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Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Within minutes of Djokovic’s final forehand, viewers around the world began to wonder whether the epic that we had witnessed had become the new “greatest match ever,” thrusting aside the Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon in 2008.  We view each match through eight separate lenses to consider whether the older match retains its crown.  Take note, though, that not all carry equal weight.

Time:  The most obvious measure of comparison, time represents the least significant when one considers the numerous five-set exercises in boredom that populate the early rounds of majors.  And few would argue that Isner-Mahut, despite its gluttonous excess, ranks as the best match of all time.  All the same, the 65 additional minutes of the Melbourne final impressed not in themselves but in the ability of both players to continue displaying their fearless, physical brand of tennis long after anyone had thought possible.  The less brutal points played for a shorter time at Wimbledon four years ago never tested the endurance of both adversaries to that extent, while two rain delays offered a welcome respite in that roofless arena.  Advantage, Rafole

Place:  Unique in the reverent hush of its pristine lawn, the Centre Court at Wimbledon towers above all of the world’s other tennis venues, no matter how much larger or newer.  When one watches a final there, the specter of history hovers portentously and sometimes oppressively above the players.  Termed the Happy Slam by Federer, who won it four times, the Australian Open does not summon the same majestic aura.  Even when filled to capacity under the lights, it remains a tournament rather than a temple.  Advantage, Fedal

Magnitude:  Just two majors away from equaling Sampras, Federer also strode onto Centre Court in 2008 one victory from a record-setting sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.  Across the net, Nadal sought to cast aside the label of clay-court specialist by conquering a major other than Roland Garros for the first time.  Not since Manolo Santana had one of his countrymen won Wimbledon, and members of the Spanish royal family watched their champion.  By contrast, Djokovic’s fifth major title represented no historic moment in itself but merely the next chapter in his mounting dominance.  An eleventh major title would have tied Nadal with Rod Laver on the all-time list but have improved his status as potential GOAT contender only incrementally.  Advantage, Fedal

Context:  Framed within their rivalry, the conclusion of the Wimbledon trilogy between Federer and Nadal marked a crossroads in their rivalry.  On one hand, Roger had left Rafa in tears a year before when he won another classic five-setter in Part II of the trilogy.  On the other hand, Nadal had routed the Swiss superstar barely a month earlier in the Roland Garros final, losing just four games and triggering murmurs that he had eclipsed Federer for good.  (He had, as it turned out, but we wouldn’t know until they met in Melbourne two majors later.)  As Djokovic and Nadal braced for their thirtieth meeting, no sense of a crossroads loomed.  Having won their last six meetings, including consecutive major finals, the Serb stood higher in the rankings and enjoyed the surface advantage.  On the eve of the final, Nadal’s only edge seemed to come from Djokovic’s depleted fitness after a five-set semifinal, a tenuous thread on which to hang one’s hopes.  Advantage, Fedal

Complexity:  After a grinding, 80-minute first set tilted in Nadal’s favor, Djokovic seemed in serious trouble.  Then, he charged to an early lead in the second set and generally held that momentum until midway through the fourth set.  Almost with an air of inevitability approached the finish line as the second seed served at triple break point in the eighth game of the fourth set, defeat lurking five points away.  With several impressive serves, Nadal appeared to save himself—until he fell behind 5-3 in the tiebreak.  Dodging that bullet as well, he seized all of the momentum from his rival and never looked back until he led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set.  Six points from defeat himself now, Djokovic exploited an uncharacteristic backhand error to reverse the narrative one more time.  Much more straightforward was the narrative of the Wimbledon final, which divided neatly into halves.  Nadal won the first two sets rather routinely and held triple break in the seventh game of the third set, at which point Federer mounted a comeback that brought him within five points of the title before Rafa narrowly survived the deluge of serves and forehands.  To be sure, the Swiss did save a match point on Nadal’s serve in the fourth-set tiebreak, but the broader narrative remained relatively simple.  Advantage, Rafole

Drama:  Falling just short of completion, Federer’s accelerating comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit captured the imagination as an aging lion mustering one last effort to defend his territory from a younger rival.  Moreover, each of the last three sets reached 6-6 and hinged upon a handful of points; few situations can trump the drama of an advantage set to decide a major final.  Without that clash of generations or unified narrative, the Melbourne final still posed the question of whether Nadal could solve the man who had harried him around the globe last year.  The last two sets ended by the narrowest of margins, like the Wimbledon final, and the player who won the fourth-set tiebreak similarly rallied from a 5-3 deficit.  Moreover, the fifth set compensated for its fewer games with the internal plot twist provided by the exchange of breaks near its midpoint.  Deuce

Entertainment:  For sheer visual pleasure, little could trump the spectacle of the top two players in the world hurling 100-mph thunderbolts at each other from behind the baseline.  Nor was the Melbourne final oriented entirely around such savage groundstrokes, for both men covered the court expertly to collaborate on repeated rallies of 20 shots or more.  By those breathtaking standards, the Wimbledon final looks austere and restrained in retrospect.  The older match featured clinical precision in its serves, approach shots, and passing shots, but it showcased many fewer lung-burning exchanges and blinding blasts flung towards corners with spine-tingling courage.  Advantage, Rafole

Climax:  In this department, the Melbourne final clearly surpassed its predecessor.  After losing his serve at 7-7 in the fifth set with a forehand unforced error, Federer tapped another forehand meekly into the net to end the Wimbledon epic with abrupt anticlimax.  While a feeble netted backhand by Nadal handed Djokovic the decisive break, the final game offered scintillating drama.  Trailing 30-0, Rafa later reached break point with a penetrating backhand, only to see the Serb erase it with an explosive two-hander of his own.  After doing all that he could to invoke divine aid, Djokovic then delivered an outstanding first serve on championship point, followed by a decisive inside-out forehand winner.  That authoritative point ended this match in a manner worthy of its magnificence.  Advantage, Rafole

Verdict:  A thrilling epic in its own right, Rafole remained almost entirely a story of two players on one court during one, seemingly endless night.  On the other hand, Fedal sprawled beyond those confines to assert its place in the sport’s history even as we watched, which earns it a stature still unsurpassed.

In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark reacts to a point against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wozniacki:  About three months into the season, the world #1 looked poised to either finally break through at a major or at least continue her dominance at the most significant non-majors.  At that stage, Wozniacki not only had continued a winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments that extended back to the 2010 Rogers Cup but had recorded her best result to date at the Australian Open, where only a prodigious effort by Li Na halted her.  Then, without warning, her game unraveled on a sultry afternoon in Miami against Petkovic, and she never quite collected herself for the rest of the season.  Over the rest of the spring and summer, Wozniacki would lose matches to Goerges (twice), Hantuchova, Cibulkova, Vinci, and Christina McHale as her impressive consistency deserted her.  Especially troubling was the Wimbledon loss to Cibulkova, in which the Dane won the first set 6-1 before growing progressively more flustered as the match slipped away.  Downed by Kanepi and Pennetta in her Asian title defenses, Wozniacki trailed by a set and a break in the only match that she won at the year-end championships.  Although she did reach the US Open semifinal for the third straight year, she mustered little resistance to Serena and found herself fortunate to escape Kuznetsova two rounds before.  Undeterred by her declining fortunes on court, Wozniacki also engaged in some odd off-court behavior throughout 2011, most notably mocking the cramping spasms of a certain 10-time major champion.  Her accomplishment of holding the year-end #1 ranking for two straight years reflects much less on her than on the ranking system.

