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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

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Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

And so they meet again, the two best players in the world, on yet another grand stage.  After a fortnight of largely predictable tennis in the men’s draw arrives a match that nearly everyone had expected, at least outside Switzerland and Great Britain.  Those who followed the 2011 season in detail might consider this final battle just as foreseeable as everything that has preceded it this fortnight.  Nevertheless, every season offers an opportunity to turn a page on the past and create a new narrative.

Doubtless hoping desperately to dull the memories of six painful defeats by Djokovic, Nadal should have gained some optimism from his victories over Berdych and Federer.  Although he lost the first set to each of those opponents, the world #2 played progressively more inspired tennis through the rest of those matches, scrambling implausibly on defense to produce vintage retrievals while stepping inside the court on backhands as well as forehands.  In contrast, Djokovic sagged through significant stretches of arduous victories over Ferrer and Murray after unexpectedly conceding a set to Hewitt.  Struggling with his breathing during his last two matches, the world #1 needed every ounce of energy to escape a Scot far more determined than in last year’s final.  In a thrillingly physical match that stretched just ten minutes short of five hours, Murray forced the Serb to grind through rally after rally that probed the contours of the court, often leaving one or both men gasping for air.  After such exertions of mind and body, surely Djokovic will enter the final too drained to outlast Rafa in a best-of-five format?

And yet…

When Murray extended Djokovic to a final-set tiebreak in Rome, most observers made much the same comment as they looked forward to his championship tilt against Nadal.  Less than 24 hours later, the Serb had registered his most resounding victory of the season against his most notable victim, repeatedly triumphing in the endlessly prolonged rallies that the Spaniard has used to chip away at the minds and bodies of his opponents.  In the US Open final, moreover, the world #1 trumped the man ranked immediately below him despite having survived a psychologically exhausting five-setter against Federer in the previous round, and despite nursing a shoulder injury throughout the fortnight.  When Djokovic has looked his most beleaguered in New York and here, he has become oddly more dangerous by adding additional urgency to his shots and somehow finding the lines even more precisely.  At the US Open, he rampaged through his most dominant set of the day after limping through a tiebreak and requesting the trainer.  Having defeated Federer in the 2009 final after winning a similarly nerve-jangling semifinal with Verdasco, Nadal knows well not to underestimate the recovery potential of the only player in the ATP who can equal his own fitness.

All the same, the 2009 champion took measures to enhance his serve over the offseason in order to avoid the dismal effectiveness of that shot against Djokovic at the US Open. Broken a career-high eleven times in that match, Rafa repeatedly lost his serve after breaking his opponent and thus rarely could consolidate a momentum shift.  In two of the match’s longest games, his inability to collect free points from his delivery represented key turning points.  Addressing this problem with determination and some imagination, Nadal added three grams of weight to the top of his racket in the expectation that the pace of his serve would increase.  Through his first several matches, he indeed has appeared to crack higher velocities with that shot more often.  Cleverly varying its placement against Federer, the Spaniard did earn a greater percentage of free points than usual.  Surely such a key improvement to his arsenal will play a critical role in the Melbourne title match?

And yet…

Long a better returner than Federer or Berdych, Djokovic possesses better reflexes than the former and greater agility than the latter.  Despite the amplified pace on his serve, Nadal has not always held serve in key games with as much ease as one might expect.  Broken when he served for the second set against Berdych, he later let a mini-break slip away in the ensuing tiebreak.  Extended through three deuces in the final game of his semifinal, Rafa struggled mightily to finish the match as his first serve misfired.  Meanwhile, Djokovic’s clear mental edge in his rivalry with the Spaniard may undermine Nadal’s confidence and indirectly dull a shot that relies upon confidence as much as any technical prowess.

