yet another sturdy Slam performance rather than pressing himself to reprise that US Open epic.

Peng vs. Radwanska: Conquering the seventh-seeded Jankovic in the second round, the double-fisted Chinese star hopes to walk in the footsteps of 2010 semifinalist Zheng.  Better known for her success in doubles than in singles, Peng has displayed adept net skills and competitive poise throughout her first three victories, not only closing out the Serb with ease but overcoming cramping to defeat Morita a round later.  Once considered unlikely to even play in Melbourne, Radwanska now targets her second quarterfinal at the year’s first major after narrowly eluding Kimiko Date Krumm.  The Pole has grown more confident with each match as she plays herself into the tournament, honing the timing on her artistic style and finding greater depth on her groundstrokes.  Since both players threaten more with their return than their serve, one expects  a match filled with service breaks in which no lead is safe.

Makarova vs. Clijsters:  While the three-time US Open champion lost fewer games than any player in the draw during the first week, the Russian lefty lost more games than any player in the draw.  Apparent in her Eastbourne title run last year, Makarova’s competitive zeal shone through in two upsets over seeded opponents that extended deep into third sets.  The world #49 played well above her ranking to ambush both Ivanovic and Petrova, who found few answers for her ruthless angles and formidable serving.  The clear favorite to win this title, Clijsters must elevate her game from the 41-error performance that disfigured Rod Laver Arena in her third-round victory over Cornet.  Although experience clearly favors the only hard-court Slam champion still in Melbourne, Makarova will exploit the foibles that the Frenchwoman graciously declined to punish.  In her first two victories, though, Clijsters looked virtually invincible as she conceded just four games in four sets; thus, one suspects that the Cornet wobble may have stemmed partly from her loss in the same round here last year.   The Russian has lost 13 games per match on average during this tournament, and Kim needs only 12.

Pennetta vs. Kvitova:  Probably the most evenly matched women’s collision of the day, it features two players who overcame adversity in their last two rounds.  Trailing Stosur 5-3 in the first-set tiebreak, Kvitova regrouped to win the next four points with blistering forehands and never looked troubled again en route to the upset.  Although Pennetta scored only a small upset over the tenth-seeded Peer, she came within four points of defeat in the second set before dominating a tiebreak and battling through a tense final set.  The Italian veteran will have gained confidence from avenging an emotionally fraught loss to the Israeli at the previous major, while her victory over Zvonareva in Sydney reminded audiences of the dangers posed by her deceptively bland style.  But will she allow the quirky, inflammable Kvitova to unnerve her, or will she patiently wait for the lulls that inevitably interrupt the Czech lefty’s brilliance?  Since both players currently smolder outside the top 20, both could gain substantially from a quarterfinal or perhaps semifinal appearance here.

Benesova vs. Zvonareva:  Not unlike Oudin at the 2009 US Open, Kvitova’s compatriot and fellow lefty has ousted two seeded Russians with a determination much less characteristic of the Czech than it was of the American.  After 31 consecutive first-week losses at majors, Benesova finds herself in the second week for the first time in her career and should not be discounted against a fallible world #2 despite the disparity in their rankings.  Shrugging off a lopsided second set against Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, the world #60 refused to succumb in the third set as she fought off multiple break points with fearless forehands and drop shots.  Much less than fearless in the first week, Zvonareva allowed a second-set lead to slip away against Safarova and suffered through a 20-point tiebreak before avoiding a second straight three-setter.  Seeking her third consecutive major final, she has displayed only fleeting glimpses of the intelligent point construction and competitive poise that characterized her achievements at Wimbledon and the US Open.  With recurrent nemesis Pennetta perhaps lurking in the quarterfinals, Zvonareva has one last chance to deliver a statement of intent before the pressure rises.

***

Having previewed every clash on Day 8, we will discuss all of the remaining singles matches at the 2011 Australian Open as the second week unfolds.