Zvonareva:  Looking back a few years from now, one wonders whether we will perceive her 2010 season as similar to Berdych’s 2010 campaign:  an unexpected mid-career surge of a highly talented but critically flawed competitor who then receded to a more familiar level of performance.   Zvonareva’s season started brightly with a third consecutive Slam semifinal appearance, built in part upon the bones of Kvitova.  With consecutive victories over top-six opponents in Doha, she displayed perhaps her most convincing tennis of the year, shifting seamlessly from defense to offense in one of the WTA’s most balanced styles.  Demolished by Azarenka in a Miami semifinal, the Russian faded during the European seasons and fell in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense.  After a nine-match winning streak in Baku and San Diego, she suffered the first of four second-half meltdowns against Radwanska that became one of the dominant narratives in her season.  Two of those losses came in finals, where the advantage of Zvonareva’s experience could not counterbalance her disadvantage in emotional composure.  Unlucky to draw Stosur in a US Open quarterfinal, she lost three of four matches at the year-end championships.  In short, Zvonareva’s season hovered around the boundary between respectability and mediocrity, judged by the standards that she set a year ago.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors, the former junior #1 showcased her brutal ball-striking on surfaces of all speeds.  Not intimidated by Serena in New York, she traded blows with the 13-time major champion as confidently as she dueled with defending champion Schiavone in Paris.  Pavlyuchenkova also displayed competitive courage on two other occasions:  when she defended her Monterrey title and when she turned the tables on Schiavone just two majors after losing their Roland Garros meeting.  Somewhat concerning is her struggle with double faults, however, which reached its apex (or nadir) in Baku when she struck 25 in one match and 52 across the course of three matches.  In a player so young, a serve so unreliable still could improve significantly, so Pavlyuchenkova should focus upon remedying that department of her game before such habits become rooted too deeply.  But the newest standard-bearer of Russian tennis should win plenty of matches next year based on her fierce groundstrokes alone

Peng:  In a memorable year for Asian sports, China’s #2 earned a modest breakthrough of her own as her compatriot Li Na thrilled a continent.  The double-fister of a disposition more pleasant than Bartoli reached five semifinals on three different surfaces in the first half alone before her results tapered in the second half.  Scoring 12 victories over higher-ranked opponents, she reached the second week of three majors and ambushed four players who ended the year in the top 15.  As her groundstrokes peppered the center of the baseline, opponents struggled to create angles or set their feet crisply.  Known mostly as a doubles specialist before 2011, Peng may want to balance her schedule more carefully in 2012 to protect herself from the injuries that accumulated this year.

Jankovic:  Title-less for the first year since 2006, this precursor to Wozniacki lost to her descendant three times after having won all of their previous meetings.  The reversal of their mini-rivalry illustrated Jankovic’s decline in consistency, essential for her counterpunching style and likely a terminal condition.  Winning two total matches at the three non-clay majors, the former #1 fell outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.  All the same, she collaborated with several of her conquerors in compelling matches from Doha and Miami (Zvonareva and Petkovic) to Roland Garros and Cincinnati (Schiavone and Sharapova).  Filled with oscillating momentum, those melodramatic three-setters will have satisfied her trademark appetite for drama.  While her hopes of winning a major will remain a mirage, Jankovic’s sporadic flashes of feistiness still adds spice to matches that otherwise might seem bland.

Kuznetsova:  As with several of the other players on this list, the best came first for Kuznetsova in 2011.  Thwarted as relentlessly by Henin as Roddich by Federer, she gained the grim satisfaction of defeating the Belgian in the last match of her career.  One round later, Sveta contested the most memorable women’s match of 2011 in a thriller with Schiavone that lasted nearly five hours and during which she held five match points.  Following that spectacle, Kuznetsova reached the final in Dubai but then almost totally evaporated with opening-match losses in five of her next six tournaments.  Bursting back into relevance with a Roland Garros quarterfinal, she nearly repeated that feat at the US Open against a hapless Wozniacki.  In that late-night comedy of errors, the Russian led by a set and 4-1 before the tide turned inexorably against here.  Littered with stunning winners and absurd errors from every corner of the court, that sprawling encounter offered a metaphor for everything that Kuznetsova could have achieved—in this season and in her career—and everything that she has not.

Cibulkova:  Proving that stature does not always correlate to success, the plucky Slovak toppled Wozniacki twice as well as four other members of the year-end top 10.  Ever willing to engage in wars of attrition, she outlasted Zvonareva in an epic Indian Wells three-setter and threatened eventual champion Azarenka more than any of her other opponents in Miami.  Despite the inherent limitations on her power, Cibulkova clubbed forehands with remarkable pace throughout her Wimbledon quarterfinal run.  Assisting her in constructing points around that shot as much as possible, her coach Zelkjo Krajan has burnished his reputation by succeeding with two such different pupils in Cibulkova and Safina.  His disciple ended 2011 in the most satisfying fashion imaginable by winning her first career title at the Kremlin Cup after twice rallying from one-set deficits, including a dramatic comeback in the final.

Hantuchova:  Nine times out of ten, the elegant Slovak crumbles under the pressure of facing elite opposition and contributes to her own demise.  On the tenth time, Hantuchova unleashes a virtually unplayable barrage of acutely angled groundstrokes and expertly placed volleys.  That inspired version of the Slovak appeared against Zvonareva when she raced to the Pattaya City title without dropping a set, and then again for extended spans of their Doha quarterfinal, one of the most thrilling and relentless explosions of shot-making that the WTA witnessed all year.  Over the next few months, Hantuchova would stifle Wozniacki, Li, and Venus by defying the odds of her low-percentage shots for longer than one would believe possible.  Frustrating to watch when her shots misfire, Hantuchova embodies the ebbing but still stunning aesthetic dimension of tennis at a time when the sport’s physicality has captured the spotlight.

Pironkova:  Many players perform far above their normal level at a certain tournament, having developed comfort with the surface or the setting.  For examples of such anomalies, consider Hantuchova’s two Indian Wells titles or Schiavone’s consecutive Roland Garros finals.  Or consider the nine wins that Tsevtana Pironkova has registered in her last two Wimbledon appearances, including two over five-time champion Venus (by eerily identical scores) and two more over finalists Bartoli and Zvonareva.  The willowy brunette even extended Kvitova to a third set this year with a seemingly unremarkable game.  If Pironkova signed some Faustian bargain that allowed her to excel at exactly one tournament on the calendar, she certainly chose well.

Kerber:  Thoroughly anonymous until the US Open, the German lefty carved through the section of the draw vacated by Kvitova and Sharapova to reach the semifinals, where she temporarily struck fear into Stosur.  For now, her suddenly exalted station in the WTA testifies less to her talents than to the extreme unpredictability of women’s tennis, similar to Greta Arn’s year-opening title in Auckland.  But Kerber can revise our interpretation of that narrative in 2012, and she owns the lefty weapons to make a legitimate attempt at consolidating her momentum.

