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Vera Zvonareva - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Starting with her mid-career breakthrough last summer, Zvonareva reached the concluding stages of several pivotal tournaments:  Wimbledon, the US Open, Beijing, and the Australian Open.  Yet the intelligent, volatile Russian settled for best supporting actress at the first three of those events and succumbed in the semifinals of the fourth, continuing a habit of falling just short when a momentous triumph seemed within her grasp.  On the other hand, Zvonareva bowed only to the elite on those occasions, losing all four times to players who have held the #1 ranking and to Slam champions in three of the four defeats.  Her highly documented struggles in finals thus may stem in part from the opposition with which ill fortune has confronted the former #2, who could regain that lofty ranking if she wins Tokyo.  Amidst titles in such minor bastions of the WTA as Pattaya City and Baku, the Russian has claimed few noteworthy laurels since Indian Wells in 2009.

At first glance, Zvonareva’s opponent would seem a comparatively comfortable challenge far from her more formidable nemeses.  Upon closer examination, though, Radwanska has won their last two meetings this summer with the sort of gritty tenacity that can trouble emotionally fraught competitors like Zvonareva.  In the San Diego final, the Pole’s much-critiqued serve never deserted her as she never conceded a single break while capitalizing upon the few opportunities that she earned.  Unlike ferocious shot-makers who can afford to drift mentally or grow negative at times, Radwanska can defeat elite opponents and maximize her potential only by maintaining her keen focus and her confidence.  When she struggled during the first half of the season, a slump exacerbated by injuries, her lack of confidence prevented her from unfolding her distinctive style effectively late in close sets and matches.  Like Wozniacki, her decision to distance herself somewhat from her father has breathed new life into her game and her appetite for competition.  Snapping a three-year drought without a title at San Diego, she rebounded impressively from a US Open disappointment to win three-setters over Jankovic and Azarenka here.  Much as with the Belarussian, she can fluster Zvonareva by exploring not only the lateral but the vertical dimensions of the court.  Although more multifaceted and more consistent than Azarenka, the fourth seed still prefers to wage war from the baseline with a similar pace and spin on most strokes.  Exposed in her losses to Radwanska this summer were her reluctance to improvise and adjust in unfamiliar positions or situations, where she often looked marooned as the Pole outmaneuvered her.

From her performance against Kvitova in the semifinals, by contrast, emerge promising omens for Zvonareva’s fortunes in this final.  When she slipped deep into a first-set deficit, Vera did not disintegrate as she has in so many earlier encounters, petulantly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Perhaps aware of her adversary’s inexperience and chronic inconsistency, she instead stayed calm and forced her opponent to earn what seemed a predestined first-set victory.  After saving several points and reversing the tide, Zvonareva then offered the volatile Czech no second chances but rather accelerated her meltdown by subtly applying pressure.  A thoughtful and sensitive tactician at her best, she carefully exposed Kvitova’s (few) weaknesses, such as her movement towards her backhand or her haste in creating nonexistent angles on deep balls near the center of the baseline.  Despite her counterpunching instincts, she interwove her standard game with timely bursts of aggression—a pummeled backhand second-serve return here, an unexpected net approach there—to keep her victim uneasy and reeling.  Zvonareva certainly will need to return more aggressively than in her two previous 2011 encounters with Radwanska, but otherwise she should remain mostly inside her low-risk comfort zone.  While the Pole possesses slight advantages in footwork and speed, the Russian should neutralize those edges on most occasions with her superior power, especially on the serve, and equal consistency.  If this match stays competitive, as it should, each player must carefully decide when to cast aside her habitual aversion to risk and when to wait patiently for a misstep from across the net.  Against Radwanska’s spontaneity stands Zvonareva’s programmatic style, but both favor the elongated rallies that require multiple shot combinations to win.  Moreover, both have developed a talent for uncovering an opponent’s most significant flaws and scraping away at them like a shoe on a blister.  Will the Russian become the third Tokyo titlist from her nation in the last seven years, or will the Pole record the most remarkable accomplishment of her career to date?

As Tokyo prepares to crown a first-time champion, Beijing beckons with the final WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of 2011.  We return to preview that draw tomorrow before discussing the two ATP 500 events on Sunday.

