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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

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National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

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South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

At the verge of victory, the pressure suddenly descended on Novak Djokovic.  Even after his stunning Wimbledon title, and even after he took a 40-0 lead in the final game, the new #1 visibly tightened when he stepped to the service notch at triple championship point.  A forehand plunked into the net, a point-stopping challenge turned against him, a second serve trickled off the net into a near-double fault, and another routine forehand floated aimlessly well over the baseline.  As the three championship points melted away, Djokovic’s ball bounces multiplied and his typically penetrating groundstrokes fell shorter and shorter inside the court, sometimes barely beyond the service line.  The sunless Montreal sky glowered down at him, ominously reminiscent of the Paris evening when he suffered his only loss of this superhuman season.  Meanwhile, the enterprising, still hopeful Fish refused to donate a match-ending error, defying his reputation for erratic play.  When Djokovic missed his first serve at deuce and settled into another protracted point, an implausible comeback started to seem plausible. But after an anxiety-laden exchange from both sides of the net, Fish finally sailed a standard backhand—his strength—over the baseline.  That one glimpse of fallibility sealed his fate, for the Serb capitalized upon his second chance with an unreturnable first serve.  In a week when he faced none of his leading rivals, Djokovic’s main challenge ultimately came from within.  Just as impressive as his nervelessness on occasions like his Wimbledon victory this summer was his ability to subdue and survive his nerves when a match tottered on the brink of turning against him.

Suffering yet another gallant defeat in a Masters 1000 final, Fish nevertheless consolidated his status as the tour’s top-ranked American.  In fact, his steady reliance on fundamentals and businesslike demeanor reminded us of his predecessor during his most dangerous years.  Not the most colorful or exciting player to watch, he can rattle the premier contenders with his rare net-rushing style and unpredictable shot-making from both groundstroke wings (Whether he can actually win against them remains an open question, though.)  Unless Roddick rebounds to shine in Cincinnati, Fish clearly has transcended his compatriot and will become the home nation’s principal standard-bearer at the US Open.  Like Schiavone and Li in the WTA, his late-career surge should inspire other chronic underachievers to redouble their efforts in the hope of future rewards.  On the

Crowned in Toronto was a champion ranked much lower than Djokovic but equally expected to collect the title.  Similar to many of her most memorable title charges, Serena’s tournament started modestly with three-setters against Zheng and Safarova before accelerating into commanding performances against Azarenka and Stosur.  Since she might well face the former late in the US Open, her nearly flawless semifinal performance especially dazzled.  Following her success at the relatively minor tournament in Stanford, we still wondered whether Serena could maintain that form into New York and against her leading challengers.  Toronto advanced some distance towards answering that question, confirming the American’s status as the favorite to capture another US Open.  Like Djokovic, however, Serena never faced most of the players whom one might expect to bar her path in New York.  The central storylines of these two tournaments consisted of the astonishing upset epidemic that had convulsed both draws by Wednesday and Thursday.  Beyond Djokovic and Serena, almost none of the familiar names remained immune.  The rest of this article considers the most notable ambushes of the week and their possible impact on the tournaments ahead.

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

Murray (l. to Anderson):  Had he lost two tiebreaks to Kevin Anderson, the towering South African’s upset would look less stunning.  But instead Murray won just four games from an opponent whom he had routed in a previous meeting.  Like Wozniacki, the Scot looked uncomfortable in almost every department of the game, even his normally seamless movement and crisp backhand.  The loss marked a third opening-match exit at Masters 1000 tournaments this year, departing alarmingly from his usual excellence at these events and especially on North American hard courts.  Fortunately for Murray, the concurrent stumbles of Nadal and Federer diminished what otherwise would have seemed a confirmation of the gulf separating him from the top three.  Nevertheless, the Scot risks losing the momentum accumulated during the clay and grass seasons if he allows this loss to deepen the gloom of his Wimbledon disappointment and produce a malaise similar to his post-Australian Open slumps.  Also like Wozniacki, he needs a noteworthy week in Cincinnati to convince himself that he can contend in New York and validate his recent commitment to a more aggressive mentality.