Sooner or later, of course, the 2009 champion will halt his streak of futility against the title holder in 2008 and 2011.  Following an offseason during which he likely reviewed their matches in detail, Nadal may have developed new strategies to combat a rival who frustrated him so relentlessly.  Beyond the additional pace on his serve, for example, he may have realized that he must hit through his backhand more forcefully in cross-court rallies against the Djokovic forehand.  Able to survive exchanges from his own two-hander to the Nadal forehand, the Serb has enjoyed his most notable success by targeting the Spaniard’s backhand until he receives a more tentative reply that he can redirect down the line to his opponent’s forehand corner.  If that tactic proves less effective on Sunday, Djokovic may struggle to find new patterns that unsettle his opponent without earning time of his own to formulate a response.

And yet…

In a similar position to Djokovic now, Nadal gradually overtook Federer largely by means of hooking his lefty forehand into the Swiss master’s one-handed backhand, a shot exquisitely graceful but relatively lacking in resilience.  While Rafa simply adhered to this reliable strategy, his rival experimented with one potential parry after another but never quite found the response that would undo this straightforward balance of power.  To some extent, then, the narrative of the Federer-Nadal rivalry ultimately developed into the older man’s quest to overcome an inherent limitation in a game that had seemed bulletproof until the arrival of his nemesis.  Perhaps one should not assume that the Spaniard will find answers to similar inherent shortcomings more easily than the man whom he supplanted at the summit of the sport.  At this stage of his career, Nadal likely will not change his style any more dramatically than Federer has as he ages.

***

In both of their two previous major finals, Djokovic seized a commanding early lead before Rafa snatched away the third set.  Just when Nadal threatened to launch a courageous comeback, however, the Serb stamped out resistance with an imposing fourth set.  During the early stages of this final, therefore, the second seed should attempt to assert himself against the world #1 more forcefully than he did against Berdych and Federer.  Edgy to start those matches, Nadal positioned himself too far behind the baseline and only gradually crept closer as his confidence rose.  If he lets Djokovic seize the early initiative, however, the psychological obstacle posed by the events of 2011 will tower ever higher in his mind.  On the other hand, a firm statement of purpose in the first set would signal to a possibly weary Serb that he must prepare for a challenge even more formidable than their US Open encounter.  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.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

After a discouraging first-round loss to Kirilenko in the 2010 Australian Open, Sharapova eyed her inquisitors with grim resolve as she vowed that she would return to the second Saturday.  A woman of her word and of exemplary efficiency, the 2008 champion required just two years to fulfill her promise.  With a second Australian Open title and the #1 ranking at stake, she now aims to prove herself even better than her word.

Despite Kvitova’s ferocious return and ten double faults, Sharapova protected her serve courageously throughout her semifinal while surrendering only one break in each set.  While Azarenka’s greater consistency on return and weaker serve should result in more breaks for both players, the fourth seed will raise her fortunes significantly if she continues to strike such penetrating serves on crucial points.  Serving out the first set after a massive second serve on break point, Sharapova relied on the shot commonly considered her greatest weakness to escape from multiple break points in the final set.  On the contrary, the long deuce games consistently tilted in her favor, continuing a pattern apparent throughout the fortnight.  Coupled with unblinking focus, her relentless optimism under pressure allowed her to outlast an opponent who had seemed to hold the upper hand for most of the last two sets.  That tenacity could prove a crucial advantage against a first-time major finalist if this match proves as competitive as one would hope.

Among the other patterns from Sharapova’s semifinal and her fortnight more generally is the spurt of momentum with which she has started each match, somewhat uncharacteristic in her career.  Within two or three games from the first ball, she has claimed an early lead and thrust her opponent into a subordinate role.  In five of her six opening sets, she has lost no more than two games, dominance that looms especially large when one remembers that 21 of the last 22 major finals have ended in favor of the woman who won the first set.  Just as repeatedly, however, Sharapova has struggled to maintain her intensity early in the second set and suffered lulls in momentum that an alert foe like Azarenka could exploit.  During points, the 2008 champion also must stay intent and crisp, stretching the fleet-footed Vika along the baseline as soon as possible in the point but not taking anything for granted.  Unlike recent victims Lisicki and Kvitova, Azarenka combines anticipation with keen instincts and will force Sharapova to hit additional shots to finish points.  Since the start of the tournament, the Russian has displayed a crisper sense of shot selection than usual, perhaps aided by the additional time of the medium-speed surface.  Only in her quarterfinal against Makarova did that element of her game waver for substantial stretches.  When she collides with Azarenka, Sharapova must steel herself for the challenge of steadily outmaneuvering her opponent—while remaining ever alert for the first logical opportunity to pull the trigger.