Ivanovic:  In a season rather similar to 2010, the former #1 enjoyed her second half much more than a first half filled with the indignities of first-round losses at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and elsewhere.  Long fond of Indian Wells, Ivanovic must have relished a quarterfinal appearance there, especially a commanding victory over countrywoman and bitter rival Jankovic.  Within a point of scoring a spectacular upset over defending champion Clijsters in Miami, she let slip away a thrilling encounter from which she needed a few months to recover.  Lacking an exclusive, full-time coach for much of her post-2008 tribulations, Ivanovic found stability in a partnership with Nigel Sears.  That stability ultimately translated into a confidence that she had lacked while compiling a dismal record in three-setters and tiebreaks, the areas that most test a player’s fortitude.  Reaching the second week of the US Open, Ana delivered consecutive victories over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in Beijing before extending her reign over Bali.  Defending a title for the first time, she ended 2011 with her seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope restored once more.

We join Ana in wishing you a Happy Holiday.

Juan Martin Del Potro Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina reacts tot a play during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2011 in London, England.

Not among the highest achievers of 2011, these players nevertheless merited briefer discussion during the off-season.  Having discussed the best of the season, we now reflect upon some of the other players who caught our attention, for better, for worse, or for both.

Del Potro:  A tale of two seasons for the former US Open champion, 2011 began promisingly with a pair of minor first-half titles and encouraging runs at more significant tournaments.  Competitive against Nadal in an Indian Wells semifinal and even more competitive in the fourth round of Wimbledon, perhaps a match that he should have won, Del Potro also tested the then-undefeated Djokovic when they met at Roland Garros.  Over the summer, his charge towards the top 10 stalled unexpectedly on the North American hard courts where he had scored his greatest successes.  One of the more enigmatic champions in recent years, Del Potro faded meekly away throughout the fall with the exception of Davis Cup.  Having assisted Argentina to a victory over Serbia in Belgrade, he spared no effort in the final hosted by the heavily favored Spain.  Although he lost both of his rubbers, Del Potro severely threatened both Ferrer and Nadal with a competitive tenacity too little seen from him since 2009.  The question remains as to whether he can build upon those gallant defeats and reconstruct his tattered aura.  Entering 2011 with great uncertainty surrounding him, he will enter 2012 with his status as a contender almost equally unclear.

Soderling:  After a relentless succession of injuries and illnesses halted his 2011 campaign, viewers might not remember that the Swede started the season 19-1 with three titles in his first four tournaments.  But he played only 27 matches the rest of the season, winning just one more title, and entered only one tournament after Wimbledon.  Serving the role of a gatekeeper to the top, Soderling finished 0-3 against top-five opponents and 5-0 against opponents ranked sixth through tenth.  Few players ever quite recover from mono, especially those who rely so heavily on ball-striking power, so the Swede may struggle to recapture his magnificent form of 2009-10.  On the other hand, he did finish his half-season in sensational fashion by allowing just five total games to Berdych and Ferrer at his home tournament in Bastad, an intimidating performance that surely comforted him during the absence that followed.

Roddick:  As dependent on his serve as ever, the American now wins fewer free points on it than ever before.  That trend stems in part from the improved returning skills of even second-tier opponents and in part from his own diminishing energies.  Averaging just two wins for each loss in 2011, Roddick suffered straight-sets Slam losses to Wawrinka and Lopez, the type of talented but unexceptional opponent whom he would have dispatched with ease two or three years ago.  He also compiled a losing record at Masters 1000 tournaments (6-7) and failed to qualify for the year-end championships for the first time since winning his first major.  On the bright side, Roddick delivered his best tennis for the home audience when he upset Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals and won a thrilling final in Memphis over the rising Raonic.  He should collect a few more of those vintage wins while his ranking ebbs slowly but surely.

Almagro:  The only inhabitant of the top 10 who did not appear on our “Best of 2011” list, Almagro reached all five of his finals on clay tournaments at the 250 or 500 level.  Then, he lost to the lowly Lukasz Kubot in the first round of Roland Garros, illustrating the inconsistency that has troubled his adherents.  With more first-round losses than second-week appearances at majors, Almagro unquestionably built his inflated ranking by feasting on low-hanging fruit.  His powerful serve and groundstrokes should earn him more than 13 hard-court wins in a season, the remarkably low number that the world #10 recorded this year.  Still, his choice to play three consecutive minor clay tournaments after Wimbledon tells you everything that you need to know about his priorities.

Monfils:  Whenever and wherever he flickered onto the screen, Monfils briefly enlivened the lives of everyone who watched.  Rallying from a two-set deficit in the first round of the Australian Open, he outlasted Ferrer in a 14-game fifth set at Roland Garros and then succumbed to Ferrero in a four-hour epic in the first round of the US Open.  Dizzy and out of breath?  We haven’t even started to discuss the non-majors, where he nearly let the Stockholm final slip away against the underwhelming Nieminen, did let the Washington final slip away against the aging Stepanek, played final sets against the world #1 and the world #112, and contested eleven match-ending tiebreaks.  In short, the Monfils rollercoaster often impressed, often disappointed, and almost always entertained.  Just when he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious threat, he vanished.  Just when one gave up on him, he leapt back into relevance.

Dolgopolov:  Like Monfils, the mercurial Ukrainian attempted to hit virtually any shot from anywhere on the court—and succeeded much more often than one would have expected.  In his marathon first set against Djokovic at the US Open, Dolgopolov befuddled the world #1 as much as any other player did this year, ceaselessly changing pace and rhythm while looking for angles to exploit.  His most impressive achievement of the year came at the beginning, though, when he defeated Soderling and Tsonga in consecutive five-setters to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.  Hampered by a chronic medical issue, Dolgopolov cannot maintain his momentum for long even if he could maintain his focus.  His smooth, seemingly effortless game nevertheless captures the imagination when he times his shots crisply, more than compensating for his inexplicable early-round losses.

Isner:  One of the most boring players to afflict the ATP in recent years, the towering server played no fewer than 58 tiebreaks.  In four matches, he played three tiebreaks or more as the inefficacy of his return symmetrically balanced the impenetrability of his serve.  Riding that latter shot to a US Open quarterfinal, Isner unhinged many an opponent with the steadily mounting pressure caused by his routine holds.  Perhaps his most notable performance came in a loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, when he lost just four points in the two tiebreaks that they played and closed within a set of a world-shocking upset that would have cast Soderling into shadow.  As mind-numbing as we find his monochromatic style, he has proven it effective even against the elite and has asserted himself as a dark horse in any draw on any surface.

Verdasco / Davydenko:  Both of these players peaked in 2009, when the Spaniard edged within six points of the Australian Open final and the Russian won the World Tour Finals with victories over Federer and Del Potro  Since then, their stock has fallen dramatically.  Despite his excellent shot-making skills and other fast-court talents, Verdasco reached only two hard-court quarterfinals this year and suffered one embarrassing stretch of six losses in seven ATP matches.  His descent still paled next to the disappearance of the now 41st-ranked Davydenko, who posted a 25-25 record this year in a perfect illustration of mediocrity.  But at least the Russian has a convincing alibi of a wrist injury from which he never recovered, whereas the Spaniard’s struggles live largely above the neck.  Jesting aside, it’s curious to observe the different paths that decline can take.  The steep trajectories charted by Verdasco and Davydenko contrast with the more gradual routes traced by other veterans.