Wozniacki (l. to Vinci):  In March, the world #1 looked on the verge of justifying her ranking after she had come within a point of the Australian Open final and won the year’s first Premier Mandatory tournament at Indian Wells.  Five months later, pre-quarterfinal losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon punctuated a disappointing European spring of stagnation or even regression.  When the battlefields shifted back to hard courts again, Wozniacki desperately needed an infusion of positive energy.  She didn’t get it.  Squandering a 5-1 lead against Roberta Vinci in her Toronto opener, she unleashed an uncharacteristic string of double faults and then just as uncharacteristically assisted an anxious Vinci with unforced errors when she served for the upset.  The setback heightened the ongoing debate over her (un)worthiness to hold the top ranking and turned Cincinnati into a vital week for her before the US Open.  Renowned for dominating this level of tournament and consistently suppressing the rank-and-file of the WTA during her ascent to #1, Wozniacki can ill afford to start opening the door just as those below her grow more confident and others in her generation (see K for Kvitova) start breaking through at majors.

Clijsters (ret. vs. Zheng):  Winning the only completed set that she played in Canada, the Belgian fell victim not to an opponent but to her fourth injury of 2011.  Gone from Cincinnati but “hopeful” for the US Open, she aims to recover from an ailing wrist, ankle, shoulder, and abdomen in time to defend her title.  When she enters New York, she will have played only three matches since Miami and will lack the rhythm upon which she relies.  Clijsters won the US Open as just the third tournament of her comeback, but rust posed a far different and far more easily solved problem than the myriad injuries encircling her.  In order to mount a creditable title defense, she will need a comfortable draw free of dangerous floaters, but the odds of her battered body surviving the fortnight in prime condition look slim.

Zvonareva (l. to Radwanska):  Conquered by Radwanska in straight sets for the second consecutive week, Vera floundered helplessly on her serve this week but still should not have lost twice to an opponent like the Pole on a hard court.  When she won her first nine matches at Wimbledon, one wondered whether she had emerged from the rollercoaster of the last few months.  An error-strewn final in San Diego suggested otherwise, and an early loss in Canada continued her 2011 pattern of underachieving at significant events.  Having fallen in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense, her US Open finals defense looks equally precarious.  On the other hand, Zvonareva collided with an opponent enjoying one of the most successful stretches of her career, hardly an anonymous journeywoman like several of this week’s other ambush artists.  The top-three ranking also probably inflates her status and thus the magnitude of her defeats.

Maria Sharapova - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Sharapova (l. to Voskoboeva):  Just 2-2 in the US Open Series, the Russian appears to have witnessed the climax of her spring surge at the Wimbledon final.  In her four hard-court matches this summer, Sharapova soared through a few brilliant passages but recurrently sank into mediocre and sometimes abysmal stretches.  Often subdued in manner at the Rogers Cup, she may still have felt the sting of her sixth straight loss to Serena.  Moreover, her motivation may have ebbed following her outstanding European campaign.  During her comeback, Sharapova has relied more than ever upon determination and willpower to propel her through matches.  Without those traits, her diminished serve and low margin for error leave her vulnerable to anyone on a day when she lacks her competitive will.  The three-time major champion has suffered much more discouraging reverses over the past few years, however, and has sprung back eventually from each of them with redoubled vigor.  For the post-surgery Sharapova, streakiness has become a way of life, leading to both equally stunning heights and depths.

Nadal (l. to Dodig):  Not since 2008 had the Spaniard fallen in his opening match at a Slam or Masters 1000 tournament, although Isner had startled him in the first round of Roland Garros.  While Ivan Dodig delivered the performance of a lifetime, Nadal routinely has survived the mightiest thunderbolts that ordinary adversaries can hurl at him.  Dominant through a set and a half, the second seed let an opponents escape a one-set deficit for the fourth time this season, causing one to wonder whether his five losses to Djokovic have drained his morale more generally.  But beware of extrapolating too much from a single setback.  After Nadal last lost an opener at a Masters 1000 tournament, he rebounded to win not only the next Masters event but the next two majors, a run culminating with the unforgettable Wimbledon 2008 final.  Inadequate preparation stemming from a nagging foot injury also may have undermined him when the match drifted deep into the Montreal night.