Capitalizing upon the three-time major champion’s struggle to maintain that balance, Azarenka twice has defeated her in hard-court finals during which she lost ten total games and regularly broke serve.  The first-time major finalist demonstrated her vastly improved composure by winning a three-set semifinal against Clijsters after rebounding from a disastrous second set.  While the adverse crowd might have unnerved Vika a year or two ago, she conceded only sporadic flashes of frustration and collected herself without significant damage.  In the final, Azarenka again will need to avoid the emotional rollercoaster that many have grown to associate with her, for Sharapova would pounce on the chance to turn a trickle of momentum into a deluge.  Although lacking her opponent’s ball-striking power, the third seed can muster exceptional depth on her groundstrokes even when thrust out of position, courtesy of her smooth movement and streamlined technique.  If she can pinpoint the baseline as effectively as Sharapova lasers the sidelines, she could catch the Russian off balance to draw either an unforced error or a tentative reply.  As long as Azarenka can stay on neutral terms in rallies past the first several strokes, her superior consistency should wear down an opponent who prefers to terminate points with maximal speed.  Court positioning should play a pivotal role for each woman, each of whom will hope to step inside the baseline as often as possible and plow towards the forecourt to take the ball out of the air.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 11

When she guards her serve from the WTA’s most savage returner, Azarenka faces intriguing choices.  Occasional body serves probably would reap rewards, while Sharapova’s vast wingspan negates most attempts to create angles and sometimes allows her to create even more acute angles of her own. On the other hand, opening the court would allow her to hit behind the Russian, not adept at reversing direction.  As Kvitova eventually found, pace rather than placement has proved more effective  against Sharapova, so Azarenka may consider trading a modest dip in her normally superb first-serve percentage for a riskier, more powerful delivery more often.  Or she may not, considering that she will not want Maria to feast upon her weak second serve, the most vulnerable area of her game.  The two finalists in fact share many of the same strengths (return, backhand, swing volleys, willpower, lung power) as well as some of the same weaknesses (forehand technique that can falter under pressure, a distaste for conventional volleys, and a chronically unreliable second serve).

Like most major finals, though, tactical decisions and adjustments do not lead directly to outcomes.  Lingering above both players is the question of how they will perform in one of the four most meaningful matches of 2012.  Before her shoulder surgery, few would have hesitated to award Sharapova a clear edge in this category, considering her sparkling record in finals.  In two major semifinals and one final last year, however, she displayed sporadically disheveled tennis as the jagged edges of her massive game jolted into view.  More encouraging was her emotional but poised performance in the semifinal against Kvitova, reminiscent of her vintage efforts.  Meanwhile, Azarenka hopes to acquit herself as creditably as the Czech did when she played her first major final at Wimbledon last year.  Despite her lack of experience in such matches, she has accumulated valuable preparatory experience by winning two Miami finals as well as playing a tight three-set final at the year-end championships, all of those matches against elite opposition.

To judge from their past history, Azarenka could dominate this match from start to finish, as she did their finals in Stanford and Miami.  But a more tightly contested final could swing in the direction of Sharapova, still the superior competitor, as did the three-setters that they played in Los Angeles and Beijing.  When these two blondes battle for the Melbourne crown and the #1 ranking, moreover, the ancien regime of the WTA seeks to withstand the assault of the rising stars.  Will Azarenka score a victory for her generation, or will Sharapova strike a blow for hers?