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Victoria Azarenka - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

In the final Premier Five tournament of 2011, all four semifinalists spring from the same, richly talented region of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Despite sharing these cultural origins, though, the quartet represents a range of distinctive playing styles from a towering lefty to an artist of finesse.

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  In a likely WTA rivalry of the future, this pair will meet for the eighth occasion and second time this year.  At Indian Wells, their first 2011 collision climaxed in a third-set tiebreak after Azarenka saved multiple match points before breaking Radwanska when she served for the match.  After she split her first four encounters with the Pole, including two three-setters, the Belarussian more recently has appeared to overcome the multifaceted challenge that she poses with three consecutive victories on fast surfaces.  Extending her dominance over Bartoli with a second-set bagel, Azarenka has looked progressively sharper with each match that she has played, raising her level of performance with the simultaneously elevating competition.  In the quarterfinal, she reversed the direction of her groundstrokes almost at will despite the pace generated by the Frenchwoman, and her serve rarely betrayed her at meaningful moments.  While she aimed for lines and corners with her characteristic aggression, her shot selection bore the signs of calculation and commitment more often than recklessness or indecision.  Still uncertain is Vika’s second serve, the shot that has impeded her progress at majors and upon which Radwanska will hope to capitalize with her pinpoint returns.

Although one might expect the fast surface to showcase Azarenka’s strengths, especially if the roof stays closed, Radwanska paradoxically has delivered some of her best tennis on the sport’s faster courts.  A two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, she benefits from the extra jolt that they add to her relatively gentle groundstrokes.  In this duel between an inveterate baseliner and an all-court player, expect Radwanska to utilize her finesse to draw Azarenka into the forecourt on uncomfortable terms, for conventional volleys remain the least impressive feature of the Belarussian’s game.  By contrast, Azarenka will aim to take time away from the crafty Pole with penetrating groundstrokes that force her into defensive mode throughout.  If the match drifts deep into a third set once again, we should get a glimpse of Vika’s improved but still questionable fitness late in the season.  One must favor Radwanska in a war of attrition, on both physical and mental grounds, but lately Azarenka has combined her offense with consistency and composure.  Feasting upon the erratic or the temperamental, the Pole specializes in applying death by paper-cut to her opponent’s psyche and thence to her game.  When she faces a foe who can both outhit her and survive in extended rallies, her options dwindle significantly.

Zvonareva vs. Kvitova:  Sadly aborted after just seven games, Kvitova’s quarterfinal with Sharapova nevertheless may have steeled her for the stern tests in the semifinal and final.  Less known for her serve than the Czech, Zvonareva surprisingly has dropped only one service games across her three matches this week and faced only two break points in her last two matches.  On the other hand, her competition has ranged from mild to feckless, not subjecting her to any significant pressure after the first set of her first match.  Never have the Russian and the Czech contested a suspenseful match, although they have evenly divided their four meetings since 2009.  Conquered on clay by Kvitova in Rome and Madrid, Zvonareva has dismissed her comfortably at the Australian Open at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  The surface edge suggested by that record provides insights mitigated significantly by the stunning rise of both players during the last two seasons.  Whereas Kvitova has evolved into a more versatile and skillful athlete, Zvonareva has continued to practice largely the same style but has enhanced her emotional fortitude.  Nevertheless, her tempestuous personality has receded rather than entirely vanished, and Kvitova’s serve certainly can frustrate Vera as have the similarly potent deliveries of Serena, Venus, Stosur, or Sharapova.

Attempting to become the seventh Russian finalist in the last seven years of this event, Zvonareva must have felt relieved to have dodged the Stosur bullet when her compatriot Kirilenko conveniently upset the Aussie.  Even more dangerous when granted second chances, the Russian has not won a tournament of this magnitude since Indian Wells 2009, where she defeated Kvitova en route to the title.  Six years her junior, the Czech has accumulated more experience this year in the latter rounds of key events from Wimbledon to Madrid, where she defeated Zvonareva en route to the title.  Against such a smooth mover and adroit counterpuncher, though, Kvitova will need to stay patient in rallies rather than flinging forehands towards corners with the impetuousness that proves most effective on grass.  Despite swerving into Zvonareva’s excellent backhand, her swerving ad-court lefty serve should assist her in opening the court from the outset.  A returner often aggressive to a fault, the Czech should carefully consider the degree of risk that she wishes to assume in her opponent’s service games.  Unlike the other semifinal, a break-fest in the making, service holds should set the tone in a meeting between two deliveries that rarely disintegrate.   As Kvitova hopes to erase the memories of her abject mid-summer swoon, Zvonareva aims to extend her impetus from an encouraging second half.

