You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘ATP 500’ tag.

Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 5

Nadal vs. Murray:  As he seeks to capture his first 2011 title on a surface other than clay, the Tokyo top seed perhaps can empathize with the plight faced by his opponent.  While Nadal has failed all season to solve the challenges posed by Djokovic, Murray has suffered a parallel futility in his four meetings with Nadal, including semifinals at every major except the Australian Open.  Just as the Spaniard has enjoyed fleeting moments of supremacy over the Serb this year, the Scot has won sets from his nemesis on three of four occasions and played three highly competitive sets on the fourth.  Just as Nadal has experimented with nearly everything imaginable in the effort to trouble Djokovic, moreover, Murray has veered from the ultra-aggressive to the ultra-conservative in his attempts to crack the seemingly impenetrable conundrum before him.  Although the world #4 never dominated Nadal as Nadal had dominated Djokovic, he accompanies Djokovic as the only player to defeat Rafa at multiple majors.

Perhaps the most recent turning point in their rivalry, or non-rivalry considering the Spaniard’s 13-4 advantage, came at the World Tour Finals on Murray’s home court in London. Breaking Nadal when he served for the match, the Scot then held a lead in the third-set tiebreak and came within two points of mounting a spectacular comeback in this semifinal classic, by far the best match of the tournament.  But Murray missed first serves late in the tiebreak and lacked clarity in his shot selection, confused as in their other encounters about the appropriate moments to pull the trigger in rallies. Burdened with such uncertainties only against Djokovic, Nadal has mounted in confidence throughout his current five-match winning streak over this rival.  Intimidated by Murray’s two-handed backhand during the first half of 2010, he looked alarmingly comfortable during much of their US Open semifinal in 2011, when he anticipated and retrieved most of his opponent’s offensive gambits with ease while rarely conceding control over a point once he had gained it.  The Scot attained an outstanding level of performance during the third set and early in the fourth, casting aside his fatalism and momentarily disconcerting Nadal with fearless and unpredictable aggression.  Much like the Spaniard’s performance in the third set of the US Open final, though, one hardly could imagine Murray playing a higher level of tennis—and yet he still lost, unable to sustain it throughout the course of an entire match.  This week, he has looked slightly the sharper player of the two rivals after surviving an opening-round threat from Baghdatis.  Demolishing the dangerous Ferrer on Saturday, he rarely looked ruffled as he struck both groundstrokes early and moved inside the baseline in a demonstration of confidence and commitment to offense.

In order to threaten Nadal on this slow hard court, Murray will need not only the first serve that has betrayed him this year against the Spaniard but the forehand that initially dazzled at Wimbledon before crumbling.  Throughout his semifinal, he repeatedly startled Ferrer with crackling forehands down the line, far from the risk-averse forehands that he normally directs cross court.  Seeking his third title in four tournaments, Murray hasn’t lost a match at a non-major since an opening-round defeat to Kevin Anderson at the Rogers Cup.  Perhaps the momentum from this streak has inspired him with the confidence necessary to trample his nemesis, and the goal of reaching #3 by the end of the season should add further motivation.  But Nadal has won every final that he has played this year against opponents other than Djokovic, responsible for more than half of his 2011 losses, while his frustration from those six setbacks may inspire him to redouble his determination when an opportunity beckons to claim a title without facing his nemesis.  In the absence of Djokovic and Federer from the Tour, the Tokyo final likely will foreshadow the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai next week.  After Nadal defends this week, Murray defends that title.  Can each man protect his 2010 conquest from the other?