Li (l. to Stosur):  Following her surprise appearance in the Australian Open final, she failed to win a match until the clay season.  Following her even more surprising run to the Roland Garros title, a parallel hangover has ensued that has exacerbated the inconsistency inherent throughout Li’s career.  Although Stosur eventually reached the final, the sixth seed should have found a way to win more than six games in a match when she played “like a junior,” by her own admission.  All the same, one can easily forgive her this lapse when one considers the degree to which her life has changed off the court since that Sunday in Paris.  Projected to become the second-highest-earning woman in sports, Li may not adjust to her new celebrity status for months to come.  If the season ended today, she still would be the WTA player of the year, followed closely by the next name on this list.

Kvitova (l. to Petkovic):  Much like Li, the sudden surge in her renown likely will distract her in the coming tournaments.  First among her peers to claim a major title, Kvitova came down to earth with a thud as she collected just three games from Petkovic, whom she had defeated comfortably in the Brisbane final.  The defeat exposed her lack of versatility or alternatives when her formidable weapons misfire, but one could say the same about most of her offense-oriented peers.  If Kvitova accomplishes nothing the rest of the year, she still has accomplished more than almost all of her rivals, and the recognition of that fact may understandably sap her motivation.

Federer (l. to Tsonga):  For the second time in two tournaments, the GOAT looked listless, tentative, and often disinterested against Tsonga’s assertive physicality.  One might have expected him to vigorously seek revenge for his unprecedented Wimbledon defeat after holding a two-set lead.  Instead, Federer wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of a first set that he ultimately lost, and he oddly vanished after rallying to force a third set, when the momentum lay in his favor.  But only one position in the rankings matters to Federer in his fourth decade, and only four tournaments on the calendar. Three years ago, he lost his opening match at the Rogers Cup to the then-unfamiliar Gilles Simon, an opponent much less accomplished than Tsonga.  A month afterwards, he held the US Open trophy.

***

We return shortly with the previews of the Cincinnati tournament, the last major event before the last major of 2011.

Maria Sharapova - Bank of the West Classic - Day 5

As premier players well know, staying at the top presents a greater challenge than getting there.  Following their Wimbledon exploits, the leading WTA performers there found themselves tasked with preserving their momentum through the three-week midsummer hiatus.  While first-time Slam champion Kvitova remained inactive last week, the others who broke through on the grass delivered their opening statements of the second half.  The only member of this group in College Park, Tamira Paszek succeeded in building upon her surprise Wimbledon quarterfinal by extending top-seeded Peer to three sets and 186 minutes in a tightly contested semifinal.  The player whom she defeated to reach that quarterfinal, Ksenia Pervak, had summoned a similarly encouraging effort by reaching the final of the equally minor tournament in Baku a week before.  Although nobody should confuse either tournament with an occasion of consequence, the additional wins should confirm each player’s confidence that their grass-court accomplishments represented a turning point rather than an anomaly.

But the week’s most compelling WTA action occurred on the opposite coast, where Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova as well as semifinalists Lisicki and Azarenka sought to showcase their talents.  By far the most impressive of this group was the 21-year-old German, whose third consecutive semifinal demonstrated a consistency and durability absent during her recurrent injuries.  In two of her Stanford victories, Lisicki overcame two dramatically different playing styles in the serve-oriented Stosur and the death-by-paper-cut style of Radwanska.  Unbroken on serve against the former, she adjusted to the more unpredictable rhythm of the latter and competed resiliently even when the match looked on the verge of slipping away after the second set.  Less statistically excellent than the Stosur victory, the Radwanska win impressed us more because it showed Lisicki’s ability to win without depending entirely on her aces.  Dropping serve several times during that match, the German battled fiercely to regain the breaks and did not waver in focus during the numerous multiple-deuce games that developed.

Less remarkable were the weeks enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by the other two members of Wimbledon’s final four who appeared at Stanford.  In the opening match of her title defense, Azarenka slumped to a stunning defeat against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100, the lowest-ranked player to defeat the world #4 on a hard court since 2006.  While one doffs the hat to New Zealand #1 Erakovic for her first win over a top-20 opponent, the Wimbledon semifinalist scarcely resembled the contender that she hopes to become during a limp, helpless third set.  A round later, Erakovic would win just two games against Wimbledon quarterfinalist Cibulkova, whose resounding victory merely heightened the defending champion’s embarrassment.  Also eager to put an underwhelming week behind her, as she said herself, is the Wimbledon runner-up.  Only sporadically brilliant during a three-set victory over Hantuchova, Sharapova dropped seven straight games at one stage in that match and then lost nine of the first ten games in an unjustifiably anticipated quarterfinal with Serena.  Able to compensate for her fickle serve with scorching returns against most opponents, the Russian cannot rely upon that plan against a server like the American.

