You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2011.

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Advertisements

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Maria Sharapova of Russia during the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University on August 1, 2010 in Stanford, California.

Inaugurating the US Open Series for the WTA is the 28-player tournament at Stanford’s intimate stadium, where four top-10 players and three Slam champions converge.  Like the overstuffed draws at Sydney and Eastbourne, this tournament’s small scale and sterling entry list combine to produce fascinating encounters from the opening round onwards.

Top half:  Returning as the top seed and defending champion, Wimbledon semifinalist Azarenka hopes to extend her first-half momentum from what has become the finest season of her career.  Since a bye instantly moves her within one win of the quarterfinals, she could face top-20 opponent Cibulkova in her second match of the tournament.  The Slovak bedeviled Vika for prolonged stretches of their Miami meeting, which she led by a set and a break before fading.  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, Cibulkova also has enjoyed one of her most successful seasons but faces a tricky opener against Date-Krumm.  Eliminating Safina and winning a set from Dementieva here last year, the ageless Japanese legend struggled throughout the first few months of 2011.  Nevertheless, she rebounded brilliantly at Wimbledon to collaborate with Venus on a second-round classic that illustrated her uncanny knack for exploiting the geometry of the court.  Also mounting a comeback in this section is Mirjana Lucic, who troubled Cibulkova at Wimbledon.  The Croat opens against Christina McHale, perhaps the brightest ray of hope for the future of American women’s tennis although far from a future superstar.

Projected to meet Azarenka in the semifinals is 2009 champion Bartoli, reinstated in the top 10 following stirring surges at the European majors.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, the eccentric double-fister ambushed former champions in each of those tournaments (Kuznetsova and Serena, respectively).   But she failed to blunt Lisicki’s serving power on the grass and will face one of two imposing servers on this fast hard court, either Canada’s Rebecca Marino or home hope Coco Vandeweghe.  In the quarterfinals, Bartoli might reprise her meeting with Ivanovic at last year’s tournament, should the former #1 progress past Morita and a qualifier.  While those victories would seem well within range, recent losses to opponents like Larsson and Cetkovska suggest that anything could happen when the Serb takes the court.  Early in her partnership with Nigel Sears and Scott Byrnes, Ivanovic will hope to draw emotional stability from the secure support team around her.  If she does reach Azarenka in the semifinals, she will have more positive memories to bolster her confidence than does Bartoli, repeatedly dominated by the Belarussian.

Semifinal:  Azarenka d. Bartoli

Bottom half:  In arguably the weakest section lies 2010 semifinalist Radwanska, who has relished the extra jolt of pace with which this slick surface endows her underpowered strokes.  The Pole has suffered a series of uncharacteristic setbacks this year, however, as a souring relationship with her father-coach may have contributed to her depleted confidence.   Also searching for a momentum boost is Stosur, last year’s top seed but now hovering at the fringes of the top 10.  Banished from the first week of every major this season, the former Roland Garros runner-up has found her limited game exposed by those with a more balanced range of weapons.  Still a threat when she finds her first serve regularly, Stosur defeated Serena here two years ago but likely will open against doubles partner and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki.  The mightiest server of her generation, the German should score yet another upset and perhaps proceed to a quarterfinal against Radwanska that would showcase a dramatic contrast of styles.  In the aftermath of her Wimbledon breakthrough, though, will Lisicki suffer a lull in her motivation?

Wedged uncomfortably into the lowest quarter are the two greatest attractions of the draw, responsible for collecting 16 of the 17 majors owned by Stanford participants.  Thirteen of those belong to an unseeded player currently ranked outside the top 100, who will ignite her campaign against the woefully overmatched Rodionova.  Among the most intriguing first-round matches in the draw is the encounter that pits Goerges against Kirilenko to decide Serena’s second-round foe.  After a sparkling clay season that included a title and two wins over Wozniacki, the German receded from the spotlight during the grass season as her compatriot Lisicki shone.  If she can find the consistency to outhit Kirilenko, her penetrating first-strike power could challenge Serena, still rusty at Wimbledon.  Eyeing a probable opener against Hantuchova, Sharapova seeks to move a round further than at her last tournament and her last Stanford appearance.  Excelling on the specialty surfaces this year, she must conquer an opponent who also scored notable albeit more muted accomplishments in recent months.  The three-time major champion stands alone among the top 20 in winning two or more matches at every tournament this year, but she probably must snap a five-match skid against Serena to continue that streak.

Semifinal:  S. Williams d. Lisicki

Final:  Azarenka d. S. Williams

***

Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina kisses the championship trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the Countrywide Classic finals in Straus Stadium at the Los Angeles Tennis Center-UCLA on August 10, 2008 in Westwood, California.  Del Potro defeated Roddick 6-1, 7-6(2).

Casting a brief glance at the relatively meager ATP draw in Los Angeles, a few defining characteristics emerge.  The most prominent figure here, 2008 champion Del Potro, already has rejoined the top 20 and will hope to elevate his ranking further during his most successful period of the season.  Among his rivals is the enigmatic future star Grigor Dimitrov, who continues to alternate flashes of brilliance with inexplicable lapses.  In fact, the LA draw features a host of such unpredictable competitors, from former Australian Open finalists Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Gulbis and Malisse.  Forgotten figures like Haas and Tursunov also hope to snatch a few fleeting moments of glory as their careers dwindle.  Hoping to build upon his Atlanta semifinal, top American prospect Ryan Harrison will confront fellow rising star Ricardas Berankis in the first edition of what may become a recurrent rivalry.  Fresh from defending his Atlanta title, Fish looks likely to appear in a second straight final, where he will find Del Potro a taller task than Isner in tennis if not in literal terms.