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray - Best Of Day 14 - 2011 Australian Open

One day after Melbourne hosted the greatest rivalry in this generation of the ATP, it will host the latest installment of something that could have become a rivalry but hasn’t quite so far.  Despite entrenching themselves in the top 5 for the last few years, Djokovic and Murray have met only once at a major and rarely have played their best tennis at the same time in their matches.  (To some extent, one can blame the lack of Slam encounters on the oddly consistent pairings in recent draws, which regularly have pitted the Scot against a certain Spaniard.)  In contrast to the divergent playing styles of Federer and Nadal, this pair of combatants shares similar strengths in their returns and backhands.  Moreover, their meetings have not unfolded according to the internal logic of Rafa’s steady advance upon each of Rogers’s citadels.  After Djokovic dominated Murray through their early meetings, the Scot then rebounded to claim three straight victories, at which time they arrived in last year’s final here.

Anticipated by many to mark the start of a genuine rivalry between them, the 2011 Australian Open final merely signaled the ascendancy of the Serb to a pinnacle never even approached by his counterpart.  Surrendering just nine games to a baffled Murray, Djokovic demonstrated the gulf between them in both physical firepower and mental fortitude.  With the sting of that ignominious defeat surely festering in his mind, the fourth seed should approach the encore with redoubled motivation.  The early stages of his partnership with Ivan Lendl already seem to have invigorated Murray, who has displayed much more positive energy (or perhaps less negative energy) as well as a more aggressive cross-court forehand during his first five matches.

Outside a first-round clash with Ryan Harrison, however, the fourth seed could not have designed a more comfortable draw for himself.  Avoiding the ATP’s explosive shot-makers, the 2011 finalist has needed to do little beyond simply outlast opponents like Kukushkin and Nishikori, who could not subject him to any sustained pressure.  All the same, Murray has used these non-competitive matches to refine areas of his game that might reap rewards against Djokovic, most notably his first serve and his net play.  Those two categories offer the most plausible route to avenging last year’s result, for his groundstrokes cannot match those of the world #1 blow for blow, and Murray should have learned by now that defense does not win championships.

Fitness does play a role in winning championships, though, and Djokovic has not looked his indefatigable, impenetrable best in his last two matches against Hewitt and Ferrer.  Sometimes resembling his pre-2011 self, he slogged through rallies with more weariness than conviction.  On the other hand, he still defeated a top-five opponent in straight sets and showcased his sharpest form towards the end of the match.  Having passed the tests posed by this pair of tenacious competitors, he may arrive in the semifinal better prepared for the challenge ahead than Murray, which could counterbalance any advantage that the latter holds in energy.

But Djokovic shoulders a mental burden of his own, as much as he may deny it and try to suppress his awareness of it.  Following a 2011 campaign as brilliant as any season recorded by Federer or Nadal, the Serb must realize that expectations of a similar sequel probably defy plausibility.  As he braces himself for the towering task of defending as much of his conquered territory as he can, Djokovic must feel as though even as meaningful an accomplishment as winning this semifinal comprises only a tiny increment in a citadel that he must build again from its foundations.  When he first defended a major title, at the 2009 Australian Open, the pressure fused with the heat to produce a desultory performance.  Although the heat will not derail him this time, a gritty adversary like Murray may discourage Djokovic if the match extends longer than the 2011 final.

No less laden with intrigue than the more eagerly anticipated semifinal before it, this match will hinge more upon execution than upon the effectiveness of a certain style, considering the similarities between these adversaries.  After their previous meeting here featured ten breaks of serve during a single sixteen-game span, one should expect a similar demonstration of sparkling returns although perhaps a more capable serving display as well.  Both men cover the court exceptionally well, forcing the opponent to construct rallies meticulously and create unexpected angles.  We envision longer rallies than in the Federer-Nadal duel and quite possibly a more suspenseful match.  At any rate, one certainly should anticipate a sequel to last year’s final that trumps its predecessor in quality if not in magnitude.  For Murray, who has played his worst when the stakes run highest, that dynamic may allow him to believe that he can vanquish the invincible.  And belief comprises the larger half in the equation of victory.

With any luck, tonight might witness the start of a genuine rivalry.