Petra Kvitova Maria Sharapova of Russia (L) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic pose before their Ladies' final round match on Day Twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2011 in London, England.

Kanepi vs. Radwanska:  Hailing from nearly adjacent countries, these Eastern European women could not represent more divergent attitudes to the sport.  While Mats Wilander surely would include the Estonian among the “mindless bashers” of the WTA, he could have little but praise for the crafty Pole who has won both of their previous meetings.  Just 16-16 when this tournament began, Kanepi has resurfaced impressively with victories over US Open quarterfinalist Pennetta and world #1 Wozniacki, the Tokyo defending champion.  Fitness typically has troubled a player more burly than many, but she rallied impressively from a one-set deficit against the Italian and outlasted the Dane in another extended encounter.  Better known for her physical and mental resilience is Radwanska, the author of a one-set comeback as well against Jankovic, whom she bageled in the final set.  Nevertheless, her nearly total lack of offense proved no impediment when she faced a Serb just as comfortable with counterpunching and reluctant to seize the initiative.  Since Wimbledon, Radwanska’s star has risen steadily with a title in San Diego and semifinal at the Rogers Cup.  She avenged her US Open loss to Kerber in yet another three-setter this week and has accumulated so much momentum over the last few months that only an outstanding serving and returning performance from Kanepi can stop her.  Once the rally shifts into neutral terms, the Estonian’s raw talent will struggle to overcome the Pole’s expert ball placement and point construction.

Azarenka vs. Bartoli:  Unlike the previous match, this quarterfinal features two opponents with the same set of offensively oriented goals.  In most of their previous meetings, Bartoli’s double-fisted groundstrokes have placed her at a disadvantage when she confronts Azarenka’s symmetrical baseline game.  An efficient mover who covers the court better than most aggressors, the third seed has exploited the Frenchwoman’s less assured lateral movement and sometimes forced her to take one of her hands off the racket.  On fast surfaces like grass and indoor hard courts, however, Bartoli will have as great an opportunity as she ever will to topple Vika, who will have a little less time to counter her opponent’s first strike.  Inspiring the Frenchwoman with further hope is her impressive victory over fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, one of the WTA’s most improved players in 2011.  Meanwhile, Azarenka slogged through an erratic victory over the unremarkable Klara Zakopalova during which she fell behind early in both sets.  Since both players possess outstanding power and precision on their returns, their first-serve percentages will play a vital role in the outcome.  On the other hand, Bartoli may wish to strike bold returns even on Azarenka’s first serve, normally a consistent shot but not a weapon.  By contrast, the Frenchwoman’s serve can deliver point-ending shots or double faults in equal abundance, a consequence of her idiosyncratic rhythm and motion.  Both women exited the US Open in the first week, Azarenka predictably and Bartoli unexpectedly, so both may consider this tournament an opportunity to reassert themselves after a generally uplifting summer.

Kirilenko vs. Zvonareva:  Winless in five previous clashes with her compatriot, Russia’s other Maria nevertheless has thrust Zvonareva deep into two tense encounters last year, one of which culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The WTA’s Russians often bring out the worst in each other’s games, a pattern that should apply with no less force to the fragile Zvonareva.  Scoring consecutive victories over Slam champions Stosur and Ivanovic, Kirilenko may have benefited from the post-championship malaise of the former and a back injury to the latter, but she has developed an increasingly proficient net game in recent months that carried her to the second week of the US Open.  Less susceptible to pressure than some of her countrywomen, she saved several match points against Stosur there before winning the longest women’s tiebreak in tournament history.  Not seriously tested by either of her first two opponents, Zvonareva has dropped just three games in her last three sets while dispatching Pironkova and Benesova.  While mighty servers can rattle the second-ranked Russian, she can settle into her balanced baseline style when she faces an opponent without that level of power.  Her penetrating groundstrokes may hamper Kirilenko’s efforts to close off angles at the net or finish points, suggesting that she will need an error-prone night from Vera to advance.  In falls past, Zvonareva has enjoyed notable successes such as reaching the finals last year at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing and coming within a set of the year-end championships title in 2008.  Appearing to thrive in the less intense atmosphere of these events, she can focus calmly upon playing tennis—something that she does as well as anyone in the WTA on any given day.