Cilic:  Although he accomplished little of note at the majors, the lanky Croat distinguished himself during the fall and on indoor hard courts.  He might continue to reap rewards during that season and on that surface, far from the spotlight of more important events.  Or Cilic might use a promising fall as a springboard towards 2012, capitalizing upon the talent that once seemed likely to embed him in the top ten.  Considering his plethora of weapons and unruffled demeanor, few reasons explain his underachievement over the past two years, save perhaps an ornate technique on his forehand or possibly a lack of competitive intensity.  For now, he remains a bland enigma.

Bogomolov:  To some observers, his decision to play Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States suggested a traitorous ingratitude to the USTA.  While surprising, Bogomolov’s decision didn’t offend us to that extent.  He hardly would have appeared in anything but a dead rubber for the American squad (or the Russian squad, most likely), and the USTA has suffered much more serious slights at the hands of other recipients of its generosity, like Donald Young.  That controversy aside, Bogomolov’s upset over Murray galvanized him to a string of results that his most optimistic followers could not have predicted.  He stands on the verge of receiving a seed at the Australian Open after 15 victories over higher-ranked opponents, including Murray and Tsonga.

Raonic/Tomic/Harrison:  Of this rapidly rising trio, Raonic recorded the most consistent success by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier before rampaging to his first title in San Jose and another final in Memphis.  After he bombarded opponents with an ATP-leading quantity of aces during the first half, the Canadian spent much of the second half convalescing from a hip injury.  Meanwhile, Australian hope Tomic astonished Wimbledon with a quarterfinal appearance that culminated in a tightly contested four-setter against eventual champion Djokovic.  A disappointment at the US Open, he still finished 2011 with a winning record at ATP tournaments for the first time and secured fall victories over three top-20 opponents while reaching the top 50.  Compared by some to an embryonic Roddick, the fiery Ryan Harrison lacked the second-week Slam appearances of his fellow prodigies but defeated Raonic in a compelling three-setter at Indian Wells.  Competing with confidence against opponents like Federer and Ferrer, the foremost American of the next generation gained valuable experience by reaching consecutive semifinals during the US Open Series.  All three of these talents must mature before rising into the upper echelon of the ATP, but fans should feel heartened to see such reassuring glimpses of the ATP’s future.

Bernard Tomic - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 1

Outside women of the year Li Na and Petra Kvitova, several other leading women have plenty of reason to celebrate over the Christmas holidays.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates match point after winning her third round match against Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic  on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 25, 2011 in London, England.

Sharapova:  Boldly replacing coaches and equipment during the 2010-11 offseason, Sharapova signaled her determination to catalyze her sagging fortunes following a tepid 2010.  Not until Indian Wells and Miami did she reap rewards, but those tournaments sparked a magnificent spring and early summer for the three-time major champion.  A semifinalist in the California desert, she burst through to her third Miami final following consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits.  With a berth in the top 10 at stake in the quarterfinals, she overcame a pesky Alexandra Dulgheru, an ankle injury, and 17 double faults to eke out a victory in the longest match of her career.  And her momentum did not ebb when the clay season arrived, as one might have expected.  Capturing the most significant clay title of her career in Rome, Sharapova swept through her first five matches at Roland Garros until Li Na halted her.  That surge proved the overture to her memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  A champion at the All England Club seven years before, she erased her recent frustrations at her favorite tournament with a vintage performance of fearless ball-striking.  Legendary for her ferocity in three-setters, she ended 2011 with a 12-1 record in that category, one of the most remarkable statistics compiled by anyone in the WTA.

Azarenka:  Somewhat like Sharapova, Azarenka ended 2010 in a seemingly stagnant position after failing to build upon her 2009 achievements.  A fourth-round loss in Melbourne and  yet another retirement at Indian Wells did not prepare audiences for her superb display in Miami.  In her last three matches there, she demolished the imposing triumvirate of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova without dropping a set.  Demonstrating her proficiency on all surfaces, Azarenka concurrently cooed and battered her way to the final in Madrid, where she competed valiantly in one of three 2011 losses to player of the year Kvitova.  A somewhat modest Roland Garros preceded a breakthrough at Wimbledon to her first major semifinal, although the draw opened conveniently for her.  The draw did not accommodate her at the US Open, where her third-round loss to Serena Williams concealed a resilient effort in the second set that turned the match from a rout into a catfight.  Her second 2011 winning streak of seven matches or more combined a Luxembourg title with two round-robin victories at the year-end championships, where she advanced from her group for the first time.  Thwarted again by Kvitova, Azarenka nevertheless ended the season with a career-high ranking of #3.  If she can find a way to defeat the Czech in 2012, a compelling rivalry will develop.

Stosur:  After the first half of 2011, the bright-eyed Aussie looked destined for a very different type of list.  Reaching only one final, she won four total matches at the first three majors while losing to Dulko and Melinda Czink.  In Toronto appeared the first sign of a revival, when she overcame Li Na and Radwanska en route to the final before an implacable Serena intercepted her.  All the same, even Stosur’s most ardent admirers probably did not predict what happened at the US Open, a cauldron of pressure seemingly designed to unhinge her.  Down a break to Petrova in the third set of her third round, the Aussie rallied to rewrite the script and then retained her composure when match point after match point slipped away in an epic tiebreak against Kirilenko.  Fortunate to face Zvonareva in the quarterfinals, she mastered the role of the overwhelming favorite in a semifinal against Kerber, the type of match where she had nothing to gain and everything to lose.  Overnight, the situation reversed itself when she faced the heavily favored Serena in the final.  Few fans felt much enthusiasm for a match that seemed likely to feature little suspense.  And it did not.  Overpowering Serena with her serve and forehand, Stosur toppled the greatest player of her generation with astonishing courage and poise.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004 had a player so thoroughly dominated Serena in a Slam final and surpassed her at her own strengths.

Clijsters:  Effectively gone by Roland Garros, the battle-scarred Belgian bolstered her legacy by winning a major outside the US Open for the first time.  Opening with a double bagel, she rarely seemed challenged during her first six matches in Melbourne, where both the courts and the environment suited the player once fondly dubbed “Aussie Kim.”  Under unexpected fire from first-time Slam finalist Li Na, Clijsters looked ripe for an upset during the first set and a half.  As defeat drew nearer, though, she refused to crumble as she had in similar situations before.  Slowing the tempo of the match and constructing points more carefully, the four-time major champion found a way to survive on a night when she could not showcase her best tennis.  Together with Serena, she represents perhaps the most impressive 12-13 combination in the history of the WTA rankings.

Serena:  Despite contesting only six tournaments this season, she returned to her familiar intimidating self with remarkable speed after a year-long absence.  Dazzling at Stanford and the Rogers Cup, Serena displayed a delight in winning those relatively insignificant tournaments that she might not have shown before her injury.  Under the spotlights of New York, she looked clearly the best player of the tournament for most of the fortnight as she carved through a thorny draw.  The 13-time major champion revealed late-match nerves on a few occasions but otherwise looked virtually impenetrable in dismissing Azarenka and Wozniacki.  In her highly anticipated semifinal with the Dane, Serena proved again that an elite offense generally trumps an elite defense in the WTA on non-clay surfaces.  Following that commanding performance, her debacle against Stosur must have stung her deeply.  Still, few players could have accomplished so much so soon after so long.