Although we normally approximate the order of play in our daily previews, we diverge from it today to start with the match that many eagerly awaited since the draws appeared.  (Scroll further down for the Battles of the Blondes, equally delicious in our opinion.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

When one glances back across the tapestry woven together by the two great rivals of their generation, one cannot fail to see the central role of clay and grass in this narrative.  Only once have they met at a hard-court major in a memorable but not quite classic five-set final, more notable for the tears of the loser than the triumph of the victor.  During the three long years since then, much has happened to both of our protagonists, each of whom completed a career Grand Slam and one of whom established himself firmly as the greatest of all time.  Despite those accomplishments, their collisions have waned inexorably with time.  Perhaps one should not regret the attenuation of this rivalry, however, for the imperfections of the present cannot cast too long a shadow upon the glories of the past.

Not since Wimbledon five years ago has Federer defeated Nadal at a major, and not since Madrid in 2009 has he defeated the Spaniard at a tournament other than Rafa’s bête noire, the year-end championships.  To be sure, he will gain confidence from a resounding victory in their clash there last year, but a similarly emphatic triumph at the 2007 year-end championships preceded the turning point in their rivalry:  consecutive victories by Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals.  When they met on the Miami hard courts last spring, Federer looked passive and resigned almost as soon as the match began, notwithstanding his perceived superiority on this surface.  Rarely threatening Rafa on his serve, Roger struggled with his serve and approach shots throughout a match that felt even more lopsided than its scoreline.  Curiously, Federer acquitted himself much more creditably in two clay losses to Nadal at Madrid and Roland Garros, both times winning a set and finding ways to unsettle his nemesis for extended stretches.  At this stage in their careers, each man can hide few secrets from the other as their games have hardened into crystals that will resist significant alteration.  The second seed’s amplified serve might trigger concern in Federer fans, but that shot has not dazzled at pivotal moments throughout this fortnight, such as when Nadal served for the second set against Berdych.  On the contrary, Roger-Rafa XXVII should hinge once again upon the mental dimension, which the Spaniard gradually wrested away from the Swiss star as their rivalry unfolded.

While one might think that recapturing that advantage would lie beyond the powers of a 30-year-old legend, perhaps one should not jump to conclusions prematurely.  In his quiet, methodical way, Federer has compiled a perfect record since the US Open and has looked the more poised player throughout this fortnight.  Beset by nagging knees, festering concerns over the schedule, and the looming specter of Djokovic, Nadal has displayed less competitive appetite and relentless focus than one has grown accustomed to observing from him.  All the same, his four-set quarterfinal victory over Berdych rekindled that familiar spark at the most auspicious moment.  Uninspired for much of the first two sets, Nadal erupted into his fiercely physical, fiery self during the last two sets as he swung with more predatory purpose than he had shown in any of his previous matches.  If that determination replaces his diffident edginess from the first week, Federer will find himself under pressure once again.  As he attempts to summon his own positive energy, he should reflect back upon his virtuoso performance against Del Potro, during which he struck nearly every shot with conviction from his forehand drop shots to his down-the-line backhands.  That latter shot must penetrate the court to prevent Nadal from targeting it and waiting patiently for a mid-court reply to hammer with an inside-in or inside-out forehand.  Since each man knows how to probe the weaknesses of the other, expect a chess match in each point and game from these two masters of their craft.  While they will not scorch rockets like a Djokovic or a Soderling, Roger and Rafa complement each other’s styles and personalities more symmetrically than any other pair of gladiators.

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  From their head-to-head spring few memorable matches and fewer lessons, other than the Belgian’s superiority in three-setters.  Winning both of her final stanzas against Azarenka, Clijsters benefited from her opponent’s emotional immaturity in their early meetings.  The two women rarely have displayed their finest tennis against each other at the same time, a pity considering their evenly matched talents.  Having reached her second semifinal just two majors after her first, Azarenka has evolved into a more poised competitor over the past year who now believes more deeply in her right to play on the grand stage.  To be sure, she still can veer off course without warning at inopportune moments, but Vika now recovers more courageously from those lapses to reverse the momentum.  An eloquent example of this trend, her quarterfinal against Radwanska witnessed a disastrous tiebreak bagel in the first set, which previously would have unlocked the frantic, feckless Azarenka of years past.   Instead, she held her ground during two close games early in the second set and abruptly stopped a tenacious opponent in her tracks.  After four victories over thoroughly outclassed opponents, her comeback should inspire confidence in her should this semifinal prove as tight as expected.