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Since their collision in the Wimbledon final, its protagonists have traced divergent routes through the summer.  As Kvitova sputtered and fizzled during early, one-sided losses in both Canada and Cincinnati, Sharapova pounded her way to the title at the latter Premier Five event.  At the US Open, though, their paths drew parallel once more in error-strewn early losses that bore scant resemblance to their mastery of the grass.  On the faster courts of fall, the first-strike tennis that they practice should reap rewards, as it has for 2009 Tokyo champion and former year-end championships titlist Sharapova.  Discomfited by Kvitova’s sliding lefty serve on grass, she may find that shot less frustrating on the somewhat higher-bouncing courts here.  Yet Sharapova also will need to avoid the double digits in double faults that she reached during her otherwise scintillating third-round, two-tiebreak victory over Julia Goerges.  At the All England Club, Kvitova struck her shots with superior depth although not closer to the lines, thus pinning her opponent behind the baseline without embracing excessive risk.  Consequently, Sharapova will seek to win the crucial battle of north-south court positioning before showcasing her more familiar ability to stretch an opponent laterally with angles.  The Czech moves slightly more effectively than her fellow Wimbledon champion and has slightly more variety in her arsenal, although she will win far fewer matches through subtlety and nuance than through the muscular imposition of her authority.  Most intriguing of the Tokyo quarterfinals, this match pits the season’s most impressive resurgence on the women’s side against its most impressive breakthrough artist.  They have met only twice in their careers, but the WTA can only hope that such intriguing intersections between stars of different generations occur more frequently in the future.  Even in the depleted significance of this setting, these matches make the fall more meaningful.

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 13

While the women converge on Tokyo, dual squadrons of men descend on Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.  We focus upon the most intriguing figures in those minor tournaments, discussing what to expect from each of them in a week without the ominous shadows cast by the top three.

Murray (Bangkok):  Outside the copious sum of appearance money that likely spurred his participation, the world #4 has little more to gain than Nadal did in Bangkok last year.  If he considers the 500-level tournament in Dubai a practice event, Murray surely will saunter through his matches here as well.  Despite his distinct superiority to everyone else in the draw, a result other than a title wouldn’t shock us. R ecently, though, the Scot wished that he could play more tournaments where he “didn’t need to kill [him]self in every match” or play elite opponents, and his wish has come true here.

Monfils (Bangkok):  Withdrawing from Davis Cup with a recurrent knee injury, Monfils demonstrated his tendency towards drama with a US Open first-week classic—that he lost to a much lower-ranked albeit more experienced opponent.  A two-time finalist at the Paris Indoors, he has played his best tennis before European and especially French audiences, so one wonders whether the banal Bangkok arena will stimulate his competitive and creative vitality.  The indoor tournament should force him into more aggressive tactics, a shift from which his game in general would benefit.

Simon (Bangkok):  Two years after he won Bangkok for his first and so far only Asian title, the understated counterpuncher returns as the third seed.  In theory, the indoor surface should not suit his reactive style.  Yet surprisingly Simon not only has won three of his nine titles under a roof but also recorded his best Masters 1000 result in the last edition of the Madrid hard-court tournament.  During a stage of the season when more talented foes often waver in motivation, Simon represents the type of industrious, alert opportunist who will not hesitate to capitalize if others lose focus.

Tipsarevic (Kuala Lumpur):  With his first Slam quarterfinal, Djokovic’s understudy displayed talent long obscured by his eccentric personality.  Confident that he can reach the top 10, he faces a reasonably challenging pre-semifinal draw by the standards of these tournaments (probably Tomic and the Harrison-Davydenko winner).  Tipsarevic has shown that he can win matches that he should lose, considering his place in the ATP hierarchy; now he must prove that he can consistently win the matches that he should win.

