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Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning the second set tie break against Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 29, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:  Entrenched in the top 10 for the first time since February 2009, the Russian aims to dispel the memories of two previous losses this year with a single mighty blow.  Eager to counterbalance a lackluster performance in her previous semifinal at Indian Wells, Sharapova would relish the opportunity to atone for an equally mediocre display against Petkovic.  Overwhelmed by Maria in Cincinnati, the German turned the tables in stunning fashion at the Australian Open, where she never faced a break point until after she held a match point.  Petkovic seeks her third consecutive victory over a #1 after grinding past Wozniacki and Jankovic in two matches that featured a multitude of deuce games and break points, testing the 21st seed’s tenacity.  In her excruciating, exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating 209-minute quarterfinal triumph against Dulgheru, Sharapova demonstrated even greater fortitude by twice escaping from within two points of defeat despite 17 double faults and 76 unforced errors.  Perhaps the only player in the WTA who could survive such a statistical catastrophe, the three-time major champion overcame further adversity when she twisted her ankle during the quarterfinal’s penultimate moments.  All too familiar with aching joints, the two-time Miami finalist must quell her anxiety over this injury as she attempts to recover from the longest match of her career.

Brilliant in this tournament until near-disaster on Tuesday, Sharapova must recapitulate her magnificent Monday form in order to halt Petkovic’s accelerating momentum.  If her groundstrokes yield the same deluge of unforced errors as on Tuesday, this semifinal will not end any more brightly than the last.  Across the net, the German must alter her strategy against an opponent who diverges so radically from the two counterpunchers.  Targeting her foe’s forehand and disrupting her timing with heavy spin, Petkovic hopes to prevent Sharapova from planting herself inside the baseline to target lines and corners at her leisure.

Zvonareva vs. Azarenka:  Pinning Clijsters behind the baseline with relentless groundstroke depth, the 2009 Miami champion delivered one of her most complete performances against an elite opponent since winning this title two years ago.  Under pressure from the Belgian’s late surge, Azarenka constructed a startlingly thoughtful point at 5-3, 30-30 just after an edgy double fault.  The eighth seed patiently maneuvered the defending champion around the court and withstood the rally’s mounting tension better than her more experienced opponent, who finally conceded a frustrated forehand error.  Against the versatile Zvonareva, she will need to control her aggression just as calmly in order to reverse an odd rivalry in which the advantage currently lies with the Russian.  Following two dismal losses to Vika early last year, the world #3 reversed that slide after her Wimbledon breakthrough with two second-half wins.  Sharing balanced, penetrating groundstrokes, Vika and Vera have honed extremely consistent games with few clear flaws albeit few overpowering weapons.  Notorious for emotional implosions, both have maintained their composure at crucial junctures en route to this semifinal.

Often fallible on serve, Zvonareva struck an ace to save a set point against Radwanska in her quarterfinal and has welcomed unexpected contributions from that shot throughout her last few tournaments after a shaky serving start to the season.  Among the few flaws in Azarenka’s performance this week, meanwhile, was a delivery that donated seven double faults and rarely represented more than a point-starting shot.    Thus, the contrast in their serving could play a crucial role in the outcome, as could Zvonareva’s superior experience on these stages.  Surely relieved to avoid Clijsters, the Russian now dons the mantle of tournament favorite.  Can her nerves and a fearless foe unfasten it?

Federer vs. Simon:  Among the few players outside the top 20 with repeated success against Roger, the Frenchman seeks to build upon his two 2008 triumphs over the Swiss master.  Twice surmounting one-set deficits in this tournament, Simon has produced his first sustained surge at a significant tournament since injuries derailed him a year ago.  Meanwhile, Federer has glided effortlessly past a sequence of anonymous opponents, none of whom enjoyed either the power of the consistency to unsettle him.  Clearly unsettled by Simon, in contrast, the third seed squandered a two-set lead against him at the Australian Open before reasserting his supremacy in the final set.  Although Federer possesses weapons superior to those of the Frenchman in most areas, the latter’s two-handed backhand trumps the Swiss star’s elegant but unreliable one-hander.  As the 16-time major champion ages, moreover, his decreasing consistency also renders him increasingly vulnerable to an indefatigable retriever like Simon.  Darting along the baseline, Gilles forces Roger to win points more than once and often to attempt strokes too aggressive for his court positioning.  First-serve percentage should prove essential for both players, allowing Federer to hold swiftly while shielding Simon’s benign second serve from exposure.  Unlikely to outlast the Frenchman from the baseline, the Swiss star should capitalize upon his forecourt abilities whenever possible to take time away from an opponent who showcases his counterpunching skills to greatest effect on slow hard courts like these.

Nadal vs. Berdych:   Four and a half years ago in Madrid, a budding Berdych dispatched Rafa before his home crowd and then put his finger to his lips in a gesture of disdain towards the Spanish fans.  Nineteen sets later, he has yet to win another set from Nadal, who terminated the most impressive fortnight of the Czech’s career with an emphatic victory in last year’s Wimbledon final.  From clay courts and outdoor hard courts to grass and indoor hard courts, Berdych has found no refuge from the world #1 on any surface.  Outside the context of their Madrid clash, one can find little clear explanation for Nadal’s uncanny dominance over a rival with more than adequate weapons to threaten him on both serve and forehand.  But Berdych does lack one trait shared by Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, Del Potro, and most of the players who repeatedly have troubled Rafa:  a backhand that can equal his forehand in percussive assertiveness.  Whereas his recurrent nemeses subject him to constant pressure from both groundstrokes, Nadal finds respite in rallies by targeting the Berdych two-hander.  Also separating the Czech from that group is his unsteady focus, which resulted in an unnecessarily extended opener here and nearly a loss to Florian Mayer a round ago.  Against the fiercest competitor in the ATP, that trait proves especially damaging.  A runner-up in Miami last year, Berdych stunned Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling consecutively during the fortnight.  Can he rekindle those memories by bursting free from the vise in which Rafa grips him?

Rafael Nadal - Sony Ericsson Open

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Vera Zvonareva - Sony Ericsson Open

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Despite their crowded schedules over the last several years, they have met on only one prior occasion, a 2007 meeting that the Russian routinely collected.  Since both players have developed so substantially since that moment, the outcome bears little relevance to Wednesday’s collision.  While Radwanska has spared no efforts in amplifying her meager serve and developing a more penetrating backhand, Zvonareva finally has learned how to channel her emotions in a positive direction—at least more often than not.  The third and ninth seeds have traced contrasting routes to this stage, for the former twice has rallied from one-set deficits whereas the latter remains the only player who has not lost a set in the tournament.  Bageling both Kirilenko and Schiavone, Radwanska cruised past two opponents who have troubled her before.  But Zvonareva defused arguably more challenging opponents in Safina and Bartoli, finishing both of those matches in resounding fashion by sweeping the last four games of the final sets.  A few degrees less than bulletproof on her serve, however, she may offer the Pole an opportunity if a break-riddled encounter evolves.  On the other hand, Zvonareva enjoys both the power to outhit Radwanska from the baseline and the tactical poise to outmaneuver her.  Unless her technique deserts her, she also possesses too much consistency to donate the unforced errors upon which the Pole feasts against opponents who engage in risker gambits.  Perhaps Radwanska can gain a mental advantage if her canny drop shots can lure Zvonareva forwards from her baseline comfort zone towards the net, where the ninth seed excels.  Otherwise, she lacks an edge over the world #3 in any of the game’s physical components and will struggle to find loopholes in one of the WTA’s most complete players. 

