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Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

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

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

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

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

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

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

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

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

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

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

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

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 4

Federer vs. Cilic:  Untroubled through his first six sets of the fortnight, Federer now faces an opponent with an equally unblemished record through two rounds.  Whereas the third seed cruised past unheralded foes, though, Cilic dealt heavy blows to the hopes of promising youngsters Harrison and Tomic, either of whom would have seemed a more plausible challenger to Federer at this stage.  But the Croat has struck his inside-out forehand with devastating effect this week, and that weapon will prove vital in chipping away at the Swiss legend’s one-handed backhand.  Unable to seriously threaten Federer in their two previous meetings, Cilic has found his imposing serve neutralized by the former’s blocked returns.  Loath to finish points in the forecourt, this firmly rooted baseliner will find the initiative gradually wrested away from him as the world #3 exploits his ungainly movement.  Nevertheless, Federer has a mixed record against ATP sluggers in recent months, dominating Del Potro while falling twice to Tsonga and once to Berdych.  While Cilic surely cannot outlast him in a best-of-five format, he should force the five-time champion to raise his focus a notch or two if he wants to advance in straight sets.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Dropping just three games in four sets so far, Serena has yet to encounter someone worthy of her steel.  In the most fascinating match of the middle weekend, Azarenka aims to prove her mettle as she did against the American in consecutive Australian Opens.  At both the 2009 and 2010 Melbourne tournament, the Belarussian pounded herself to a one-set lead by pinning Serena behind the baseline rather than allowing her to step inside the court.  On the latter of those occasions, Vika came within six points of a routine straight-sets victory before Serena roared back from the jaws of defeat.  Only once has Azarenka conquered the American, in fact, at a 2009 Miami final in which the latter’s injuries clearly undermined her.  Like Sharapova, the Belarussian has few options with which to solve Serena at her best, for no WTA contender possesses such raw athleticism that enables her to strike penetrating blows on the run and cover the court both vertically and laterally.  Solid if not spectacular when avenging her 2011 loss to Dulko, Azarenka must protect her weak second serve by seeking a high first-serve percentage.  When they met in Toronto this summer, Serena consistently targeted her opponent’s more reliable wing, the backhand—and still won in two relatively comfortable sets.  Even the best that the Belarussian could offer, therefore, still fell well short.  Not the sturdiest character on grand stages, the act of conquering a 13-time Slam champion on Arthur Ashe before a hostile crowd would represent her greatest achievement to date.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Stephens:  Enthusiastic about her first appearance in an Arthur Ashe night session, Ivanovic will need to improve upon her pedestrian opener in order to craft a happy ending.  Receiving a walkover from Cetkovska in the second round, the Serb has gained three crucial days of rest to refine her game and soothe her emotions.  A round after she battled through a hard-fought second set to upset Peer, Stephens may suffer from the same hangover that McHale seemed to experience against Kirilenko after she had overcome Bartoli.  The vocal crowd should stimulate the American, however, and the experience of playing on a similarly impressive stadium at Indian Wells once drew inspired tennis (albeit not a win) from her.  Still seeking to develop an explosive weapon, the home hope relied upon consistency and ball placement in her previous victory, as she did in her run to the San Diego quarterfinals.  A smooth mover with a talent for changing speeds, Stephens rattled the rhythm-oriented Peer by alternating lazy moonballs with flattened inside-out forehands.  Armed with far more formidable first-strike power, Ivanovic also relies upon a steady rhythm but possesses more options for ending points quickly than did Peer.  Although the Serb’s form ebbs and flows from one day to the next, she should decide her own fate in a match likely to produce statistical asymmetry in all categories.