With the season half completed, we revisit the 11 predictions with which we began 2011.  Have we struck more aces or double faults so far? After reviewing the initial calls that we made in December, Halftime Hawkeye delivers its verdicts….

Rafael Nadal (L to R) Finalists Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland pose for the cameras prior to the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  That “one more Slam final” did occur at Roland Garros, and their tepid Miami semifinal illustrated the overall decline of this rivalry, so the note of nostalgia struck here sounds apt in retrospect.  But the Roland Garros final edged the Wimbledon final in drama and intrigue, suggesting that Djokovic-Nadal has not quite overtaken Nadal-Federer as this prediction had hinted.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  Fortunately, we buried that line about Djokovic’s Wimbledon chances so deep into the paragraph that most of you probably didn’t notice it. 

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  The Scot did leave his counterpunching comfort zone during the European spring, surpassing our expectations.  On the other hand, his mental state remains in the “quicksand between believing and not believing” that we described above.  Murray prefers the US Open to all other majors and always flourishes most on hard courts, but it’s difficult to imagine him defeating two of the top three in best-of-five matches on consecutive days.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Let.  The Argentine left little impact at the Australian Open, but he bounced back faster than we expected with an Indian Wells semifinal.  The clay season did play a major role in the process as noted, highlighted by wins over Soderling and Verdasco en route to the Estoril title.  Still, the vital “finishing strong” part of the prediction remains open to conjecture, so we must wait a little longer for an official ruling.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Double fault.  Remind us never again to underestimate Spain in Davis Cup competition,after the Rafa-less squad proved superior to the American A-team with two top-10 singles stars.  We still will have “a scintillating match” in the Davis Cup final, though, if both Spain and Serbia collect another win in September.  Halfway through the season, #5 is our only prediction that already has no chance of fulfillment.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Wozniacki’s tireless schedule indeed has earned her a stranglehold on the WTA #1 despite ignominious defeats at the last two majors and a generally unimpressive European spring.  But Nadal did “relinquish his dominance” over grass and much of clay, while a worthy #1 rose to supplant him.  With another Slam title and the year-end championships final still to defend, Rafa will struggle to validate the ATP half of this prediction.  He defends more points than Djokovic does at the key second-half tournaments; the Serb should outdo him there in 2011 and merely consolidate his grasp on #1.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  If anything, we underestimated the depth of Zvonareva’s sophomore slump, which has included six losses to players outside the top 20 and pre-quarterfinal defeats at the last two majors.  Federer’s season has unfolded mostly according to expectations with a few glittering moments punctuating the overall spiral of decline.  One struggles to imagine him overtaking either Nadal or Djokovic, considering his 1-6 record against them this year.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  This prediction sounded bold when the year began but came true in rather anticlimactic fashion.  With both sisters effectively crippled for the first two majors, they had to sweep the last two.  Despite their miraculous comebacks before, one week at Eastbourne couldn’t catapult them back into Wimbledon contention in an invigorated, increasingly less intimidated WTA.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  One of our least ambitious predictions, Kim’s Australian Open title arrived after slightly more suspense than most had anticipated.  Required to defeat none of the “primary challengers” mentioned above, she nevertheless came within three games of defeat against Li in the final.  Previously, though, Clijsters enjoyed an uneventful route through the draw against thoroughly overmatched opponents, including the aforementioned Zvonareva.  Since the younger generation now has ceased “to tread tentatively,” she may find her future routes to Slam glory more arduous.

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  While she may not have won a major, the blazing-eyed Belarussian achieved her highest career ranking this year as she captured Miami for the second time.  Azarenka also became one of only three players to reach the second week of every major, attaining her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  With Wozniacki somewhere between stagnation and regression, her burgeoning rivalry with Kvitova could become one of the key narratives in the second half.  Injuries and retirements do continue to accumulate at an alarming rate, however, raising questions about her training regimen.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

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

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Following an erratic first half littered with opening-round losses, Ivanovic led the WTA in bagels served but excelled in few other statistical categories.  Since her ranking has remained in virtually the same position where it ended 2010, the gap separating her from her countrywoman has narrowed almost entirely as a result of the latter’s shortcomings.  Currently at her lowest ranking since 2007, Jankovic won four total matches at the first three majors but has many fewer points to defend during the second half.  Conversely, Ivanovic defends two fall titles and a pair of strong North American runs in Cincinnati and New York, so the gap may not narrow further.

***

Well, we fared a bit better at the service notch than did Pavlyuchenkova in Baku.  This weekend, we return with a preview of Stanford, one of the most star-studded small tournaments in the WTA calendar.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Twelve

In the first half of 2011, the Williams sisters played three total tournaments, Henin retired in January, and Clijsters nearly vanished after March.  So what went right for the WTA so far this year?  Quite a bit, in fact.  A new champion rose, an old champion rose again, another champion brought 100 million new fans to the sport, and two more champions fought a duel to the death (well, almost).  We reflect upon the most memorable and meaningful matches from a first half that compensated in drama for what it lacked in star power.

5) Sharapova d. Dulgheru (Miami):  At first glance, many readers might have imagined that this often excruciating ordeal would land on the less glamorous list below.  In the longest match of Sharapova’s career, she overcame 17 double faults, 76 unforced errors, an ankle injury late in the third set, and an unexpectedly determined opponent.  With a return to the top 10 at stake, however, the three-time major champion refused to let those obstacles halt her as her lasers grazed the line in the final moments of both tiebreaks.  Earlier in her comeback, Sharapova had lost these tortuous affairs to players like Oudin, Zheng, or Kirilenko.  This time, her renewed steeliness propelled her to victory on a night when almost nothing else could.  While Sharapova delivered much more stunning tennis later in the spring, arduous, hard-earned triumphs like these played a more important role in fueling her revival than any of her emphatic routs.  Many players can win when they strike their strokes to perfection, but few can win simply by refusing to accept any other outcome.