Radwanska:  Hampered by an injury when the season started, the Pole nevertheless edged past the dangerous Date-Krumm and Peng in Australian thrillers en route to an unexpected quarterfinal appearance.  That accomplishment testified to Radwanska’s resolve, a trait on display less often as the first half unfolded; struggling with confidence, she grew tense and tentative at turning points in narrow losses to Azarenka at Indian Wells, Sharapova at Roland Garros, and Kvitova in Eastbourne.  When the second half began, however, the longest title drought in the WTA top 15 ended with victories over Petkovic and Zvonareva in San Diego.  With that reassuring triumph behind her, Radwanska approached the fall with redoubled determination and enjoyed the best fortnight of her career by completing the Tokyo-Beijing double.  As she swept through Asia, the artful counterpuncher befuddled opponents by interweaving her familiar finesse with opportunistic aggression.  As with Murray’s fall, the absence of many elite contenders probably inflated Radwanska’s achievements, but her berth in the year-end championships seemed well deserved.

Schiavone:  When she returned to defend her improbable Roland Garros title, most expected little from the flamboyant but aging Italian.  Like a nuanced Italian wine, though, Schiavone relied upon her cunning and experience to defuse her first six opponents.  Especially compelling was her quarterfinal victory over Pavlyuchenkova, which witnessed massive comebacks from both players, and her fourth-round victory over Jankovic, during which game after game seemed like a miniature drama.  But both of those matches paled in comparison with the 284-minute epic at the Australian Open that she contested with Kuznetsova.  Saving five match points before tottering to victory, Schiavone thrilled international audiences with her shot-making imagination and her unrelenting competitive appetite.  The veteran best known for her accomplishments on clay then sparred convincingly with Wozniacki a round later in a hard-court Slam quarterfinal.  After such first-half heroics, one hardly could blame the fiery Fran for fading somewhat in the second half, although she fell just a 20-game final set short of reaching the second week at every major in 2011.

Bartoli:  Only two small titles did she win this year, yet the double-fister also defeated three of the season’s four Slam champions.  Boosted by a gentle draw when she reached the Indian Wells final, Bartoli enjoyed no such assistance when she reached the semifinals at her home major.  Generally considered a fast-court specialist, she overcame former champion Kuznetsova as well as clay specialist Dulko at Roland Garros, where the expectations of her compatriots did not unhinge her as they have so many French players.  Bartoli reawakened memories of her Wimbledon finals appearance in 2007 when she emerged triumphant from a strong Eastbourne finalist and then halted Serena’s title defense on Centre Court.  Rarely intimidated by any opponent, she attacked the defending champion’s serve with courage and snuffed out an inevitable eleventh-hour comeback with the fortitude of a much more accomplished player.  The Frenchwoman’s iconoclastic style causes purists to shudder in horror, but her much-maligned serve grew more effective this year and rarely abandoned her in key matches.

Germans:  Only one player reached three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, a year of anarchy by even WTA standards.  After Venus retired from their third-round meeting in Melbourne, Petkovic capitalized upon the opportunity by stunning Sharapova in straight sets a round later.  Dormant until Miami, she recorded three-set victories over Wozniacki and Jankovic there, the former of which snapped a streak of five consecutive Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments won by the world #1.  Clay would have seemed a surface ill-suited to her flat groundstrokes and sometimes impatient shot selection, yet Petkovic collected a title in Strasbourg and four victories at Roland Garros.  Not known as a paragon of consistency, she compiled a surprisingly steady second-half record by reaching the quarterfinals or better at all five tournaments that she played before a knee injury curtailed her 2011 campaign.  Among those victories were two wins over Kvitova and another over Bartoli, opponents who had defeated her on hard courts during the first half.

But Petkovic did not stand alone in the spotlight, accompanied by her countrywoman Lisicki.  Multiple injuries and extended absences had blunted this formidable server until the grass season, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinal.  Facing double match point against Li in the second round, Lisicki erased both opportunities with massive serves unmatched by anyone in the WTA except Serena, Venus, and possibly Stosur.  A much less balanced player than Petkovic, she receded in the second half as physical issues resurfaced.  More similar to the German #1 in playing style is Julia Goerges, who ambushed Stosur and Wozniacki while winning her home tournament (and a Porsche) in Stuttgart.  Outside a second victory over Wozniacki in Madrid, Goerges also faded from relevance following that attention-seizing statement.  Nevertheless, the nation that produced Steffi Graf should harbor plenty of hope for a more sustained assault from its racket-wielding Cerberus in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Although Djokovic may have dominated the ATP throughout 2011, several other players recorded noteworthy achievements.  Beyond the world #1, who achieved the most in 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain, blue shirt) beats Roger Federer (Switzerland, red shirt) in 4 sets, 7/5, 7/6, 5/7, 6/1, in the final to win the French Open 2011. Nadal:  Rarely has one player’s season been so inextricably intertwined with another player’s season.  Had Djokovic not transformed his career this year, Nadal likely would have won three major titles for the second straight year, ripped through the clay season undefeated for the second straight year, completed the Indian Wells-Miami double, and positioned himself to overtake Federer as the true GOAT in the near future.  Instead, the towering expectations upon the Spaniard combined with the Serb’s brilliance left many observers—and seemingly Nadal himself—disappointed with 2011.  When they gain perspective, they should recognize accomplishments such as seizing a record-tying sixth Roland Garros crown and reaching the final of three Slams on three different surfaces, an underrated feat.  While the Dodigs and Mayers of the world scored an occasional ambush in the second half, Nadal lost only one match between the Australian Open and Wimbledon to an opponent other than Djokovic.  Masked by his lack of a non-clay title this year, that near-impenetrability illustrates how little ground he actually has surrendered.  Unaffected by his struggles against Djokovic was his mastery over his other leading rivals, Federer and Murray (7-1 combined, 5-0 in the first half).  In 2009, a Davis Cup title launched Nadal towards the strongest season of his career in 2010, and he earned a similar momentum boost in 2011.  If the Serb flickers at all in 2012, the bull held at bay this year should charge.

Murray:  While time continues to trickle away in his pursuit of his first major, the Scot reached the semifinals or better of every Slam for the first time.  As the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “almost means nothing.”  But Murray’s ability to weather the early rounds more consistently than he had in previous seasons will bring him more opportunities to conquer the elite, and mere probability suggests that fortune will smile on him sooner or later.  After a woeful beginning to his Masters 1000 season with opening-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, the world #4 showed unexpected courage in extending both Nadal and Djokovic to three sets on clay, his least hospitable surface.  Especially notable was his epic Rome semifinal against the Serb, who had crushed the Scot in Melbourne.  Demolished in a merciless first set, Murray rallied valiantly to within two points of victory.  His sweep through the Asian season probably looked more impressive on paper than in reality, considering the absences of Federer and Djokovic, although an emphatic victory over Nadal in the Tokyo final demonstrated the manifold challenges that he can pose when at his most confident.  Now he needs to translate that level of conviction to the majors, where his self-defeating fatalism surfaces most often.

Federer:  Through the US Open, the Swiss legend had looked relatively mortal with just one minor title in Doha and two two-set leads squandered at Slams.  All the same, Federer showcased his vintage form in the Roland Garros semifinals, when he halted Djokovic’s winning streak with timely serving and immaculate point construction.  After that triumph, his stumble against Tsonga one major later seemed especially unexpected and indicative of this champion’s depleted desire.  Even more surprisingly, Federer’s nerve betrayed him late in the fifth set of his US Open semifinal against Djokovic, a match that he often had dominated.  Responding to that bitter disappointment much as he had in 2010, he once again surged through the fall season when his younger rivals faltered.  His record-setting sixth title at year-end championships should have soothed  the sting of those setbacks against Tsonga and Djokovic, while his title at the Paris Indoors left him the only active ATP player to reach the final of every Slam and Masters tournament in his career.  Unable to preserve his momentum during the 2010-11 offseason, Federer hopes to handle a similar task in 2011-12.