Djokovic vs. Davydenko:  In his first match as the world #1, the new king of the ATP hill nearly lost his first set as a #1 to a player who spent years in the top 5 as a trendy underdog and a fascinating player to watch.  Known for his relentlessly vicious, flat groundstrokes and bursts of whimsicality, Davydenko has faded from the scene this season but proved again in Montreal that his ball-striking skills can trouble the most prestigious opponents.  If Djokovic enters this match complacent or unfocused, as he did then, beware of a potentially protracted encounter until he finds his range and starts punishing the Russian’s fallible serve (seemingly a national flaw).  At the Rogers Cup, his sparkling return game broke Davydenko seven straight times, while his first two opponents manage to hold serve exactly once in five sets against the top seed.  Considering Kolya’s own brilliance on the return, we could witness a WTA-like match where breaks set the tone rather than holds and when the serve wins relatively few quick points.  The fast surface in New York should soften Davydenko’s post-surgery inconsistency, allowing him to end rallies without creating as many audacious angles.  In a five-set victory over Dodig, moreover, he demonstrated the physical and mental endurance that often had eluded him this year.  Like Serena, Djokovic will benefit from the opportunity to play an opponent of this quality, which will prepare him for the increasingly arduous tests ahead.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  Upon Djokovic’s ascent to #1, his compatriot proclaimed a belief that he could reach the top 10.  Perhaps in agreement with that assessment is the ninth seed, who has lost all three of their meetings and succumbed routinely to the Serb in Montreal this summer.  This head-to-head record puzzles in view of the superior weapons that Berdych possesses on virtually every shot, but Tipsarevic’s superior persistence has reaped rewards against the less determined Czech.  Often at his best against the best, the Serbian eccentric twice has defeated Roddick at majors (including last year’s Open) and came excruciatingly close to upsetting Federer at the 2008 Australian Open.  A semifinalist in Montreal, he confronts a Cincinnati semifinalist who has looked progressively more convincing since the clay season.  Before retiring against Djokovic in Cincinnati, Berdych delivered a comprehensive performance against Federer that stirred memories of his 2010 triumphs against the Swiss, Djokovic, and others.  In order to halt his slide down the rankings, though, he needs to more regularly win the matches that he should win:  matches like these.

Jankovic vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Ranked just four slots apart, the Serb and the Russian should engage in another tense encounter similar to their three-set final in Monterrey.  Illustrating a trend in her performances this year, Jankovic cruised through the first set in the encounter before sagging in the second and failing to recover.  Hampered by a back injury in the second round against Dokic, the former #1 has earned a reputation of courageously battling through such ailments to victory.  Jankovic sometimes becomes most dangerous when beleaguered by such drama-creating circumstances, so one wouldn’t discount the possibility of a quarterfinal appearance.  Turning 20 in July, Pavlyuchenkova played over 250 matches as a teenager and has encountered injuries with disquieting frequency herself.  As Zvonareva learned the hard way at Roland Garros, her groundstrokes can hammer through counterpunchers on any surface.  Less impressive is a serve that conceded more than 50 double faults during a three-match stretch in Baku.  Long fallible on serve herself, Jankovic will struggle even more with that stroke if her back continues to trouble her.  We anticipate swarms of service breaks and few trips to the net except for the occasional swinging volley.

Anderson vs. Fish:  Gifted a pair of error-prone opponents in his first two matches, the top-ranked American man never needed to demonstrate the improvements in fitness, versatility, and court sense that have spurred his rise.  A towering South African who defeated Murray in Montreal, Anderson should earn sufficient free points with his serve to stay within range and subject Fish to pressure.  The US Open Series champion wobbled through several complicated service games this week, mostly when his first-serve percentage dipped or his mind wandered.  Still searching for the balance between caution and aggression, Fish can grow tentative in rallies even on these fast courts that suit his game.  In order to avoid an edgy encounter on Saturday, the world #8 will want to assert himself earlier in rallies while punishing his opponent’s second serve.  A respectable mover considering his height, Anderson falters when forced to reverse direction, so Fish could exploit his opponent’s awkward footwork.  Will either or both of them enliven their baseline style with an occasional serve-volley gambit?