Troicki (Kuala Lumpur):  If being the second-best player from a small country sounds like an unlucky fate, what about being the third-best player from that small country?  Having ceded his Serbian #2 status to Tipsarevic, Troicki’s sagging summer extended into the Davis Cup semifinal, where he dropped a winnable and potentially crucial rubber to Nalbandian.  But Viktor excelled during the fall last year, holding a match point against Nadal in Tokyo and winning his first career title in Moscow.

Almagro (Kuala Lumpur):  Among the top 5 in ATP matches won this year, this Spaniard gorged on the South American clay tournaments that resemble this week’s competitions in their meager significance.  The “ESP” by his name notwithstanding, Almagro can threaten at least as much on a hard court as on clay.  His serve and shot-making panache can illuminate an indoor surface, providing him with greater first-strike power than anyone whom he could face before the final.  Will fatigue hamper him after such an overloaded schedule in the first half, however?

Garcia-Lopez (Bangkok):  Not even among the top tier of players from his own country, he recorded the finest accomplishment of his career with a three-set comeback victory over Nadal on this court a year ago.  Erasing break point after break point on that occasion, Garcia-Lopez displayed a tenacity against his legendary compatriot that he has shown too sporadically to become a consistent threat.  One wonders whether the quest to defend finalist points will inspire or weigh heavily upon him.

Gulbis (Bangkok):  Every few months, the Latvian reminds viewers why he looked certain a few years ago to vault into the top 10 and contend for all of the non-clay majors.  His latest resurrection occurred in Los Angeles, where he knocked off Del Potro and Fish under the gaze of new coach Guillermo Canas.   Since that week, Gulbis has accomplished nothing of note.  A haven for head-scratchers and underachievers, the fall seems an ideal platform for him to make another of his sporadic statements, although he has struggled against potential quarterfinal opponent Murray (0-5).

Dimitrov (Bangkok):  Compared alternately to Federer and Gulbis, the Bulgarian possesses the backhand of the former and the mystifying streakiness of the latter.  This summer, he lost consecutive matches to players outside the top 100, bookending commendable efforts against Tsonga and Ferrer, before failing to win a set from Monfils in New York.  While the streakiness certainly causes concern for his future, the one-handed backhand also may leave him behind his peers as the stroke becomes an anachronism.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of the competition and the tournament, so his upset over fifth-seeded Dodig in the first round represented encouraging progress.

Donald Young (Bangkok):  A tournament after his second-week appearance at the US Open, the enigmatic, controversial Young returns to the Tour’s daily, less inspiring routine.  Unable to exploit any positive momentum earlier in his career of violent oscillations, he can’t afford to let many more such chances slip past.  Probably the victim of inflated expectations when young, Young still could carve out a respectable tenure in the top 50 if he has learned from both his successes and failures during this dramatic season for him.

Davydenko / Baghdatis (Kuala Lumpur):  Masters of flat, scorching groundstrokes from both wings, these veterans have struggled with injuries in recent years that have undermined their consistency.  Both also have failed to overcome key flaws in their game:  the serve for the Russian and fitness for the Cypriot.  The more brilliant player when at his best, Davydenko has suffered the more precipitous fall but won Shanghai two years with consecutive victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  More than five years removed from his breakthrough at the Australian Open final, Baghdatis has slipped less inexorably into obsolescence and seems the more likely of the two to regroup.

Harrison / Tomic (Kuala Lumpur):  After impressive Wimbledons, including a quarterfinal appearance for the Australian, they regressed with straight-sets defeats to Cilic at the US Open.  Probably the most promising talent among ATP teenagers, Tomic demonstrated his maturity in defeating Wawrinka and recurrently troubling Federer on grass in Davis Cup.  The fall season and especially tournaments like these offer them opportunities to consume relatively cheap rankings points that would position them more auspiciously for the more noteworthy events.  Unfortunately for them, they landed in the same quarter as each other and Davydenko, Harrison’s first-round opponent.

Robin Haase (Bangkok):  Just one place below his career-high ranking, the flying Dutchman has won nine of his last eleven matches in a streak that started with his first career title (Kitzbuhel).  Leading Murray by two sets at the US Open, he faded physically late in the match as his physical condition continues to undermine him.  A lanky, brittle player who looks taller than his height, Haase will appreciate the affinity of indoor courts for short points that will not test his questionable movement or footwork.  He could earn a seed at the Australian Open with a successful fall campaign.