Ferrer:  To no surprise was his continued excellence on clay, which included consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as a three-setter against Djokovic in Madrid.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s accomplishments on hard courts in 2011 did raise an eyebrow or two, especially his Australian Open semifinal appearance in which he severely tested Murray.  Whereas most clay specialists fade in the fall, Ferrer scuttled along the baseline with intensity undimmed and found himself rewarded with a second Masters 1000 final in Shanghai.  En route to that match, the diminutive Spaniard rallied from saving match point in the third round and fearlessly protected his modest serve through consecutive three-setters against Roddick and Lopez, much more impressive from the service notch.  It felt fitting, then, that Ferrer’s tenacity earned him a semifinal berth at the World Tour Finals, a tournament where he had failed to win a match just a year before.  In an era of glamorous superstars with nearly supernatural shot-making skills, his arduous brand of tennis has entrenched him in the top 5 and serves as a reminder of how far effort and attitude can substitute for innate ability.

Tsonga:  Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year, the world #6 scarcely distinguished himself through May but then finished 2011 in sparkling style.  Within a single month, Tsonga scored comeback victories over both Nadal and Federer, holding his serve against the latter throughout the last four sets of their Wimbledon quarterfinal.  The charismatic Frenchman fused the past with the present during that classic encounter, interweaving vintage serve-volley tactics with ferocious forehands from behind the baseline.  Emboldened by that achievement, Tsonga repeated it at the Rogers Cup but could not at the US Open after an entertaining victory over Fish that extended his curious effectiveness in five-setters.  Two small titles in Metz and Vienna behind him, he surged into the last two tournaments of the year before losing to Federer three times in fifteen days.  That odd fact should not obscure a signature victory over a battered but determined Nadal in London, which vaulted Tsonga into the semifinals at the Spaniard’s expense.  Nor should it obscure his second appearance in the Paris Indoors final, where the expectations of his compatriots did not burden him but rather lifted his spirits.

Berdych:  Despite accomplishing little of note at the majors, he remained in the top eight after a steady second half that ended the longest title drought of any player in the ATP or WTA top 10.  Relatively bland in personality and playing style, Berdych recorded few memorable moments in 2011 but also generally avoided unsightly disasters, outside a loss to Stephane Robert at Roland Garros.  On only one other occasion did he lose his first match at a tournament (to Nishikori in Basel), while he registered sixteen quarterfinals or better.  At the year-end championships, Berdych might well have finished the round-robin stage undefeated had not his weapons deserted him in a third-set tiebreak against Djokovic.  He registered few other wins over top-10 opponents bud did overpower Federer in Cincinnati, and his lone title in Beijing followed a three-set victory over Tsonga.  When every element of Berdych’s unwieldy game fits together, he can conquer virtually any foe through his sheer ball-striking power. Yet his dearth of titles and meager success against the elite illustrates the rarity with which he can string together such matches, and his 2011 campaign fell well short of his 2010 breakthrough.

Fish:  Scanning the ATP rankings, it seems strange to see an American ranked higher than long-time flag bearer Roddick.  A first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals, Fish thoroughly deserved that distinction after an excellent campaign at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.  Buoyed by the American fans, he defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinals, while another semifinal appearance in Cincinnati featured his first career victory over Nadal.  Just as impressive was his performance the previous week in Canada, when he outplayed Djokovic for extended stretches of the Rogers Cup final before the Serb’s more balanced style prevailed.  Gifted with outstanding net-attacking skills, Fish poses his greatest threat when he seizes the initiative rather than rallying behind the baseline, as this relaxed competitor sometimes prefers.  Although he reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal, he did not distinguish himself at the hard-court majors in uneven losses to Robredo and Tsonga.  Leading the reeling Frenchman by two sets to one at his home major, Fish allowed one poor service game to derail his hopes for a second straight Slam quarterfinal.  Still, he represents American tennis with a poise and dignity absent from the man whom he supplanted as his nation’s #1.  Despite an injury, Fish competed with resolve during his three losses at the World Tour Finals, displaying a commendable professionalism in defeat.

Tipsarevic:  Cast into Djokovic’s shadow for most of his career, the second-ranked (and sometimes third-ranked) Serb had not won a tournament until this year despite scoring several notable upsets and near-upsets.   When his compatriot reached #1, though, Tipsarevic found the inspiration necessary to reach the top 10 for the first time while winning his first two titles and reaching five total finals.  Not aesthetically pleasing to watch, his functional style can produce a power belied by his compact physique on both his serve and his groundstrokes.  In contrast to Wawrinka and Troicki, moreover, his respect for the top-ranked player from his nation did not snuff out his competitive spark.  Before an injury halted him, Tipsarevic waged a fierce battle with Djokovic in a US Open quarterfinal and ended the world #1’s season in London.  His quirky personality will continue to fuel controversy, but it adds further texture to an already diverse top 10.

Nishikori:  Ranked well below the other players at a modest #25, Nishikori appears on the list as a result of becoming the highest-ranked man in Japanese history, a goal that he set for himself when his career began.  Moreover, he reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Shanghai, where he defeated Tsonga, and recorded his first victory over a reigning #1 in Basel.  Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert, Nishikori already has progressed further than many might have expected, and he finally has recovered from a series of injuries.  A counterpuncher in the mold of Ferrer, he now can set new ambitions for himself.

Kei Nishikori - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Li Na Li Na defeats Francesca Schiavone in the Women's Final to win the 2011 French Open, held at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris.

Like the two laconic syllables of her name, Li Na’s game has revolved around the twin concepts of efficiency and functionality when at its best.  In an era of flamboyant shot-makers, China’s Golden Flower often has found herself overshadowed by the towering personalities around her, in part because her competitive desire has burned more inwardly than outwardly.  Throughout her career, her streamlined style had recorded many a notable triumph over nearly every elite player of her generation.  Yet Li had won only a handful of titles, troubled by a fluctuating level of self-belief that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared without warning from one match to the next.

By no means did Li overcome that flaw in 2011, but she suppressed it long enough to change the course of not only her own life but perhaps the history of tennis in an entire continent.  Her year began explosively when she outlasted Clijsters to win the Sydney title and then brought that impetus into Melbourne the next week.  A semifinalist the previous year, she responded with aplomb to the pressure of defending that accomplishment.  Comfortably defeating the tenacious Azarenka and the rising Petkovic, Li arranged a rendezvous with world #1 Wozniacki at the same stage where she had lost a tightly contested, two-tiebreak encounter with Serena in 2010.  In one of the season’s most memorable matches, the Dane battled to within a point of victory as the Chinese challenger could not quite strike the balance between consistency and aggression.  Down match point, though, Li collected her nerve and fired a brazen forehand down the line for a winner.  Never again would she lose the momentum, although the match would wind through several more deuce games and service breaks while Wozniacki fought desperately for a victory that she needed as much as Li.  When the Chinese veteran jubilantly thrust both arms in the air after their three-set war of attrition, Asia could celebrate the first Grand Slam finalist in its history.