Tsonga vs. Verdasco:  Only once have this flamboyant pair of shot-makers met, at the 2009 Australian Open when Verdasco recorded the most spectacular performance of his career.  Less flamboyant than frustrating in 2011, he has sunk to the fringes of the top 20 while losing six opening-round encounters.  In Cincinnati, however, Verdasco extended an ailing Nadal deep into a third-set tiebreak, an accomplishment that may have infused him with optimism.  On the other hand, his tennis rarely dazzled during a match notable largely for ineptitude, squandered opportunities, and mental frailty.  Far superior this summer, Tsonga blazed to consecutive semifinals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup behind memorable victories over Federer.  The Frenchman finally has enjoyed an extended span of health that has allowed him to consolidate his momentum, although a dubious retirement in Montreal  preceded a dismal loss in Cincinnati.  Whereas Verdasco suffers from a fatalistic streak that almost expects failure, Tsonga has embraced a carefree, optimistic attitude to a sport that he visibly relishes.  Both of these mentalities can lead their owners on circuitous routes to victory, and this collision should prove no exception.

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 Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts against Samantha Stosur of Australia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Dulgheru:  Emphatically delivering her first victory over a top-5 opponent since shoulder surgery, the two-time Miami finalist now hopes to replicate her semifinal surge at Indian Wells as her confidence grows with each victory.  Unusually crisp with her movement and footwork here, Sharapova has dropped her serve just three times in three matches despite occasional clusters of double faults, while her return arguably has unleashed even more impressive blows.  Yet the Russian has oscillated sharply from one match to the next throughout her comeback, suggesting that the excellence of Monday will not necessarily translate to Tuesday.  At Indian Wells, for example, she stifled the potentially dangerous Safina with intimidating ease before wobbling through extended stretches of her quarterfinal against the less intimidating Peng.  Never having faced the Romanian before, Sharapova will require a few games to adjust to Dulgheru’s style.  Without the opportunity to watch the world #28 during the past year, we cannot offer much insight onto that style.  Nevertheless, Dulgheru has advanced to this quarterfinal without dropping a set, an accomplishment that deserves respect although occurring entirely against unseeded players.  While the match surely rests in Sharapova’s hands, the three-time major champion cannot afford to loosen her focus against a competitor probably brimming with confidence.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Fortunate to encounter Wozniacki on an uncharacteristically error-strewn afternoon, “Petkorazzi” still receives credit for polishing off the world #1 so confidently.  Serving out the match at love with an ace, the 21st seed showcased the swagger that could bring her into the top 20 if she learns how to harness her groundstrokes throughout an entire tournament.  Aligned against a second consecutive counterpuncher, Petkovic probably will deploy the same tactics that her coach suggested to undermine Wozniacki.  One wonders whether her strategy of out-counterpunching the counterpuncher would have succeeded so well, however, had the Dane not substituted an impersonator for her normally stingy self.  Even more susceptible to such wobbles than Wozniacki is the counterpuncher who now confronts the German, for Jankovic spent much of last year tottering from one misstep to the next.  Buoyed by a February revival, she atoned for a disappointing Indian Wells campaign with a sturdy performance here.  On the other hand, none of her previous victims possesses the same degree of weapons or poise as Petkovic.  Another resident in the WTA’s second tier of ball-strikers, Pavlyuchenkova, thumped heavy but not electric groundstrokes past her in the Monterrey final.

Mayer vs. Berdych:  Fallible in his first two victories, the 2010 runner-up needlessly dropped a set to the aging Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and nearly another to the anonymous Carlos Berlocq.  Such profligacy could cost Berdych against an opponent who quenched the inflammable Almagro two rounds after circumventing Indian Wells quarterfinalist Karlovic.  Nor should this week’s success surprise those who closely followed the German this season, during which he has conquered Del Potro, Davydenko, and Cilic.  A two-time semifinalist already in 2011, Mayer can compile formidable serve-forehand combinations while struggling at times with his movement and shot selection.  Also a rather programmatic player, Berdych has settled into a netherworld this year between the leading contenders and the second tier, generally defeating the players whom he should defeat but losing to those ranked above him.  The Czech must defend vast quantities of points over the next few months, so one wonders how he will respond to the pressure.