4) Venus d. Date-Krumm (Wimbledon) / Lisicki d. Li (Wimbledon):  Often criticized for eccentric scheduling decisions, Wimbledon redeemed itself in part by placing both of these second-round thrillers on Centre Court.  Opposing competitors from different generations, the two epics featured scintillating contrasts of styles between the artful angles of Date-Krumm, the baseline resilience of Li, and the massive first-strike firepower of their conquerors.  While the Goliaths eventually slew the Davids, these suspenseful matches illustrated the surge in quality experienced by the WTA this year, which has led to early-round encounters more entertaining than ever.  In probably her final Wimbledon, the Japanese star nearly unhinged the five-time champion with her inspired improvisations and pinpoint placement.  Even more noteworthy was the courage of Lisicki, whom few would have blamed for conceding to the Roland Garros champion late in the third set.  Proving herself as tough as one of the tour’s toughest veterans, however, the German did not flinch on the sport’s grandest stage.  While a former Wimbledon champion won one of these matches, a future Wimbledon champion may have won the other.

3) Kvitova d. Azarenka (Madrid):  Dwarfed by the Wimbledon title that followed two months later, Kvitova’s performance in this Premier Mandatory final underscored her precocious competitive determination.  No less remarkable than her blazing winners was her refusal to retreat when her ambitious shot-making misfired.  Seizing her fate in her own hands, Kvitova separated herself from the fragile debutantes who have flirted with WTA breakthroughs before faltering.  This match also separated her from one of her most talented potential rivals, a distinction confirmed in the Wimbledon semifinal.  Nevertheless, Azarenka delivered more than enough blows to the Czech on both occasions to suggest that an engaging rivalry might develop between these feisty aggressors.  After witnessing so many recent WTA finals lost by nerves or unfocused play, one relished the sight of a title tilt decided (largely) by timely excellence rather than untimely frailty.

2) Li d. Wozniacki (Australian Open):  The stakes stood high for both players in a semifinal that often felt more like a final, pitting Li’s attempt to become the first Chinese Slam finalist against Wozniacki’s attempt to legitimize her #1 ranking at a major.  Throughout most of its three grueling sets, both players held firm under the pressure as they traded weapons from two of the tour’s most balanced groundstroke arsenals.  As with Kvitova, this preliminary triumph may fade in the glow of what Li accomplished at the following major, but none of her Roland Garros wins so clearly showcased her ability to guard her baseline while unleashing strategic flashes of offense.  Averting a match point with a flamboyant forehand winner, she ground down the WTA’s ultimate grinder by patiently constructing her opportunities.  Although this defeat exposed Wozniacki’s notorious lack of firepower, it also demonstrated the degree of sustained physical and mental effort required to conquer her on a hard court.  Her decision to diverge from the winner-wild mentality in women’s tennis may or may not lead to major titles, but her baseline fortress often separates contenders from pretenders and diversifies a somewhat stylistically homogenous WTA.

1) Schiavone d. Kuznetsova (Australian Open):  In the first month of 2011, this clash between two Slam champions set the standard extremely high for the season that followed.  Less notable for the quality of the strokes than the quality of the competition, the 284-minute women’s sequel to Isner-Mahut proved infinitely more fascinating to watch than its predecessor.  Representative of their nations were the contrasting styles of the Russian and the Italian, one of whom pummeled forehands with reckless abandon while the other parried these blows with elegant slices and unexpected assaults on the forecourt.  Those who dismissively labeled Schiavone a “one-Slam wonder” should have gained greater respect for her following this demonstration of indefatigable will.  Meanwhile, the often fallible Kuznetsova earned honor in defeat by battling with undimmed vigor even as match point after match points slipped past.  Like the other matches in this list, moreover, “4:44” was won rather than lost—not a statement that often applies to these scoreboard-straining marathons.

From the zenith to the abyss…we recall the most unforgettably forgettable performances of the first half.

3) Wozniacki d. Kuznetsova (Dubai):  Among the reasons why Kvitova’s Madrid triumph appeared above was woeful WTA finals like this desert debacle.  After an eye-opening Australian Open highlighted not only by “4:44” but by a victory over Henin, Kuznetsova seemed poised to reverse her 2010 futility when she reached the final at the next significant tournament.  But then the feckless Sveta of old resurfaced in a final once again, holding serve only once and winning less than a third of her first-serve points.  Her avalanche of errors failed to put any consistent pressure on the world #1, who looked as bored as the audience.  Since that limp performance, Kuznetsova has shown scant sign of reclaiming her January momentum, which now appears less breakthrough than anomaly.

2) Azarenka d. Zvonareva (Miami):  Another Russian known for frailty at crucial moments, Zvonareva had advanced a considerable distance towards shedding that reputation in 2010.  Although she has distinctly surpassed Kuznetsova this season, her inner sense of inferiority has resurfaced on occasions such as this dismal semifinal in which she won only three games.  Against an opponent with less experience, less prestigious accomplishments, and a parallel tendency for implosions, the Russian had little excuse for a disappearing act that presaged her limp exits at the next two majors.  Despite clinging to her top-5 status, Zvonareva rarely carries herself with the poise of an elite contender.  If she doesn’t believe in herself, why should anyone else?