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  Twice erasing first-set setbacks like Zvonareva, the 2009 champion doggedly battled past two of her generation’s most resilient competitors in Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova.  Also dragged into third sets during her last two matches, Clijsters must count herself fortunate to have survived five match points in a fraught duel with Ivanovic that extended into Tuesday evening.  Amidst 11 double faults and 22 break points, the Belgian carved (or rather hacked) her path to victory by the narrowest of margins and cannot depend upon the pugnacious Azarenka to let her escape from a similar quagmire.  But nor can Vika expect Kim to conveniently falter as did Cibulkova when she led the Belarussian by a set and a break.  Should her questionable shoulder have survived Tuesday’s exertions intact, Clijsters may enter their clash relaxed by her brush with disaster and finally free from the tension that has beset her throughout much of the tournament.  In order to disrupt Kim’s title defense, the preceding champion must steel herself to preserve her patience and concentration in adversity more effectively than she did against Clijsters here a year ago.  Then, Azarenka competed resolutely through a series of repeated breaks before surrendering the first set with a few untimely errors—which she allowed to poison her mind thereafter and lead to a second-set bagel.  Not for many months has she conquered a player of the Belgian’s level at an event of this magnitude, so a victory could signal a significant breakthrough.  The steadier player of the two this week, Azarenka should place herself in position to issue that signal if she can master the moment more maturely than in the past. 

Ferrer vs. Fish:  A tribute to his improved fitness, the American’s unexpected victory over Del Potro edged him within one win of becoming his nation’s top-ranked man for the first time in his career.  On a humid Miami morning, Fish moved fluidly through the thick air and stayed in rallies longer than he could have a year ago.  Delivering crucial free points for him was his versatile first serve, which struck all four corners of the box.  In order to stifle one of the ATP’s finest returners, Fish will need that shot to prevent Ferrer from sinking his teeth into too many rallies.  Armed with balanced, consistent groundstrokes from both wings, the world #6 will outmaneuver and outlast the American once extended exchanges develop.  Even the less trim version of Fish has troubled Ferrer in the past, however, defeating him at the 2007 Australian Open and winning sets from him on earlier occasions.  Despite not intersecting for more than three years, these two veterans still possess essentially the same weapons that they have in the past, although both have honed those weapons in the intervening time.  Buoyed by the home crowd as well as the stirring victory over Del Potro, Fish should test Ferrer much more vigorously than his previous, less powerful opponents.  Among the most intriguing elements of the match is the potential duel between the Spaniard’s inside-out forehand and the American’s down-the-line backhand, two of their most reliable strokes.  If Fish can track down the former shot with sufficient time to redirect him, he could fluster Ferrer by transitioning into offense from a neutral position.  Although he will cast himself as the counterpuncher for most of the match, meanwhile, the Spaniard should not neglect the opportunity to finish points when he can.  Opponents cannot permit a player infused with as much momentum as Fish to constantly dictate rallies, for he may well strike his targets once too often. 

Anderson vs. Djokovic:  Having doled out various types of pastries from a fully functioning bakery over the past few weeks, the last remaining undefeated player in 2011 has broken opponents more often than they have held while not dropping his own serve throughout the tournament so far.  Such a recipe results in a championship more often than not, but Djokovic first must blunt the serving might of a relatively unheralded ATP giant.  Capitalizing upon a vacuum in his section of the draw, Anderson has navigated through an area once populated by Murray and Verdasco.  A champion in Johannesburg earlier this season, he complements his serve with a creditable inside-in forehand and serviceable touch at the net.  Beyond his massive delivery, however, Anderson will find his offensive potential thoroughly contained by the Serb’s lithe movement and explosive counterpunching.  Moreover, once Djokovic takes command of a rally, the South African probably cannot recover from a defensive position because his gangly limbs will hamper his movement.  Likely to hold serve more regularly than most of the second seed’s previous victims, Anderson must hope to stay within range early and hope that his opponent grows frustrated by his inability to dominate as comprehensively as in the resounding triumphs to which he has become accustomed.  Considering Djokovic’s current confidence in every element of his game, however, such a hope looks slim indeed.  

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts against Samantha Stosur of Australia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Dulgheru:  Emphatically delivering her first victory over a top-5 opponent since shoulder surgery, the two-time Miami finalist now hopes to replicate her semifinal surge at Indian Wells as her confidence grows with each victory.  Unusually crisp with her movement and footwork here, Sharapova has dropped her serve just three times in three matches despite occasional clusters of double faults, while her return arguably has unleashed even more impressive blows.  Yet the Russian has oscillated sharply from one match to the next throughout her comeback, suggesting that the excellence of Monday will not necessarily translate to Tuesday.  At Indian Wells, for example, she stifled the potentially dangerous Safina with intimidating ease before wobbling through extended stretches of her quarterfinal against the less intimidating Peng.  Never having faced the Romanian before, Sharapova will require a few games to adjust to Dulgheru’s style.  Without the opportunity to watch the world #28 during the past year, we cannot offer much insight onto that style.  Nevertheless, Dulgheru has advanced to this quarterfinal without dropping a set, an accomplishment that deserves respect although occurring entirely against unseeded players.  While the match surely rests in Sharapova’s hands, the three-time major champion cannot afford to loosen her focus against a competitor probably brimming with confidence.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Fortunate to encounter Wozniacki on an uncharacteristically error-strewn afternoon, “Petkorazzi” still receives credit for polishing off the world #1 so confidently.  Serving out the match at love with an ace, the 21st seed showcased the swagger that could bring her into the top 20 if she learns how to harness her groundstrokes throughout an entire tournament.  Aligned against a second consecutive counterpuncher, Petkovic probably will deploy the same tactics that her coach suggested to undermine Wozniacki.  One wonders whether her strategy of out-counterpunching the counterpuncher would have succeeded so well, however, had the Dane not substituted an impersonator for her normally stingy self.  Even more susceptible to such wobbles than Wozniacki is the counterpuncher who now confronts the German, for Jankovic spent much of last year tottering from one misstep to the next.  Buoyed by a February revival, she atoned for a disappointing Indian Wells campaign with a sturdy performance here.  On the other hand, none of her previous victims possesses the same degree of weapons or poise as Petkovic.  Another resident in the WTA’s second tier of ball-strikers, Pavlyuchenkova, thumped heavy but not electric groundstrokes past her in the Monterrey final.

Mayer vs. Berdych:  Fallible in his first two victories, the 2010 runner-up needlessly dropped a set to the aging Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and nearly another to the anonymous Carlos Berlocq.  Such profligacy could cost Berdych against an opponent who quenched the inflammable Almagro two rounds after circumventing Indian Wells quarterfinalist Karlovic.  Nor should this week’s success surprise those who closely followed the German this season, during which he has conquered Del Potro, Davydenko, and Cilic.  A two-time semifinalist already in 2011, Mayer can compile formidable serve-forehand combinations while struggling at times with his movement and shot selection.  Also a rather programmatic player, Berdych has settled into a netherworld this year between the leading contenders and the second tier, generally defeating the players whom he should defeat but losing to those ranked above him.  The Czech must defend vast quantities of points over the next few months, so one wonders how he will respond to the pressure.