On the other hand, the relative fortunes of Lisicki and Sharapova depended substantially upon their proximity to the eventual Stanford champion, who played as though one could have dropped the last two digits from her triple-digit ranking.  Against the Wimbledon semifinalist and finalist, Serena conceded just seven total games as her spontaneous athletic shot-making soared past the more mechanized offenses of her opponents.  Vital to her title run, as usual, was the 13-time Slam champion’s serve, which surrendered only five service breaks in five matches—an excellent week even by ATP serving standards.  Rarely witnessed at an event lacking in prestige, Serena’s competitive ferocity saturated Stanford’s modest arena and prevented opponents from accumulating emotional energy of their own.  Her last victim and Wimbledon nemesis, Bartoli, attempted to assert herself early in the match with fistpumps and glares after almost every point with a positive outcome, but her self-exhortations looked less like expressions of inner confidence or willpower than efforts to convince herself that she could win.  Reserved for key points and outstanding shots, by contrast, Serena’s growls and clenched fists illustrated the confirmation of her expectations.  Despite the cascade of stunning aces and winners that flowed from her racket this week, we will remember longest a point that she lost.  In a semifinal long since decided, Lisicki dragged Serena into the net with a drop shot, then lobbed over her head, and then feathered another drop volley.  At most non-majors, one might have expected the younger Williams to concede the point after the first or second of these shots.  This time, she charged down the first two and nearly the third before sprawling on the sideline as it eluded her.  Honed by her year-long absence, Serena’s relentless competitive appetite propelled her as much as her serve towards a title that she relished more than one would have imagined.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point against Marion Bartoli of France during the final of the Bank of the West Classic at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on July 31, 2011 in Stanford, California.

Will that hunger carry her to a third US Open crown?  Tempering enthusiasm over her week at Stanford is the realization that she defeated only one genuine contender in New York there (Sharapova), and her dominance over the Russian merely continued a pre-existing trend.  Serena did not face any of this year’s Slam champions at Stanford, nor did she confront current #1 Wozniacki or an in-form Azarenka, both of whom have troubled her before.  At the Premier Five events that lie ahead, we may gain a clearer understanding of where she fits into the field at a wide-open Open, for Li or Kvitova might well prove more formidable challenges than those that she faced last week.

Not the only unseeded champion of the US Open Series, Serena accompanied a most unlikely figure in her charge to a California champion’s podium.  Notorious for his slothful work ethic, this inveterate ambush artist triggered memories of past upsets over Federer and Djokovic with his quarterfinal victory over Del Potro.  In the past, though, Gulbis generally had failed to extend the impetus from those stunning accomplishments; before this week, he had won only one title at a tiny event in Delray Beach.  Breaking from that precedent here, he scored his first victory over a top-10 opponent in a semifinal or final in a tense, compelling encounter with Atlanta champion Fish.  The first set unfolded much as a cynic might have scripted it with the pampered, profligate Latvian wasting opportunities to break before double-faulting on set point.  But the narrative crumbled midway through the second set, when Gulbis declined to content himself with an excellent week and turned the tide decisively.  Although he nearly wasted a 5-1 lead in the final against a visibly tiring opponent, but the three consecutive winners with which the match ended suggested an uncharacteristic poise under pressure.  Perhaps the shift to a new coach, the equally enigmatic Guillermo Canas, has provided Gulbis with a temporary injection of motivation that will anesthetize him against complacency for the next few months.

As Fish continued to accelerate from his Wimbledon quarterfinal into a successful summer, Ryan Harrison also built upon his fine effort at the All England Club in a five-set loss to Ferrer.  In his second straight semifinal, the swiftly rising American teen dueled Fish far more convincingly than during their Atlanta meeting.  Undeterred by a first-set bagel, Harrison clawed himself back into the match against a far more experienced opponent and came within a few points of his debut final.  The outlook for American men’s tennis no longer looks so bleak, especially considering his successes this year against Raonic and Berankis, contemporaries likely to rival Harrison for significant titles in two or three years.

