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Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Wozniacki vs. Rus:  Having snapped a three-match losing streak with a five-match winning streak, the Dane arrives at the US Open fresh from a New Haven title for the fourth consecutive year.  As with Radwanska’s parallel shift, the decision to separate from her increasingly irritable father may have allowed Wozniacki to collect herself following a disappointing summer.  Her familiar self in New Haven and the first round here, the world #1 played within herself as she won with depth rather than angle and placement rather than pace.  A tall Dutch lefty with a heavy forehand, Rus earned fleeting notoriety by upsetting Clijsters in the second round of Roland Garros after winning a set from Sharapova in Madrid.  On both occasions, she benefited from error-strewn displays by her opponents that positioned her to win, but the Dutchwoman finished off Clijsters with increasingly confident play.  Normally stingy with unforced errors, Wozniacki became more slovenly in that category during her summer swoon before reverting to her characteristic cleanliness last week.  Nevertheless, lefties have troubled her in the past (cf. Martinez Sanchez), so this match might open a window onto her current level of confidence.

Jankovic vs. Dokic:  Meeting Mirjana Lucic in the first round of last year’s Open, the Serb needed three sets to squelch a comeback threat from the Balkans.  In the second round of this year’s Open, she faces a similar opponent at a similar stage in her career.  Winning a title earlier this year in Kuala Lumpur, Dokic sporadically reminds audiences of the danger latent in her flat, low groundstroke lasers.  Just as prominent in her comeback are the cascades of double faults that have cost her many a match.  Since Dokic tends to veer from outstanding to abysmal with little between them, her first-round victory suggests that she has struck at least a moderately formidable vein of form here.  Dropping just two games in her own opener, Jankovic will hope to survive the first blow or two before gradually outmaneuvering her opponent.  Although she struggles with double faults less often, the former #1’s serve remains a questionable stroke that Dokic can attack in attempts to shorten the points, essential against an opponent with much superior fitness and consistency.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  Famous for antics like leaping in mid-air to strike an ordinary groundstroke, Monfils perhaps set the tennis precedent for Petkovic.  Yet he has grown more focused and businesslike this summer as his ranking has climbed inside the top eight.  Seriously challenging Djokovic in Cincinnati, the Frenchman looked extremely sharp in dismantling future star Grigor Dimitrov a round ago.  Few fans would want Monfils to become a sober, steely ball-striking machine, though, and he continued to oblige the spectators with vintage leaps, lunges, and dashes punctuated by a flourished fist.  If he can restrain those bursts of showmanship to unimportant moments, his sparkling athleticism should conquer the 2003 finalist.  Once the flagship of the Spanish Armada, Ferrero has receded towards an approaching retirement, and his unflagging professionalism jars intriguingly with the exuberance across the net.  Rarely a crowd favorite in New York, the Spaniard’s dour visage invites viewers to admire his technique, study his footwork, respect his achievements—but not to connect with him.

Azarenka vs. Dulko:  One US Open ago, Azarenka retired against Dulko in the first round with a concussion that caused her to lose consciousness on the court.  At Roland Garros last year, the current world #5 pried just three games away from the Argentine, who also defeated her in straight sets three years ago.  While she continues to retire at an alarming rate, Azarenka did not look hampered by the hand injury that forced her withdrawal from Cincinnati in the first round.  An appetite for revenge likely will motivate the pugnacious Belarussian to reverse those recent results, but Dulko has proven a difficult riddle to solve for even the most accomplished players.  At first glance, one struggles to find the elements of this unassuming game that could have undone opponents from Henin to Sharapova.  Rather than any single weapon, Dulko’s overall consistency and court coverage will pose the most significant challenge to an impetuous shot-maker who never saw a ball that she didn’t want to crush.  One round away from a Saturday night clash with Serena Williams, Azarenka wants to ensure that she shows as little vulnerability as possible.

Berdych vs. Fognini:  Often a frustrating pastime, “Berd-watching” became more rewarding in Cincinnati when the underachieving Czech finally achieved an accomplishment of note for the first time since Wimbledon 2010.  In a routine straight-sets victory over Federer, Berdych illustrated once again how far sheer ferocity of ball-striking can carry a player past a more versatile, less brutal style.  Less forceful than his serve and groundstrokes is his mind, the arena where his second-round opponent can undermine him.  An idiosyncratic Italian with much-remarked eyebrows, Fognini specializes in the sort of protracted, emotionally heated contest where Berdych sometimes crumbles.  An example of that genre unfolded at Roland Garros this year, when an ailing Fognini hobbled theatrically around the court en route to a seemingly certain loss—and won.  His casual swings at groundstrokes suggest a practice session more than a match, but this effortlessness masks power that he can unleash unexpectedly. While Fognini’s game may seem like an expertly assembled set of smoke and mirrors, its lack of straightforwardness could force Berdych to think more than he would wish.

Petkovic vs. Zheng:  In a sensational year for Chinese tennis, the chronically injured Zheng has played a third fiddle to Roland Garros champion Li and new top-20 resident Peng.  Once in the top 20 herself, this doubles star and Olympic medalist can fight firepower with firepower better than her petite frame would suggest.  A victory over Sharapova and multiple three-setters against Serena have attested to her self-belief against the most elite opponents in the sport, so Petkovic should practice her groundstrokes more than her dancing.  The glaring flaw in Zheng’s game, her meek second serve should offer the German plentiful opportunities to gain control of opponents with aggressive returns.  Regrouping from a first-week loss at Wimbledon, Petkovic reasserted herself in North America with two victories over Kvitova amidst semifinal appearances in San Diego and Cincinnati.  Ever the entertainer, whether deliberately or inadvertently, Petkorazzi’s most memorable moment of the summer came when she bolted indecorously from the San Diego court mid-match to vomit.  With a personality so multifaceted and unpredictable, though, something quirky or intriguing almost always happens during her matches and makes her a must-see player in the first week.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Falling to the Czech at Wimbledon, the former #1 will aim to avenge that defeat just as she reversed her Stanford loss to Morita a tournament later in San Diego.  Double-bageled by Ivanovic three years ago, Cetkovska has developed into a far more accomplished, self-assured competitor who defeated three top-15 opponents last week in New Haven.  Under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak against Li Na, she defied expectations by proving mentally sturdier than the Chinese veteran.  When she faced Ivanovic at Wimbledon, Cetkovska never lost her serve in the two sets and dominated the tiebreak, an area in which the Serb has faltered throughout 2011.  Shaky late in close sets and matches, Ivanovic rallied in her opener against the dangerous lefty Ksenia Pervak and then dedicated the victory to her dead grandfather.  Far from her best in that encounter, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage significantly and sting her groundstrokes more assertively from the outset, especially her backhand.  Much like Jankovic at last year’s US Open, a second-round casualty after the death of her grandmother, Ana may struggle to focus on her tennis amidst the personal issues besetting her.  Or the sight of a recent nemesis across the net may inspire her to “put things right,” as the sensitive Serb described her triumph over Morita in San Diego.

Tomic vs. Cilic:  At the Australian Open 2009, they contested a gripping albeit uneven five-setter in which Cilic survived not only the talented teenager but the partisan crowd.  Against a similarly hostile audience in the first round, the lanky Croat eased past Ryan Harrison in straight sets as he erased multiple deficits late in the match.  A curious figure who has stalled since his breakthrough two years ago, Cilic appears to have both the physical talents and the mental poise to compete at the elite level.  But his technique, especially on his forehand, continues to break down at key moments, while his serve has produced fewer free points than a player of his height normally records.  Does that notably calm demeanor mask a lack of determination or competitive vigor?  Just as intriguing is Cilic’s opponent, a precocious Wimbledon quarterfinalist who presented Djokovic with arguably his most formidable test of that fortnight.  Long overshadowed by his repulsive father, Tomic accumulated a reputation as an arrogant, prickly youngster lacking in respect for peers like Lleyton Hewitt and in gratitude for the opportunities given him by Tennis Australia.  Perhaps not coincidentally, his increased successes have stemmed from opportunities that he has created for himself, while his father has faded from the headlines.  Spectators now can appreciate a surprisingly mature, complete game played by a tall player who moves well, a power player who defends well, and a baseliner who exhibits crisp technique in volleys.  Does the kernel of a future champion lie in the versatile, motivated Tomic?