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Winless in four intersections with the Pole, including two this summer, Petkovic augmented her already growing Internet notoriety with a frantic dash off court to vomit during their San Diego semifinal.  Although she blamed food poisoning, Radwanska’s multifaceted arsenal often proves an adequate source of vertigo itself.  Dominant in a semifinal against a resurgent Pennetta, her returning precision continually subjected her opponent to pressure in service games that eventually bore fruit when the Italian served for the set and the match.  Once content to retrieve and rally in neutral positions, the Tokyo champion has developed more comfort with offensive shots such as a backhand down the line with which she thrust Pennetta out of position.  While Radwanska never will become an elite shot-maker, her willingness to accept more risk more often would complicate the task of her rivals, who formerly could relax in the expectation of an offensive monopoly.  In contrast to the elongated strokes of Petkovic, the Pole’s crisp, compact swings perhaps deny her a little explosiveness but also enable her talent for deception by masking direction and pace until the last moment.

Nevertheless, Petkovic has impressed throughout her route through the Beijing draw, vanquishing a variety of opponents throughout the spectrum from power to finesse.  Heavily favored in her semifinal with Niculescu, she handled that situation with composure despite her lack of experience in these late stages of key tournaments.  With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Petkovic permitted the overmatched Romanian no ray of hope in an effort focused and methodical from start to finish.  As a result of its depleted field, this Premier Mandatory tournament often has seemed neither Premier nor Mandatory in most senses, providing neither premier-level tennis nor must-watch entertainment. But it remains the most important match in the careers of both women to date, causing one to wonder how both will handle the situation.  The more battle-hardened Radwanska would appear to enjoy the advantage in intangibles as she pursues her eleventh straight victory and first pair of consecutive titles.  On the other hand, Petkovic has embraced much more intimidating challenges and overcome much sterner odds several times this year.  The most distinctive personality in a Tour filled with distinctive personalities dominated Sharapova in a Slam night session and halted Wozniacki’s five-tournament winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments.  If she can accomplish those breakthroughs, Petkovic certainly can vault the Pole as well.

Berdych vs. Cilic:  Like Radwanska, the Croat has reached his second final in Bejing after falling one match short of the 2009 title.  Also like Radwanska, Cilic has benefited from a benign draw in which he has not faced a seeded opponent but instead fellow giants Anderson and Ljubicic.  Those victories will have prepared for a third straight serving shootout with the third-seeded Berdych, who has not won a title since seizing Munich over two years ago.  The longest current drought in either top 10, that stretch has featured a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final as well as victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Soderling, but Berdych repeatedly has failed to string together victories or capitalize upon brackets that open for him.  This year, for example, he lost semifinals to Petzschner in Halle and Wawrinka in Chennai—both winnable matches that his superiority in overall talent should have tilted in his favor.  Also among the Czech’s four semifinal disappointments at minor tournaments was a defeat to none other than Cilic in Marseille, the Croat’s first victory over Berdych following two losses in 2009.  Equal to his opponent with five career titles, Cilic hasn’t collected a trophy since Zagreb in February 2010, so this Sunday in Beijing will bring long-awaited relief to one participant while extending the late-tournament frustrations of the other.  Whereas the Croat enjoys a more balanced groundstroke repertoire with a smooth two-hander, the Czech probably can unleash more potent first strikes from his first serve and forehand.  Not uncommon in the fall season, this final between second-tier threats will have few if any broad repercussions for the next season or those ranked above them.  Depleted by injuries and withdrawals, the ATP event in Beijing stands in the shadow of the Tokyo tournament rather than claiming equal status in the crescendo towards Shanghai, which we preview tomorrow.

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 - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

For the third time in four years, Barcelona audiences thrill to the spectacle of an all-Spanish final at a tournament that has not crowned a foreign champion since 2002.  Aligned to challenge five-time champion Nadal for the second time in two weeks, Ferrer confronted his fabled compatriot in the 2008 and 2009 finals here as well as a 2007 semifinal.  The diminutive, pugnacious world #6 once called himself  the “worst player in the top 100” but has voiced an almost defiant confidence in the face of the mountainous task before him.  Offering Ferrer a ray of hope is his gallant performance in the 2008 Barcelona final, the only occasion on which he won a set from the five on clay since the latter’s first Roland Garros title.  As he observed, though, only an indifferent performance from Nadal can offer him an opportunity to threaten the world #1, while he must display outstanding tennis in order to capitalize upon such an opportunity.  In the Monte Carlo final, a distinctly mortal Rafa still stifled his compatriot in straight sets amidst an afternoon riddled with more unforced errors than either player normally concedes.  An opponent with a thunderous offense, like a Djokovic or a Soderling, might well have punished Nadal for the diffident mid-court balls that betrayed his nerves.  Lacking the requisite first-strike power, Ferrer cannot wreak similar devastation but instead must attempt to win a war of attrition, thus playing neatly into the hands of the indefatigable world #1.