Challenging Nadal throughout their suspenseful four-setter at Wimbledon, Del Potro appeared to have regressed somewhat in Los Angeles. Somewhat like Sharapova, his unremarkable week stemmed in part from the vagaries of a draw that placed him near the eventual, unexpected champion.  Nevertheless, the 2009 US Open champion not only struggled at times to dispatch the faded Blake but should have found a way to at least hamper and harry Gulbis as Fish did.  Notwithstanding the Latvian’s eventual title and history of victories against elite opponents, Del Potro must summon stronger performances against these dangerous dark horses in order to reassert himself as a contender.

After one week of the US Open Series, more questions have been asked than answered.  We look forward next week to untangling the leading storylines from San Diego and Washington, following a preview of the now simultaneous Canadian tournaments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

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

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

***

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

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniela Hantuchova - AEGON Classic - Day Six

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Birmingham finalists:  Contesting her second final of the season, Hantuchova extended her impetus from a second-week surge at Roland Garros to her favorite surface.  Ideally suited for grass are her pinpoint angles, risky shot-making, and deftness in the forecourt, while the surface also masks her awkward movement.  Not normally known for her competitive will, the Slovak showed not only expected bravado but unexpected tenacity in turning the tide of her semifinal with Ivanovic.  Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lisicki also shone with victories over former champion Rybarikova and 2011 breakthrough sensation Peng.  Several injuries and two years removed from her Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the German still can unleash the short-point style of massive serves and returns that works most effectively on grass.  Despite the disappointments that have filled a once-promising career, Lisicki has maintained more optimism than have many less blighted peers.  The All England Club will not regret awarding her a wildcard, although those near her in the draw might.

Queens Club finalists:  Perhaps favored to win the title from the outset, 2009 champion Murray still deserved credit for so emphatically crushing three-time Wimbledon finalist Roddick.  Their 59-minute semifinal showcased the Scot at his best, especially his talent for shot selection and point construction.  Mastering the challenge of translating momentum from clay to grass, Murray may enter Wimbledon as the most plausible threat to Nadal and Federer.  Less a contender than a dark horse, Tsonga erased his Paris disappointment by upsetting the world #1 while hammering 25 aces upon the London lawn.  Although he lately has underperformed at majors and will not have a comfortable draw, the acrobatic Frenchman could repeat his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance with his mixture of pounding serves and delicate touch.  Sporadic focus remains his primary flaw, though, and it emerged again in a semifinal win that became more exciting than necessary.

Ivanovic:  Surpassing the expectations of most, including herself, the Serb expressed delight at playing four straight matches at the same tournament for just the second time this year.  After collecting just two matches during the clay season, Ivanovic found her footing on the grass and exceeded that total in a single event.  Despite squandering a one-set lead once more, she served magnificently on crucial points and hit through her backhand with greater conviction until her last few games of the tournament.  While nobody would confuse Lucic or Marino with a contender, wins matter more than opponents now for the Serb.  Sharapova-less for only the second time since 2004, the Edgbaston Priory must have breathed a sigh of relief when the Russian’s glamorous replacement stayed for the weekend.

James Ward:  Ranked outside the top 200, this unknown Brit stunned Wawrinka and defending champion Querrey (see below) before recording a more competitive performance against Tsonga than Roddick against Murray.  A wildcard recipient like Ivanovic, Ward will vanish into the mists of tennis history soon enough, but he deserves a moment in the spotlight for generating good news for British tennis at one of the gloomier moments in its history.  It appears that the English don’t always need to import a Scotsman to win their battles for them.

Deuce:

Wozniacki:  Another week, another trivial tournament, another trivial title.  While every trophy counts to some degree, few events have seemed more like foregone conclusions than Copenhagen, which retained its indoor hard surface while wedged into an uncomfortable pigeonhole between the clay and grass seasons.  One recognizes the pressures on Wozniacki to play her home nation’s tournament, perhaps dependent on her for its existence, and her commitment to these small events suggests a genuine affection for the sport not always observed in #1s.  Nevertheless, one suspects that even most Danes would prefer her to win at a major rather than on home soil, and Copenhagen offers a uniquely ill-conceived venue to prepare for Wimbledon.