 

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 2, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Less than two weeks after the US Open finals, the fall season ignites with a Premier Five tournament in Tokyo that features seven of the WTA top 10 although not two of the season’s four Slam champions or Serena Williams.  The top two in the world and the top two seeds, Wozniacki and Sharapova won the last two editions of this event, so they will hope to begin the march towards Istanbul with commanding performances here.

First quarter:  After falling in the US Open semifinal last year, Wozniacki vaulted from that achievement to consecutive titles in Tokyo and Beijing.  Despite the relatively fast surface of the Ariake Colosseum, she eyes a comfortable route to the semifinals, far from the leading power-hitters who could topple her.  Thwarted in her openers at her last two Premier Five tournaments, the Dane can rely upon her familiar steadiness to withstand the erratic Gajdosova or the inexperienced Marino.  While US Open quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta might await in the third round, she has lost all five meetings with Wozniacki and twice on the clay that most favors her strengths against the top seed.  Aligned to face the defending champion in the quarterfinals is the former generation’s Wozniacki, Jankovic, who came within a few points of the Cincinnati title before suffering her sixth straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major.  Runner-up to Sharapova here two years ago, the Serb initially dominated the Dane before losing three times to her this spring in clashes between the WTA’s two premier counterpunchers.  Lurking to intercept Jankovic in the third round, US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber would need to repeat her New York upset over Radwanska.  In her opener, meanwhile, the loathsome Quebec champion Zahlavova Strycova aims to engage Jelena in a contentious catfight.  But the Serb should survive such distractions and the lefty style of Kerber before Wozniacki outlasts her again.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  An undeserving first-week loser in New York, Azarenka will fancy her chances of striking deep into the draw should she maintain the level that she showed during the second set against Serena there.   She has won all six sets that she has played against most probable third-round opponent Peer, although the Israeli has struggled this season following  a 2010 campaign that brought her to the verge of the year-end championships.  Among the intriguing players in this section is Radwanska’s sister Urszula, who qualified for the main draw after reaching the Tashkent semifinals and likewise qualifying for the US Open.  Considered a more offensive player than Aga, the younger Radwanska defeated first-round opponent Zakopalova earlier this year but probably could not threaten Azarenka.  In the lower section of this quarter, two double-fisters brace for collision in Peng and Bartoli, the former of whom has enjoyed a career season and perhaps the latter as well.  Inspired by an upset over Cibulkova in New York, Irina Falconi seeks to build upon a promising summer against home hope Ayumi Morita.  The most compelling first-round encounter in this section, however, pits rapidly rising American teenager Christina McHale against the former prodigy Tamira Paszek.  Known for epic matches against Jankovic and Schiavone at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Paszek rebounded from injuries to reach her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon this summer—defeating McHale resoundingly en route.  A combined 11-2 against Peng and Bartoli, Azarenka will find herself in a winnable quarterfinal no matter the opponent, able to rely upon her symmetrical groundstrokes and superior movement.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  Unaccountably frowning upon Zvonareva, the draw deities once again assigned her a likely quarterfinal meeting with Stosur, who has won their last eight encounters.  Even before that stage, the Russian might find her solid but not electrifying offense tested by Cibulkova, who gradually ground her down physically and emotionally at Indian Wells.  Amplifying her forehand while committing to greater aggression, the Slovak has registered two victories over Wozniacki this year despite disappointing for most of the summer as an abdominal strain hampered her.  Can countrywoman and Guangzhou finalist Magdalena Rybarikova ambush Cibulkova and trouble Zvonareva?  That possibility looks doubtful, which suggests that the 2011 US Open champion should meet the 2010 US Open runner-up once more.  The only serious threat to Stosur before the quarterfinals, Ivanovic plays a style strikingly similar to the Aussie with serve-forehand combinations masking an indifferent backhand.  While they have split their four previous meetings, all in uneventful fashion, one would favor the US Open champion over the former Roland Garros champion because of her recent serving superiority.  On the other hand, first-time Slam champions Li and Kvitova suffered post-breakthrough hangovers that continue to linger.  In the first match since stunning Serena on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stosur cannot afford such a lapse when she faces Kirilenko for the second straight tournament.  Collaborating on a 32-point tiebreak at the US Open, they might produce another scintillating encounter with their crisp net play, refined in doubles.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  From a champion in 2009 to a first-round victim in 2010, Sharapova has mirrored her career’s radical oscillations in her fortunes at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.  Two years ago, her unexpected title charge followed the ignominious 21-double fault loss to Oudin in New York, illustrating her talent for reinvigorating herself immediately after her setbacks.  In 2011, another dismal three-set loss in the third round of the US Open might perform the same function, inspiring Sharapova to visit retribution upon her next sequence of opponents.  As proved the case last year, though, she could face a challenging opening assignment in New Haven finalist Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon before defeating Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li Na consecutively at the Yale tournament.  Sharapova’s conqueror in 2010, Kimiko Date-Krumm, has fallen in the same quarter again but now will target Wimbledon champion Kvitova.  Since blazing 222 winners to capture her first Slam title, the Czech flamed out of the North American hard-court season with just two victories in three tournaments.  Although she should solve the fading Date-Krumm (perhaps not without difficulty), US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova poses a more formidable obstacle in the third round.  These budding rivals have split their four meetings, including two this year, and have reached third sets in all of them.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, therefore, the Russian’s accelerating momentum and their past history incline one to slightly favor an upset.  Sharapova certainly would prefer an upset, for she has won 14 of her last 15 matches against fellow Russians and her only meeting with Pavlyuchenkova, albeit in three sets.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open Tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 3, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.