A round after she launched a comeback of her own, the defending champion squelched a putative comeback from Wozniacki in a match that she dominated until the threshold of victory.  Like Azarenka, who has struggled to finish matches this week, Clijsters grew increasingly tense as she thrust the world #1 towards the brink of the precipice.  With a third set on the horizon, though, she collected herself impressively to deliver some of her best shot-making and most imposing serves of the encounter.  During the second-set tiebreak, Clijsters did not miss a single first serve or lose a point on her serve, finding the same lines that she had missed as her lead had evaporated.  Probably the two best players in the WTA at transitioning from defense to offense, these semifinalists often will force each other to restart rallies and hit multiple shots to finish points.  Although she does not sprawl across the court in flamboyant splits like the Belgian, Azarenka possesses keen instincts and anticipation that allow her to return offensive shots with depth.  Gifted with especially crisp backhands, both women can lose their timing on their powerful but less reliable forehands for games at a time, so watch that wing for symptoms of pressure.  The Melbourne crowd, firmly in the Belgian’s corner so far, may ruffle Azarenka as a similar pro-Clijsters crowd did in Miami, but she has grown somewhat more skillful at turning hostility into renewed willpower rather than self-defeating frustration.

In her final Australian Open, the defending champion surely will not depart without a valiant struggle.  Nevertheless, Azarenka may bring greater ambition and intensity to a match that means far more to her career than it does to the waning Belgian.  Having won one set in her first Slam semifinal last year, an impressive effort for a debutante at that level, she should fancy her chances to double that total on her second visit to the penultimate round.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Through the minds of both statuesque blondes will wander the memories of their meeting on the most prestigious stage in the sport last year.  Whereas one woman will seek continuity, the other will focus on plotting her revenge.  Not expected to reach the semifinals when the tournament began, Sharapova has demonstrated once more that she can stride into a tournament with minimal preparation and immediately plow deep into the draw.  Abetted by a gentle draw during the early stages, she nevertheless has impressed while losing only a handful of games in each round with the exception of a three-set comeback against Lisicki.  Well below her best form in the quarterfinals, Sharapova surrendered just five games to a dangerous dark horse while missing swarms of routine shots and sometimes hesitating when presented with an open court.  Refusing to retreat, the 2008 champion seemed to strike the ball even harder and even closer to the lines after every error.  After three backhand errors cost the Russian her first three match points, a backhand bullet scorched a sideline to convert her fourth. Throughout the uneven but courageous display, though, her serve and return rarely abandoned her.  Those key shots proved the difference in the Wimbledon final and offer her the greatest hope of reversing its outcome here.