With that first title of the season fresh in his memory, Nadal’s nerves will have receded at the tournament closest to his Mallorcan lair.  Not just defeating but dominating their opponents, both players have advanced to the final with minimal ado.  Unconquered by a compatriot in Spain since 2003, Nadal should reassert his supremacy over his nation.  But Ferrer has infused intrigue into this clay season, crafting a potential alternate script to the Nadal-Djokovic duel at the top that seemed certain to develop.

While Barcelona spectators may wonder which Spaniard to support, Stuttgart audiences will have little difficulty identifying the bearer of their hopes.  Spared by Azarenka’s shoulder injury, Julia Goerges surged through this bristling draw into the most significant final of her career.  Stirring German pride, she ambushed Stosur in an epic semifinal by out-serving the Australian on crucial points and retaining her poise when the match hung in the balance.  Goerges may relish the opportunity to shine in the absence of her charismatic countrywoman Petkovic, who had monopolized most headlines related to German tennis.  With a win over Wozniacki, who defeated Petkovic two rounds ago, she could claim a substantial share of the spotlight while vaulting well inside the top 30.  And she can reflect upon a clash with the world #1 at Copenhagen last year, which soared unexpectedly into a third-set tiebreak.  Now that the battleground shifts to her home country, will she feel the pressure that Wozniacki felt in Denmark?

While Goerges seeks her first Premier title, the world #1 pursues an almost equally momentous milestone:  her first red clay title.  Twice a finalist on this surface in 2009, Wozniacki inhabits a generation with few clay specialists who could block her route in Paris.  Fallible during her charge to the Charleston title, she has grown looked progressively more in command of her surroundings this week.  In an arena that once hosted a fall hard-court tournament, the indoor clay of Stuttgart imperfectly resembles the slower, grittier dirt of Roland Garros.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki would boost her self-belief on the surface by claiming the trophy (and instrument of transportation) captured by Henin a year ago.  Before her 21st birthday, she already threatens to evolve into an all-surface contender, a splendid achievement for her and a disquieting prospect for her rivals.

Caroline Wozniacki - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Two

After a Good Friday ceasefire, the four surviving contestants for a Porsche reconvene.  A tournament that once featured seven of the WTA top eight has witnessed several unexpected plot twists over the past few days, including four quarterfinalists from the home nation.   Does another bend in the Stuttgart racetrack lie ahead?

Wozniacki vs. Radwanska:  Pitting two of the new generation’s most notable stars against each other, this duel could recur in a Slam quarterfinal or semifinal two or three years from now.  While both Wozniacki and Radwanska cut their teeth on hard courts, they share key strengths upon which they could build notable clay achievements.  Not instinctive movers on Europe’s crushed brick, both the Pole and the daughter of Poles enjoy exceptional consistency and defensive skills that shine on a surface where extended rallies dominate.  Separating the world #1 from the Polish #1, her precocious resilience resurfaced in a quarterfinal against Petkovic that looked grim when the German stood within a point of 5-1.  Refusing to concede even a set to her Miami nemesis, Wozniacki dug into the dirt and accumulated pressure upon her opponent until the wheels fell off that racecar.  Sometimes a sturdy competitor herself, Radwanska has not developed quite the same armor despite her greater experience on the tour.  On the other hand, her subtle artfulness should find eloquent expression on a surface that rewards finesse and versatility, not among the baseline-bound Wozniacki’s salient virtues.  Yet the conundrum of clay is that those who leave the deepest imprints upon it also must summon the power to hit through the sluggish courts.  Neither semifinalist possesses that ability at the moment, but Wozniacki appears more likely than Radwanska to enhance her offense.  In their first intersection on clay, they will write a new chapter in the history of a still nascent rivalry.