Federer vs. Rochus:  A former doubles partner of the Swiss legend, the Belgian never has defeated him in their seven career meetings.  En route to this unexpected fourth-round encounter, though, Rochus not only qualified but defeated familiar names Baghdatis and Youzhny after winning the longest match of the men’s tournament in his opener.  Cruising at medium altitude in his first two matches, Federer should not need to elevate his performance to record another unremarkable straight-sets victory.  In return for brushing aside potential threats like a minesweeper, Rochus probably deserves a bit of compensation from the world #3.  Perhaps an autographed box of Lindt chocolates?

Tipsarevic vs. Simon:  Amidst a largely sparkling tournament for Serbs so far, the quirky Tipsarevic displayed his underrated talents by upsetting a flustered Cilic with one carefully constructed rally at a time.  Far less mighty than the Croat, the compact Serb outmaneuvered his lanky foe from the baseline with expertly placed groundstrokes while creating unpredictable angles on his serve.  But Tipsarevic now collides with an opponent who shares his competitive resilience and his scintillating two-handed backhand.  Although Tipsarevic reached the Delray Beach final in February, Simon generally has shone more brightly over the past several months with titles in Metz last fall and Sydney before the Australian Open.  After a rain-soaked three-setter with Cuevas that extended late into Monday night, the Frenchman may enter his meeting with the Serb a trifle jaded.  His brand of tennis relies upon indefatigable movement and concentration, whereas Tipsarevic more often showcases shot-making almost as bold and idiosyncratic as his hairstyle, sunglasses, and tattoos.

Ferrer vs Granollers:  Following a dismal defeat against Karlovic, the Spanish #2 regrouped commendably to overcome a rising Devvarman.  The highest-ranked player remaining in his section eyes a compatriot who rallied from the edge of the precipice against Llodra a round ago to win his third consecutive three-setter.  Not known for his serving prowess, Granollers nevertheless never conceded his delivery throughout three sets against twelfth-seeded Wawrinka.  And he already has proven his ability to topple notable opponents by conquering Soderling at the 2010 Australian Open.  Will three long matches hamper his fitness against Ferrer, perhaps the worst possible opponent to confront when tired?  Unless Granollers can continue to win free points on his serve, he probably will find himself dragged into prolonged baseline exchanges where Ferrer’s consistency should prevail.

Juan Martin Del Potro - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Del Potro:  In the most impressive victory of his comeback, the 2009 US Open champion comprehensively outplayed world #4 Soderling from the first ball to the last.  Covering the court with aplomb, Del Potro struck his backhand with as much purpose and confidence as his forehand, a dangerous omen for his rivals.  After such a comprehensive performance, he must guard against a lull when he faces an opponent who troubled him in the second set of their Delray Beach semifinal.  Among Fish’s more successful ploys in that match was pounding his two-hander down the line into Del Potro’s forehand, the side towards which the Argentine moves less effectively.  Unlikely to outlast or consistently outhit the Tower of Tandil from the baseline, the American must maintain a high first-serve percentage in order to open as many rallies as possible on the offensive, perhaps even following his serve to the net at times.  Across the net, Del Potro will aim to intimidate Fish with the percussive returns that his broad wingspan facilitates.

Isner vs. Anderson:  Serve…serve…serve.  In Federer’s view, with which we sympathize, these two leviathans do not play tennis but some ghastly and irreverent imitation of it.  Both of them have profited from the upsets that other players achieved over Murray and Verdasco.  Although Isner’s greater experience at elite tournaments should provide him with a vital edge, this match probably will hinge upon a missed first serve or a botched smash on break point or in a tiebreak.  Until that moment occurs, little action will stimulate audience members who hope to see something more than serve…serve…serve.

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  When the current world #2 struggled in 2010, his compatriot nearly capitalized with a pair of notable upsets in Dubai and the US Open.  Noted by a variety of commentators, his first-round encounter with Djokovic in New York may have represented a crucial turning point in the younger Serb’s revitalization.  Having failed to secure that match when it lay well within his grasp, Troicki appears to have lost self-belief against the Australian Open champion.  When they met in the same round at Indian Wells, he collected just one game from Djokovic in an effort that fell short even of Wawrinka’s standards against Federer.  Still undefeated in 2011, the second seed has conceded only three games in four sets here while spending 101 total minutes on court.  Striking every shot with effortless confidence, he has dominated opponents to an extent reminiscent of Nadal on clay.  Throughout this winning streak, viewers have started to wonder less whether the Serb would prevail than how he would arrive at his inevitable destination this time.

[As of publication, Nadal’s fourth-round opponent remained undecided.  See the article below for a preview of Ivanovic-Clijsters, postponed from Monday night as a result of inclement weather.]

 

 

Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  More accustomed to late nights than early mornings, the three-time major champion opens proceedings against a player whom she has dominated but has faced just once since shoulder surgery and the Aussie’s renaissance.  On that occasion, Stosur secured just one game against Sharapova in a Tokyo tournament that the Russian eventually won.  Among the most notable weapons in the Australian’s game is her kicking second serve, one of the finest in the WTA.  Against the statuesque Sharapova, however, that shot does not jolt as high above her comfortable strike zone or as far outside her vast wingspan.  Less auspicious for Maria is her reliance on breaking serve throughout this month, which has generally compensated for chronic wobbles in her own service games.  Winning 58% of her return games since the start of Indian Wells, Sharapova cannot expect to break as regularly against a server as imposing as Stosur.  If the world #5 can compile some comfortable holds, the Russian might shoulder elevated pressure as she attempts to circumvent the inevitable her double faults.  Outside her serve, Stosur has few clear advantages over the three-time major champion.  Sharapova will seek to expose her puny backhand and prevent the Aussie from frequently showcasing her net skills with a withering barrage of groundstrokes that thrust her behind the baseline.  Since neither player excels when rushed, both should hasten to attack on the first mid-court ball that they see in order to take time away from the opponent.