We return to continue the stories of Tokyo by the quarterfinals or so, perhaps with an excursion to Bangkok beforehand.  (If the title reference whizzed past you like a Sharapova backhand, consider investigating the work of Yasujiro Ozu.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland arrives on court before his men's singles first round match against David Ferrer of Spain during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena on November 21, 2010 in London, England.

From the smoke over the battlefields of the year’s final major emerges the curious coda to the tennis calendar.  We outline  four of the key issues that separate the fall from other stages of the season, discussing their impact on players and spectators for better and for worse.

1)      The Race(s) to the year-end championships

Point:  A sport that features new tournaments and new champions every week, tennis doesn’t fit especially well with the concept of accumulating points throughout an entire season for a single goal.  In the fall, when the Race becomes a dominant storyline, a series of quarterfinals can prove more meaningful than a title.  Spectators also must wrap their minds around the notion that a player’s fate depends in part upon the exploits (or lack thereof) of his leading rivals, not the case in the linear narratives of a tournament where players craft their own destinies.  This system thus rewards cumulative and comparative forms of accomplishment, much less prominent a factor when Slams rather than YECs loom ahead.

Counterpoint:  While tennis remains an interval competition, the battle to reach the equivalent of a season-ending “playoff” offers a common denominator with other sports that more general fans can appreciate.  Moreover, earlier rounds of the fall tournaments become increasingly significant in the context of the Race and thus increasingly compelling to watch.  Which unseeded opponents can play spoilers to the contenders?  Whose draw will most boost their hopes for Istanbul or London?  For one of the few times all season, the rankings system attracts attention for the right reasons.

2)      The unpredictable results 

Point:  In a span of the season with the spottiest participation and least determined efforts from many elite contenders, few classic matches between the great rivals of the era occur.  Among the examples of this trend was the unremarkable final between Federer and Nadal in London last year, or the equally pedestrian encounters between Federer and Djokovic throughout the fall.  And players often struggle to carry momentum from October and November through the offseason into the Australian segment when the intensity elevates again.  Now more than at any other time, the Llodras of the Tour can feel emboldened to defeat the Djokovices, the Melzers defeat the Nadals, and the Monfilses defeat the Federers.  Consequently, some tournaments conclude in lopsided final weekends between mismatched opponents or title matches pitting second-tier opponents against one another.  (This argument applies mostly to the ATP, since the WTA’s era of parity produces unpredictable results in all seasons.)