1) Safina d. Stosur (Indian Wells):  A lovely sight after her months of adversity, Safina’s smile nearly obscured the farcically horrific tennis that unfolded here—but not quite.  Second serves sank into the bottom of the net or flew into the doubles alley, drop shots bounced before reaching the net, and overhead attempts threatened Larry Ellison’s safety in the first row behind the baseline.  While one could understand and even empathize with the Russian’s anxiety, one’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion over Stosur’s incompetence on the most routine shots against an opponent seemingly eager to assist in her own demise.  Able to win just two games from Sharapova with a similar display a round later, Safina somehow managed to win two sets from a top-10 foe. Or rather Stosur somehow managed to lose two sets, for rarely has an elite player snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with greater determination.  If the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open finalist has regressed this year, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist has sped well ahead of her down the highway to oblivion.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

With the sport settled into its midsummer vacation, albeit not a vacation for players like Isner and Roberta Vinci, we return from our own brief respite to remember the most memorable matches of the first half.  In three majors and five Masters 1000 tournaments, the top men provided plenty of stiff competition for a list that we reduced to five (or rather six).

5) Nadal d. Del Potro (Wimbledon):  Arriving much earlier in the fortnight than either player would have preferred, this bruising four-hour battle illustrated Del Potro’s resurgence as well as Nadal’s self-belief against all adversaries but one.  Tension seethed throughout the first three sets as the momentum shifted throughout prolonged service games and rallies that pitted the Argentine’s massive forehand against the top seed’s cat-like court coverage.  Barely denied the upset, the former US Open champion left little doubt that he can recapture his glory once he accumulates greater confidence from playing more matches.   A match waged with the mind as much as the racket, however, this encounter deservedly fell to the combatant with the keener survival instinct and appetite for competition.

4) Djokovic d. Nadal (Wimbledon) / Nadal d. Federer (Roland Garros):  Although not the finest hours of these classic rivalries, the last two Slam finals underscored the new hierarchy at the top.  Following scripts with too little suspense to become classics, they nevertheless featured strings of scintillating exchanges from all corners of the court.  From Federer’s choreographed elegance to Nadal’s grinding physicality to Djokovic’s swaggering fusion of offense and defense, the top three showcased their distinctive strengths as well as their distinctive personalities, opening windows onto the past, present, and perhaps future of the sport.  Apparent from both matches was the psychological edge owned by Nadal over Federer and by Djokovic over Nadal, magnified by the weight of the moment.  As the second half approaches, one wonders whether the greater challenge lies in the Serb’s attempt to maintain his supremacy or in the efforts of the others to overtake him.

3) Djokovic d. Murray (Rome):  No less notable than the brilliance of the victor was the courage displayed by the vanquished in this semifinal epic.  On his least comfortable surface, Murray rebounded from an abysmal first set to reverse the match’s trajectory with a degree of aggression unfamiliar to his fans.  The Scot nearly succeeded where the king of clay failed, edging within two points of victory on multiple occasions as he served for the match.  That predicament inspired Djokovic to display his own valor and demonstrate how he had remained undefeated for so long, growing bolder and more focused as danger loomed.  In the climactic tiebreak, the Serb struck each shot with a fearlessness rarely witnessed during his 2009-10 swoon, a fearlessness that proclaimed not just his desire to win but his conviction that he would.  For Murray, meanwhile, this loss augured more brightly for the future than many of his wins.

2) Federer d. Djokovic (Roland Garros):  Robbed by Djokovic in a New York semifinal and dominated by Djokovic in a Melbourne semifinal, Federer clearly entered their Paris semifinal determined to avenge those wrongs of majors past.  Standing within a victory of the #1 ranking, the still undefeated Serb seemed almost certain to contest a third straight Slam final, for few could imagine the fading Swiss legend outlasting him over the course of five sets.  But Federer halted the march of time during a performance that awakened memories of the steely superstar who played his crispest tennis when he most needed to win a rally, returned most convincingly when he most needed to break serve, and fired an ace when he finally arrived at match point.  Tsonga would prove a month later that this match marked only an ephemeral revival, but Federer salvaged his legitimacy as a contender for some time to come with his most notable triumph since winning the 2010 Australian Open.

1) Djokovic d. Nadal (Miami):  Among the most dazzling feats in tennis is the Indian Wells-Miami double, which demands not a fortnight but a month of sustained dominance.  After Djokovic sagged through the first several games of his final against the world #1, observers sensed that this prize would elude a weary Serb burdened by the pressure of his perfect season.  Just as he had in Indian Wells, however, Djokovic willed himself to find the self-belief necessary to turn the tide early in the second set.  Not vanishing in the third set as he did in the desert, Nadal battled the Serb relentlessly through a riveting final set that featured no breaks but several suspenseful service games.  When Rafa stood two points from victory in the twelfth game, observers again sensed that the sands had at last trickled out of Novak’s hourglass.  Then, Djokovic won nine of the next eleven points as his frequently questioned fitness prevailed on physical and mental levels over an opponent previously unsurpassed in either department.  Not scorched by the glaring Miami sun or the intensity of a title-deciding tiebreak, the future #1 showcased the courageous spirit that has developed into the central storyline of 2011.

What goes up must come down.  Behold the three most unforgettably forgettable fizzles of the first half.

3) Soderling d. Verdasco (Rome):  In 2009, both players looked on the verge of becoming genuine contenders at majors after Verdasco reached the Australian Open semifinals and Soderling the Roland Garros final.  This ghastly carnival of errors illustrated several reasons why both have receded to the edges of the conversation in 2011.  Foremost among those reasons was Verdasco’s serve, which cost him the match with double faults that threw the rest of his volatile game and mind into disarray.  But the Spaniard held triple match point in the second set, which he could not have reached without considerable assistance from an equally impatient and equally profligate Swede, whose scintillating start to the season has evaporated amidst illnesses, injuries, and general petulance.