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Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Preview

Devvarman vs. Murray:  Across the net from the Scot stands a diluted version of himself, a rising Indian star sometimes compared to Lleyton Hewitt.  Far less formidable than that former champion, Devvarman still should force Murray to unleash his upgraded offense in order to avoid an unnecessarily elongated war of attrition along the baseline.  Unwilling to play first-strike tennis even on fast surfaces, the fourth seed could profit from the opportunity to experiment with a more aggressive mentality here.  Although he clearly can outlast his overmatched opponent in a contest of counterpunchers, Murray should use this match to test tactics for sterner challenges ahead.  Critical in later rounds, his underestimated first serve should enable him to assert control should he maintain a solid percentage. For Devvarman, meanwhile, the experience of playing on the sport’s largest stadium against a top-5 opponent should prove both inspiring and educational.  Only by probing the limitations of his game can he return to this grand stage under more auspicious circumstances.

V. Williams vs. Lisicki:  Like Murray, Venus faces a foe who resembles a younger, less proven version of herself.  But Lisicki has achieved vastly more in her career than has Devvarman, winning two titles this summer in addition to reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  Both players exhibit an equally sharp contrast between her first and second serve, the latter of which projects only moderate power and remains vulnerable to double faults.  At Stanford, Lisicki appeared to crumble under the weight of Serena’s reputation, so one wonders whether she can rise to the occasion against Serena’s sister in Arthur Ashe.  Among the players who most often have troubled Venus before are not heavy hitters but agile movers like Suarez Navarro and Pironkova.  Nevertheless, the smiling German out-served Venus at Charleston two years ago, and she looked the more consistently impressive of the two ball-bruisers in the first round.  Determined to impose their authority from the first stroke, both women will take massive swings on returns and groundstrokes, especially their more explosive but less steady forehand wing.  More comfortable in the forecourt, Venus showcased her skills at both swinging and conventional volleys in her opener, whereas Lisicki frustrates her opponents with drop shots.  Ultimately, though, this extremely even match should turn towards the player who can uncork her first serve when she most needs it.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 1

Sharapova vs. Yakimova:  In the first Slam match of her comeback, Sharapova rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome her compatriot at Roland Garros 2009.  Two years later, a reinvigorated champion faces Yakimova again after enduring a three-set opener for a second straight US Open.  Not a budding star like Watson, this unheralded Russian should muster less dogged resistance.  The 2006 champion should strive to advance more efficiently this time as an accommodating section of the draw beckons.  A day removed from Serena’s stunning opening statement, Sharapova surely would want to answer her fellow superstar with a commanding victory of her own.  Unlikely to face serious pressure even if she struggles, the WTA’s leading returner should use this undemanding encounter to build rhythm and confidence before the competition stiffens.

Vandeweghe vs. Stosur:  Not a factor at the first three majors of 2011, Stosur still can salvage her season with a second-week charge in New York.  Less suited to her game than the clay of Roland Garros or the slower hard courts of Melbourne, the US Open’s faster surface has hampered her attempts to run around her backhand to hit forehands.  The Australian cloaked that weakness last year en route to a quarterfinal in which she had multiple chances to establish a stranglehold on eventual champion Clijsters.  A year removed from her breakthrough season, Stosur continues to dominate Zvonareva but has scored no other victories over genuine contenders.  On the other hand, she finds herself situated in a quarter without Serena or permanent nemesis Sharapova—and with a likely tense Zvonareva.  Stifled by Lisicki’s booming serve at Stanford, Stosur will confront a similar assault from Vandeweghe’s first delivery.  In contrast to the German, this occasionally dangerous American has struggled to consolidate the momentum from her successes.  Despite her athletic pedigree, she lumbers around the court with ungainly strides and loses the timing on her forehand too often.  With an ardent American crowd behind her, however, Vandeweghe might rattle the notoriously fragile Stosur’s nerves for a set or so.

Baghdatis vs. Isner:  Reprising their three-setter during the US Open Series, the charismatic Cypriot and the bland American embody their divergent playing styles.  An imaginative ball-striker with a flair for the unexpected, Baghdatis strikes groundstrokes that barely skim across the net when at their best.  A more ambitious fitness program during the offseason has produced only a mediocre 20-20 record in 2011, as those groundstrokes have sunk into the net more often than skimming across it lately.  Yet victories over Del Potro, Murray, Lopez, and others have reminded audiences that this dark horse once charged to the Australian Open final.  While few would say that Isner captures the imagination, his functional style and emotional composure have propelled him to an excellent summer bookended by  a final in Atlanta (when he held match points) and a title in the inaugural Winston-Salem tournament.  Observers might expect the flashier Baghdatis to outshine a more muted opponent at this Slam of spotlights and sparkle.  In a fifth-set-tiebreak triumph over Roddick two years ago, though, Isner proved that he could thrive at the major best aligned with his playing style.

Bartoli vs. McHale:  After Ryan Harrison’s Open ended almost before it began, the brightest talent among the home nation’s young women may gain additional attention. Extended to three sets in her opener by Wozniak, McHale displayed courage and maturity in rallying from the disappointment of a second-set tiebreak.  Wins over Wozniacki and Kuznetsova this summer may have heralded the rise of a counterpuncher with just enough power to seize the initiative in rallies when the opportunity presents itself.  Somewhat fallible in the first set of her opener, Bartoli hopes to regain the form of her last two Slams rather than the tepid performances of her losses in Toronto and New Haven.  Among her most potent weapons is her return, which will punish McHale for serves that fail to land deep or near the corners.  An enigmatic player who can oscillate sharply from one match to the next, Bartoli often has produced her finest tennis when least expected—and vice versa.  Can the young American compete as tenaciously as the Frenchwoman, who has emerged triumphant from many an epic battle?  The partisan crowd should not unnerve Bartoli but instead might even motivate her to swat those returns with redoubled vigor.

 

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 7

Jovanovski vs. Serena:  When she returned to Wimbledon, an emotional Serena endured a three-set rollercoaster against a shotmaker flamboyant and unpredictable even by WTA standards in Aravane Rezai.  Less extreme a personality than the Frenchwoman, the third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski still might pose a creditable threat.  Winning a set from Zvonareva at the Australian Open, Jovanovski threatened Sharapova in Toronto and has not looked intimidated by either an elite opponent or a grand stage.  A night session in Arthur Ashe Stadium should not rattle her nerves, therefore, especially since much of the crowd may depart following the opening men’s match.  But Serena never has lost a first-round match at a major, while her return should regularly menace Jovanovski’s serve as did Sharapova’s replies.  Only if the Serb can survive the American’s first strike on serve and return can she display her talents from the baseline, which should shine sporadically during the lulls in Serena’s play without becoming the dominant narrative.

Ferrer vs. Andreev:  Clay-courters by nature, both of these grizzled veterans have achieved some of their most memorable moments on a surface seemingly at odds with their styles.  Four years ago, Ferrer battled past Nadal in a night-session four-setter en route to the semifinals, a surge that attests less to his shot-making ability than his mental and physical durability.  In the following US Open, Andreev extended Federer to five sets in what proved the eventual champion’s most compelling test of the tournament.  Reliant on meticulous effort more than spontaneous inspiration, this duo should engage in a series of elongated rallies punctuated by their common strength, inside-out forehands.  Amidst Andreev’s decline, Ferrer has won their last three meetings after losing four of their previous five.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard played only two matches during the US Open Series and lacks the match rhythm that has formed the cornerstone of his success.  Although Andreev probably can’t win, the match should stay closer than their respective rankings would suggest.