Federer vs. Rochus:  A former doubles partner of the Swiss legend, the Belgian never has defeated him in their seven career meetings.  En route to this unexpected fourth-round encounter, though, Rochus not only qualified but defeated familiar names Baghdatis and Youzhny after winning the longest match of the men’s tournament in his opener.  Cruising at medium altitude in his first two matches, Federer should not need to elevate his performance to record another unremarkable straight-sets victory.  In return for brushing aside potential threats like a minesweeper, Rochus probably deserves a bit of compensation from the world #3.  Perhaps an autographed box of Lindt chocolates?

Tipsarevic vs. Simon:  Amidst a largely sparkling tournament for Serbs so far, the quirky Tipsarevic displayed his underrated talents by upsetting a flustered Cilic with one carefully constructed rally at a time.  Far less mighty than the Croat, the compact Serb outmaneuvered his lanky foe from the baseline with expertly placed groundstrokes while creating unpredictable angles on his serve.  But Tipsarevic now collides with an opponent who shares his competitive resilience and his scintillating two-handed backhand.  Although Tipsarevic reached the Delray Beach final in February, Simon generally has shone more brightly over the past several months with titles in Metz last fall and Sydney before the Australian Open.  After a rain-soaked three-setter with Cuevas that extended late into Monday night, the Frenchman may enter his meeting with the Serb a trifle jaded.  His brand of tennis relies upon indefatigable movement and concentration, whereas Tipsarevic more often showcases shot-making almost as bold and idiosyncratic as his hairstyle, sunglasses, and tattoos.

Ferrer vs Granollers:  Following a dismal defeat against Karlovic, the Spanish #2 regrouped commendably to overcome a rising Devvarman.  The highest-ranked player remaining in his section eyes a compatriot who rallied from the edge of the precipice against Llodra a round ago to win his third consecutive three-setter.  Not known for his serving prowess, Granollers nevertheless never conceded his delivery throughout three sets against twelfth-seeded Wawrinka.  And he already has proven his ability to topple notable opponents by conquering Soderling at the 2010 Australian Open.  Will three long matches hamper his fitness against Ferrer, perhaps the worst possible opponent to confront when tired?  Unless Granollers can continue to win free points on his serve, he probably will find himself dragged into prolonged baseline exchanges where Ferrer’s consistency should prevail.

Juan Martin Del Potro - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Del Potro:  In the most impressive victory of his comeback, the 2009 US Open champion comprehensively outplayed world #4 Soderling from the first ball to the last.  Covering the court with aplomb, Del Potro struck his backhand with as much purpose and confidence as his forehand, a dangerous omen for his rivals.  After such a comprehensive performance, he must guard against a lull when he faces an opponent who troubled him in the second set of their Delray Beach semifinal.  Among Fish’s more successful ploys in that match was pounding his two-hander down the line into Del Potro’s forehand, the side towards which the Argentine moves less effectively.  Unlikely to outlast or consistently outhit the Tower of Tandil from the baseline, the American must maintain a high first-serve percentage in order to open as many rallies as possible on the offensive, perhaps even following his serve to the net at times.  Across the net, Del Potro will aim to intimidate Fish with the percussive returns that his broad wingspan facilitates.

Isner vs. Anderson:  Serve…serve…serve.  In Federer’s view, with which we sympathize, these two leviathans do not play tennis but some ghastly and irreverent imitation of it.  Both of them have profited from the upsets that other players achieved over Murray and Verdasco.  Although Isner’s greater experience at elite tournaments should provide him with a vital edge, this match probably will hinge upon a missed first serve or a botched smash on break point or in a tiebreak.  Until that moment occurs, little action will stimulate audience members who hope to see something more than serve…serve…serve.