Well worth the wait caused by an odd bit of court maintenance, the third-round collision between Sharapova and Julia Goerges featured breathlessly paced rallies punctuated by chillingly bold shot-making.  After the German matched her winner for winner through the first two sets, the Russian’s experience shone through early in the final set as a fatal lull doomed the challenger’s chances.  Curbing one last charge by Goerges, Sharapova unleashed a match-ending ace to conclude her most impressive and complete performance in Melbourne so far.  When she faces a second straight German on Sunday, however, she should aim to elevate her first-serve percentage and find greater depth on her groundstrokes in the early stages.  Whereas Goerges wreaked more damage with her backhand, Petkovic relies upon her forehand to control rallies in addition to a serve as imposing as her compatriot’s delivery.  The calm evening conditions on Rod Laver Arena should benefit Sharapova’s precision-centered game while allowing her to control her towering ball toss more effectively.  Since neither player has developed excellent footwork, the slightly slower court at night will provide each of them with greater time to prepare their baseline lasers—and also offer the opponent more time to retrieve them.  Affectionately nicknamed “Petkorazzi,” the charismatic German should relish the dramatic atmosphere of the evening session.  Yet Sharapova has dazzled under the lights in Melbourne and elsewhere, surely infusing her with confidence as she seeks her first Slam quarterfinal since Roland Garros 2009.

Li vs. Azarenka:  Perhaps the highest-quality encounter of the day, this duel opposes two of the WTA’s finest backhands and grittiest competitors.  Undefeated this season, Li conquered the emerging Kuznetsova in Sydney before rallying from a vast deficit against Clijsters in the final.  The Chinese superstar now can envision a second straight semifinal at the Australian Open after extending her scintillating form through a routine first week.  But the competition now rises sharply with a ball-bruising Belarussian who has taken at least one set from Li in all three of their meetings.  Armed with a slightly more imposing serve than Azarenka, the Sydney champion should find more chances to seize control of rallies from the outset while attacking her opponent’s benign second ball.   An often smarter albeit less imaginative shotmaker, the eighth seed can rely upon her explosive movement to transition from defense to offense with penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  Both more comfortable at the baseline than in the forecourt, Li and Azarenka excel at redirecting the ball with early contact.  We expect repeated service breaks, multiple momentum shifts, and a match won by the player who displays greater composure late in sets.  May the better backhand prevail.

Roddick vs. Wawrinka:  Unfortunate to find himself in the same quarter with Federer, the American perhaps can extract hope from Kuznetsova’s improbable victory over Henin if he should collide with his tormentor for the 23rd time.  Before he reaches that stage, however, Roddick must overcome the Swiss legend’s understudy and one of the four ATP players to remain undefeated this season.  Ousting Monfils with minimal ado, Wawrinka crushed Berdych in Chennai two weeks ago amid a surge in self-belief that began at the US Open.  One can discard all of the Swiss #2’s previous meetings with Roddick, two of which ended with the latter’s retirement and the third of which came on a slick indoor surface in Davis Cup.  Uneasy early in his third-round encounter with the loose-limbed Robin Haase, the 2003 US Open champion wandered within a tiebreak of a two-set deficit and owed his escape in large part to the Dutchman’s profligacy.  Unlikely to receive such assistance from this fit, focused foe, Roddick must seek to open the match more emphatically if he wishes to avoid a grinding war of attrition.  Unless the American struggles with his first-serve percentage, however, his consistency should enable him to outlast an opponent who lacks the electric forehand to regularly hit through him from the baseline.

Kuznetsova vs. Schiavone:  Sharing the last two Roland Garros titles, the Russian and the Italian have met more times than the latter would prefer.  Although she won two of their last three meetings, Schiavone has dropped all six of their hard courts while winning just a solitary set.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova raised many eyebrows including her own with an excruciatingly tense victory over Henin.  Far from masterful when victory drew near, the two-time Slam champion might gain even more confidence from this dual victory over the Belgian and her nerves than if she had dominated her familiar nemesis from the first ball to the last.  Flakier than a Dover sole, though, Kuznetsova could suffer a hangover from her breakthrough rather than exploiting the impetus to comfortably dispatch an opponent who struggled in the first week.  Floundering past a trio of unheralded opponents, Schiavone required three labyrinthine sets to win both of her first two matches and should consider herself fortunate to have escaped a final set in the third round.  From recent form alone, the 2009 Roland Garros champion thus holds a significant edge over the 2010 Roland Garros champion, but one should remember that Kuznetsova’s mental frailty can resurface at the most inopportune moments.  And the artful Italian has more than sufficient cunning to unlock it if she can survive the Russian’s first few strikes and craft an elongated rally.

