In the four tournaments that unfolded this week, each top seed advanced to the final.  Can the favorites quell their last challengers to claim their crowns?  Entrusting Buenos Aires to other pens, we preview the championship tilts in Dubai, Memphis, and Marseille.

Caroline Wozniacki - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Five

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Just as she did last fall in Beijing, the gentle but determined Dane seeks to consolidate her #1 ranking with a title.  Although semifinal victim Jankovic has sagged in recent months, Wozniacki will have gained additional momentum from securing her first career victory over the Serb after four losses.  Such skids do not end easily notwithstanding the quality of the opponent, and the top seed saved four set points before outlasting her fellow counterpuncher.  Illustrating her resilient character, Wozniacki has recovered impressively from her deflating semifinal loss at the Australian Open.  If she can notch a third consecutive Premier Five crown, she would travel to the crucial North American hard-court events with impetus for duplicating or perhaps surpassing her sterling performances there last year.

In just her second appearance at this event, Wozniacki faces an opponent who has contested two previous finals and two other semifinals in the Persian Gulf oasis.  Defeating three successive higher-ranked opponents, Kuznetsova has catapulted herself within range of the top 10 after meandering outside the top 20 before this tournament.  Her game conforms smoothly to the Dubai courts, fast enough to reward her forehand blows but not so fast that she cannot run around her backhand.  Once farcically feckless in finals, the Russian now has won her last three championship matches, including Roland Garros and the prestigious Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.  Conceding her two previous Dubai finals in three sets, Kuznetsova can hope that the third time proves lucky against a foe with whom she has split their four hard-court meetings.

Yet the momentum in this mini-rivalry lies with Wozniacki, who succumbed to Kuznetsova at Indian Wells and Miami before she ascended to the top 10.  Since arriving in that elite group, the Dane has won both of her collisions with the Russian, including a 2009 US Open rollercoaster that careened wildly between the ridiculous and sublime until it climaxed in a third-set tiebreak.  Less athletically gifted than Sveta, Caro demonstrated her firmer focus and steadier desire when she captured their rain-addled semifinal in Montreal last year.  While her weapons do not rival those of her opponent, Wozniacki’s court coverage will test Kuznetsova’s ability to finish points.  Despite a high first-serve percentage in her semifinal against Pennetta, the Russian struggled to hold serve and cannot rely upon many free points from her delivery.  Her forehand does possess the raw power necessary to hit through Wozniacki from the baseline, so her success will depend upon striking as many of those strokes as possible without conceding too much court territory.  If the Dane can pin Sveta behind the baseline and organize rallies around their backhands, though, her superior consistency will prevail.  Although less experienced and (so far) less accomplished, she brings greater confidence to their encounter than Kuznetsova, still in the process of rediscovering a game that had deserted her until a few weeks ago.

Andy Roddick - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Roddick vs. Raonic:  Having hurled 97 aces at his first four opponents, the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian might club as many aces this week as did Isner at Wimbledon last year.  Beyond that magnificent statistic, however, lurks a concerning corollary.  Amidst his serving barrage, Raonic has played two third-set tiebreaks and four total three-setters over the past four days.  Somewhat less brilliant than during his exhilarating title surge in San Jose, this untested wildcard has dropped sets to the fading Stepanek and the irrelevant Kendrick.  He may enter the final physically and emotionally jaded from the events of the past fortnight, which have propelled him to a renown that he could not have imagined when the season began.  A few parallels emerge between his week in Memphis and the series of epic wins that the then-unheralded Isner scored en route to the Washington final a few years ago.  Then, Roddick subdued his challenger with relative ease.

On the other hand, Raonic ranks among the few players in the ATP who can cruise through service games as swiftly as the American.  Accustomed to playing much longer games on return than on serve, Roddick may find his fortitude tested by an opponent with a mightier forehand and superior forecourt skills.  Free from pressure against Verdasco in San Jose, Raonic delivered perhaps the most composed, bulletproof performance of his torrid streak.  Unruffled by the Spaniard’s ability to hold serve without drama, he should not flinch when Roddick does the same.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits this week, moreover, the top seed has not held serve as comfortably as one might expect on an indoor hard court.  But his competitive resilience enabled him to reverse the tide against Berankis and Hewitt.

Following those stumbles, Roddick found his rhythm midway through his quarterfinal and rarely relinquished it in a dominant victory against Del Potro.  Like Wozniacki, Roddick will have accumulated momentum from defeating a player who had tormented him in their most notable previous meetings.  Also like Wozniacki, Roddick will want to erase the disappointing conclusion to his Melbourne campaign with a title that would buttress his confidence before defending his 2010 achievements at Indian Wells and Miami.  In order to reclaim his elite stature, the top seed must recapture his mastery over tiebreaks.  Roddick’s record in thirteenth games sagged precipitously during the second half of 2010, but he did win an 18-point nail-biter against former nemesis Tipsarevic that lifted him to 3-0 in 2011 tiebreaks.  Considering the mighty serves on display in Memphis today, his 50th career final may offer him an opportunity to burnish that record.

Robin Soderling - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2

Soderling vs. Cilic:  Contrary to our expectations, the scowling Swede needed no time at all to transition from savior Magnus Norman to new guide Claudio Pistolesi.  Undefeated at non-majors this year, Soderling has rampaged to his fourth final in his last six tournaments while dropping his serve only once this week.  The trio of Mahut, Llodra, and Tursunov exerted scant pressure upon an opponent who relishes indoor hard courts as much as the outdoor clay on which he has reached two Slam finals and defeated the two greatest players of his era.  A 2004 finalist in Marseille, the Swede also has developed a curious affinity for the nation of brioches and Bardot; three of his eight titles have come on French soil, including his sole Masters 1000 crown thus far.  But his opponent also has reaped rewards on this surface, where he has won two titles and reached a third final.

Enduring an annus miserabilis that extended with little respite from Indian Wells last year to Zagreb this year, Cilic finally flickered into life with a victory over the 11th-ranked Melzer in Rotterdam last week.  (The glow faded a bit from that victory, to be sure, when the 129th-ranked Tursunov toppled the Austrian on Friday.)  In contrast to Soderling, the unseeded Cilic has battled to the final past a pair of top-10 players in Berdych and Youzhny, whom he conquered in contrasting manners.  Comprehensively commanding against the Czech, the Croat saved a match point in a vigorously contested semifinal against the Russian.  Such a triumph could calm his nerves when he confronts the heavily favored Soderling, for the world #28 will count himself fortunate to have escaped Youzhny and earned this berth in the final.  Nobody would identify with that situation more keenly than the Swede, who himself won Rotterdam last week after saving a match point against Kohlschreiber.

Mustering little resistance to Soderling at Roland Garros last year, Cilic never has faced him on the hard court that he prefers.  Gifted with symmetrical groundstrokes, both players can terminate points as emphatically with their two-handers as with their fearsome forehands and serves.   We expect short, sharp exchanges low on point construction and high on first-strike firepower, the ideal brand of tennis for indoor conditions.  Can Cilic rise to the occasion and test the world #4?  Even if he contents himself with a runner-up trophy, which seems likely, a competitive performance would position him promisingly for the mini-majors ahead in California and Florida.

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We return soon to preview the men’s draw in Dubai, which will offer a first post-Melbourne glimpse of the Australian Open champion and his semifinal victim.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

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