Goerges vs. Stosur:  A finalist in Stuttgart last year, Stosur’s stagnant 2011 inspired few observers to hope that she might repeat that feat this week.  Now, she has edged within a victory of accomplishing exactly that objective after extending her curious voodoo spell over Zvonareva.  Surely revitalizing the Australian’s confidence, that quarterfinal tested her recently fragile nerves with a third set that featured no breaks of serve at all.  Rather than the Australian Open and Miami semifinalist, though, it was Stosur who seized command early in the decisive tiebreak and built upon a three-set victory over a formidable opponent in the previous round.  Like Wozniacki and Radwanska, the world #7 did not participate in Fed Cup last weekend, so she entered this week in fresher physical condition than Zvonareva and other notable names who departed before they could have barred her progress.  In their stead looms a foe who conquered Stosur on the fast hard courts of Tokyo last fall.  When Azarenka retired after winning the first set, Goerges fully capitalized upon her opportunity by snuffing out the hopes of compatriot Lisicki in the quarterfinal.  Often overlooked in the shadow of Petkovic, she contributed to Germany’s Fed Cup playoff victory in the same arena and extended eventual champion Henin to a tiebreak here last year.  Whereas Stosur relies upon serve-forehand combinations, Goerges showcases a superb backhand that punished the Aussie’s indifferent two-hander in Tokyo.  On a slower surface, the task of exposing that wing becomes more challenging, as opponents from Henin to Serena and Dementieva have learned in the past two years.

***

Far to the southwest in sunny Barcelona, Nadal looks certain to slide through a suspenseless semifinal victory.  Offering more intrigue is the all-Spanish meeting between Ferrer and Almagro, which repeats their three-set final on the Acapulco dirt.  That collision escalated into a pair of tiebreaks as fortune fluttered coquettishly between the two combatants.  Had he secured a few crucial points, Almagro could have recorded a straight-sets victory.  Before he ultimately faded in the third set, the first two sets illustrated his bolstered physical fitness and mental resolve, with which he could threaten the Monte Carlo finalist.  But even the Acapulco Almagro might fall well short on this occasion, for Ferrer has overwhelmed most of his April challengers with intimidating, nearly Nadal-esque ease.  No matter who prevails on Saturday, one does not envy the survivor.

David Ferrer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

Awaiting the proud citizens of Barcelona is a Friday filled with compatriots on the court.  No fewer than five Spaniards have reached the quarterfinals of this ATP 500 tournament, which could feature all-Spanish semifinals and probably will feature an all-Spanish final.  Two top-10 opponents and an opportunistic Croat aim to disrupt that narrative, however.

Nadal vs. Monfils:  The top-ranked players from their respective nations, the Spaniard and the Frenchman personify two fundamentally opposing approaches to the sport.  While Nadal channels his energies towards the single goal of winning, Monfils generally gains more satisfaction from the journey than the destination.  Equal to the world #1 in power and athleticism, the world #9 habitually attempts low-percentage shots that showcase his spectacular abilities on the occasions when they find their targets.  But Monfils lacks the strategic clarity and talent for point construction that has fueled Nadal’s success on clay as much as his defensive abilities.  A natural mover on this surface and an excellent defender himself, the Frenchman often doesn’t choose the wisest option when he has the opportunity to finish a point.  By contrast, Nadal’s transition game functions more smoothly than those of any rival except perhaps Djokovic.  He has lost five or fewer games in all three of his clay meetings with the Frenchman, who understandably has struggled to find his idiosyncratic style since returning from injury.  For every acrobatic jumping forehand and ostentatiously pulverized smash, an equal number of routine errors will emerge to fuel Nadal’s progress into the semifinals.