When this pair clashed in the grassy confines of the All England Club, untimely double faults and wayward service returns cost her at crucial moments, while Kvitova unleashed a nearly flawless display of first-strike tennis that kept her opponent pinned helplessly behind the baseline.  Through her first five matches, the world #2 has continued to win as many points with sheer depth as with ruthless angles, challenging her foes to absorb her pace.  Like Sharapova, though, she has not advanced without occasional glimpses of frailty, sharing the Russian’s tendency towards second-set lapses.  Also like Sharapova, Kvitova rarely settles into lengthy cross-court exchanges but instead redirects the ball whenever possible to stretch the contours of the court.  Since neither woman moves especially well and will struggle to recover from a defensive position, this semifinal will contrast with its counterpart in the length of its points.  Although the surface at the Australian Open plays more slowly than does Centre Court at Wimbledon, the power of each woman’s weapons and the deficiencies of their defense should combine to produce a match of relatively short, explosive points.  Curiously, though, the most overlooked or underestimated element in an arsenal often proves the very weapon that secures a crucial victory.  One semifinalist’s desperate retrieval might well take the other by surprise at a turning point in the match.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue to their encounter is the succession struggle over the world #1 ranking among Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova.  If Clijsters wins the first semifinal, Kvitova would earn a ticket to the penthouse with a victory.  Otherwise, the winner of this semifinal would play Azarenka for both the title and the #1 ranking.  Don’t look too far ahead too soon, though, for the duel of these two Wimbledon champions promises a scintillating smorgasbord of shot-making that any admirer of offensively oriented tennis should relish.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Not without adversity did Sharapova reach her first quarterfinal at a hard-court major since 2008, withstanding Lisicki’s percussive serve and maintaining her bulletproof resilience in three-setters.  As had happened in her previous matches, the former champion bolted into an early lead before her opponent settled into the match.  When Lisicki weathered that initial assault and unleashed a major momentum surge of her own, Sharapova found herself forced into a fierce battle for the first time in 2012.  Erasing all seven break points on her serve in the last two sets, including five in one game, she dug into the trenches with characteristic determination.  That brush with danger should heighten the Russian’s intensity as she approaches the round where the draw had seemed likely to pit her against Serena.  Surely satisfied to avoid that obstacle, she nevertheless should not discount the draw’s most lethal dark horse, who has compiled victories over Kanepi, Zvonareva, and Serena.

Completely undismayed by the sight of a 13-time major champion across the net, Makarova has not lost a set since the first round and has frustrated her seeded victims with explosive down-the-line lasers  that showcase her ability to redirect the ball from behind the baseline.  The pace of these courts suit her game especially well, and few would dispute that her ranking of #56 does not accurately reflect her abilities.  If she continues to connect on those groundstrokes so precisely, she will test the improved movement of her fellow Russian.  Both of their previous meetings have unfolded on clay, the surface least suited to them, and Sharapova has fed her compatriot three straight breadsticks after losing a set in the first of those clashes.  Nevertheless, clay muted the wickedly slicing lefty serve of Makarova, which won her the Eastbourne title from another prestigious field.  By maintaining a high percentage of first serves and cracking second-serve returns as fiercely as she did against Serena, the underdog could deliver a message of intent to the favorite.  Usually quick to respond to such messages with a barrage of her own, however, Sharapova astonishingly won nearly half of the points on Lisicki’s serve, considered among the most formidable in the WTA.  Undefeated in ten major quarterfinals outside Roland Garros, the 2008 champion devoured Petkovic and Cibulkova in this round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.  Only a relentlessly opportunistic effort by Makarova will save her from that fate.

Errani vs. Kvitova:  A thoroughly unexpected presence in a major quarterfinal, the Italian’s route resembles a genealogy of this section’s more notable upsets.  Defeating only one seeded opponent in four matches, the unseeded Errani dispatched Bartoli’s conqueror in Zheng a round after she defeated Stosur’s nemesis in Cirstea.  At this stage, mere opportunism alone will not suffice as the moment of truth arrives for this doubles specialist who has reached the quarterfinals in that event as well.  In no area of the game, except perhaps her net play, does Errani surpass the world #2 and Wimbledon champion.  And reaching the net will prove especially difficult against an opponent who habitually lasers returns of serve and pockmarks the baseline with her penetrating groundstrokes.  Even if Errani plays an exceptionally clean, error-free match, she lacks the stylistic eccentricities or variety with which some of her compatriots might upset Kvitova’s rhythm.

As has proven the case at this tournament so far, the second seed perhaps has most to fear from herself.  She has established comfortable leads in all four of her matches, conceding no more than two games in any of her first sets.  But two of her second sets witnessed concerning wobbles that led to a fiercely contested three-setter on the former occasion and a second-set tiebreak on the latter.  En route to the Wimbledon title, Kvitova suffered similar mid-match lapses during two of her victories and candidly admitted that her focus deserted her.  When her mind wanders, she often starts to misfire and then loses control of her weapons with unnerving speed.  Essentially an offensive player only, Kvitova has no options in those situations other than to keep aiming for the lines and hope that she hammers a path out of her own doldrums.  To be sure, this match looks boring at first glance, but the Czech lefty has developed a habit of making the boring become interesting.  In a major quarterfinal, moreover, one cannot afford to take an opponent too lightly.