Berdych vs. Verdasco:  Despite the starkly divergent personalities in this top-10 encounter, the Czech and the Spaniard showcase convergent styles that mirror their burly physiques.  Seeking to play as little defense as possible, they entrust their fortunes to suffocating serve-forehand combinations that hinge less upon precision than raw power.  Beyond that broad parallel lurk a few differences, such as Berdych’s steadier backhand and Verdasco’s more convincing forecourt skills, yet those nuances probably will exert scant influence upon the outcome.  Renowned for his amorous accomplishments, the 2009 semifinalist assiduously courted disaster throughout his second-round meeting with Tipsarevic but fully capitalized upon his escape by dominating Nishikori.  One never knows exactly what to anticipate from Verdasco on any given day (or set or point), however, while Berdych has displayed superior consistency during the first week.  Whereas the former possesses greater shot-making talent and the audacity necessary to deploy it, the latter develops points more meticulously and profited from his patience during a three-set comeback when they met in Miami last year.  Firmly entrenched in the ATP elite but not quite leading contenders, both the Czech and the Spaniard likely will earn the right to battle 2008 champion Djokovic in the quarterfinals.  Who covets this opportunity more desperately?

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Having arrived in the second week, we will preview most of the matches henceforth, but feel free to contact us if you fancy a specific encounter.

As the first week concludes, several of the top seeds confront intriguing obstacles that range from two Czech lefties to a feisty Aussie and an elephantine American.

Safarova vs. Zvonareva:  Despite a dazzling start to 2011 in Hong Kong, the world #2 did not justify her elevated position in Sydney and her second-round victory in Melbourne.  Barely extricating herself from an early predicament against Jovanovski, Zvonareva looked tentative during rallies and erratic on her serve, which had donated 11 double faults to Pennetta a week before.  Like Stosur, she now faces a quirky Czech lefty with the ability to oscillate between Jekyll and Hyde more than once during a single match. When the sets (and players) grow tight, Zvonareva must remember to carpe the diem with penetrating groundstrokes rather than allowing Safarova to step inside the baseline.  If the Russian can keep the Czech off balance, though, the world #2’s distinctly superior footwork will reap rewards against a less technically precise opponent. 

Stosur vs. Kvitova:  Defusing the sporadically dangerous Dushevina in the second round, the fifth seed has lost just seven games during her first two matches.  Much more convincing in Melbourne than in her preliminary tournaments, Stosur now braces her serve and her nerves for a battle with the inflammable Kvitova that should test her lateral movement.  The Brisbane champion should alternate between hammering her forehand down the line and curling it cross-court to expose the Australian’s indifferent backhand, although the medium-speed surface will allow the world #6 to run around her weaker wing relatively often.  As explosive as the Czech lefty’s game are her emotions, which contrast with Stosur’s unruffled demeanor.  The home hope might chip away at Kvitova’s brittle façade if she can hold serve comfortably and unsettle her foe with confident returns.  Across the net, the former Wimbledon semifinalist must keep Stosur pinned behind the baseline rather than permitting her to exercise her scintillating forecourt skills.

Nadal vs. Tomic:  Showing a precocious maturity, the highly anticipated teenager outlasted the far more experienced Lopez in two tiebreaks a round ago.  The second straight Spanish lefty to confront Tomic, Nadal has surrendered just four games in the five sets through which he has cruised here, threatened more by focus lapses than by his lackluster victims.  Despite his lanky stature, the Aussie projects less power behind his serve than one would expect, so Rafa can construct rallies at his leisure without fearing a terminal first strike from his opponent.  While the home crowd on Rod Laver Arena will champion their future star vociferously, Tomic should approach this match as a valuable learning experience upon which he can build, measuring himself against the gold standard of the game.

Pennetta vs. Peer:  For the second straight major, the balanced styles of the Israeli and the Italian collide in an encounter that should feature more elongated rallies than the ball-bruising clashes sketched above.  Since neither Pennetta nor Peer possesses thunderous serves or the raw power to hit her opponent off the court, they must construct points with their symmetrical groundstrokes and meticulous movement.  The routine scoreline that unfolded in their US Open encounter cloaked the intrigue that heightened through several deuce games late in the first set, even more excruciating because both lacked the means to swiftly terminate the suspense.  While Jovanovski abruptly halted Pennetta’s momentum in the second round of Sydney, Safarova ambushed Peer in an epic Brisbane encounter during which this second Czech lefty saved a match point.  Who will banish those recent disappointments by extending their week into a fortnight?