Dodig vs. Lopez:  Perhaps the ATP’s best-kept secret in 2011, Dodig defeated Soderling earlier this week, won his home title in Croatia, and became the only player to capture a set from Djokovic in Melbourne.   Unlike most of his compatriots, this Croat stands at just six feet and thus need not construct his game around his serve.  This greater versatility probably explains his success on a surface where Cilic, Ljubicic, Ancic, and similar towers of power have scored relatively few accomplishments.  Against the third-ranked Spanish lefty, Dodig will confront an opponent not dissimilar to his previous victim, the budding Milos Raonic.  Unflustered by the Canadian’s thunderous delivery, the Croat handed him a rare tiebreak bagel before ultimately outlasting him in three sets.  Just as uncommon among Spaniards as Dodig is among Croats, Lopez has cultivated a net-rushing, serve-centric style better adapted to grass than clay.  That said, his national surface offers him more time to run around his unreliable backhand to dictate rallies with his forehand.  Overwhelmed by Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Lopez recorded a pair of creditable victories here over Garcia-Lopez and Nishikori.

Melzer vs. Ferrer:  Clashing just last week in a Monte Carlo semifinal, the Austrian and the Spaniard progressed to this round in contrasting manners.  As he did in the Mediterranean principality, Ferrer has comprehensively dominated all opponents not named Nadal.  After reaching the Rome final last year, he sustained that success by extending Federer to a third set in a Madrid semifinal, so he should not rest content with last week’s accomplishments.  Physically and mentally fit to unfold a sequence of deep runs, Ferrer faces an opponent who shrugged off a back injury in Monte Carlo and overcame the challenging Montanes in a Thursday three-setter.  The 30-year-old Melzer deserves acclaim for defying his age to deliver the best tennis of his career over the past year, but he does not rank among the few players who match Ferrer’s fitness level.  Somewhat deceptive was the routine scoreline of their Monte Carlo semifinal, however, which featured several close games and break points on which the Austrian did not capitalize.  But his audacious shot-making requires an ample degree of confidence, which he may lack against a player who stifled him just six days ago.

Ferrero vs. Almagro:  Eyeing a top-10 berth, Almagro has rekindled memories of his thunderous South American clay-court campaign with straight-sets victories over the recently dangerous Andujar and the increasingly less dangerous Davydenko.  In Madrid last year, the Spaniard also become one of only two players to win a set from Nadal on clay last year.  Somewhat in the vein of Monfils, Almagro has chronically lacked intensity; in Monte Carlo, he faced four match points against the unimposing Maximo Gonzalez and then mustered little resistance against Melzer.  Far south of the Spaniard in the rankings lies the former #1 Ferrero, who did not play an ATP main-draw match in 2011 until this week.  In the twilight of his career, this genteel competitor has delighted his compatriots by exploiting an accommodating draw.  Much more substance than style, the understated Ferrero should pose an intriguing personality comparison with the flamboyant Almagro.  One wonders whether crowd sympathies will tilt towards the fading flagship of the former “Spanish Armada” or the more electrifying style of his challenger.  Counter-intuitively, Ferrero has won their last two meetings, including an Acapulco three-setter last year.   Unless Almagro self-destructs, as he still can, his raw firepower should prove too intense for a veteran whose weapons cannot compete with those of the current elite.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss the final four in a fascinating Stuttgart tournament.

Perhaps the quietest month of the tennis season, February hovers uneasily between the Australian Open and the two mini-Slams of Indian Wells and Miami.  As the contenders converge upon North America, we reflect upon the four events that unfolded during this month’s final week.  Who holds a game point, who rests in equilibrium at deuce, and who faces break point?