2) Djokovic d. Murray (Australian Open):  Expected to decide the leading pretender to the Nadal-Federer twin throne, the year’s first Slam final unfolded with no more suspense than a coronation.  Serenely surveying the spectacle from Djokovic’s box, Ivanovic trended on Twitter as the far less stunning events below her sputtered and wheezed towards their inevitable conclusion.  If Murray had joined her there, he might have discomfited Novak more than he did with a thoroughly feckless performance that made Britons wonder why they rose early to watch.  One could understand how farcical gaffes on even his steadiest shots cost the Scot his confidence and plunged him into a second straight spring swoon on the North American hard courts.

1) Nadal d. Federer (Miami):  Eager to witness the first North American edition of The Greatest Rivalry in Sports in six years, the Key Biscayne audience saw no encore of the thrilling 2005 final.  Instead, a listless Federer failed to summon tennis remotely resembling his magnificent best and thus did not force Nadal to unleash his own greatness.  When Federer earned a break point in the first game of the second set, spectators waited breathlessly for the plot twist that would turn this match from a soggy dishcloth into a regal tapestry.  But a dishcloth it remained, arguably the least compelling meeting between the two legends since the earliest stages of their rivalry.  Fortunately, Madrid and Roland Garros enabled them to replace this moment with brighter memories.

***

We return in a few days with the companion piece for the women’s first half.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Djokovic:  The undisputed monarch of all that he surveys, the new #1 cemented his ascendancy by triumphing on the most prestigious stage of all.  Expanding his empire to a second surface, Djokovic confirmed that his Roland Garros loss represented a temporary wobble rather than a return to the old order of Federer and Nadal.  This champion’s credentials rise significantly with his conquest of a major outside the less glamorous Australian Open and his first career victory over the Spaniard in a best-of-five format.  Twice dominating the opposition in Melbourne, Djokovic proved in London that he could maneuver through a draw without delivering his best tennis from start to finish.  His unremarkable performances against players like Baghdatis and Tomic disappeared from memory after his emphatic victory over the defending champion.  Especially notable in the final were the improvements to the Serb’s two former weaknesses, his serve and volleys.  While he did not concede a single break point to the Spaniard in the first two sets, he manufactured the only championship point that he needed with an expertly knifed volley that Nadal could not touch.  Maintaining his composure when the top seed mounted the inevitable rally, moreover, Djokovic rebounded from an ugly third set to recapture the momentum immediately in the fourth.  As he travels to the North American hard courts, the new #1 must fancy his chances of becoming the third player since 2000 to win three majors in a season.  Valedictorian

Kvitova:  When the much-awaited younger generation of the WTA finally broke through at a major, neither Wozniacki nor Azarenka scored the vital blow.  Those two competitors now find significant pressure heaped on their shoulders after a feisty 20-year-old lefty snatched the Wimbledon title with a fearlessness reminiscent of Sharapova’s 2004 surge.  Seemingly immune to pressure herself, Kvitova seized the initiative from famously aggressive opponents in the semifinal and final.  Accustomed to dictating rallies, Azarenka and Sharapova instead struck only nine and ten winners, respectively, as they struggled to withstand the Czech’s baseline barrage.  Beyond the fierce groundstrokes that have become de rigueur in the WTA, Kvitova owns a serve with pace, variety, and consistency; that shot separates her from the underpowered deliveries of Azarenka and Wozniacki and the erratic deliveries of Sharapova and Clijsters.  Whereas first-time finalists frequently wilt under the spotlight, the Czech served out the match at love against a legendary opponent.  Beneath her tranquil demeanor lies a degree of confidence remarkable for a player whom few knew before her semifinal appearance here a year ago.  Many of her peers have remained essentially the same players through time, combating the same weaknesses with little success.  In contrast, Kvitova has learned from her setbacks and developed into an increasingly complete competitor.  If she can adjust to her newfound celebrity, a kingdom could await.  A+

Nadal:  Reaching the Wimbledon final in his fifth straight appearance, the top seed comfortably overcame his two most notable rivals outside Djokovic.  After he battled through a four-set epic against Del Potro, prevailing in two tiebreaks, his triumph over Murray showcased some of the most compelling tennis that Nadal has delivered during a season a little below his lofty standards.  Counterpunching with imagination and conceding only one service game, the defending champion illustrated the competitive mercilessness that has carried him to ten major titles.  A round later, the hunter became the hunted as Nadal’s tentative performance at crucial moments in the final revealed his psychological frailty against Djokovic.  At the two most important junctures of the match, Rafa played two abysmal service games.  At 4-5, 30-15 in the first set, a blistering Djokovic forehand clearly unnerved him and led to two missed first serves followed by two routine errors, including a needless miss into an open court on set point.  At 3-4 in the fourth set, following a love hold by the Serb, the Spaniard uncorked a double fault and three more groundstroke errors to donate the decisive break.  Cast in the role of Federer to Djokovic’s impersonation of Nadal, the Wimbledon runner-up faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career so far.  Still, he has lost only one match since January to an opponent other than the scorching Serb.  A

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova:  Absent from the grass preparatory tournaments for only the second time, the 2004 champion showed little rust in roaring to the final without dropping a set.  Although skeptics will note that she faced no top-15 opponent in those six matches, Sharapova nevertheless navigated with ease past a diverse array of stylists, from the lefty Robson to the double-fister Peng to the jackrabbit Cibulkova to the mighty server Lisicki.  Having suffered only one pre-semifinal loss since the Australian Open, the Russian has proclaimed her return to the circle of elite contenders (albeit not the champion’s circle) by translating her momentum from the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami to the clay of Rome and Paris to the grass of Wimbledon.  Still fickle at inconvenient moments, her serve contributed to her demise in the final by lowering her confidence in the rest of her strokes.  As Kvitova effectively out-Sharapovaed Sharapova, one wonders whether Maria’s mind drifted back to her own emergence here as a 17-year-old, when she defeated Serena at her own game.  In both of those encounters, spectators expected the veteran champion to mount a valiant comeback that never happened as they succumbed to defeat with uncharacteristic meekness.  But the cathartic, self-vindicating experience of again starring on the sport’s grandest stage after a seven-year absence surely will inspire Sharapova to a sparkling second half on the hard courts that best suit her strengths.  A