Jankovic vs. Riske:  A bright day for the future of American women’s tennis, Monday witnessed victories by rising star Christina McHale and perhaps soon-rising star Madison Keys.  Tasked with a far more difficult challenge, Riske hopes to hand Jankovic her second straight opening-round loss at a major.  Since reaching the 2008 US Open final, the Serb has suffered first-week exits in her last two appearances during her descent from the top ranking.  Meanwhile, her odd summer has featured three first-match losses (Wimbledon, Toronto, New Haven) surrounding a finals appearance in Cincinnati, where she came within four points of the title.  With wins over Schiavone and Petkovic there, together with a resilient effort against Sharapova, Jankovic proved that she can unleash bursts of her former competitive vigor and her trademark smile.  Not available in New York, on-court coaching appeared to aid her significantly at key moments in Cincinnati.  If Riske poses a challenge, can Jankovic solve it without assistance?

Youzhny vs. Gulbis:  From countries chained together during much of the last century, these two competitors could not diverge more strikingly in playing style.  Roaming around the court like a Cossack on the steppe, Youzhny exploits its geometry with a graceful albeit not powerful game.  The 2010 US Open semifinalist will shoulder the burden of defending those massive quantities of points, however, and much less pressure has unhinged him before.  Reinvigorated for now by new coach Guillermo Canas, Gulbis enjoyed an encouraging US Open Series highlighted by a title in Los Angeles, where he defeated Del Potro and Fish.  Revolving entirely around raw power, his muscular shot-making aims to pound opponents out of a point before they settle into it.  The Latvian should deny the Russian time to construct his clever combinations, but the best-of-five format will test his questionable consistency.  Always susceptible to emotional peaks and valleys, Gulbis can score this minor upset only by sustaining his focus more effectively than in majors past.

Davydenko vs. Dodig:  While one star wanes, another star rises.  Like his countryman Youzhny, Davydenko has reached the final weekend at the year’s final major before but has plummeted with stunning speed to ATP purgatory.  Surrounded in the rankings by unfamiliar journeymen, this formerly fascinating ball-striker rarely recaptures the form that catapulted him into the top 5 almost as swiftly.  By contrast, Dodig had gained little notoriety until he became the only player to win a set from Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, then won his home tournament in Zagreb, and most notably conquered Nadal in a third-set tiebreak.  Such exploits have paved the route to his first seeding at a Slam, although ironically not a kinder draw.  An emotional player in the past, Dodig has maintained his composure more effectively this year while serving more impressively than one would expect from a player of his modest height.  The vintage Davydenko would have experienced little trouble in defusing his serve and net-rushing tactics with a sparkling array of returns and passing shots, but the depleted Davydenko no longer possesses that pinpoint timing.

Marino vs. Dulko:  Overshadowed this year by her compatriot Raonic, Marino has stalled in recent months after she nearly toppled Schiavone in Melbourne and reached the Memphis final.  On a four-match losing streak, the Canadian nevertheless fell just a few spots below a seeded position at the tournament where she impressed in a loss to Venus last year.  Marino’s explosive serve should reap rewards on this slick surface, although one would have thought the same on the fast courts of Stanford and Cincinnati.  Aligned against her is an opponent playing her first Slam as a married woman, an understated counterpuncher with an uncanny knack for upsets.  As players as renowned as Henin and Sharapova have discovered, Dulko can capitalize upon fallible performances by opponents who typically would brush her aside.  Her Roland Garros victory over Stosur this year reminded viewers of the Argentine’s ability to overcome a substantial disadvantage on serve.

Ivanovic vs. Pervak:   At the only major where she has not reached a quarterfinal, the former #1 seeks not to contend for the title but to build momentum as she settles into her alliance with Nigel Sears.  Riding a wave of momentum herself, Pervak soared to the second week of Wimbledon after victories over Peer and Petkovic.  The Russian lefty then reached her first career final in Baku and competed more sturdily there than one might have expected in the circumstances.  Sometimes troubled by left-handers before, Ivanovic might benefit from the intimate confines of the Grandstand more than the cavernous vault of Arthur Ashe.  Two three-set losses in the opening rounds of majors this year probably will undermine her confidence should the match stay close, but the Serb also has served bagels in eight of her last fifteen opening-round matches.  Only when she holds the most commanding lead, it appears, can Ivanovic—and her fans—feel secure.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

 

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

Sharapova vs. Watson:  A day after Hurricane Irene subsided, Hurricane Maria roars from her Cincinnati title into yet another clash with a rising star in the first week of a major.  At Roland Garros, Sharapova clawed out of a substantial deficit to escape French hope Caroline Garcia.  At Wimbledon, she trailed Robson in the first set and later in the first-set tiebreak before reversing the momentum.  In her New York opener last year, moreover, Sharapova started tentatively while losing the first set to Groth.  Seeking her 30th victory of the season, the 19-year-old Heather Watson has not yet threatened (and rarely played) an elite opponent but has secured a handful of victories over respectable foes like Scheepers, Larsson, and Suarez Navarro.  Already the third-ranked British woman, Watson has gained attention for her crisp movement and versatile stroke repertoire, as well as her precocious maturity.  Her debut on the largest arena in tennis should test her nerve even before Sharapova unleashes her thunderous returns.  Although the teenager might well challenge the Russian for a set or so, the latter has found herself in such a position before and will rely upon her experience to prevail.

Harrison vs. Cilic:  Relatively unfamiliar to the tennis world a year ago, Harrison built upon the support of his compatriots to defeat Ljubicic and nearly Stakhovsky.  Now a familiar name to all but the most casual fans, the future top-ranked American stands in an ideal position where he can score a meaningful victory against a talented but recently underperforming opponent.  Two semifinals in the US Open Series extended Harrison’s momentum from an encouraging Wimbledon, while Cilic scored a surprising straight-sets victory over Del Potro.  In what should become a high-quality encounter, the introverted Croat must guard against the distractions of a partisan crowd, a task that has troubled him in Davis Cup.  A more complete player than Harrison at this stage, however, he should gain control of rallies consistently by targeting the American’s backhand with his own superior two-hander.  Meanwhile, the teenager should exploit the Croat’s ungainly height by hitting behind him and forcing him to reverse direction.  Against Cilic’s formidable serve stands Harrison’s sparkling return, a key matchup to watch in a first-round encounter that looks destined to last more than three sets.

Dimitrov vs. Monfils:  Older and taller than Harrison, the Bulgarian descendant to Federer faces a more imposing challenge in the form of world #8 Monfils.  Ascending to that likely inflated ranking, the Frenchman has continued to oscillate between the sublime and the absurd in recent weeks.  One week after he effectively conceded a quarterfinal to Djokovic, he showed flashes of brilliance and enhanced focus in a three-set defeat to the Serb in Cincinnati.  Against an opportunistic prodigy, Monfils cannot afford to let his concentration lapse, always a greater challenge in the best-of-five format.  Nearly overcoming Ferrer in Cincinnati, Dimitrov owns elegant strokes behind which lurk an unexpected degree of power.  Nevertheless, he has not followed Harrison’s example in capitalizing upon a strong Wimbledon performance, instead falling to two players outside the top 200 in his next two tournaments.  A potential thriller, this match just as easily could swing strongly in one direction or the other considering the unpredictability of its combatants.

Stakhovsky vs. Gasquet:  While two-handed backhands have evolved into the smarter, more effective choice, the traditional one-handed stroke remains one of the most aesthetically attractive shots in the sport.  The most scintillating one-hander in the ATP faces a charismatic, slightly quirky opponent in Stakhovsky, who has enjoyed this phase of the season before.  Gifted with a talent for improvisation, the Ukrainian’s spontaneity in shot selection should create an entertaining foil for a player who has spent most of his career as a foil for greatness.  Long past the days when observers predicted his evolution into a Slam contender, Gasquet has recorded second-week appearances at the last two majors amidst a generally impressive year for French tennis.  But his fragile personality fits uncomfortably into the electric atmosphere of the Open, where he often has not found his finest form.