While she enters this match in scintillating form, the Russian also dazzled in a few of her Indian Wells matches before crumbling against Wozniacki in the semifinals.  A test of Stosur’s confidence and Sharapova’s consistency, this clash represents an immense opportunity for the winner, who will face either Peng or Dulgheru in a quarterfinal.  Who can carpe the diem?  Sharapova in three

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  In the same round at Indian Wells, the Dane stumbled for a set against the heavy-hitting Kleybanova before outlasting her less durable opponent.  A parallel narrative could unfold against Petkovic, physically fit but mentally a bit suspect.  Squandering a cavalcade of match points against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, the German almost let Sharapova escape from a massive deficit in Melbourne and nearly let another commanding lead slip away against Benesova in the previous round.  If she maneuvers herself into position to halt the world #1’s winning streak at these top-tier events, one wonders whether Petkovic will find the nerve to deliver the coup de grace.  Vulnerable in the second set of her victories over Mattek-Sands and Hantuchova, Wozniacki nearly let the Slovak drag her into a third set but ultimately found a way to win the points that she needed to win.  Nevertheless, her strategy in that match boded well for her future more broadly.  Attempting to infuse her game with greater aggression, the world #1 courageously approached the forecourt for swing volleys and struck a series of crackling backhand winners down the line.  Although these unaccustomed tactics did not always reap rewards, the Dane will further her bid for the Indian Wells-Miami double if she can expend less exertion in finishing each point.  Wozniacki in three

Medina Garrigues vs. Jankovic:  Perhaps girding herself for the clay season where she thrives most often, the many-syllabled Spaniard has dispatched three creditable opponents of Dulko, world #11 Peer, and Vesnina without dropping a set.  Yet her implausible run surely will conclude at the hands of the sixth seed, who has rebounded from a stinging Indian Wells defeat with a pair of solid victories.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has won all six of her meetings with her fourth-round opponent while dropping just two total sets.  Unlike Stosur, Medina Garrigues has done nothing to suggest that her fortunes against a recurrent nemesis could change.  Although the Serb has faded since losing the #1 ranking, opponents without baseline weapons still struggle to overcome her.  Unless Jankovic suffers one of the inexplicable collapses that haunted her in the second half of last year, this match should feature little suspense.  Jankovic in two

Schiavone vs. Radwanska:  As mighty baseliners trade missiles elsewhere on Monday, these subtle shot-makers will dance around each other with artful grace.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Italian and the Pole compensate for their lack of first-strike power with brilliant shot selection and generally unerring instincts.  While Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings, Radwanska has looked equally impressive in recent weeks; both came within a third-set tiebreak of reaching the Indian Wells quarterfinals after sturdy Melbourne performances.  More inclined to generate offense from their backhands than their forehands, they offer a compelling contrast between the Italian’s flowing one-handed stroke and the Pole’s compact two-handed jab.  But neither player relies exclusively upon finishing points from the baseline, instead creeping towards the net for a deft volley or drop shot.  Unimposing on serve, they will punish each other’s second deliveries with precisely placed albeit not overwhelming returns.  One expects a draining test of endurance with prolonged rallies, precarious service games, and plenty of mini-tennis near the net.  Whereas the action in most matches slides along the baseline, points here may unfold vertically as well as horizontally.  Radwanska in three

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Russia reacts after she won the second set against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Azarenka vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two years ago, the Belarussian collided with the former junior #1 en route to the most significant title of her career.  Still struggling to assert herself among the WTA elite, Azarenka has regressed since that breakthrough moment while retaining the core of crisp movement, balanced power, and steady technique that earned her the 2009 Miami crown.  The likely future of Russian tennis, Pavlyuchenkova ominously has endured several injuries already but showed her competitive maturity by rallying from a one-set deficit against Jankovic to defend her Monterrey title this year.  Also on display at this tournament is the Russian’s resilience, which allowed her to survive the disappointment of twice failing to serve out a match against Kvitova in the second set.  Whereas many WTA journeywomen would have crumbled at that stage, “Nastia” proved a nasty foe for the dangerous 12th seed as she fired back with a third-set bagel.  The momentum from that victory could propel Pavlyuchenkova to an only slightly more remarkable victory over the 2009 champion.  During a gripping third-round three-setter of her own, however, Azarenka demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of durability and focus.  Struggling to hold serve during the first half of the match, the eighth seed did not despair as Cibulkova raced across the court to retrieve every dart that she could throw at her.  One expected that Azarenka might shrug and pout her way to a routine loss when she trailed by a set and a break, but instead she remained confident in her weapons and steadily chipped away at the Slovak.  More comfortable against a player who shares her unreliable serve and penetrating groundstrokes but not her agility, Vika would take a significant step forward if she could reach consecutive quarterfinals at these Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Azarenka in two

Peng vs. Dulgheru:  Almost as deeply rooted in clay as Medina Garrigues, Dulgheru won just one of seven 2011 matches before this week and won consecutive matches just once between the US Open and Miami.  Although she has lost just eight games en route to the final 16, the Romanian will meet a player more than her match in the feisty Peng Shuai, fresh from a second upset over Kuznetsova.  A prosperous month for double-fisters looks likely to continue as this Chinese star has filled the void left by Li in her quarter.  Only four places lower in the rankings than Dulgheru, Peng soon will find herself with seeds, byes, and the other trappings of a legitimate contender if her ascent continues.  Peng in two

Bartoli vs. Zvonareva:  Before the Frenchwoman’s three-set victory in Beijing 2009, the world #3 had collected eight of their nine previous meetings in devastating fashion.  In ten of the fourteen completed sets that Zvonareva won before that loss to Bartoli, she dropped two or fewer games.  The events of March might suggest a change in script, however, for the Frenchwoman built upon a Doha semifinal to reach the final at Indian Wells.  By contrast, the Russian did not capitalize upon her momentum from a Doha title but instead slumped to an epic yet early exit from the desert.  Extended to three sets in their openers, both players advanced less eventfully on Sunday.  A semifinalist at this tournament last year, Bartoli must seize the initiative early in rallies by lashing her double-fisted lasers behind Zvonareva and forcing her to reverse direction.  In order to execute that strategy, though, she must step inside the baseline as often as possible and stay close to the center of the court, a goal that the Russian will aim to thwart by stretching her from side to side with deep groundstrokes.  Pounding ten aces against Groth in the third round, Zvonareva can nullify the Frenchwoman’s formidable return if she maintains a high first-serve percentage. The world #3 has not enjoyed her previous sojourns in Miami, attaining the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances, but unkind draws (like Henin in the fourth round last year) have played a role in her underachievement.  Zvonareva in two

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts against Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 25, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Ivanovic vs. Clijsters:  Seeking her third straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, the Serb confronts the defending champion in the fourth round for the second straight tournament.  A quarterfinalist in her first appearance here, Ivanovic typically has suffered a lull in Miami between strong results at Indian Wells and during the clay season.  Traces of this pattern have emerged in her first two matches, during which she confronted 23 break points on her serve.  Tiptoeing around 18 of those threats, Ana cannot depend upon preserving this ratio against another former #1 who has quelled her comfortably in their two previous completed meetings.  On the other hand, Clijsters did not dazzle during her three-set triumph over Martinez Sanchez, during which she uncorked 10 double faults and 39 unforced errors amidst numerous edgy service games.

While Ivanovic should gain confidence from that frailty, she does not possess the quirkiness and versatility of Martinez Sanchez that can fluster a rhythm-oriented player like the Belgian with unpredictable shot selection and placement.  Unless the Serb leaves her comfort zone to attempt high-bouncing, heavy-spinning loopers, drop shots, and slices, the counterpunching Clijsters should thrive on a steady diet of smoothly struck groundstrokes that she can absorb and redirect.  Since the defending champion struggled on her serve against Martinez Sanchez, Ivanovic should swing aggressively on her returns in order to instill a few flickers of doubt in her opponent’s mind.  Just as she did against Jankovic, the Serb will seek to pound the first forehand that she sees, while Clijsters will hope to feed her a steady diet of backhands.  On court for three total hours on Sunday, Ivanovic has struggled to recover from such exertions after streamlining her figure during the offseason.  Clijsters in two

Andy Murray - Sony Ericsson Open

At first glance, the scorekeeper appeared to have committed an egregious error.  A fortnight after falling to Donald Young in Indian Wells, world #5 Andy Murray had toppled to the even more anonymous qualifier Alexander Bogomolov, Jr.  But in fact the egregious errors here all belonged to the Australian Open runner-up, who has repeated his alarming 2010 dive after finishing second at the season’s first major.  Like Murray, the WTA runner-up in Melbourne has failed to win a match since her breathtaking January surge.  Peering over the barriers that surround this disaster scene, we consider the how, why, when, where, and what of the dual implosion.