Vera Zvonareva - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Four

Ad-in:

Zvonareva: After an uncertain start to 2011, the world #3 snapped a five-final losing streak in emphatic fashion against a player who had captured two finals from her in 2010.  Rarely threatened by Wozniacki in Doha, Zvonareva won her first title since Pattaya City last year and will bring considerable momentum to the California desert, where she collected the most notable trophy of her career thus far.  Two rounds before her victory over the world #1, moreover, the Russian displayed physical and psychological resilience by outlasting Hantuchova after tottering within two points of defeat in an epic three-setter.

The single most impressive moment of her week, however, may have come in the penultimate game of her semifinal with Jankovic.  After splitting a pair of lopsided sets, the Russian and the Serb traded hold for hold through eight games of the final set without facing a break point.  In the ninth game, Zvonareva opened with two egregious errors and a double fault to hand Jankovic triple break point, at which stage a meltdown looked imminent.  But then came three unreturnable serves and later an ace to punctuate this crucial hold.  A staggered Serb conceded the match-ending break a game later, undone by the unexpected poise under pressure from an opponent famous for her fragility.  Although she had not yet claimed the title, Zvonareva responded to that adversity with the composure of a champion.

Djokovic: Like Zvonareva, he looked much less bulletproof throughout the week than the player whom he ultimately defeated in the final.  Unlike Zvonareva two weeks before, the Serb captured a tournament for the third successive year, a feat unprecedented in his career.  Saving his best for last, Djokovic delivered his finest tennis of the week against Federer in the final as he surpassed the Swiss star in both of the latter’s greatest strengths, the serve and the forehand.  The Australian Open champion cruised through service games more efficiently than Federer, finding first serves at crucial moments and targeting all four corners of the service boxes.  (In fact, Djokovic dropped only one total service game during his two victories over top-10 opponents Berdych and Federer.)  Somewhat less surprisingly, the Serb generally fired the decisive salvo in their forehand-to-forehand exchanges, often freezing Federer with scorching cross-court angles.  Juxtaposing his undefeated record in 2011 with his previous triumphs in Indian Wells and Miami, we christen him the slight favorite at both North American events.

Del Potro: Not content with a third consecutive semifinal appearance, the gentle giant marched to his first title since the 2009 US Open.  From one week to the next, Del Potro’s confidence has mounted as his movement has grown more natural, his anticipation keener, and his forehands more fluid.  The Argentine also struck his backhands with greater authority, unafraid to attempt winners from his crisp two-hander as well as his more intimidating wing.  Still fallible is the serve that contributed untimely double faults to Fish in the semifinal and offered eleven break points to Tipsarevic in the final, of which the Serb courteously spurned ten.  Nevertheless, Del Potro will join Raonic among the most dangerous dark horses in Indian Wells and Miami, especially the latter event with its vociferous Latin American fans.

Jankovic: Five points from her first final since last year’s clay season, the former #1 bolstered her Dubai revival with a second straight semifinal.  Jankovic has rediscovered the range on her scintillating backhands and served above her normal level against Zvonareva, allowing her to expend less effort on each point.  While she reverses direction less smoothly than she once did, her lateral movement continues to frustrate opponents who rely upon winning points from the baseline.  Although the Serb seems unlikely to defend her Indian Wells crown, she might lose fewer points there than we initially expected.  And she might well have won her match with Zvonareva had they played on clay, where she should distinguish herself once again.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Deuce:

Federer: For elite contenders like the Swiss, tournaments like Dubai principally provide preparation for more pivotal events on the calendar.  Thus, Federer accomplished his central goal this week by playing five matches before traveling to the North American hard courts.  On the other hand, he followed four routine victories over unimposing foes with a lackluster performance against Djokovic.  Often missing backhands by feet rather than inches, the top seed donated far too many unforced errors to exert pressure upon the Serb, and he struggled to absorb Djokovic’s pace at both the baseline and the net.  Although Federer remains #2 in the rankings, few would consider him currently the second-best player in the world.