Counterpoint:  Far from foregone conclusions, early rounds can become adventurous rollercoasters that do more than rehearse for the final weekend.  As players like Nalbandian, Tsonga, Soderling, and Ivanovic could attest, one man’s complacency becomes another man’s opportunity.  Overshadowed by the giants of the game throughout the core of the season, less immortal but stunningly talented competitors can unleash their flashes of brilliance on relatively important stages.  Although Tour hierarchies bend without breaking, the fall illustrates the depth and diversity of the sport while providing an antidote to the ATP’s relentless predictability.  As much as one admires the dominance of a Rafa, a Novak, or a Serena, tennis becomes more human and engaging when their understudies seize these fleeting chances to shine.

3)      The concept of the Asian season

Point:  Historically rooted in the clay and grass of Europe, tennis also has found a lasting home in the United States and Australia, from which so many great champions have sprung.  Centered upon Asia, not a bastion of the sport’s traditional past, the fall season sometimes seems irrelevant to fans from other regions.  By enlisting in frequent exhibitions and promotional activities during this period, elite players inadvertently encourage the perception of Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and the rest as glorified exhibitions not far removed from the season-starting Abu Dhabi event.  As fans struggle to adapt their schedules around faraway time zones, the temptation grows to succumb to post-Slam withdrawal and cast one’s thoughts to Australia.

Counterpoint:  If Asia had a major, its tournaments would become significantly more legitimate and more closely followed (see below).  The Road to Roland Garros and the US Open Series almost certainly would decline in popularity if the French Open and US Open did not provide worthy climaxes for those sequences.  In that sense, comparisons between them and the Asian season prove futile.  While one should not underestimate the significance of tradition, furthermore, tennis can only gain by expanding into new markets and acquiring new fan bases, particularly as players from Asia continue to excel.  As American stars continue to stagnate, fans here have started to adopt a less nationalistic mentality by following foreign talents.  One of the key, distinctive advantages that this sport possesses over its more mainstream rivals lies in its multicultural diversity, and the Asian season capitalizes upon this asset.

4)      The year-end championships themselves

Point:  Since the four majors dominate the season for both players and spectators, the year-end championships have receded to a position of near-irrelevance at the exhausting end of a peripatetic calendar.  Injuries and mental fatigue have undermined not only the quality of the matches but the level of participation, causing recurrent retirements, substitutions, and listless efforts.  Reminiscent of exhibitions are the copious amounts of money and points available for anyone who can collect a round-robin victory—or merely appear on the court.  Despite nullifying external disturbances, indoor arenas too often produce conditions somewhere between sterile and surreal, as in the case of the O2 Arena’s eerie blue lighting.  With only eight singles players and two singles matches each day, the rhythm of the year-end championships can feel anywhere from plodding to glacial—but never suspenseful.

Counterpoint:  Few rebuttals can undermine the arguments above persuasively, so we provide seven suggestions for the improvement of these tournaments.  First, combine them into a single event of about a week that would show several singles matches each day (some WTA and some ATP).  Second, move the events to a site far from any of the Slam venues and preferably in Asia.  The WTA’s Istanbul location seems fair enough, but situating the year-end championships in the same city as Wimbledon strikes us as a recipe for redundancy.  Notwithstanding the Australian Open’s ambitious subtitle “the Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific,” Asia inarguably lacks a major.  As noted above, its tournaments would increase in overall significance by their strategic arrangement escalating towards a “quasi-major” that would combine the best of both Tours.  Third, drop the free money and rankings points that provide incentives for injured but greedy players to stagger through three losses purposelessly.  Fourth, abolish the ATP rule that mandates inclusion of every Slam singles and doubles champion.  Fifth, turn the eighth spots into wildcard berths for players who may have struggled with too many injuries to include the requisite points but would add drama to the proceedings and deserve the wildcards by outstanding performances when healthy.  As even the most casual fans know, rankings do not provide a conclusive guide to a player’s title-winning potential.  Sixth, hold the event near the time of the women’s year-end championships, reducing the over-saturation problem of the nearly endless season.  Seventh, return to the best-of-five format in the men’s semifinals and final.  If this event truly represents a World Series of Tennis just half a step below the majors in meaning, it deserves a scoring system more appropriate for that role, not the same system as Metz and Bucharest.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the draw in Tokyo, the last WTA Premier Five tournament of the season.

 

 

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

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.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.