Nadal:  Falling to Tsonga and on the turf, the ten-time major champion rarely settled into a comfortable rhythm during his three matches.  A quarterfinal exit at Queens Club preceded his second Wimbledon title last year, though, so this result seems inconsequential as an omen.  After an unusually stressful fortnight at Roland Garros, it should come as no surprise that Nadal could not rekindle his intensity just days later.

Roddick:  Winless since Indian Wells, he desperately needed to collect a few solid matches this week to restore some of his confidence before Wimbledon, where he should stay in contention throughout his career.   In a stiffer draw than a standard 250 event, Roddick notched those wins in impressive fashion when he conquered Spaniards Lopez and Verdasco.  Then Murray notched an even more impressive win against Roddick, who suddenly looked one-dimensional and outdated against a top-five opponent.

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Querrey:  While nobody imagined that the slumping American would defend his title, a loss to the aforementioned Ward marked a particularly deflating end to his attempt.  That early exit likely will cost him a Wimbledon seed and thus may stir him from his complacency.

Berdych:  In a second straight odd loss, the world #7 and defending Wimbledon finalist could not solve the uncomplicated challenge of Petzschner.  As notable as the loss itself was the manner of the loss, for Berdych reversed the momentum after the first set to cruise through the second set in what should have proved a decisive momentum shift.  Few leading contenders would have allowed a match against a journeyman to escape them at that stage, as the Czech did.

Kanepi:  Soon to defend marquee quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open, the Estonian continued a generally fruitless 2011 campaign with an early Birmingham loss as the top seed.  Having reached the quarterfinals in just one of ten tournaments this year, she has not performed at the level of most rising stars ranked near her, such as Pavlyuchenkova, Goerges, Wickmayer, and Peng.

Adidas:  Nike’s putative rival signed sponsorship contracts with two women on whom almost anything looks good, then chose to garb them in essentially the same outfit like members of a doubles team.  Compare the picture below with the picture at the top.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates a point during her semi-final match agsint Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia during day six of the AEGON Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club on June 11, 2011 in Birmingham, England.

Andy Murray - Sony Ericsson Open

At first glance, the scorekeeper appeared to have committed an egregious error.  A fortnight after falling to Donald Young in Indian Wells, world #5 Andy Murray had toppled to the even more anonymous qualifier Alexander Bogomolov, Jr.  But in fact the egregious errors here all belonged to the Australian Open runner-up, who has repeated his alarming 2010 dive after finishing second at the season’s first major.  Like Murray, the WTA runner-up in Melbourne has failed to win a match since her breathtaking January surge.  Peering over the barriers that surround this disaster scene, we consider the how, why, when, where, and what of the dual implosion.

How did it unfold? Just as he had in his previous two Slam finals, Murray crumbled under the pressure of expectations against a sparkling Djokovic who probably would have conquered him anyway.  Burdened by both the disappointment and a wrist injury, the world #5 then squandered a double-break advantage against Baghdatis in Rotterdam and struggled to hold serve throughout the match.  Not until Indian Wells did his malaise fully blossom, though, with a straight-sets loss to #143 Donald Young in which the Scot showed little positive body language and less conviction behind his strokes.  (Young then would collect just four games from Robredo in the next round.)  Normally renowned for consistent technique, Murray extended this deflating trend at the year’s second Masters 1000 event by holding serve only three times in an even more ghastly and error-strewn defeat.

Whereas her ATP counterpart has lost nine consecutive sets, Li Na has positioned herself to win in all but one of her losses during her current five-match skid.  At the close of her historic Melbourne run, she stood within ten points of a maiden Grand Slam title before succumbing to the heavily favored Clijsters.  Holding quadruple match point against Wickmayer in Dubai a match later, Li surrendered six consecutive points at that stage to drop a second-set tiebreak and faded sharply in the third set.  After she won just three games from the unimposing Zakopalova in Doha, the Melbourne finalist appeared to have stabilized when she captured the first set from Peng in Indian Wells.  This appearance deceived, however, as Li spiraled downward with accelerating velocity in the second half of that match.  A ferocious comeback against world #78 Johanna Larsson in Miami brought her to the brink of victory with three more match points, but she spurned those opportunities as well as a 4-0 advantage in the deciding tiebreak.