How did it unfold? Just as he had in his previous two Slam finals, Murray crumbled under the pressure of expectations against a sparkling Djokovic who probably would have conquered him anyway.  Burdened by both the disappointment and a wrist injury, the world #5 then squandered a double-break advantage against Baghdatis in Rotterdam and struggled to hold serve throughout the match.  Not until Indian Wells did his malaise fully blossom, though, with a straight-sets loss to #143 Donald Young in which the Scot showed little positive body language and less conviction behind his strokes.  (Young then would collect just four games from Robredo in the next round.)  Normally renowned for consistent technique, Murray extended this deflating trend at the year’s second Masters 1000 event by holding serve only three times in an even more ghastly and error-strewn defeat.

Whereas her ATP counterpart has lost nine consecutive sets, Li Na has positioned herself to win in all but one of her losses during her current five-match skid.  At the close of her historic Melbourne run, she stood within ten points of a maiden Grand Slam title before succumbing to the heavily favored Clijsters.  Holding quadruple match point against Wickmayer in Dubai a match later, Li surrendered six consecutive points at that stage to drop a second-set tiebreak and faded sharply in the third set.  After she won just three games from the unimposing Zakopalova in Doha, the Melbourne finalist appeared to have stabilized when she captured the first set from Peng in Indian Wells.  This appearance deceived, however, as Li spiraled downward with accelerating velocity in the second half of that match.  A ferocious comeback against world #78 Johanna Larsson in Miami brought her to the brink of victory with three more match points, but she spurned those opportunities as well as a 4-0 advantage in the deciding tiebreak.

Na Li Na Li of China looks on between games in her women's final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day thirteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.Why did it happen? As the contrasting manner of their losses suggests, Murray and Li can attribute their slumps to divergent sources.  Confirmed in his inferiority complex by yet another disappointing performance in a major final, the Scot sagged from depleted self-esteem and self-belief during his ensuing tournaments.  The lack of confidence surfaced in the mostly meek nature of his losses, during which he exerted little effort in reversing the tide against him.  By contrast, Li probably suffered a hangover from the euphoria of her unprecedented breakthrough, becoming the first Asian woman to reach the final of a major.  She may have experienced a degree of disappointment after failing to capitalize upon her early momentum against Clijsters, but the tight scorelines of her losses suggest less a generally pervasive disillusionment—as do Murray’s straight-setters—than a sporadic lack of concentration at crucial moments.

When and where might they recover? Unlikely to excel on the surface least friendly to his style, Murray probably will wallow through a woeful clay season before rejuvenating himself in his home nation as he did in 2010.  Despite the pressure of his compatriots at Wimbledon, the Scot repeatedly has collected himself there after stumbles on the European continent.  Always a threat during the US Open Series, Murray surely will have quelled the memories of his Melbourne disappointment by that stage.  More broadly, the Scot still has several years ahead to showcase , not a luxury available to the WTA runner-up.

More competent on red dirt than the Scot, Li Na nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros two years ago and thus could revitalize her form more swiftly.   While clay remains her weakest surface, the WTA features few dirt devils outside Schiavone following Henin’s retirement.  Outstanding in the grass season last year, Li should find that surface ideally suited to her darting groundstrokes and compact physique with a relatively low center of gravity.  At the not very tender age of 29, however, the Chinese star already has incurred a multitude of injuries that could emerge to haunt her without warning.   Li probably can look forward to no more than two or at most three more years as a contender, so she might approach her mission with greater urgency than will Murray.

What should we and they learn from it? First, Slams matter immensely more than even the most significant non-majors to players as well as the majority of commentators and spectators.  Far from moping around the court after an ignominious loss to Nadal in the 2009 Indian Wells final, for example, Murray stormed to the title in Miami two weeks later with a self-assured victory over Djokovic.  And no sense of complacency from winning titles in Birmingham and Sydney during the past twelve months afflicted Li Na at ensuing tournaments at Wimbledon and Melbourne.  Clearly, the elevated intensity associated with the majors influences not only the champions who win them consistently (see N for Nadal and W for Williams) but also some players who never have raised one of the sport’s four most prestigious trophies.  Mirroring the peaks and valleys of the calendar are the emotional peaks and valleys experienced by those who participate in this rollercoaster.

At the same time, Murray and Li both must cultivate the art of amnesia in order to maximize their potential. While players should celebrate accomplishments as they happen and have the right to bemoan bitter defeats, they also must maintain a sense of perspective from one week to the next.  The ATP #5 cannot continue to meander through months of tepid tennis while nursing his wounds from a single setback, nor can Li linger in the glow of yesterday’s glory.  Apt for this sport is Horace’s saying that “time flies” (tempus fugit).  In their exceptionally short careers, tennis stars have a limited window of opportunity to leave an impact.  Requiring most contenders to live in the present and plan for the future, that situation exacerbates the challenges confronting those who dwell too long in the past.

Etched on a wall at the All England Club is Kipling’s poem “If,” which offered timely consolation for Mahut after his epic Wimbledon loss to Isner.  The second couplet of the poem’s second stanza reminds its readers that fulfillment flows to those who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.”

Such is the task that looms ahead for Murray and Li.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

First quarter:  While Nadal may loom above the competition here, the section’s most intriguing storyline concerns 2010 runner-up Berdych, whose surge into the top 10 began in Key Biscayne last year with victories over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling.  Less formidable but relatively consistent in recent months, last year’s finalist could advance to the fourth round without facing any opponent more intimidating than Gulbis.  Aligned to reprise their Indian Wells collision are Spaniards Almagro and Montanes, although one wonders whether Karlovic can exploit a wildcard to reprise his draw-shattering assault in the desert.  Well superior to either Spaniard except on his most erratic days, Berdych might experience a greater challenge if he confronts the Croat’s staggering delivery.  Hoping to reconstitute the serve that evaporated in the Indian Wells final, Nadal finds himself amidst three of the ATP’s rising stars.  After a potential first-round encounter with the recently disappointing Nishikori, the world #1 could face Lithunian prodigy Ricardas Berankis if the latter can overcome aging lefty Feliciano Lopez.  Reliant more on subtlety and deftness than on raw power, Berankis probably can threaten Rafa less than the effortless, electrifying shot-making of Dolgopolov, a possible fourth-round opponent.  Despite an indifferent performance at Indian Wells, the Ukrainian should have an opportunity to repeat his Australian Open upset over Tsonga.  If top seeds Nadal and Berdych do maneuver into the quarterfinals, though, the top seed will bring immense confidence from a 19-set winning streak against the Czech that dates from early 2007.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal vs. the 2010 finalist