Radwanska vs. Radwanska:  As with Serena and Venus, the dynamic of two sisters aligned on opposite sides of the net never fails to intrigue.  In contrast to her deft, counterpunching sister, the younger Radwanska has honed the power-hitting baseline style more characteristic of the WTA.  A former junior US Open finalist, Urszula defeated Agnieszka in Dubai two years ago and then fell easily to her in Eastbourne.  The recently resurgent A-Rad once again excelled on the US Open courts, appearing to have benefited by separating from her father.  Although her underpowered game won’t allow her to contend for the title, the two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist relishes faster surfaces that add an extra jolt to her groundstrokes without compromising her movement.

Karlovic vs. Gonzalez:  Far removed from his tenure in the top 10, the 2007 Australian Open finalist has demonstrated his courage in returning from a potentially career-ending injury.  Not noted for focus or mental tenacity, Gonzalez faces a severe test of patience when he confronts the frustratingly impenetrable serve of Karlovic.  Within two points of an Indian Wells semifinal before Nadal edged past him, the tallest player in the ATP has suffered significant injuries himself as he ages, but none of those niggles have seemed to dilute a serve that has registered the fastest speed in tennis.  Like most South Americans, Gonzalez tethers himself to the baseline even on hard courts, so a curious contrast should develop with the net-rushing, volley-slashing Karlovic.

Makarova vs. Kirilenko:  Beyond two sisters battling each other, two Russians engaged in an internecine collision might represent the second-most entertaining plotline in women’s tennis.  Better known for her doubles accomplishments, Eastbourne champion Makarova constantly seeks to dictate rallies with her typical lefty arsenal.  Comfortable in all areas of the court, Kirilenko also has earned more laurels when accompanied by a partner but has reached a Slam quarterfinal (2010 Australian Open) with a game built mostly around consistency and versatility.  Also separating these countrywomen is the lefty’s fiery competitive personality, which has surfaced even in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of doubles.   Just as her feisty spirit matches her aggressive playing style, so does Kirilenko’s tranquility mirror her professional polish.

Serena Williams Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after winning championship point against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during the women's singles finals on Day 14 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Unlike Djokovic atop the men’s draw, Wozniacki does not tower but rather totters above her rivals.  But a fourth consecutive title in New Haven will have elevated her confidence at a critical moment following opening-round losses at the two Premier Five events, while the type of player who typically challenges the Dane does not lie in her immediate vicinity.  Looking more like her comfortably counterpunching self last week, the top seed should find that understated style sufficient to outlast erratic competition like Gajdosova, whom she defeated routinely at Wimbledon.  Potentially aligned to meet her in the fourth round, however, is one of two volatile dark horses.  Amidst a noteworthy clay-grass season, Hantuchova terminated Wozniacki’s Roland Garros campaign in startlingly emphatic fashion.  An enigma for most of the last two years, 2004 champion Kuznetsova compiled a pair of wins in Cincinnati before crumbling against Sharapova and dropping her New Haven opener to the underpowered Christina McHale.  Nevertheless, Sveta extended Wozniacki to a third-set tiebreak when they met two years ago at the US Open, so she could trouble the world #1 if she manages to avoid a stumble herself beforehand.  At the base of this section lies reigning Roland Garros champion Li Na, who has struggled to win consecutive matches since that fortnight until she came within a tiebreak of the New Haven final.  Her decision to take a wildcard into that minor tournament suggests a renewed level of commitment that bodes well for her fortunes in New York.  So does her tranquil draw, which could feature an entertaining third-round meeting with Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Much more consistent than Li this summer, Petkovic would await her early in the second week.  As we learned in Melbourne, though, the Chinese veteran’s more balanced style offers few holes for the less disciplined German.

Quarterfinal:  Li d. Wozniacki

Second quarter:  While Azarenka and Schiavone may bookend the draw, the most prominent name here would intersect with the Belarussian in the third round.  Sensibly withdrawing from Cincinnati, Serena will arrive in New York with a 12-0 hard-court record this season as she seeks a third consecutive title.  Rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski might prove an entertaining challenge for a set or so in her opener, but the three-time US Open champion never has lost her first match at a major.  Tasked with sterner resistance in the heavy serve of Canada’s Rebecca Marino, Azarenka will need to keep her composure and focus on holding serve.  Nearly falling to the Belarussian at the 2010 Australian Open, Serena must raise her intensity immediately for a challenge that should prepare her well for the rest of the fortnight.  A fellow former #1 and Slam champion might intersect with the American in the fourth round, should Ivanovic extend her encouraging upward trend from the summer hard courts and build confidence from her partnership with Nigel Sears.  In order to reach Serena, however, the Serb might need to overcome Wimbledon nemesis Cetkovska, who charged to the New Haven final with consecutive victories over Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li.  Positioned near Schiavone once again is the other Serb, Cincinnati runner-up and 2008 US Open runner-up Jankovic.  Falling in the first round at three of her last four tournaments, “JJ” should survive through at least her first two matches before meeting Pavlyuchenkova, who conquered her in the Monterrey final and earned her first Slam breakthrough by reaching a Roland Garros quarterfinal.  In that quarterfinal, the former top-ranked junior fell to Schiavone after squandering an immense lead.  She should gain an opportunity for revenge here, although the Italian has fared better than one would expect in recent visits to New York.

Quarterfinal:  Serena d. Schiavone

Third quarter:  Headlined by the two Wimbledon finalists, this section features an intriguing first-round battle between the two Radwanskas.  Recapturing her form with a San Diego title and Toronto semifinal, the more famous sister hopes to rebound from a nagging shoulder injury to reverse past defeats against the less famous sister.  As did Li Na following her first major title, Kvitova has accomplished little since winning Wimbledon while playing only two tournaments.  Winning just one match at each of them, she showed little motivation in straight-sets losses to Petkovic.  Sometimes susceptible to fellow Czhecs, she would confront left-handed compatriot Safarova in the third round before progressing to a meeting with Radwanska, who regularly punishes the unmotivated.  Anchoring the lower half of the section, Sharapova will clash with a British youngster for the second straight major after vanquishing Robson at Wimbledon.  After Heather Watson, the 2006 champion’s route remains uneventful except for a possible but highly unlikely third-round collision with Oudin.  As the second week begins, Sharapova could test her precision against one of two players whom she defeated at majors earlier this season.  Mounting a formidable challenge in their three-set Melbourne encounter, Goerges attempts to awaken from a summer swoon after breakthrough performances in the clay season.  Armed with a crackling serve and forehand, the second-ranked German twice hit through Wozniacki this spring but will find her consistency tested once more by Peng Shuai.  In the shadow of Li’s brilliance, the Chinese double-fister has compiled the finest season of her career but will struggle to survive Sharapova unless the Russian’s accuracy deserts her.  One could say the same about Radwanska, winless in their meetings since her 2007 victory over the then-defending champion in New York.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova d. Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  In the absence of Clijsters, Zvonareva has become the player with the greatest pressure upon her to repeat last year’s accomplishments.  Succumbing to Pironkova early in her Wimbledon final defense, the second seed could face an intriguing early test in the form of Laura Robson, a lefty unflustered by her elite peers.  A champion in Dallas last week, Lisicki has reached the semifinals in four of her last five tournaments as she has surged forward from her Wimbledon success.  En route to her first notable title in Charleston two years ago, the German overcame Venus in a match filled with booming serves and bereft of extended rallies.  They could clash again in the second round, just the 12th match of the 31-year-old American’s season and her second since Wimbledon.  Often troubled by potent servers, Zvonareva has won two three-setters from Lisicki during the last few months, so she could bring more confidence into that match than into a potential fourth-round encounter with Cibulkova.  A quarterfinalist in New York last year, the diminutive Slovak has amplified her deceptively powerful groundstrokes during a season that has witnessed victories over Wozniacki, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Likely to proceed through the less impressive upper half of this section is two-time 2011 Slam quarterfinalist Bartoli, who suffered a few unexpected losses during the US Open Series after reaching the Stanford final.  Embedded near the Frenchwoman, Christina McHale aims to register a promising victory or two to consolidate her status as the leading American women’s hope of the future.  College Park champion Petrova and 2010 US Open quarterfinalist Stosur should duel in a third-round match of veterans with similarly traditional styles, after which the victor should contrast with Bartoli’s eccentricities.  Long feckless against Stosur, Zvonareva will hope to gain an opportunity to extend her long-time dominance against the Frenchwoman.