Na Li Na Li of China looks on between games in her women's final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day thirteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.Why did it happen? As the contrasting manner of their losses suggests, Murray and Li can attribute their slumps to divergent sources.  Confirmed in his inferiority complex by yet another disappointing performance in a major final, the Scot sagged from depleted self-esteem and self-belief during his ensuing tournaments.  The lack of confidence surfaced in the mostly meek nature of his losses, during which he exerted little effort in reversing the tide against him.  By contrast, Li probably suffered a hangover from the euphoria of her unprecedented breakthrough, becoming the first Asian woman to reach the final of a major.  She may have experienced a degree of disappointment after failing to capitalize upon her early momentum against Clijsters, but the tight scorelines of her losses suggest less a generally pervasive disillusionment—as do Murray’s straight-setters—than a sporadic lack of concentration at crucial moments.

When and where might they recover? Unlikely to excel on the surface least friendly to his style, Murray probably will wallow through a woeful clay season before rejuvenating himself in his home nation as he did in 2010.  Despite the pressure of his compatriots at Wimbledon, the Scot repeatedly has collected himself there after stumbles on the European continent.  Always a threat during the US Open Series, Murray surely will have quelled the memories of his Melbourne disappointment by that stage.  More broadly, the Scot still has several years ahead to showcase , not a luxury available to the WTA runner-up.

More competent on red dirt than the Scot, Li Na nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros two years ago and thus could revitalize her form more swiftly.   While clay remains her weakest surface, the WTA features few dirt devils outside Schiavone following Henin’s retirement.  Outstanding in the grass season last year, Li should find that surface ideally suited to her darting groundstrokes and compact physique with a relatively low center of gravity.  At the not very tender age of 29, however, the Chinese star already has incurred a multitude of injuries that could emerge to haunt her without warning.   Li probably can look forward to no more than two or at most three more years as a contender, so she might approach her mission with greater urgency than will Murray.

What should we and they learn from it? First, Slams matter immensely more than even the most significant non-majors to players as well as the majority of commentators and spectators.  Far from moping around the court after an ignominious loss to Nadal in the 2009 Indian Wells final, for example, Murray stormed to the title in Miami two weeks later with a self-assured victory over Djokovic.  And no sense of complacency from winning titles in Birmingham and Sydney during the past twelve months afflicted Li Na at ensuing tournaments at Wimbledon and Melbourne.  Clearly, the elevated intensity associated with the majors influences not only the champions who win them consistently (see N for Nadal and W for Williams) but also some players who never have raised one of the sport’s four most prestigious trophies.  Mirroring the peaks and valleys of the calendar are the emotional peaks and valleys experienced by those who participate in this rollercoaster.

At the same time, Murray and Li both must cultivate the art of amnesia in order to maximize their potential. While players should celebrate accomplishments as they happen and have the right to bemoan bitter defeats, they also must maintain a sense of perspective from one week to the next.  The ATP #5 cannot continue to meander through months of tepid tennis while nursing his wounds from a single setback, nor can Li linger in the glow of yesterday’s glory.  Apt for this sport is Horace’s saying that “time flies” (tempus fugit).  In their exceptionally short careers, tennis stars have a limited window of opportunity to leave an impact.  Requiring most contenders to live in the present and plan for the future, that situation exacerbates the challenges confronting those who dwell too long in the past.

Etched on a wall at the All England Club is Kipling’s poem “If,” which offered timely consolation for Mahut after his epic Wimbledon loss to Isner.  The second couplet of the poem’s second stanza reminds its readers that fulfillment flows to those who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.”

Such is the task that looms ahead for Murray and Li.