Still, Li left Melbourne with a bittersweet sense of achievement tinged with regret, for she had dominated an edgy Clijsters during the first set and a half of their final before faltering when the title drew near.  More inclined towards pessimism than optimism by nature, she struggled to recover from this disappointment in early exits from her next several tournaments, spurning multiple match points in two of her losses.  The impatience of tennis fans and especially her compatriots mounted during those months when it appeared that Li had gained no lasting confidence from her fortnight in Melbourne.  Nor did it appear that she had gained a sense of urgency to eke out as much as she could from the final stages of a career blighted by injury after injury.  Even when she reached the semifinals in Madrid and Rome, woeful losses on both occasions seemed to confirm these conclusions.

Less than a month later, of course, Li would brand herself irrevocably upon the tennis world with a triumph that represented a fitting reward for her years of struggle both on and off the court.  Tasked with a thorny draw at Roland Garros, she defeated four consecutive top-10 players in her last four matches—a feat accomplished by no champion of her generation.  Twice trailing Kvitova in the fourth round, Li refused to retreat into fatalism and maturely found ways to defuse her powerful but raw opponent.  When Sharapova threatened to wrest away control of their semifinal, the Chinese star summoned the courage to deny the Russian her date with history by playing each bone-crushing rally with a steeliness worthy of her foe.  Her own date with history arrived two days later against the dangerous Schiavone, renowned for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  During the first set and a half of their encounter, just as in the Melbourne final, Li had established herself as the superior player.  Just as in the Melbourne final, she stumbled within range of victory in a way that struck consternation into the hearts of her husband and the 100 million Chinese who watched the match.  Before long, Li found herself within two points of a third set while memories of Melbourne surely swirled through her head.  But Li did not succumb to the past or to her inner insecurities, courageously winning the next nine points to reach a place where no Asian tennis player had gone before.

Having claimed the first major title of her career, she became besieged by an avalanche of endorsement opportunities and promotional activities caused by her newfound celebrity.  To no surprise, then, Li spent the rest of 2011 adjusting to her elevated status, and one should not reproach her too harshly for losing her focus in the aftermath of her triumph.  A fiercely independent individual in a society that officially repudiates individualism, she unlocked a pathway for her compatriots to follow.  If her breakthrough inspires them, tennis may continue to expand beyond its traditional core in Europe, North America, and Australia, becoming a global sport in the fullest sense of the word.

Petra Kvitova Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic holds up the Championship trophy after winning her Ladies' final round match against Maria Sharapova of Russia 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.  Kvitova won 6-3 6-4.

She won in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end.  Similar to Li, Kvitova opened her season with a small title that propelled her to a promising (although less spectacular) fortnight in Melbourne, where she reached the quarterfinals.   Another small title and a victory over Clijsters later, the precocious Czech lefty had asserted herself as a woman to watch in a WTA where so many rising stars have stalled or crumbled in recent years.  Curbing that anticipation somewhat were her deflating losses in the spring’s remaining hard-court tournaments, which exposed her lack of tactical nuance and reluctance to adapt when her weapons deserted her.  As the clay season approached, observers couldn’t decide what to expect from Kvitova on the surface least suited to her thoroughly offense-oriented style.

Then came Madrid, a tournament where the altitude mitigates the demands of red clay and offers hope for irrepressible shot-makers.  Although the tenacious Cibulkova nearly derailed Kvitova in the quarterfinals, the Czech emerged strengthened by that adversity and blazed to the Premier Mandatory title with redoubled confidence.  The final against Azarenka proved one of the most compelling WTA matches of 2011, filled with magnificent winners by Kvitova and expert counterpunching by an opponent who forced her to earn every point and every game.  In addition to the champion’s composure during the first-set tiebreak and other key junctures, the most remarkable feature of this match surrounded her ability to snatch the racket from the hands of Azarenka, a fierce attacker herself.  But she could not unleash her own offense against first strikes as overwhelming as Kvitova’s serves, returns, and forehands.

Unfortunate to meet eventual champion Li Na in the fourth round of Roland Garros, the Czech lost no time in rebounding during the grass season.  After she reached the Eastbourne final, her hopes for Wimbledon ran high considering her accommodating draw and a surface hospitable to her game.  All the same, only the boldest observers expected her to win the title (although we did expect her to reach the final).  Reeling off hundreds of winners from both groundstroke wings throughout the fortnight, Kvitova often left opponents flat-footed or wrong-footed as the grass prevented them from reaching her penetrating blows.  Also effective at Wimbledon was her lefty serve, which separated her from most top women and opened up the court, allowing her to shorten points.  Yet Kvitova suffered sporadic lapses throughout the tournament that cost her sets in matches that she dominated, a product of her youth and unsteady focus.  That trend did not bode well when she prepared to face former champion Sharapova in the final, for the Russian had built her reputation upon an implacable intensity.  Perhaps daunted by the experience of playing for the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court, Kvitova lost her serve immediately with a cluster of unforced errors.  After she broke back in the next game, though, she never would fall behind again.  A relentless assault of serves and forehands kept Sharapova at bay, pinned behind the baseline while Kvitova stepped inside it to target lines with spine-tingling abandon.  Serving for her maiden Slam title, the 21-year-old cracked an ace down the center on her first championship point.  Finally, a member of the WTA’s Generation Next had claimed one of the sport’s central prizes, snapping the stranglehold of the veterans.

Like the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion struggled with adjusting to her unexpected ascendancy.  Virtually invisible on the summer hard courts, she exited the US Open in the first round and continued to struggle with erratic form early in the fall.  A small title in the indoor Luxembourg tournament primed her for a final charge at the year-end championships, however, where she appeared for the first time.  Brushing aside world #1 Wozniacki as well as Zvonareva and Radwanska, Kvitova advanced through the round-robin stage without losing a set.  Able to strike winners from behind the baseline and redirect the ball with ease, she exploited the fast, low-bouncing surface much as she had Centre Court at Wimbledon.  The Czech then rallied from a one-set deficit against new US Open champion Stosur to win her semifinal.  Steadily gaining greater control over the match as it progressed, she suggested a greater ability to reverse an opponent’s momentum than she had shown for much of the season.  In yet another memorable clash with Azarenka, whom she had defeated at Wimbledon as well, Kvitova extended her mastery over this leading rival.  Despite letting a 5-0 lead in the first set evaporate, she never seemed in serious danger of losing the match even after the Belarussian extended it to a final set.  With these five consecutive victories over top-eight opponents, Kvitova may have settled into her elevated stature and adjusted her self-image from ambush artist to regular contender.  This outstanding culmination to her season launched a player who had started the year outside the top 30 to a career-high ranking of #2.

She may well move even higher in 2012.