Quarterfinal:  Zvonareva d. Bartoli

Semifinals:  S. Williams d. Li; Sharapova d. Zvonareva

Final:  S. Williams d. Sharapova

***

We return shortly with a preview of Day 1 at the US Open, which features action from the top half of the men’s draw and the bottom half of the women’s draw.

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

First quarter:  On the top line of a Slam draw for the first time in his career, Djokovic should not test his ailing shoulder significantly against his first two opponents.  Not until the third round does the path become intriguing for the Serb, who then would face Nadal’s recent nemesis Ivan Dodig.  Of Djokovic’s seven victims in Australia, only Dodig claimed a set from him.  Also wedged into this section is former semifinalist Davydenko, a recurrent threat to Djokovic on hard courts although lately struggling to string together compelling performances.  As the second week begins, a pair of graceful, spectacular, and spectacularly erratic shot-makers in Dolgopolov and Gasquet will vie for the right to battle the top seed.  The towering serve of Karlovic and a revitalized Gonzalez might disrupt the Frenchman’s progress with styles perhaps better suited to the fast courts of New York.  But none of these competitors possesses the versatility, athleticism, and mental durability of the Djokovic who has burst to the pinnacle of the ATP in 2011.  Nor, most likely, do his most plausible quarterfinal opponents.  For the third consecutive North American tournament, Djokovic might meet Monfils in an entertaining quarterfinal.  When they collided her last year, however, the latter’s showmanship produced sporadic moments of brilliance rather than a competitive encounter.  His confidence boosted by a Cincinnati victory over Federer, Berdych could block Monfils in the fourth round.  Almost the opposite of the Frenchman in playing style and personality, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist could not challenge Djokovic in Australia and has dropped their last five meetings.  Among the dark horses in this section is Grigor Dimitrov, who delivered a promising effort against Tsonga at Wimbledon and could ambush a desultory Monfils in his opener.

Quarterfinal:  Djokovic d. Berdych

Second quarter:  Having knocked off Ljubicic in the first round of last year’s Open, rising American star Ryan Harrison aims to repeat the feat against another Croat, 2009 quarterfinalist Cilic.  If Harrison should score the mini-upset, a battle between future ATP champions could unfold when he duels with leading Australian hope Bernard Tomic.  Turning heads with his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the Aussie shares the American’s competitive determination, which would serve either of them well against Federer.   Like Djokovic, the five-time champion should collide with no genuine threats in his first two matches and might well reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  No longer able to blaze through draws with sustained dominance, Federer could profit from the opportunity to gradually refine his shots as the tournament progresses.  In a similar situation with a comfortable Wimbledon draw, though, he lacked the necessary intensity to withstand Tsonga’s inspired charge when the competition suddenly spiked upward dramatically.  Aligned to meet Stepanek, Troicki, or perhaps Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, the Swiss legend would face a corresponding challenge at the US Open when he meets Tsonga or Fish a round later.  Lurking ominously near the top-ranked American is Thiemo De Bakker, a tall Dutchman with the overpowering serve-forehand combinations that could trouble even the elite on this fast surface.  As for Tsonga, the American’s projected fourth-round opponent, a host of neighboring qualifiers and the fading Verdasco.  The Spaniard did topple Federer’s recent conqueror during his sensational semifinal run at the 2009 Australian Open, but a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal looks likely.  Can Federer solve a foe who has lost serve just twice in their last eight sets?

Quarterfinal:  Tsonga d. Federer

Third quarter:  In his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Del Potro hopes to reclaim his scintillating spring form and move past the disappointing US Open Series.  Already having defeated Soderling twice this year, the 2009 champion should reprise that meeting early in the second week.  Before that stage, the indefatigable Simon will probe Del Potro’s consistency and fitness by extending the Argentine deep into rallies.  Of the three Americans situated between the Argentine and the Swede, Alex Bogomolov has earned the greatest attention by catapulting from a Miami upset of Murray to reach his highest ranking to date.  Likely unimpressed by this counterpunching upstart, Soderling has not played on hard courts this summer and may open the tournament a few notches below his impenetrable self.  In fact, the two-time Roland Garros finalist has spent much of 2011 located between stagnation and regression as increasing numbers of opponents have exposed his one-dimensionality.  On the day that Soderling meets Del Potro, Murray might seek revenge for his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s Open.  The Swiss #2 chronically displayed skills that shine on any surface, but the Cincinnati title should have boosted the Scot’s confidence before his (alleged) favorite major.  Late in the first week, he might once again test his mother’s loyalties when he faces Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, routinely dispatched by Murray at the All England Club.  Navigating past Del Potro in a four-set quarterfinal three years ago, the third seed typically struggles against the type of opponent who can terminate points without warning from either groundstroke wing.  Nevertheless, the 2009 champion has not yet toppled one of the ATP’s top four since returning from wrist surgery, still searching for the effortless explosiveness that won him this title.

Quarterfinal:  Murray d. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Slipping outside the top 20 for the first time in a decade, Roddick could not have asked for a kinder draw at his home major, which he departed in the second round last year.  Ample talent but scant willpower looms to threaten the 2003 champion in the form of Winston-Salem finalist Benneteau or new top-10 inhabitant Almagro.  Hampered since Wimbledon by assorted injuries, Roddick did play four matches last week in North Carolina although faltering again once he encountered determined resistance.  Here, that resistance should arrive in the fourth round, when he attempts to avoid a second 2011 defeat to Ferrer after falling to him in straight sets during the Davis Cup quarterfinal.  Undeterred by the American crowd, the world #5 rallied from multiple deficits in that match as he slowly gnawed away at Roddick mentally and physically.  Familiar with such a feeling against Ferrer here, world #2 Nadal yielded to his compatriot at this tournament four years ago. After dismal performances in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal could lift his spirits (and thus his game) significantly by recording a series of uneventful victories en route to that quarterfinal.  Projected to encounter him before that stage is another notable hard-court nemesis of the Spaniard, 2010 Indian Wells champion Ljubicic.  The second seed should quell that aging menace before reprising last year’s semifinal here against Youzhny.  Once winning two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon, Youzhny might fall prey to the reinvigorated Gulbis in his opener.  Should the Latvian string together three wins to reach Nadal, a compelling test of Rafa’s nerve might lie ahead.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal d. Ferrer

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Tsonga; Murray d. Nadal

Final:  Djokovic d. Murray

***

We return tomorrow with the companion article on the women’s draw.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point to win the tournament against Samantha Stosur of Australia on Day 7 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Serena:  Undefeated on hard courts since early 2010, the younger Williams restored order to the chaotic WTA with consecutive titles at Stanford and the Rogers Cup.  At those tournaments, she displayed renewed appetite for competition while conquering not only veterans like Sharapova, Bartoli, and Stosur but rising stars like Lisicki and Azarenka.  Don’t expect a Cincinnati “injury” to trouble the US Open favorite in New York, where she will arrive eager to erase the memories of her controversial 2009 exit.  If Serena finds Toronto worthy of her attentions, she should bring her fiercest form to the US Open.  Often playing to the level of her competition, the American has dominated all of her leading rivals for this title and merely should accelerate in momentum as she reaches the second week.  And not since 2004 has Serena let a Slam final escape her against someone other than her sister.