1) 1812 Overture: Like Napoleon’s Grande Armée two centuries ago, French invaders temporarily occupied Moscow before valiant Russian resistance forced them to retreat.  Cast in the role of Marshal Kutuzov was the equally wily Shamil Tarpischev, who combined patience with inspiration as a disastrous Saturday turned into a dazzling Sunday.  Initially controlling the opening rubber, Kuznetsova drifted into complacency just as her opponent Alize Cornet began to believe that she actually could win a match for her country.  Tenuously committed to Fed Cup at best, Russian flagship Sharapova then subjected her compatriots to an avalanche of 46 unforced errors that secured her Olympic eligibility in addition to a commanding lead for France.  Staggering from this Battle of Borodino, Tarpischev then replaced the three-time major champion with the plucky yet untested Pavlyuchenkova.  The WTA’s highest-ranked teenager breathed life into a moribund Russian squad by grinding her way past Cornet, who looked the heroine of the tie a set into the third rubber.   Atoning for the sins of Saturday, Kuznetsova firmly subdued Razzano and then returned with undiluted energy for the decisive doubles.  After a nervy first set, Sveta and Nastia savaged Coin and a more familiar version of Cornet during a second set in which the home squad dropped just four total points.   A nation of limitless resources and legendary pugnacity, Russia should have surprised nobody in producing the first team to erase a 0-2 deficit since Fed Cup shifted to the five-rubber format.

2) Tension in Tasmania: Behind an unremarkable 4-1 scoreline smoldered the most scintillating Fed Cup tie of the weekend, which opened with three fiercely contested three-setters.  In the tranquil surroundings of Hobart, the defending champions needed all of Pennetta’s poise and Schiavone’s swagger to escape a confident home squad.  Tiebreaks and deuce service games proliferated from the outset as Groth and Stosur pitted their power against Italian versatility.  Losing two epic encounters in a 24-hour span, the Australian #1 will wonder how the weekend might have unfolded had she capitalized upon the momentum of Groth’s opening upset over Schiavone by serving out the first set against Pennetta.  Unbroken by that disappointment, however, she competed valiantly through the second set before her flagging self-belief betrayed her in the third.  Stosur then starred in an eerily similar script on Sunday, which featured a rematch of the 2010 Roland Garros final that trumped the original in drama if not in quality.  Despite a ghastly first-set tiebreak, Sam regrouped to deliver a dominant second set and looked superior early in the decider.  Narrowly surviving that sequence, Schiavone then turned the tide almost imperceptibly as her service games grew smoother and the Australian’s games more turbulent.  Battling even more doggedly than on the previous day, the Australian erased four match points in a resilient effort from which she could (and should) take pride although not a victory.  We sympathize with her while applauding Pennetta’s 10-match Fed Cup winning streak and Schiavone’s indefatigable willpower.

3) Ivan the Terrible: In the second round of the Australian Open, a virtually unknown Croat named Ivan Dodig extended Djokovic to four sets in the only blemish on the eventual champion’s otherwise flawless fortnight.  Although the Serb promptly punished him for that affront, this implausible home hero kept the Zagreb title in local hands for the third consecutive year with victories over four seeded players during which he dropped just one total set.  Filling the void left by a perplexing Cilic, the 26-year-old Dodig ousted Granollers, Ljubicic, and Garcia-Lopez before mastering his first career final with aplomb.  Well below the towering height of his most notable compatriots, he has contested just 29 singles matches in ATP main draws during a career mostly spent trudging between challengers and qualifying rounds.  Although figures like Dodig will not leave an impact upon the sport, this week reminded us that seemingly trivial tournaments like Zagreb enable opportunistic underdogs to shine.  Fellow journeymen who noticed his feat should pursue their mission with belief rekindled.

4) Standing tall (for now): Another first-time titlist from a home nation, Kevin Anderson emulated Dodig’s feat while standing eight inches taller than Croat on brittle-looking legs.  Equally precarious is the status of the Johannesburg tournament that Anderson won, which may become a victim of a 2012 calendar truncated for the Olympics.  One would not wish to see the ATP shrink an already tentative footprint on the African continent, but few spectators watch tournaments in hopes of seeing Izak van der Merwe, Somdeev Devvarman, and Adrian Mannarino, the three players who accompanied Anderson to the semifinals.  Unlike the once-embattled WTA Birmingham event, the South African tournament lacks a superstar commitment to shelter it.  As the case of Hamburg demonstrated, tournaments have scant recourse against the authority of the ATP, which often rules its dominions by arbitrary fiat.  On the other hand, perhaps Johannesburg can exploit the current uncertainty to escape its undesirable position on the calendar, for the week immediately following a Slam never will host a tournament of relevance.

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