Lisicki:  Amidst an engaging fortnight of women’s tennis, the single most inspiring story came from a player who had narrowly survived a career-threatening injury and had seemed unlikely ever to reproduce her bombastic best.  Perhaps the next generation’s grass-court specialist, the former Bolletieri pupil built upon her Birmingham title with victories over top-10 opponents Li and Bartoli.  Despite her relative inexperience, she displayed encouraging composure in saving match points against the reigning Roland Garros champion.  While the WTA’s age of parity has produced plentiful upsets, few of their perpetrators have extended the momentum from their breakthroughs as did Lisicki when she reeled off three more wins after defeating Li.  The German’s raw, less balanced game, heavily reliant on her serve, may prevent her from rising into the echelon of regular Slam contenders, but she should remain a threat at Wimbledon—and on the faster hard courts—as long as she stays healthy and positive.  A-

Tsonga:  Many are the players who have stared at two-set deficits against Federer and mentally submitted to the inevitable, but Tsonga refused to follow their path.  Erratic for much of the first week, the Frenchman suddenly soared near the tournament’s midpoint into the irrepressibly athletic shot-maker witnessed only sporadically since the 2008 Australian Open.  As he pounded forehands and slashed volleys past the six-time champion, he began to appear a legitimate contender at the major that most favors short points.  Djokovic then restored order in the semifinals, not without difficulty, after Tsonga’s fickle mind floated out of focus once again.  While he probably cannot summon the stamina necessary to win a major, his ebullient insouciance offered a refreshing antidote to the grimly intent top four.  Rarely does tennis look more like a sport and less like a business than when watching Tsonga.  A-

Azarenka:  Falling to the eventual champion for the second straight major, the Minx from Minsk finally capitalized upon a farcically cozy quarterfinal draw to reach her first Slam semifinal.  Contrary to the expectations of some, Azarenka did not collapse at that stage despite an unimpressive first set but instead battled to reverse the momentum, albeit temporarily.  Sometimes vulnerable to upsets against streaky opponents, she also impressed by defusing the recently scorching Hantuchova under the Centre Court roof.  Unruffled by the most prestigious arena in the sport, Azarenka largely controlled her emotions throughout the fortnight and ultimately lost not because of her shortcomings but because of her conqueror’s brilliance.  Yet her serve remains a less imposing weapon than one might expect from a player of her height, while her groundstrokes penetrated the court rather than exploding through it.  A-

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Murray:  Strikingly similar to his Wimbledon performance last year, the Scot wove an eventful route around second-tier opposition en route to another mildly competitive loss to Nadal.  That four-set defeat in some ways felt more disappointing than last year’s straight-set loss, for Murray had challenged the top seed on clay earlier this spring and opened this encounter in sparkling form.  Within range of a set-and-break lead, though, a few minor stumbles sufficed to shatter his self-belief for good.  While he must ground his confidence more firmly in order to halt Great Britain’s drought of futility at majors, Murray continued to handle the microscopic scrutiny that he endures at every Wimbledon with poise and maturity.  Moreover, the glimmers of aggression that surfaced during this natural counterpuncher’s clay season emerged again on grass.  The Scot now must display his characteristic stubbornness in retaining that more offensive mentality even when it yields ambivalent results.  A-/B+

Bartoli:  Unlike Federer, the Frenchwoman surged from her Paris exploits to a notable accomplishment at Wimbledon, where she expelled the two-time defending champion.  Not known for her serving excellence, Bartoli kept Serena at bay with that stroke late in the second set, when the greatest player of her generation threatened to mount one of her patented comebacks.  Despite the rust evident on the American’s game, a triumph over this fabled competitor ranks among the highlights of the double-fister’s career, similar to her victory over Henin here in 2007.  Having conquered Serena, though, Bartoli fell immediately afterwards to Lisicki as her questionable fitness betrayed her in a third set.  One might have expected Monday’s magic to last a little longer than a day.  B+

Pironkova:  Seemingly designed by the gods to vex Venus at every possible opportunity, last year’s semifinalist fell only one round short of repeating that implausible accomplishment.  In addition to dispatching the American by an eerily identical scoreline, the Bulgarian won a set from eventual champion Kvitova and flattened defending finalist Zvonareva for the loss of only five games.  Some players excel far more at one tournament than any other, and Pironkova certainly has chosen her spot of sunshine wisely.  B+

Cibulkova:  Similar to Bartoli, the Slovak watched a magnificent Monday turn to a tepid Tuesday as a stirring comeback over Wozniacki preceded a rout at the hands of Sharapova.  Few Slam quarterfinalists have eaten four breadsticks in the tournament, as did Cibulkova, but she illustrated a different route to success on grass than the huge serves and huge returns pioneered by champions like the Williams sisters or Sharapova.  Clinging tightly to the baseline, the Slovak chipped away at the top seed and earlier victims with low, darting groundstrokes.  Nearly toppled by Lucic in the first round, she competed through three three-setters against more powerful opponents with admirable durability and concentration.  B+/B

Federer:  The fashionable pre-tournament choice for the title (and not just because we chose him), the Roland Garros runner-up could not extend that momentum to the site of his most memorable accomplishments.  Undone in part by the Frenchman’s ball-striking power and in part by his wayward return, Federer resembled more than ever a genius from an earlier age.  Although Tsonga unleashed some of the finest tennis that he ever has displayed, the 16-time major champion formerly weathered those tempests and simply refused to permit such a blot upon his escutcheon.  Much more courteous in defeat than last year, he sounded strangely content with his tournament for a competitor who generally demands perfection from himself.  Perhaps even Federer has begun to accustom himself to the world after Federer—good news for his psyche but bad news for his viability as a contender.  B