Under the unforgiving sun of Key Biscayne emerged the dominant tennis narrative of 2011, which would reach its climax five months later under the unforgiving spotlight of New York.  Until that stage of the nascent season, Novak Djokovic had won all three tournaments that he had played while compiling a 4-0 record against leading rivals Federer and Nadal.  But these opening salvoes mirrored the beginning of his breakthrough season in 2008, when he had swept the Australian Open and the year’s first Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells.  This year as well, he had raced to the Melbourne title while dropping only one set and stifling Federer in the semifinals.  The question still remained, then:  could Djokovic sustain a level of brilliance that he had displayed only sporadically before?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates with the trophy after he defeated Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles championship at the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

As he dueled with the man whom he soon would surpass, the Serb recovered courageously from a lackluster first set and battled deep into the third set.  At 5-6 in the decider, though, a crackling backhand from Nadal moved the Spaniard within two points of a victory that would have halted Djokovic’s momentum.  At the Olympics in 2008, at Madrid in 2009, and at other battlegrounds throughout the world, he had crumbled against Nadal in such crucial junctures and contributed to his own demise.  A similar anticlimax beckoned again, but Djokovic denied it.  A series of penetrating first serves and an impressively composed tiebreak later, he had won an epic battle from a player who had earned his reputation in winning epic battles.  More importantly, he had set the tone for the Year of Nole, a season to rival any before, by finally finding a way to sustain both his fitness and his willpower.  When his last forehand thudded through the court, he had conquered one of the most challenging tasks in tennis by claiming the Indian Wells-Miami double.  And the murmurs of his frailties, physical and mental, swiftly subsided.

After the season shifts from hard courts to clay, tennis audiences have grown accustomed to the abrupt power shift caused by Nadal’s mastery of the surface.  No matter how his spring hard-court season had unfolded, Rafa always had found a way to reassert himself after Miami.  Another Monte Carlo title seemed to signal this familiar storyline, as did a semifinal victory over Federer in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Djokovic had plodded laboriously through his draw, suggesting that his hard-court exertions had exacted a toll.  When they reprised their magnificent 2009 meeting in Madrid, one expected Nadal’s clay winning streak to trump the Serb’s 2011 winning streak.  The unremarkable final that followed demonstrated ominously that Djokovic could translate his momentum from continent to continent and surface to surface, although it soon was overshadowed by a more impressive achievement.  On the slow, sticky clay of Rome, he preserved his perfect season by the narrowest of margins in a three-hour semifinal against Murray, a match when the effort seemed to outstrip the reward.  (In earlier years, he almost surely would have let it slip away and turned his thoughts towards Paris.)  A fourth final with Nadal loomed less than 24 hours later, causing observers to wonder how Djokovic could shorten enough points and strike enough winners on this surface to snatch a victory before fatigue descended upon him.  But he didn’t shorten points recklessly, nor did he unleash a startling barrage of winners.  Instead, the future #1 won the key points of this match by defense, willing to grind through rally after rally with an intimidating patience that ultimately broke down Nadal as much as his backhand.

Just as the “when” started to fade from the question of “when will Djokovic lose,” the once-infallible Federer reminded the Serb of his own fallibility at Roland Garros.  In less than a year, their rivalry had shifted from distinctly favoring Federer at the 2010 US Open to equilibrium by the Australian Open to favoring Djokovic at the second major of 2011.  The Swiss star’s spectacularly sprung ambush thus surprised more than it perhaps should have, but it surprised nonetheless.  With his first taste of adversity since 2010, the Serb stood at a crossroads between rallying himself resiliently for Wimbledon or sliding back into self-excusing complacency.  Considered least effective on grass, he could have waited for hard courts to return in the second half and allow the Federer-Nadal rivalry to dominate the European majors again.  Through much of the Wimbledon fortnight, Djokovic seemed to debate his options within himself while struggling too long with talented but overmatched opponents like Baghdatis and Tomic.  Summoning his most compelling tennis when the occasion demanded it, though, he outmaneuvered Tsonga and Nadal to accomplish a long-held ambition.  Two points from victory as he served for the title, the baseline-bound Djokovic served and volleyed.  Then, on match point, he plowed towards the net again.  Against an opponent renowned for exceptional passing shots, the new #1 trusted the weakest facet of his game to win one of the most pivotal matches of his career.

Halfway through the season, Djokovic already had achieved more than he ever had in a year before.  With the #1 ranking weighing upon his shoulders for the first time, he responded by winning his first tournament of the summer in Montreal.  An otherwise uneventful week, that title surge included victories over Monfils and Tsonga during which both Frenchmen openly abandoned hope after a set or so.  As with Federer and Nadal before, the aura of a champion had started to crystallize around Djokovic, who also enjoyed the luck of a champion when net cords trickled over and desperate lobs fell neatly on the baseline during his three-set final with Fish.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia beats Rafael Nadal of Spain in the US Open men's final in New York. Djokovic won the match in four sets - making it his first win at the US Open.

The overwhelming favorite for the US Open, its top seed arrived somewhat battered from an injury in Cincinnati and must have appreciated his accommodating draw.  Although Tipsarevic mustered unexpected resistance in the quarterfinals, Djokovic arrived at yet another Slam semifinal with Federer untested by most of his opponents.  (“Untested” understates the near-triple bagel demolition of Carlos Berlocq during one of the shortest night sessions in Arthur Ashe history.)  That lack of competition seemed to sting the Serb early in his meeting with the player who had defeated him at three of the past four US Opens.  As he did at Roland Garros, Djokovic trailed an inspired Federer by two sets and looked flustered by the shot-making display across the net.  In the fifth set, he then looked doomed again after a wretched service game allowed Federer to serve for the match.  At that moment, of course, he unleashed the “shot heard round the world”—an impudent, perfectly placed return winner off a first serve.  But that single shot did not propel his comeback alone. When defeat drew near, Djokovic outplayed Federer at his own game, whipping forehands fiercer than Federer’s fabled weapon and seizing opportunities to finish points more aggressively.

In almost exactly the same situation a year before, Djokovic had won a five-set semifinal thriller from Federer before sputtering to a fatigue-influenced defeat against Nadal in the final.  Likely determined to avoid that script again, he swept through two sets riddled with breaks and endless service games.  Leading early in both sets, Nadal positioned himself to seize command of the second set multiple times during a nine-deuce third game, but Djokovic refused to relent and soon led by two sets and a break.  Late in the third set, he served for a straight-sets victory.  With his trademark determination, Nadal averted defeat and dominated the ensuing tiebreak, after which the top seed limped exhausted to his chair.  One of the Spaniard’s classic comebacks appeared a real possibility at that stage, especially when Djokovic labored through an arduous service game to start the fourth set.  He buckled but did not break, and the momentum had shifted for good.  Broken in a similarly arduous service game afterwards, Nadal looked resigned to the inevitable as the fourth set rushed past.  Just as he had with Federer, Djokovic outplayed Nadal at his own game by winning the majority of the protracted baseline exchanges and rarely lapsing in his suffocating court coverage as the match extended past four hours.  Only one player had defeated Federer and Nadal consecutively at a major, Del Potro at the 2009 US Open.  And Djokovic’s feat astonished even more, considering that his five-setter came in the first of those two matches rather than the second.

After this Wagnerian climax, the world #1 justifiably could have and perhaps should have ended his season to rest for 2012.  The handful of matches that he played after the US Open formed a coda with neither purpose nor meaning.  Although his fall campaign diminished his winning percentage, it did not diminish the achievements that preceded it or dent his 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal, the most impressive statistic from his season.  Now, Djokovic faces a different type of test:  defending as much as he can of the territory that he has captured.  Envisioning 2012 realistically, he recognized that it will be nearly impossible to repeat everything that he achieved in 2011.  On the other hand, he spent most of this season turning the impossible into the expected.

Next year, we will start to find out whether a season becomes an era.

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.

 

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.

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