Melzer vs. Baghdatis:  Among the key breakthrough performers of 2010, the veteran lefty defied the inexorable march of time to record victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  Those startling upsets elevated him within sight of a coveted penthouse in the top 10, which he could reach with a creditable result at the season’s first major.  Mustering his Melbourne magic to halt Del Potro’s comeback bid in four sets, Baghdatis has notched his most memorable successes on a high-bouncing surface seemingly hostile to his low, lasered groundstrokes.  Firmly lodged in his corner, however, are legions of full-throated Cypriots, whose exhortations to their compatriot may unnerve the easily flustered Melzer just as they once rattled Soderling.  But the contrast between the baseline-moored Baghdatis  and the net-rushing Austrian should provide an entertaining counterpoint pitting the conventional modern style against its ebbing predecessor.

Halep vs. Radwanska:  Upsetting the potent Kleybanova in the second round, the rising Romanian perhaps has begun to outshine her off-court notoriety with her on-court accomplishments.  A contrasting challenge awaits against Radwanska, whose distinctively nuanced style has unhinged so many of the WTA’s monochromatic baseliners.  Narrowly eluding Date in a suspenseful opener, the Pole brushed off the rust that had gathered on her game during an injury-enforced period of inactivity.  With no massive ball-strikers in her section, Radwanska has become an improbable favorite to reach her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second in Melbourne.

Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga:  Already scarred by a five-setter in the first round, the world #13 hopes to avoid a reprise of his Wimbledon meeting with the Ukrainian if he seeks to surge deep into the draw.  At the All England Club, Dolgopolov fearlessly rallied from a two-set deficit against Tsonga before prolonging the fifth set well into tennis overtime.  Battling not only his opponents but a draining health condition, this reckless ball-striker rarely sees a forehand that he doesn’t seek to obliterate.  Only slightly more subtle, the Frenchman allowed untimely errors to infuse a routine match against Seppi with unnecessary suspense.  If his focus waxes and wanes again, he might not escape Dolgopolov in straight sets and conserve crucial energy for later rounds. 

Isner vs. Cilic:  Two players with a handful of notable first-half accomplishments hope to erase an unimpressive second half with a victory that would impressive for either of them.  Undeterred by a one-set deficit against Stepanek, the towering American displayed not only his serving talent but patient optimism as he comfortably collected the next three sets.  Since Cilic can (almost) equal him from the service notch, breaks of serve in this match will resemble oases in a desert of nondescript holds and truncated exchanges.  Although both players possess mighty forehands, questionable technique undermines the consistency of those weapons.  A semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Croat wallowed through a disappointing season thereafter but stirred occasional memories of his former self during a victory over the dangerous Giraldo.  Seemingly a calm, understated personality, Cilic will find his confidence tested by the stern challenge of breaking Isner’s serve.  The enormity of that task in turn will place pressure upon his own serve, especially if tiebreaks play a role, and further pressure flows from the rankings plunge that the Croat will suffer if he falls early here.  Will the American’s greater positivity overcome Cilic’s superior overall talent?

Petrova vs. Makarova:  Not content with an epic first-round victory over Ivanovic, the Russian lefty advanced less eventfully to the third round and now eyes a recently formidable but historically fallible compatriot.  After dropping their first two meetings in 2008, Makarova comfortably upset Petrova once in each of the past two seasons, conceding just three games in the last three sets that they have played.   These two volatile Russians share a tendency of erupting for remarkable triumphs while struggling to maintain their momentum throughout an entire week or fortnight.  Unlike the baseline juggernauts who largely populate the WTA, both Petrova and Makarova capitalize upon opportunities to approach the net even when a complicated volley awaits them.  Perhaps a product of their inconsistent technique, their rush to finish points inflates their winners and unforced error totals while preventing opponents from settling into a rhythm.  If Makarova can craft the clever angles with which she wearied Ivanovic, her fellow Russian might seethe with ill-concealed frustration.

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As always, we welcome your suggestions for matches to preview, already having answered two of your requests.  During the second week, however, we generally share our thoughts on the vast majority of the contests that develop.