Tomic:  Stealing the spotlight from his youthful contemporaries in the ATP, the controversial Aussie prodigy strung together the sequence of victories for which his languishing compatriots had hoped.  As events unfolded, Tomic tested Djokovic more than any opponent before or after him, although he faced a diluted version of the Serb far different from the tornado that swept away Nadal’s title defense.  At just 18, he has developed a surprisingly versatile array of weapons but, like Murray, sometimes outthinks himself when choosing among them.  A straight-sets victory over a two-time Slam finalist en route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal will earn the teenager ample attention over the summer.  Not adept at handling scrutiny and hype previously, has he matured mentally as well as physically?  B

Del Potro:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, he had every opportunity to claim a two-set lead against Nadal.  Allowing the Spaniard’s unfortunately timed treatment request to unglue him, he gave further credence to suspicions of competitive fragility.  From a broader perspective, though, his ability to battle the world #1 on equal terms throughout three tense sets augurs well for a comeback that remains a work in progress.  B

Berdych:  While he didn’t implode in spectacular fashion as he did at Roland Garros, a straight-sets loss to Fish on Manic Monday did little to counter the impression that his 2010 campaign stands as a unique moment in a career of underachievement.  Since reaching the Wimbledon final last year, Berdych has won seven matches in four majors as his introverted personality has shrunk from the expectations placed upon him.  His lowered ranking may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing him to collect himself under the gaze of fewer eyes.   B-

Caroline Wozniacki - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Wozniacki:  When the Dane dines, she must prefer the appetizer to the main course.  Winning New Haven in the week before the US Open, Brussels in the week before Roland Garros, and Copenhagen in the week before Wimbledon, Wozniacki failed to reach the final at any of the aforementioned majors.  Almost entirely a hard-court threat, she perhaps can explain her premature exits in Paris and London as a product of the surface.  Had a champion like a Williams or a Sharapova fed a breadstick to a sub-20 opponent, though, one feels confident that they would not have let their victim wriggle free.  Moreover, Kvitova’s breakthrough underlines and italicizes the question mark hovering above Wozniacki’s #1 status.  Meanwhile, Bastad beckons…  B-

Zvonareva:  Not expected to duplicate her finals appearance from last year, the tempestuous Russian at least should have earned herself an opportunity to face Venus in the fourth round.  But she slumped to an embarrassingly lopsided defeat against Pironkova, whose counterpunching skills might trouble a shot-maker as inconsistent as Venus but should not have troubled an opponent as complete as Zvonareva.  Although her top-5 position survived the avalanche of sliding rankings points, the early upset does not bode well for her attempt to defend the same result at the US Open.  C+

Soderling:  After winning three titles in the first two months of 2011, he has vanished almost entirely from relevance in the wake of injuries, illness, and allegedly a bout of food poisoning at Wimbledon’s new pasta bar.  Understandably surly in defeat, the Swede probably senses that his window of opportunity will pass swiftly as rivals emerge who can match his firepower while surpassing his movement and versatility.  Alone among the top five, he exited the European majors with his credibility dented rather than burnished.  C+

Roddick:  Perhaps Feliciano Lopez played the match of his life in their third-round encounter, dismissing Roddick in three sets less competitive than the scoreline suggested.  But it seems as though the American’s monochromatic style more and more brings out the best from more multifaceted, flashy opponents.  Never quite recovering from his mono last year, the three-time Wimbledon finalist lacks much spark or direction as his career inexorably wanes.  C

Williams, Inc.:  By far the more encouraging return came from the younger sister, who revealed an encouragingly human side after her opening victory over Rezai.  Two uneven victories later, a rusty Serena nearly scratched and clawed into a third set against Bartoli.  Even in defeat, the defending champion displayed the trademark intensity that could propel her to Slam glory again if she stays healthy.  On the other hand, she may struggle to intimidate a WTA that has grown increasingly opportunistic and populated with players who don’t know enough about Serena to fear her.  After she collaborated with Kimiko Date-Krumm on one of the tournament’s most thrilling encounters, Venus dismissed the dangerous Martinez Sanchez with aplomb.  But then she flunked the consistency test posed by Pironkova for the second straight year.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,…?”  Incomplete

Li:  Suffering the misfortune of a second-round meeting with Lisicki, the Roland Garros champion repeated her post-Melbourne stumble of failing to convert match points en route to a loss, the third time that she has accomplished that dubious feat this year.  Since few expected her to complete the Channel Slam, though, the early loss largely just repeated the precedent set by Schiavone and Stosur here after their Paris breakthroughs last year.  Had Wimbledon followed Roland Garros by more than a few weeks, a different narrative might have unfolded.  Excused Absence

Manic Monday:  Replete with upsets in the women’s draw, the busiest day on the tennis calendar felt like an embarrassment of riches better enjoyed in moderation.  By introducing matches on the middle Sunday, Wimbledon could ensure that spectators see and appreciate more of the fascinating action that generally unfolds in the final 16, when dark horses often trample the top seeds.  Furthermore, dividing this round into two days would allow the tournament to include both men’s and women’s matches on each of the following days, not a possibility at present because it would require men to play best-of-five encounters on consecutive days.  Ticket holders and television viewers alike probably would prefer the variety of seeing two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as they do at the other majors.  (Also on our list of convention-bending reforms:  night sessions.)  Expulsion