Sharapova:  For once, the US Open Series made sense as the two leading Open contenders split the two most important preparatory tournaments.  Adding Cincinnati to Rome in her 2011 titles, Sharapova lost little time in rebounding from a one-sided loss to Serena at Stanford and an early defeat in Toronto.  Plowing past four top-15 opponents last week, she compensated for her chronically wayward serve with a return game perhaps unparalleled in its ferocity.  The 2006 champion has not reached a quarterfinal in her three appearances since then, but Sharapova stands tied for the WTA lead in Slam matches this year after overcoming her apparent nerves at majors with a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final.  She almost certainly will continue to fall (very) short against Serena, though.

Azarenka:  Finally reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, the brash Belarussian competed well there before injuries and erratic form hindered her summer hard-court campaign.  After a disappointing 2010, she has enjoyed the best season of her career in 2011 by winning Miami and consistently charging deep into top tournaments.  If she can avoid her notoriously frequent injuries, Azarenka should improve significantly upon her concussion-induced departure last year.  A more mature Vika also has allowed her temper to overheat less often lately when the pressure rises.  Like Sharapova, Azarenka has few answers to a healthy, focused Serena; she played excellent tennis for most of their Canadian semifinal—and still won only six games.

Li / Kvitova:  Largely dormant since their Slam breakthroughs, the Roland Garros and Wimbledon champions look content to bask in their glow of their accomplishments.  In theory, both could threaten on the hard courts, especially the volatile serve-forehand combinations of Kvitova.  While Li lost to the mildly intimidating Stosur in Toronto and Cincinnati, Kvitova suffered consecutive, resounding losses to Petkovic.  Of the two, the Chinese star showed more inclination to escape her hangover by entering the New Haven tournament Neither champion expressed much disappointment after those underwhelming results, perhaps still disoriented by their dramatically elevated stature.

Wozniacki:  Without a Slam and without a coach, the world #1 resembles a genuine contender less than an inviting target for an upstart.  Unless she receives another comfortable Slam draw (and perhaps even if she does), Wozniacki should head straight for another deflating defeat.  Increasingly confused on the court, she needs to decide whether to commit to aggression or return to counterpunching before she can collect that maiden major.

Zvonareva:  As one might expect from a player so fraught with nerves, her Wimbledon final defense ended in the third round.  On a surface more congruent with her strengths, the US Open final defense should extend longer, for Zvonareva enjoyed an unexpectedly solid sequence of summer hard-court results.  A champion in Baku, a finalist in San Diego, and a semifinalist in Cincinnati, she looked more consistent and composed than she had since February.  Her lack of evident weakness accompanies her lack of an overpowering weapon, though, without which few champions have won in New York.

Venus:  Since the last US Open, the elder Williams has played just 10 matches.  Not since 2001 has she won a North American hard-court tournament, moreover, while desultory grass-season performances suggested an unruly game increasingly out of rhythm and focus.  Of equal note, the gap separating her from her sister in competitive determination has widened as they have aged.  Nevertheless, the 31-year-old came within a tiebreak of last year’s final before untimely errors derailed her, and her formidable serve should continue to stifle at least a few opponents.

Bartoli:  Steadfastly unflustered by Serena or anyone else, the Frenchwoman withstood immense pressure by reaching the semifinals of her home major and then taking a Wimbledon tiebreak from the 13-time Slam champion.  In the Stanford final, Bartoli showed signs of repeating the feat before fading.  Adding additional sting to her serve this year, she creates unexpected angles with her double-fisted strokes while moving more efficiently than one would think at first glance.

Schiavone:  A surprise quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian brings a decidedly European panache to the domain of more straightforward power hitters.  Having defeated Azarenka here before, Schiavone relies on her veteran wiles to overcome the WTA’s rising stars.  Demonstrated in Australia, her fitness and mental tenacity spring from a contagious enthusiasm for the sport.  Her serve remains a liability, though, and Schiavone has made little impression on hard courts in 2011.

Petkovic:  Currently the most consistent of the three rising Germans, Petkovic reached two semifinals and a quarterfinal in three US Open Series tournaments.  Her breakthrough (and the Petko-dance’s birth) occurred during a lively run to the second week of last year’s Open, which suits her charismatic personality. Hovering just outside the top 10, Petkovic recorded two Slam quarterfinals this year together with victories over Sharapova, Kvitova, Wozniacki, and other contenders.

The rest:  Reaching the quarterfinals unexpectedly last year, Stosur resurfaced from a season-long slump with a final in Canada.  Similarly disappointing for much of 2011, Radwanska recalled more successful moments with a San Diego title and two wins apiece over Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Fresh from a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki continued to impress at Stanford and can dominate behind her serve if its percentage stays high.  Nor should one entirely forget the two Serbs, Jankovic a Cincinnati finalist and Ivanovic a San Diego semifinalist who competed courageously against Zvonareva.  Neither a title threat, they have combined for three first-round Slam exits and one second-week appearance this year, but each former #1 might craft one modest memory of note before heading to Asia.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses for photographers after receiving a trophy commemorating his number one ATP singles ranking during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 8, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Djokovic:  An overwhelming favorite before Cincinnati began, the world #1 remains the favorite despite the fatigue and shoulder soreness that caused him to withdraw from last week’s final.  Confident that he will overcome those issues before the US Open begins, Djokovic has won 20 of his last 21 matches at non-clay matches, eight of his nine matches this year against Nadal and Federer, and 57 of 59 matches in 2011 overall.  The US Open historically has proved his finest major, where he has not lost before the semifinals or to anyone outside the top three since 2006, and the city’s glamorous atmosphere mirrors his personality.  If he reaches the championship weekend, his improved fitness should allow him to weather the challenges of playing best-of-five matches on consecutive days better than before.  In fact, his failure to win Cincinnati ultimately may improve his prospects in New York by diminishing expectations for him.

Nadal:  Quelled by Djokovic in five finals this season, the defending champion struggled in the US Open Series while registering just two victories and squandering multiple leads in an opening-round Montreal defeat.  An outstanding year by almost anyone’s standards has proven relatively disappointing for Nadal, whose futility against the Serb has translated into a general uncertainty against other opponents.  But the glimpse of his rival’s frailty will embolden this keen competitor, if he can find the formidable serving that carried him to last year’s title, and his “underperformance” to this stage may heighten his motivation.  Other than Djokovic and perhaps Murray at their finest, few of his rivals currently can sustain the level of calculated aggression necessary to overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format.

Federer:  Gone by the quarterfinals in his last three tournaments, the five-time US Open titlist has become increasingly unreliable in his old age.  While his serve should benefit from the fastest Slam surface, he seems unlikely to progress through an entire fortnight without at least one notable lapse upon which a talented opponent could capitalize.  His vintage, inspired self against Del Potro in his Cincinnati opener, Federer looked passive when confronted by the physicality of Tsonga and Berdych.  Nevertheless, he will enjoy ardent crowd support in New York, and he remains the only player to convert a match point against Djokovic this year.  Should he meet the Serb for the fifth straight Open, Federer will gain confidence from his three previous victories there and from their memorable encounter in Paris.

Murray:  A finalist and semifinalist at the two non-clay majors so far, the Cincinnati champion won’t become a favorite to win a major until he does.  Murray might exploit any lingering injury to Djokovic and the erratic form of Nadal and Federer, though, for his counterpunching style demands both durability and consistency from his opponents.  Having played many fewer matches this year than the top two, he might bring greater energy to New York.  Considering the US Open his favorite major, Murray remains vulnerable to explosive hitters on its fast courts.  Moreover, he has lost all three of his Slam finals in straight sets, wilting miserably in the most important matches of his career.