Second quarter:  Like the first quarter, the second highest-ranked seed offers a more compelling narrative than the legend who shares this neighborhood with him.  A champion at this prestigious event last year, Roddick eyes a plausible third-round confrontation with the indefatigable Simon, who won their last meeting during the 2010 US Open Series but fell to the American at this tournament three years ago.  Lacking his former spark since his struggle with mono, the defending champion could fall from the top 10 if he fails to progress smoothly through this quarter.  Also in his vicinity is teenage sensation Ryan Harrison, who must attempt to capitalize upon his Indian Wells momentum at his home event.  Defeating Roddick at the 2009 Australian Open, Cilic has edged into relevance this season after the inexplicable, career-threatening slump that descended upon him a year ago.  Should the defending champion arrive in the quarterfinals, the competition could spike upwards dramatically against a player who has pitilessly blocked the American’s path to Slam glory since 2004.  Likely to have won at least four or five majors had Federer chosen soccer over tennis, Roddick nevertheless scored one of his two victories against the Swiss star at this tournament in 2008.  Moreover, the GOAT tumbled to a fourth-round loss against Berdych here last year and could face 2010 nemesis Baghdatis at that stage this year.  Already having defeated Murray and Del Potro during 2011, the Cypriot could cause trouble for Federer if he enters this tournament searching for motivation.  Or so Roddick fervently hopes.

Quarterfinal:  Federer vs. the defending champion

Third quarter:  Sharing this section are two players who fizzled like soggy fireworks in Indian Wells, Soderling and Ferrer.  Struggling with illness there, the Swede may have suffered from a peripatetic post-Melbourne schedule during which he captured two titles and a Davis Cup victory over Russia.  Although Ferrer swept through the clay event in Acapulco, he looked jaded in Indian Wells against Karlovic while playing uncharacteristically error-strewn tennis.  Yet the Spaniard can excel on these medium-speed hard courts, as demonstrated by two Miami semifinals.  A semifinalist here in 2010, meanwhile, Soderling could face Del Potro in a highly anticipated third-round encounter should the Argentine navigate past Kohlschreiber as he did in the desert.  On the other hand, the former US Open champion may enter this tournament weary from a Delray Beach title and an Indian Wells semifinal appearance.  This quarter thus offers fertile terrain for a dark horse like Raonic, who could hammer his mighty serves past Ferrer in the third round just as Karlovic did in the second round of Indian Wells.  Among the more experienced opportunists here are the one-handed backhands of Wawrinka and Gasquet.  Ferocious against anyone but Federer, the Swiss #2 upset Berdych last week and enjoys a comfortable early draw before tackling Ferrer, whom he rarely has faced on a hard court.  Aligned against Fish in a potential third-round clash, Gasquet dazzled in Indian Wells but must validate that apparent revival with consistent results before his momentum slows.

Quarterfinal:  Wawrinka vs. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Undefeated since November, Djokovic has gripped the ATP in a relentless stranglehold.  Interrupting his quest for the Indian Wells-Miami double, however, were promotional activities that ranged from a Colombia exhibition and a Head video to two charity events in Miami.  Can Djokovic recover his focus from those distractions and batter his way to a title that he seized in 2007?  Surrounded by several slumping rivals, the Serb may not need to reach his highest level en route to the quarterfinals.  While Djokovic has handled Troicki with increasing ease, he routinely dismantled Querrey in their two hard-court meetings.  Even more stagnant than his compatriot, Isner admitted that a series of uninspired performances have eroded his conviction—not an auspicious situation in which to confront the world #2.  Eagerly anticipating his return to clay, Verdasco has looked listless and puzzled during his hard-court encounters in 2011.  Nor has he conquered Djokovic on a hard court since the 2005 US Open, long before the latter’s breakthrough.  Atop this section stands currently the ATP’s greatest enigma, a resident and former champion in Miami who defeated the Serb in the 2009 final.  Struggling with his serve, stamina, and self-belief on that occasion, however, Djokovic scarcely resembled the confident, fit, and technically flawless competitor who has sparkled this year.  Before a fruitless clay season begins, Murray hopes to reconstruct his own confidence with a few notable victories.  Unable to do so last year, he may crumble mentally if he confronts the player who comprehensively crushed him at the Australian Open.

Quarterfinal:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain (L) congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning championship point in their men's final match during day fourteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Caroline Wozniacki - BNP Paribas Open

First quarter:  Tested occasionally but not intensely during her Indian Wells title run, Wozniacki should have the physical reserves and mental focus to launch a deep run at this second Premier Mandatory tournament.  On the other hand, the top seed often has looked invincible for extended stretches before a sudden stumble, such as her losses to Zvonareva at the US Open last fall and in Doha last month.  Although Petkovic can outhit Wozniacki in forehand-to-forehand exchanges, she probably lacks the consistency to score the upset.  Meanwhile, Pennetta never has defeated the world #1 even on the clay surfaces that tilt so markedly in the Italian’s favor.  Unable to seize the elusive double herself last year, Jankovic will have an opportunity to spoil the Dane’s attempt should they meet in the quarterfinals.  Unlikely to encounter much resistance until the fourth round, the Serb may find herself tested there by Indian Wells surprise semifinalist Wickmayer.  A 2010 quarterfinalist in Miami, the Belgian #2 first would need to reprise last week’s comfortable victory over Peer, who soon could become the first Israeli to reach the top 10.  After a stinging early defeat in the desert, Jankovic may arrive additionally motivated to recapture the form that lifted her to the 2008 final here.  During a February loss to Wozniacki, she held three set points in the first set and might have scripted a different outcome had she converted one of them.  Should a quarterfinal between the stylistically similar Dane and Serb unfold, we will discover whether the apprentice has surpassed the sorceress.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Jankovic