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals and on an article on the most entertaining matches of the first half.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  After repeated disappointments at her favorite tournament, the 2004 Wimbledon champion has arrived in her first final there since the moment that transformed her from upstart into superstar.  Despite not facing any top-15 opponent in her previous six matches, Sharapova will have accumulated confidence from winning all twelve sets that she has played.  In her semifinal, she found her rhythm only sporadically and yet still prevailed routinely over a dangerous foe.  Feared in the first half of her career for her electric serve, Sharapova has compensated for that weapon’s decline by honing the most explosive return in the WTA.  Stifling the single most discussed shot of the women’s tournament, Lisicki’s serve, her return skidded off the sidelines and baseline with a depth and precision difficult for even an agile mover to withstand.  When she parries the formidable serve of Kvitova, Sharapova should adopt a similarly fearless positioning and tactics on her ripostes.  Displaying not only immense ball-striking power but sparkling shot-making talent, the Czech has devoured mid-court replies with Marian savagery throughout the tournament.  Leaving pockmarks across Centre Court, her 40 winners in a three-set semifinal victory over Azarenka portend a final organized almost entirely around offense and overwhelming first strikes.  Both title threats can deliver point-ending blows with virtually any shot from well behind the baseline, while their indifferent movement leaves them few defensive options.  Although lefties have thrived on the low, skidding bounces of grass, the Russian has won 21 of her last 22 matches against them over a six-year span.

From the early stages of the final should emerge clues concerning the factor upon which the title will hinge:  the minds of both competitors.  As earlier WTA breakthrough performers have discovered, the pressure of contesting a maiden major final poses a challenge unique in the sport.  Yet Kvitova may suffer from those nerves less than other debutantes, having captured a Premier Mandatory title in Madrid, defeated Clijsters in a Paris final, and reached the semifinals here last year.  Since Sharapova’s comeback, meanwhile, her formerly superb efficiency in finals has dipped to a pedestrian level.  In part a result of rust, her recent struggles in title matches also may have developed from a desire to win so keen that it has consumed her energy and prevented her from playing within herself.  Edgy during her loss to Li at Roland Garros, Sharapova narrowly avoided a deep deficit in the first set against Lisicki after similarly tense, rigid play.  For both women, a key to their psychological position lies in their footwork, which grows crisper in proportion to their confidence.  Allowing opponents to gain early momentum, the Russian often has begun unremarkably in her matches as her shoulder loosens and her focus crystallizes.  Kvitova conversely has opened most of her matches in obdurate form before occasionally wandering into a mid-match malaise.  Considering Sharapova’s perfect record in third sets this year, the Czech cannot offer the 2004 champion second chances as she eyes a second Wimbledon crown.  Unless Kvitova seizes control swiftly and decisively, Sharapova’s unsurpassed appetite for battle should spring into the spotlight during a fierce collision saturated with audacious winners.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Nadal vs. Djokovic:  Having collaborated on no fewer than 27 prior encounters, the Sunday #1 and the Monday #1 meet in a Slam final for only the second time.  Aligned in opposite directions are the two most relevant statistics from a rivalry that has evolved into a worthy successor to Federer-Nadal.  Undefeated against the Serb at majors, Rafa generally has showcased a superior resolve on the grandest stage to virtually all of his peers, a trait that emerges most compellingly in the best-of-five format.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard’s hegemony withstood a severe, temporarily terminal blow during the first half of 2011, when he sustained four losses to Djokovic in the finals of Masters 1000 events.  Even on Nadal’s beloved clay, he found no answers to an opponent who had assembled the finest transition game in the ATP.  Still with only one loss this season, the new #1 seeks his eighth title in nine tournaments this season and seventh at the expense of a top-5 opponent.  To the surprise of most observers, he twice rallied from losing the first set against the Spaniard this spring and outlasted him with superior fitness despite a reputation for fragility on physical and mental levels.  Having claimed the top ranking with his semifinal victory, however, one wonders whether Djokovic will approach this final with the same determination manifest in his earlier assaults upon Nadal.  His overflowing satisfaction in becoming the third Serb to reach the sport’s pinnacle may lead to a slight lull in his energies, upon which a competitor as relentless as the current #1 surely would capitalize.   But he repeatedly has named Wimbledon among one of his career’s principal objectives, so he may summon the extra jolt of motivation necessary to conquer the defending champion.

While Djokovic certainly has earned his ascendancy, he has not spread his Slam empire outside the more informal environment of the Australian Open, where pressure descends less heavily than at the other majors.  In contrast, Nadal built his reign upon the foundation of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the traditional epicenters of the sport and the sites most fraught with the psyche-testing presence of history.  Forged from this crucible that has melted so many competitors, the Spaniard remained unbroken by a potentially alarming injury early in his match against Del Potro and again when Murray threatened to accumulate a set-and-break advantage.  Somewhat more easily ruffled, Djokovic has enjoyed the smoother draw and has not faced either a Slam champion or a top-10 opponent en route to the championship Sunday.  Despite that smoother pathway, he spurned chances to dispatch Baghdatis, Tomic, and Tsonga more economically, while his mannerisms slipped some distance back towards the sardonically self-deprecating “Djoker” of his underachieving period from 2009-10.  After Murray’s outstanding return could not break Nadal more than once in their semifinal, the Serb can expect scant windows of opportunity in the final and thus must hold serve with greater conviction than he has for most of the fortnight.  If Djokovic can conquer the Spaniard on his weakest surface to collect his second major of the season, he would cement his ascent to become the dominant player of the ATP.  If Nadal can defend his grass kingdom, meanwhile, he would maintain a mastery over majors that would counterbalance the Serb’s statistical superiority in the first half.

Since each finalist knows the nuances of his rival’s game almost as thoroughly as his own, one expects tactics to play a relatively inconsequential role in deciding Wimbledon’s 125th men’s champion.  Like the women’s final, the last match of the season’s third major instead should revolve around execution, nerve, and desire—attributes that both contenders possess in far greater measure than any of their peers.