Ferrer:  A clay-court specialist, the Spaniard has reached improbable semifinals at both hard-court majors.  His grinding, underpowered style seemingly would struggle here, but Ferrer rarely loses matches that he should win or contributes to his own demise.  Not a genuine title threat, he could spoil the hopes of one or two rivals before someone hits through him.

Soderling:  Still seeking his first Slam semifinal outside Roland Garros, the Swede will find his weaknesses minimized and his strengths maximized on a surface that favors first-strike firepower over crisp movement or footwork.  Injured for much of 2011, Soderling began the year with three titles in two months but has faded since then at significant tournaments, including Slam losses to second-tier threats Dolgopolov and Tomic.  He nearly extended Federer to five sets here two years ago, however, and should not find the grand stage intimidating.  Absent from Montreal and Cincinnati, Soderling probably needs more hard-court matches to mount a legitimate threat.

Fish:  Like Li and Schiavone, the new top-ranked American has crossed the line from spoiler to contender in his late 20s and now can hope (albeit faintly) for a debut Slam title.  A three-time finalist in the US Open Series, Fish has struggled in finals throughout his career and never has passed the quarterfinals at a major.  Assuming the mantle of Roddick, the newest home hope will go as far as his first serve can carry him and survive as long as he maintains his focus, difficult for him in the best-of-five format before.  A win over Nadal and a tight three-setter against Djokovic will have encouraged the world #7 to believe in his ability to compete with the best.

Tsonga:  Twice defeating Federer this summer, he should find a rapt audience in New York for his distinctively acrobatic brand of tennis.  Leaping and darting to the Wimbledon semifinal, Tsonga never has excelled at the US Open as injuries have hampered his attempts to sustain momentum after his breakthroughs.  In addition to his status as Federer’s most recent nemesis, though, his winning record against Djokovic and Slam success against Nadal inspires thoughts of a splashy potential upset.  A title probably lies out of reach, especially if the Frenchman confronts Murray or a similarly steady opponent.

Del Potro:  Never discount former champions, but a player who lost to Gulbis and Cilic in straight sets this summer looks more like a dark horse than a title threat.  Thoroughly outplayed by Federer in Cincinnati, Del Potro regressed from his spring form in recent weeks and has recalled his younger, more tentative self in recent losses.  Will his first match in New York since the greatest triumph of his career revive him?  While not impossible, that prospect seems distant for a player who has lost all of his matches against the top three since returning from shoulder surgery.

***

We return tomorrow with a parallel article on the top women at the season’s final Slam.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

In a suspenseful three-set encounter, not all points are created equal.  Few players recognize and exploit this truth more than Sharapova, who survived 11 double faults and 64 unforced errors to collect the title that painfully eluded her a year ago.  Trailing Jankovic by a set and a break in a final that resembled the nearby rollercoaster, the 2010 Cincinnati finalist sank her teeth into the match midway through the second set, holding serve twice to stay alive.  In the ensuing tiebreak, the serves and groundstrokes that had sprayed throughout the court suddenly found lines and corners with vintage precision.  Three times trailing by a break in the final set, Sharapova pinpointed her returns to erase each of the deficits in a final during which each player rarely led by more than one game or by more than one point in a game.  Never ahead between the seventh game of the first set and the seventh game of the third set, she allowed her sprightly opponent no room for recovery once she gained the initiative.   Amidst the unsightly statistics of double faults and unforced errors, another statistic proved the most relevant:  a stunning 11-0 record in third sets this season that testifies to her unsurpassed resolve when matches hang in the balance, as well as to her ability to overcome imperfections in a game designed for the pursuit of perfection.  Crushing Kuznetsova and Stosur earlier in the week, the three-time major champion scored a similarly valiant victory over Zvonareva after a dismal beginning to their semifinal.  With disappointments in Stanford and Toronto placed firmly behind her, she will travel to New York armed with a timely injection of confidence.

An even more dramatic confidence boost will have propelled the Cincinnati runner-up into the season’s final major.  A first-round loser at both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Jankovic had drifted beyond the edge of relevance this year as her 2010 slump on non-clay surfaces had deepened.  Although she profited from a walkover and an injured semifinal opponent (see below), the Serb seemed to recapture her affection for the sport this week.  Compensating for reduced foot speed with smarter anticipation, she showcased not only her lithe movement and keen instincts but the smile that accompanied her exploits during her ascent to #1.  On several occasions throughout the final and her third-round victory over Schiavone, Jankovic sprawled across the court to produce passing shots or unexpected retrievals, demonstrating her natural athleticism and racket-head control.  A potential narrative of the final would cast it as a potentially uneventful straight-set win that she let escape her, like Sharapova in last year’s final, but she battled an increasingly determined Sharapova with courage and concentration until the last two games.  Whatever one’s response to the polarizing Serb, one still can appreciate the player if not the person.  Not realistically a genuine contender at the US Open, she might provide a fascinating foil for the power-hitters atop the WTA if she can build upon this result.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

As desperate as Sharapova to forget the foibles of the previous week, Murray had not won a match at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this year—until he won all of his matches this week.  An opening-round exit had terminated his Montreal title defense, appearing to distance him further from the top three.  Had he suffered another early loss, he would have struggled to acquire the optimism necessary for surviving the intense fortnight in New York.  By capturing the Cincinnati trophy, however, the world #4 reestablished himself as a serious contender in what has become a US Open men’s field surrounded by questions, none more notable than those concerning Djokovic’s shoulder.  Unable to compete effectively against the Scot, the world #1 already had played more matches than he did all of last season and may have suffered merely a case of aggravated fatigue as he did after Miami.  Nevertheless, the injury arrived at an inauspicious moment, offering a breath of hope for the other 127 players in the draw.  Despite an uneven performance in the semifinal, Murray also outlasted the most successful player of the summer in Mardy Fish, who has assumed the mantle of leading American with unexpected speed and ease.  That encouraging victory illustrated the Scot’s skill in defusing imposing servers, the type of player that normally profits from the fastest Slam surface of all.

In a week that witnessed the withdrawal of one former champion from the US Open, Cincinnati proved relatively unkind to most of the others.  Perhaps hampered by burned fingers, Nadal struggled with his first serve and forehand throughout his two victories before succumbing to Fish for the first time in his career.  In his three-tiebreak, 217-minute victory over Verdasco, the defending champion failed to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes for prolonged periods, a rare sight even on hard courts.  His confidence shaken by losses to Djokovic, Nadal’s abbreviated US Open Series left him additional time for much-needed preparation in New York.  Less surprising was Del Potro’s loss to Federer, for the Argentine had not defeated a top-three opponent since his return from wrist surgery and had grown oddly passive since Wimbledon.  The five-time US Open champion avenged his loss in the 2009 final with a performance as sparkling as any of his hard-court matches this year but found little of that form three days later against Berdych.  After his third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals or earlier, Federer will face a severe test in stringing together seven consecutive quality performances.  Not since February in Dubai has he reached a non-clay final.  To be sure, the Swiss won the US Open after losing early in Cincinnati three years ago, while the Czech defeated Federer twice and nearly a third time last year.

Having accomplished little of significance so far in 2011, Berdych overcame the 16-time major champion without facing a break point.  This achievement might have positioned him to threaten a fallible Djokovic on Saturday, had not an injury-caused retirement intervened.  When Djokovic himself fell victim to a shoulder injury a day later, the men’s tournament concluded with consecutive retirements.  From the women’s draw withdrew Serena and Azarenka, while Petkovic suffered a knee injury in her quarterfinal that impeded her perceptibly during her semifinal loss to Jankovic.  As the US Open approaches, one expects that some of these injuries will disappear (see S for Serena and A for Azarenka), but this rising trend on both Tours should cause them to investigate this issue further.  Despite the Roadmap, the post-Wimbledon break, and more intelligent scheduling by the players themselves, too many outcomes continue to hinge upon physical condition rather than tactics and execution.  The sport’s sprawling calendar thus remains a topic of concern.