Second quarter:  Hovering around the beleaguered top seeds here like vultures around carrion, two-time finalist Sharapova and 2006 champion Kuznetsova aim to break through a relatively weak section.  Oscillating between unremarkable and unsightly during the last several months, fourth-seeded Stosur has rarely resembled the player who dazzled us last spring.  Winless since the Australian Open, seventh-seeded Li Na could not have arranged for an easier draw in the first few rounds but then could collide with Kuznetsova.  Sparring with the Russian in Sydney this year, the world #6 narrowly survived a three-setter that proved her most severe challenge en route to that title.  Situated amidst several seismic servers, Sharapova must protect her own service games more effectively than she did while marching to the semifinals at Indian Wells.  Nevertheless, she has achieved almost immaculate mastery over Stosur and Petrova, the two highest-ranked players whom she could face before the quarterfinals.  Posing a perhaps more stubborn obstacle is Czech lefty Safarova, a mercurial player who should discomfit Stosur in the third round and has won her only meeting with Maria.  Elsewhere, a pair of youthful prodigies, Lisicki and Halep, seek to state (or restate) their relevance with creditable efforts against seeded players.  Nor should one neglect the presence of Peng, who seemingly has upset at least one notable player in each tournament that she has played this season.  The Chinese star might derail Kuznetsova for the second time in three months should they meet in the third round.  Unless someone in this section unexpectedly catches fire, though, one suspects that Sharapova will not allow anyone to block her probable ascent to the top 10.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Third quarter:  After a three-hour duel with Cibulkova turned against her in Indian Wells, Zvonareva may bring little positive energy to a tournament where she has reached the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances.  And the Russian may not thrill to the task of confronting compatriot Safina in her opener, although she dispatched Dinara last fall in a tight two-setter.  Progressing beyond that meeting, however, the road could become much smoother for the world #3.  Vera has dominated her two most likely opponents in the fourth round and the quarterfinals, compiling an 8-2 record against Bartoli and winning all ten of her meetings with fifth-seeded Schiavone.  While Bartoli did capture her last clash with the Russian last fall, the 2010 Miami semifinalist may enter this tournament a bit enervated by her exploits of the preceding fortnight.  Perhaps the most powerful ball-striker in the section, Kleybanova defeated Zvonareva last month but remains disappointingly inconsistent from one tournament to the next.  Thus, one should not project too boldly from an encouraging week at Indian Wells during which she conquered longtime nemesis Pennetta and snatched a set from Wozniacki.  Likely to meet Kirilenko for the second straight tournament, Radwanska must quickly dispel the memories of her four squandered match points against Azarenka in the desert.  The Pole may have the opportunity to pit her wits against the equally crafty Schiavone in an idiosyncratic fourth-round encounter.  Can this sorceress extend her dominance over her apprentice more effectively than Jankovic did over Wozniacki?

Quarterfinal:  Radwanska vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Sore in more ways than one after Indian Wells, Clijsters sounded defensive and sour when she retrospectively denigrated the event from which she retired.  Less distant from home, the defending champion has sounded tentative about her condition over the last few days, claiming that she will withdraw at the moment that she experiences the first twinge in her shoulder.  Consequently, the players uncomfortably situated in her vicinity may progress further into the draw than they had expected.  Poised to profit from the Belgian’s frailties is potential fourth-round opponent Ivanovic, perhaps destined to face Date-Krumm for the second straight tournament.  The muscular but recently dormant Kanepi could threaten the Serb, who has not reached the quarterfinals in Miami since her first appearance there in 2005.  Personifying the WTA’s unpredictability, the streaking star Kvitova has won two titles in 2011 and lost two opening matches.  The bane of a bookie’s existence, she will seek to repeat her Wimbledon triumph over Azarenka in a fourth-round collision of brash, fist-pumping blondes.  Yet Pavlyuchenkova could intercept Kvitova if the Monterrey champion can recover psychologically from squandering multiple leads against Peer in Indian Wells.  A champion at this event in 2009, Azarenka has honed a more refined game and accumulated much more experience than either the Russian or the Czech.  Nevertheless, a hamstring strain at Indian Wells raises concern for her ever-fragile health, while her lackluster results this year inspire scant confidence even if the injury does not trouble her.  Sagging dismally against Clijsters in Miami a year ago, Azarenka will face a daunting mental challenge if the Belgian bars her path again.  Question marks cluster around this section, however, bookended by competitors in uncertain condition.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka vs. Clijsters, if healthy; otherwise vs. Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

We return tomorrow to forecast the men’s draw.  Federer and Nadal in the same half?  Djokovic and Murray in the same quarter?  Brace yourselves for suspense!

Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

As the finals of the season’s first major non-major loom, the two #1s eye the last obstacles in their quest for the prestigious Indian Wells crown.  Can the challengers spring an ambush, or will the top seeds receive their just deserts?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates a point against Maria Sharapova of Russia during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 18, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Wozniacki vs. Bartoli:  Hunting her second straight Premier Mandatory title, the world #1 has won 25 consecutive matches in the WTA’s elite tier of Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments.  But the last player to defeat Wozniacki at such an event was the quirky Frenchwoman who will oppose her in Sunday’s championship match.  On a sweltering afternoon in Cincinnati, Bartoli swept the Dane aside with the loss of only five games as her double-fisted groundstrokes darted through that fast court at unpredictable angles.  A former Wimbledon finalist, Wozniacki’s challenger prefers such swift surfaces to unleash a game that relies less upon point construction than first-strike shot-making, highlighted by a splendid second-serve return.  In addition to attacking the Dane’s second serve, the Frenchwoman must control her own delivery more consistently than she did late in her semifinal against Wickmayer, allowing her to start points inside the baseline on offensive terms.  Once a rally extends beyond seven or eight shots, the balance of power tilts sharply towards Wozniacki.  Against an opponent who anticipates an opponent’s gambits extremely well, Bartoli should consider reversing the direction of her shots and hitting behind the Dane in order to keep her physically and mentally off balance.  Especially considering an illness that descended before her quarterfinal, she probably will need some assistance from the world #1 in order to deliver the upset.

And Bartoli conceivably might get that assistance.  In the final here a year ago, Wozniacki sprayed a disconcerting quantity of groundstrokes throughout the court as she slumped to a straight-sets loss against the unintimidating Jankovic.  Just as in her recent losses at majors, she appeared to struggle with the magnitude of the situation, although the Dane won a gritty three-setter from leading rival Zvonareva for the Beijing title last fall.  Moreover, Indian Wells has earned notoriety for capriciously crowning underdogs such as Hantuchova and Zvonareva, victors over Hings, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic in previous finals.   Nevertheless, scant evidence suggests that the historical trend will continue this year.  On a moderately paced hard court not unlike the Indian Wells arena, Wozniacki yielded just two games to Bartoli in a Doha semifinal.  Although the Wimbledon finalist moves more effectively than one might suspect at first glance, she requires greater time to unleash her double-fisted groundstrokes than would a more conventional player.  The alert Wozniacki should seize the opportunity to slip inside the baseline whenever she notices that her opponent takes one hand off her racket.  More adroit moving laterally than forwards, Bartoli often struggles when brought to the net on her opponent’s terms, a flaw that Wozniacki might consider exploiting.  Whereas feeding balls deep down the center of the court frustrated Sharapova, though, the top seed will want to keep the Frenchwoman constantly moving in order to drain her illness-depleted energy.

Unlikely to receive full validation as a world #1 until she wins a major, Wozniacki nevertheless could cement her position atop the WTA by capturing the most significant title of her career so far.  An upset by Bartoli conversely would confirm the impression that the top titles women’s tennis lies open to any talented opportunist.  A precocious 20-year-old, Wozniacki should shoulder the pressure upon her with the maturity of a seasoned contender.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 19, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Nadal vs. Djokovic:   Whereas the women’s #1 arrives in the final as the considerable favorite, her male counterpart appears a slight underdog in his championship match.  Sharper against the reinvigorated Del Potro than in his previous encounters here, Nadal probably must elevate his performance even further in order to derail the momentum of the Serbian juggernaut.  Having not lost a match since November, Djokovic brings an unblemished 2011 record and six victories over top-10 players into his third final in the California desert.  Despite losing all eleven of his clay and grass meetings to Nadal, the Australian Open champion has collected seven straight-sets victories over the world #1 on hard courts against only five losses.  In a gallant effort against the Spaniard in the US Open final, Djokovic saved swarms of break points on his serve through three fiercely contested sets before finally succumbing to fatigue from his classic semifinal victory over Federer.  Even threatening the Spaniard on his beloved dirt, the Serb relentlessly takes the Mallorcan bull by the horns with fearless swinging volleys and a barrage of inside-out forehands that sets up his inside-in forehand or unparalleled down-the-line backhand.  En route to the Indian Wells title three years ago, Djokovic hammered his targets with relentless precision and never lost his serve during a comprehensive semifinal triumph that avenged his loss in the final here a year earlier.