Murray vs. Nishikori:  To some extent, this match reminds us of the Wozniacki-Clijsters quarterfinal in its pairing of two counterpunchers, one of whom does everything just as well as the other and several things better.  For example, Murray can expect to win many more free points with his serve than can Nishikori, burdened by the pressure of more difficult service games.  Chipping away at Tsonga with a grittiness worthy of Ferrer, the top-ranked Japanese man has developed a game with very few flaws but not many weapons.  As his victory over Djokovic in Basel last fall demonstrated, he certainly can exploit a mediocre performance on mental or physical levels by a greater talent.  As his routine defeat to Murray in Asia last fall demonstrated, Nishikori struggles to solve an elite opponent on a day when that opponent delivers his finest tennis.  Having not played on Rod Laver Arena, he may start the first major quarterfinal of his career with uncertainty, although the experience of facing Nadal on a Wimbledon show court may allow him to settle his nerves.

Often subject to nerves himself at this stage of a major, Murray has kept his inner demons at bay so far with the assistance of the perennially calm Ivan Lendl.  When he lost his first set of the fortnight, usually a signal for a self-targeted harangue, the fourth seed regrouped relatively calmly to outlast the threat posed by Ryan Harrison.  Since then, no meaningful challenge has confronted the Scot, who received a retirement in the previous round and thus should bring greater energy to the match than Nishikori, perhaps depleted by his five-set duel with Tsonga.  It seems likely that Murray can win this match without venturing outside his natural, patient playing style, which bodes well for his success here but perhaps not for a probable semifinal with Djokovic.  When the competition spikes upward dramatically, can he adjust overnight?  No answers will come until Thursday in a rematch of last year’s final that should prove a worthy sequel to the Federer-Nadal collision a night before.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  In an odd quirk of tennis fate, the defending champion met Hewitt in the fourth round and Ferrer in the quarterfinals of his march to the 2008 title.  Defeating both of them in straight sets that year, he set a less encouraging precedent by needing four sets to foil the feisty challenge of the Australian champion.  Like Sharapova, however, the experience of playing his first competitive match of the tournament after a farcically dominant first week may assist Djokovic prepare mentally for the top-five opposition likely to confront him henceforth.  First among them is a Spaniard who shares Hewitt’s appetite for competition and has enjoyed recent success in Melbourne.  Although he benefited from an injury to Nadal, Ferrer performed valiantly in his semifinal appearance last year as he extended Murray—a much superior player on the surface—to a fourth-set tiebreak.  This year, Ferrer did not impress in an first-week epic against Ryan Sweeting, but he has played himself into the tournament with a commanding victory over Gasquet in which he effectively translated his brand of clay-court tennis to these medium-speed hard courts.

Through their previous meetings of these quarterfinalist winds a clear pattern of clay dominance for the Spaniard and hard-court dominance for the Serb, with the exception f two clashes at the year-end championship in which fatigue played a pivotal role.  Together with Murray, these men have honed the best returns in the ATP and should threaten each other’s serves repeatedly.  The prospect of losing serve does not intimidate Djokovic, who converted more break points than anyone on the Tour last year.  Despite improvements over the last few months, Ferrer’s serve remains the weakest element of his game and a key target for the world #1 to attack if he wishes to avoid a prolonged war of attrition, although he will feel grateful to play this match at night.  His fitness has improved dramatically since the start of last season, admittedly, but Djokovic will not want to exhaust himself on the eve of consecutive battles with Murray and the winner of the Federer-Nadal semifinal.  By redirecting the ball throughout rallies and taking time away from Ferrer with timely forays into the forecourt, he can neutralize the Spaniard’s principal virtues of consistency and stamina.  But Djokovic must strike just the right blend of control and aggression.


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