***

We will return very shortly with capsules on the leading men’s contenders at the US Open, followed by a similar sketch of the women’s contenders.

 

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Murray:  Divided into three distinct acts is the mini-rivalry between the heirs apparent to the thrones of Federer and Nadal.  In Act I, from 2006 to early 2008, Djokovic won all four of his meetings against the man exactly a week younger than him while losing only one set.  A whiplash-inducing Act II began at the 2008 Rogers Cup and extended through three consecutive victories by Murray until the end of 2010.  At this year’s Australian Open, Act III signaled Djokovic’s burgeoning ascendancy with an emphatic, barely competitive straight-sets victory for the Serb.  In arguably his best match of the season so far, the Scot thrust the world #1 to the brink of defeat during their Rome semifinal before failing to serve out the match and succumbing in a third-set tiebreak.  Will this Act continue, or will the curtain rise on Act IV in Cincinnati?

Throughout this narrative arc, its contours have depended on the state of Djokovic’s game and mind rather than Murray.  The more assertive figure in both playing style and personality, the world #1 dominated the fourth seed during his initial breakthrough period, struggled against him during what now seems a sophomore slump, and restored his mastery during a second, more sustained, and much more spectacular assault upon the sport’s pinnacle.  One scarcely can imagine Murray playing even more brilliantly than during the last two sets of that Rome semifinal, yet still he faltered at the encounter’s climax, a pattern repeated from a similarly outstanding performance against Nadal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Against an opponent bursting with confidence, the Scot must quell the latent negativity that has hindered him from winning a major or from consistently threatening the top three at majors.  Having not won a Masters 1000 hard-court match until this week, though, he now has an opportunity to deliver an imposing statement in a situation when he has little to lose and much to gain.  Not quite sensational in the earlier rounds, Murray nevertheless will have gained momentum from overcoming sweltering heat and patches of erratic form to overcome summer sensation Fish.  Probably the only rival who can match Djokovic backhand for backhand, the Scot also shares his talent for returning serves with depth and precision.  At the net, he surpasses the Serb for deftness and placement, although perhaps not in agility.  While few players defend more effectively than Murray, he also has shown an increased readiness to finish points when presented with a meek mid-court reply.

Separating Djokovic from his challenger, however, is his superiority in the two most critical shots of modern men’s tennis:  the serve and the forehand.  In the former area, he has balanced power with percentage more reliably and has developed a sense for when risks will reward, exposing his second serve less often than does the Scot.  In the latter department, the Serb has developed a long-time weapon into a more consistent, technically solid shot over the past year.  Unlike Murray, Djokovic can strike effortless winners from that wing without massaging the rally as meticulously beforehand.  Once infamous but now famous, his fitness rises nearly to a level that matches the Scot’s rigorous training program, which has proven a central ingredient in the latter’s 2009 title.  Nevertheless, the top seed will have felt relieved to have received a semifinal retirement for the second straight week, since Monfils had depleted his reserves of energy on Friday evening.  Scheduled for shortly after noon in Cincinnati’s August torpor, this final should test Djokovic’s fitness as much as did the Miami final this spring.

Perfect in his first nine finals of 2011, the world #1 aims to record his third pair of consecutive Masters 1000 titles this year.  In his last three North American hard-court finals, Djokovic battled through a tense three-set final against an inspired opponent.  Spectators should anticipate similarly stern resistance from an opponent seeking his most significant title in over a year.  While one finalist has gorged himself on trophies and glory in 2011, the other finalist has starved by his normally sparkling standards.  Against the virtually irresistible wave of momentum that has deluged the ATP this season, therefore, stands a competitor with the appetite and Masters 1000 pedigree to impede or perhaps bar the Serb’s path.   If he does, the ATP top three might become a Gang of Four once again.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 6

Sharapova vs. Jankovic:  Amidst perhaps the best odd-numbered year of her career to date, Sharapova eyes a fourth final at the tournament where she fell just a point short of the title last year.  Reaching consecutive finals in the 2007-08 Australian Opens, she erased her disappointment on the first occasion by capitalizing on her second opportunity against a much less intimidating opponent.  Despite losing five of her last six finals, including her last three in the United States, the three-time major champion will bring considerable confidence from her dominance over Jankovic.  Only once victorious over Sharapova, the Serb has lost all four of their hard-court meetings and retired from two of them, including the 2009 Tokyo final.  On the other hand, Jankovic has spent much of her week settling old scores against Schiavone (her conqueror at Roland Garros) and Petkovic (her conqueror in Miami and Stuttgart).  Generally at her best when she has something to prove, this former #1 has not won a title since Indian Wells 2010 but seemingly manages to win at least one significant tournament each season.  Her preceding breakthrough occurred in Cincinnati two years ago, indicating that the fast courts relished by Sharapova do not trouble the counterpunching Serb.

Once the most supple mover in the WTA, Jankovic has declined in that salient strength while improving her most notable flaw, her serve.  In the semifinal against Petkovic, she saved seven of eight break points, while her third-round victory over Schiavone featured several serves that effectively spun wide to open the court for her first groundstroke.  Not having played the Serb for nearly two years, the Tour’s leading returner may need to adjust to the improved pace of this stroke that she formerly devoured with impunity.  Breaking her opponents in more than half of their service games this season, Sharapova has relied upon an even more staggering rate (over 60%) in Cincinnati to compensate for the occasional stumble on serve.  Such stumbles usually have occurred at inconsequential moments during her victories over Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Zvonareva, whereas the unceasing pressure from her returns drew untimely double faults from the last two adversaries.  Encountering minimal adversity as she thundered through her first three matches, Sharapova suffered another of her inexplicable lulls in the first set of the semifinal but recovered immediately after consulting with her coach.  Buoyed by both his advice and his reassuring presence during his visits all season, this fiercely independent figure in fact may have gained as much from the WTA’s coaching experiment-turned-reality as any of her rivals.

Less impressive in finals than Sharapova, Jankovic reeled off eight of her twelve titles in 2007-08 during the stretch that witnessed her rise from outside the top 10 to year-end #1.  Although she has declined sharply since then, the Indian Wells and Cincinnati championship runs testify to her continued viability as a dark horse just outside the central corps of contenders.  One should not forget that the Serb with the glittering smile reached her only Slam final at the US Open three years ago, confirming her affinity for North American hard courts.  Almost as fond of fashion and glamor as her opponent on Sunday, the less intense Cincinnati atmosphere may have allowed her to focus upon tennis.  For much of the season, Jankovic looked disenchanted and lethargic during her matches, but that suspenseful triumph over Schiavone appeared to have reawakened some of her appetite for competition.  Like Sharapova, her most impressive and most reliable stroke remains her backhand, unleashed down the line and cross-court with equal vigor.  Both finalists thus will face a decision between constructing rallies around their stronger groundstroke or their opponent’s weaker wing, which mirrors their own.  More likely to redirect balls early in the point, Sharapova will seek to temper her aggression with a judicious sense of timing.  Maneuvered out of position more easily than in former years, Jankovic still covers the court more adeptly than any of the Russian’s earlier opponents.  Those defensive skills will test the consistency of Sharapova’s offensive barrage much as Sharapova’s penetrating blows will challenge the Serb’s counterpunching abilities, offering a valuable test for two divergent players as they prepare for New York.  While the 2006 US Open champion has bolstered her already legitimate status as a contender this year, the 2008 finalist has renewed her relevance at an unexpected moment.  When the scene shifts to the season’s last major, both will encounter elevated expectations and the attention that accompanies them.

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We return to review the events in Cincinnati before launching the US Open preview series during the coming week.