Wozniacki: Like Federer, the women’s #1 swept comfortably to the final and then lost rather comfortably when she arrived there.  Through her first three matches, Wozniacki demolished three estimable opponents with heightened aggression that some analysts attributed to a lingering illness.  Against Petrova, Bartoli, and Peer, she attempted uncharacteristically bold forehands and even ventured into the forecourt at times for swinging volleys.  But she retreated from that aggression when the competition stiffened in the final against Zvonareva, who combined superior power with sufficient consistency to stifle the counterpunching Dane.   While Wozniacki will continue to win the vast majority of matches with her trademark, high-percentage style, she will not take the next step forward until she gains the confidence to seize the initiative more often against marquee opponents.  Nevertheless, the relatively slow surfaces at Indian Wells and Miami should showcase her strengths as they did last season.

Acapulco: A jarring sight in February, the Mexican red clay hosted many of the week’s most compelling matches.  Accelerating prodigy Alexander Dolgopolov scored a notable victory over Wawrinka before taking a set from Ferrer, one of the finest clay-courters of his generation.  Meanwhile, Almagro extended his scalding recent form into a three-set final against his fellow Spaniard, who defended his title only after 161 minutes of grinding rallies, flowing one-handed backhands (Almagro), ruthless inside-out forehands (Ferrer), and imaginative shot selection (both players).  Yet this magnificent entertainment seems virtually irrelevant to the impending hard-court Masters tournaments.  The Latin American clay-court strongholds must decide whether to risk abandoning their traditional clay-court niche and shift to hard courts, where they would fit more logically into a February wedged between key hard-court events in Melbourne and Indian Wells.

Ad-out:

Li Na: After winning her first eleven matches of 2011, the Australian Open finalist will bring a three-match losing streak to Indian Wells.  A week after wasting four consecutive match points against Wickmayer, Li managed just three games against Klara Zakopalova.  Continuing a career-long pattern of peaks and valleys, the Chinese star has grown more dangerous but perhaps no more consistent.

Kuznetsova: Perhaps weary from the previous week’s exertions, this similarly mercurial competitor could not capitalize upon her Dubai momentum and sagged in her Doha opener against Peer.  One should not discount Kuznetsova on the ultra-slow hard courts in the California desert, however, where she has reached two previous finals.

Verdasco: Defeated twice by Raonic in less than a week, he expressed churlish contempt for the hard courts (and his opponent) as he stalked spitefully off to Acapulco.  But karma descended to smite Verdasco with a first-round loss to Bellucci, which perhaps reminded him that his struggles stem from more than the surface.  Ironically, the Spaniard has accomplished at least as much on hard courts as on clay, so he should not squeeze himself too eagerly into the role of one-dimensional dirt devil.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Maneuvering around obstacles of varying obduracy, the top two seeds have arrived in the semifinals at both events on the Persian Gulf.  Will they progress one step further to their appointed destinations, or does an unforeseen patch of quicksand lie ahead?  We examine each of their situations before the penultimate rounds of Dubai and Doha.

Federer:  In a recent ad for Credit Suisse, the 16-time major champion reclines on his bed in peaceful repose.  Only somewhat less somnolent here, Federer has meandered in leisurely majesty through a draw of thoroughly outclassed opponents.  Against the unimposing Stakhovsky, however, the Swiss legend found himself forced to save nine break points on his serve as his loose-limbed nonchalance verged on carelessness.  Since he must overcome either Djokovic or Berdych in the final, the world #2 will need to heighten his intensity at that stage if he plans to caress a fifth Dubai trophy with his elegant fingers.  But, at this stage, a garden-variety GOAT  may prove more than sufficient to overcome Gasquet, a surprise semifinalist who spared Federer the trouble of defusing Simon.