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  When the current world #2 struggled in 2010, his compatriot nearly capitalized with a pair of notable upsets in Dubai and the US Open.  Noted by a variety of commentators, his first-round encounter with Djokovic in New York may have represented a crucial turning point in the younger Serb’s revitalization.  Having failed to secure that match when it lay well within his grasp, Troicki appears to have lost self-belief against the Australian Open champion.  When they met in the same round at Indian Wells, he collected just one game from Djokovic in an effort that fell short even of Wawrinka’s standards against Federer.  Still undefeated in 2011, the second seed has conceded only three games in four sets here while spending 101 total minutes on court.  Striking every shot with effortless confidence, he has dominated opponents to an extent reminiscent of Nadal on clay.  Throughout this winning streak, viewers have started to wonder less whether the Serb would prevail than how he would arrive at his inevitable destination this time.

[As of publication, Nadal’s fourth-round opponent remained undecided.  See the article below for a preview of Ivanovic-Clijsters, postponed from Monday night as a result of inclement weather.]

 

 

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On a Saturday afternoon a year ago, Sharapova succumbed to the steely challenge of a precocious American upstart.  In the 2010 US Open, she faces another home hope even more anonymous than was Oudin, for Beatrice Capra never has appeared in a major before this fortnight.  Stunning Aravane Rezai in a tightly contested three-setter, she earned her position in the third round with a mental resilience modeled upon…Sharapova.  Yet the confident, poised Maria of 2010 barely resembles the tentative, self-doubting Maria of 2009, who became the principal architect of her own demise with a record-breaking cascade of double faults.  With her serve and fortitude restored, the 2006 champion will seek to impose her presence and her willpower upon this match from the outset, overwhelming the teenager with a weight and depth of shot that she has not yet experienced.  Hampering Maria’s efforts, however, will be the high winds expected in the afternoon, a sharp contrast from the controlled conditions in which she typically thrives.  In the second round against Benesova, Sharapova never quite settled into a service rhythm as gusts swirled around Arthur Ashe Stadium, imperiling her towering ball toss and causing her first-serve percentage to sag.  Yet the glamorous Russian adjusted effectively to the circumstances as the match evolved, despite her trademark stubbornness.  Unfamiliar with her opponent’s game, Maria may need several games to acquaint herself with Capra’s strengths and flaws.  During the early stages, therefore, the American might thrill her local supporters with echoes of her startling performance against Rezai.  Once Sharapova finds the timing on her serve and the rhythm on her groundstrokes, though, her challenger will struggle to survive the Russian’s murderous barrage of high-precision missiles.

Jankovic vs. Kanepi

Having won consecutive matches for the first time since Wimbledon, the Serb hopes to gradually discover her form as she plays herself into the tournament.  In previous majors such as the 2008 Australian Open, Jankovic similarly shook off her rust and steadily improved her consistency and movement as the fortnight progressed; unlike most elite players, she struggles from playing too little more than from playing too much.  Within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals this summer, Kanepi captured her maiden title soon afterwards and has resurrected her career from a slump that forced her to qualify for Roland Garros.  Even then, however, she rigorously tested Jankovic in a three-set rollercoaster that awakened memories of her triumph over the Serb last year.  Not a factor in the US Open Series, the Estonian should find her mighty first-strike potential heightened by the fast courts here.  On the other hand, that advantage might be balanced by the sprawling dimensions of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which will allow the fourth seed to track down a few more balls than she could in more confined surroundings.  Suffering mid-match lapses against both Halep and Lucic, Jankovic must maintain her concentration against an opponent both physically and mentally capable of upsetting her.

Blake vs. Djokovic

As addicted to drama as Jankovic, Djokovic relishes the atmosphere of the night session arguably more than any of his rivals.  But Blake’s ardent fans also will relish the night session and will enter determined to secure victory for the home hope with whatever means available.  Contemplating retirement earlier this season, the American appears to have found new life at his home major, where he generally displays his finest tennis.  How will the Serb respond to the adversarial environment?  Two years ago here against Roddick in another night session, he delivered one of the most brilliant performances of his Slam career, suffocating the American with pinpoint groundstrokes on both wings.  Nevertheless, he has faltered perceptibly on several occasions since then when the crowd clearly favored his opponent.  While Blake still possesses a scintillating backhand and return, Djokovic possesses far more weapons and infinitely greater consistency at this stage in his career, so this match theoretically should be routine if not one-sided.  When the Serb had opportunities to convincingly slam the door on the overmatched Petzschner, however, he meandered purposelessly into a tiebreak and nearly an extra set.  If Blake can unleash a few blazing forehands early in his return games, he might rush Djokovic out of his rhythm and implant seeds of doubt in the Serb’s mind.