On the other hand, Rafa has won all of his most significant encounters with Nole, including all five of their finals and all of their meetings at majors.  When the stakes and the tensions rise highest, therefore, Nadal remains the sturdier competitor with a greater appetite for the battle.  Unable to decapitate both heads of the Fedal hydra at the US Open, Djokovic has not conquered the two legends consecutively since his breakthrough at the 2007 Rogers Cup.  Rafa has prevailed on each of the six occasions when his meetings with Nole have extended beyond the minimum number of sets, a tribute to his generally superior focus and fitness.  If Djokovic charges into an early lead, therefore, he must deliver the coup de grace rather than slipping into complacency and permitting his opponent to claw himself into the match.  Like his fellow #1, Nadal will relish the relatively slow courts at Indian Wells that favor a counterpuncher’s ability to track down penetrating groundstrokes and return them with interest.  As he demonstrated in the 2009 final, furthermore, his game adapts more smoothly to the desert’s variable weather conditions than those of rivals who rely more heavily on precision.  Uncharacteristically unreliable against Karlovic in the quarterfinals, Nadal’s passing shots sparkled on Saturday against Del Potro.  When Djokovic attempts to finish points in the forecourt, as he must in order to succeed, the Spaniard often will force him to hit complicated volleys or smashes.

Whether the Serb or the Spaniard suffers a reverse on Sunday, the Indian Wells runner-up could find swift consolation.  In the past two seasons, Murray and Roddick captured the Miami title after disappointment in the desert final.  We return shortly to preview the draws at the tournament after reviewing some of the more intriguing narratives from Indian Wells.

Juan Martin Del Potro - BNP Paribas Open

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Reaching the semifinals or better at four consecutive American tournaments, the 2009 US Open champion has progressed more swiftly in his comeback from wrist surgery than we had expected.  Without the luxury of first-round bye, Del Potro received a welcome respite when quarterfinal opponent Tommy Robredo offered him a walkover.  Appearing somewhat jaded during his two-tiebreak victory over Kohlschreiber in the preceding round, he now has the opportunity to replenish his energy for what should become a highly physical encounter.  While dropping his first four meetings to Nadal, including a limp quarterfinal at this event’s 2009 edition, the Argentine looked intimidated and tentative against such a fiery competitor as the Spaniard.  Without warning, the momentum in their rivalry then swung sharply in the opposite direction when Del Potro rallied from a double-break deficit in the third set of a Miami quarterfinal to ambush Rafa in a tiebreak.  That stunning comeback branded itself upon Nadal’s psyche and left scars that reappeared in the Argentine’s emphatic victories later that summer, including a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 annihilation at the US Open.  Just as Del Potro once had looked uneasy and uncertain against Rafa, Rafa began to waver and tremble under the assault of the Tower of Tandil.

But the Tower of Tandil has not quite towered over the opposition in his comeback as he did during that memorable US Open campaign.  Falling to Verdasco in San Jose and Roddick in Memphis, Del Potro struggled to hold serve and to unleash his fabled cross-court forehand with the fearlessness that he possessed before his surgery.  While he merits praise for outlasting inspired opposition here such as Dolgopolov and Kohlschreiber, players whom he might have dispatched routinely in 2009 have dragged him into arduous battles.  On the other hand, Nadal has not ascended to his customary heights in his first four matches.  Perhaps uninspired by three consecutive qualifiers in the first three rounds, Rafa barely solved the riddle of defusing Karlovic’s serve on Thursday.  Twice within two points of a stunning upset, the Croat tested the Spaniard’s composure with every ace that crashed through the court.  Although Nadal ultimately prevailed, he betrayed his ruffled emotions by missing a few more first serves and passing-shot attempts than he typically would have.  Can he rediscover his poise against a recurrent nemesis who will offer him much more rhythm from the baseline?  This semifinal should open a window onto Nadal’s confidence and Del Potro’s fitness, both physical and mental.  While Rafa should earn his revenge, the Argentine will gain considerable momentum from this tournament if he can prove his ability to once again challenge the ATP elite.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Dueling for the #2 ranking, these supernovas have collided repeatedly since mid-2010 and thrown sparks into the tennis universe on almost every occasion.  The only player to whom Federer has lost this year, Djokovic took the GOAT by the horns at each of the last two majors in contrasting fashions.  Winning all five of the sets that he has contested with the Swiss in 2011, the Serb not only outserved him in Melbourne and Dubai but won the majority of their forehand-to-forehand battles, a trend that the current #2 must reverse in order to regain the momentum in their rivalry.  Rather than hammering away at Djokovic from the baseline, however, Federer should consider varying the pace and height of his shots in order to destabilize his opponent’s rhythm.  Pursuing those tactics early in the second set of their Australian Open semifinal, he abandoned them once he arrived in a commanding position and watched his fortunes fade thereafter.  Typically reluctant to concede any weakness, Federer may recoil from admitting that he can project less power from the baseline than can Djokovic at this stage in their respective careers.

Despite advancing to the semifinals without dropping a set, Federer looked fallible at times against Andreev and Harrison, both of whom forced him into tiebreaks.  By contrast, few players reach the semifinals of a Masters 1000 event with a record more spotless than Djokovic’s sweep through his first four matches, losing 12 total games and breaking his opponents in 20 of 29 return games.  Less auspicious for the Serb is an ailing knee that required a trainer visit early in the second set of his quarterfinal victory over Gasquet.  Trailing by a break in both sets against the Frenchman, Djokovic deserves credit for recovering rapidly from those lulls and gathering his focus before the momentum slid too far towards his opponent.  Nevertheless, Gasquet looked unconvinced (probably correctly) that he could threaten the third seed, who thus never found himself under significant pressure.  Such a situation does not describe a clash with an adversary surely more motivated than ever to assert his command over a rivalry that he once dominated.

While Djokovic should have ample motivation to wrest the #2 ranking from Federer’s grasp, the Swiss superstar may not burn with equal determination to retain it.  As he once remarked in an interview, only the #1 position matters for a competitor at his vertiginous height.  Moreover, these Masters 1000 events probably spur the Serb more than the Swiss, who has not won a hard-court Masters 1000 event outside Cincinnati since 2006.  Regularly shining on the fast surface there, Federer may find the slow courts at Indian Wells less to his liking as his consistency wanes.  On the other hand, he remains the only player in either the ATP or the WTA to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, a feat that will infuse him with even more inspiring memories than those of the 2008 champion.

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Will Roger and Rafa meet at Indian Wells for the first time in their careers, or will Djokovic face Nadal here for the third time in the last five years?  Or will the long arms of Del Potro reach out to intercept the favorites and snare his maiden Masters 1000 shield?  Spectators should eagerly anticipate two Saturday semifinals that feature the four players who have won every major title since Roland Garros 2005.