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Kuznetsova vs. Kirilenko

Reinvigorated over the summer with a San Diego title and a Rogers Cup semifinal appearance, Kuznetsova lost only to Sharapova and Wozniacki during the US Open Series.  In order to prove her return to the elite circles where she belongs, however, the 2004 champion in New York must conquer a compatriot who toppled her twice this year.  Although both of those wins occurred on a clay vastly divergent from Arthur Ashe Stadium, their recent history might imbue Kirilenko with confidence and Kuznetsova with uncertainty.  Better known for her doubles exploits, “the other Maria” can’t match Sveta from the baseline but can maneuver her expertly around the court with an array of spins and touch shots rarely witnessed in singles.  Similar to her doubles partner Radwanska, Kirilenko won’t bludgeon a higher-ranked opponent off the court with blistering shot-making; instead, she will give erratic shotmakers every opportunity to fall on their own swords.  Repeatedly flirting with disaster even during her San Diego title run, Kuznetsova will need to exercise her self-discipline and patience, carefully constructing points rather than indulging in reckless gambits.

Soderling vs. de Bakker

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which Soderling answers the call?  Will it be the slovenly Swede who nearly let his first-round match slip away against a qualifier, or the impeccably serving Swede who throttled Taylor Dent for the second time in three majors?  On the fast courts of Flushing, his massive first-strike potential should shine as it did during the latter stages of his quarterfinal against Federer there last year.  Not designed for consistency, Soderling won’t need to hit as many balls in order to terminate rallies with his customary brutality.  Like other sluggers, though, he would prefer a bit more time to set his sluggish feet before pummeling his groundstrokes, on which he can err wildly when off balance.  Fortunately for the Swede, he faces a relatively inexperienced adversary with no more stylistic versatility than himself, for de Bakker centers his game around a thunderous serve, a percussive forehand, and short points.  While the Dutch star seems destined to reach the top 20 or better, he has yet to overcome an opponent of Soderling’s magnitude.  Consider this match an intriguing glimpse of the ATP’s future, a paradigm set in part by Soderling himself:  tall, baseline-bound, and with point-ending power on both wings.

Gasquet vs. Anderson / Monfils vs. Tipsarevic

Achieving a mildly unexpected upset in the second round, Gasquet reminded New York audiences of how devastating his shotmaking flair can be.  Such reminders have been few and far between lately, which made his stunning display of all-court tennis all the more impressive; the Frenchman’s victory over Davydenko constituted perhaps the most impressive win of his post-Pamela career.  Happily situated in a comfortable district of the draw, Gasquet can reap substantial rankings rewards if he can capitalize upon this opportunity to capture a winnable match from South African giant Kevin Anderson.  Notorious for mental frailty, the Frenchman must summon self-belief and willpower in order to weather the avalanche of aces and unreturnable serves while protecting his own delivery and heightening his focus at key moments.  Possibly awaiting him on Monday is Roddick’s nemesis Tipsarevic, who achieved his own upset less from feats of uncanny athleticism than from fearless tenacity.  Unruffled by either his opponent’s massive serve or his self-absorbed tantrum, the Serb could profit from the peaks and valleys that invariably creep into Monfils’ vastly entertaining game.  While these two matches don’t feature any legitimate title contenders, their participants should feel galvanized by the chance to exploit this friendly section and might compete with more urgency than the marquee stars at this stage in the tournament.

***

On the middle weekend of the Open, intrigue often swirls as strongly as the breezes.  As much as we enjoy drama and suspense, though, we hope that the first half of our pseudonym earns safe passage into the second week for the second consecutive major.

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