Just 5-4 in 2011 before this week, the Frenchman has not defeated the Swiss since their thrilling duel in Monte Carlo six long years ago.  Uneasily wearing the appellation of “baby Federer,” Gasquet has dropped his last seven encounters with his pseudo-parent, including a nondescript meeting at the Paris Indoors last fall.  A player of fits and starts, flashes and jolts, Richard has snatched a few small titles but has fallen far short of the consistency or the fitness necessary to capitalize upon his uncanny talents.  Tracing the boundary between effortless and casual, his rococo shot-making rarely finds its targets throughout an entire match, much less an entire tournament.  On Thursday, though, the Frenchman rebounded impressively from a limp first set against Simon to reassert his mastery over his compatriot with timely serving and deft finesse in the forecourt.  But Federer enjoys a far more penetrating groundstroke arsenal than Simon, so Gasquet will find fewer opportunities to sally forward unless he maintains a high first-serve percentage.  Battered by multiple forms of adversity throughout his career, the Frenchman has settled steadily (and not unhappily, we suspect) into the role of best supporting actor.  Artistry and grace cannot compensate for competitive complacency, as Federer himself has discovered during his decline.

Djokovic:  Less emphatic than the top seed, the reigning Australian Open champion sagged into lethargy during prolonged passages of his victories over Lopez and Mayer.  Wrapping his knee as he did against Murray, Djokovic frequently lacked the explosive movement that frustrated Federer in Melbourne.  One also wonders whether he approaches this relatively minor event with a vigor diluted by his heroics at the Australian Open.  Surely still bathed in that glory, Djokovic enters Dubai with nothing to prove; in stark contrast, his two championship runs here followed embarrassing quarterfinal exits at his most successful major.  On the other hand, the moderately paced Dubai surface favors his balanced all-court style, as he demonstrated with consecutive title runs in 2009-10.

After a whiplash-inducing 2010, Berdych has found a measure of stability early in 2011.  While less brilliant than he suggested at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, he has risen out of his ignominious second-half slump to remind rivals of his relevance.  The Czech ball-bruiser has reached at least the quarterfinals in all five of his events this season, although he has not yet progressed to a final.  At the Australian Open, he fell prey to an inspired Djokovic in a straight-setter that exposed his labored movement and questionable shot selection.  Rather than a steady diet of baseline lasers, the Serb showcased less familiar elements in his multifaceted game against a befuddled Berdych, who struggled to bend for backhand slices and reverse the direction of his unwieldy frame for wrong-footing shots.  In order to produce that intelligent brand of tennis, however, Djokovic must sharpen his focus from the previous rounds.  On this occasion, will he target Berdych’s weaknesses or exploit his own strengths?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with the trophy after beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Wozniacki:  Seemingly sturdier with every tournament that she plays this season, the world #1 surely will finish the year with a major title if she continues this upward trajectory.  As her fortnight in the Persian Gulf has progressed, she has stepped inside the baseline with increasing frequency and authority.  Against opponents such as Kuznetsova and Petrova, Wozniacki ventured out of her cross-court comfort zone and began to redirect her groundstrokes down the line with greater confidence.  Her whippy, aesthetically unattractive forehand also started to penetrate the court more effectively as she struck it earlier and flattened her swing.

Previously flirting with heightened aggression at times, Wozniacki has retreated to her counter-punching comfort zone when she confronts a more imposing opponent.   Yet the attributes outlined above will prove essential for winning Slam titles, so the 20-year-old must adhere to such tactics as tenaciously as she patrols the baseline during rallies.  Undone by Bartoli in Cincinnati last year, Wozniacki has lost her last two clashes with a Frenchwoman who has returned from a Melbourne injury in torrid form.  Conceding only seven games in her last five sets against Kleybanova, Peer, and Peng, Bartoli could trouble the rhythm-oriented Dane with her darting, double-fisted lasers.  If the Frenchwoman pins Wozniacki behind the baseline, she can plant herself in the center of the court and dictate rallies by creating the angles unique to her eccentric style.  But, if the top seed refuses to retreat, she could keep the offense-only Bartoli scrambling reactively without the time required to measure her targets.  Nearly equaling her opponent’s recent brilliance, Wozniacki lost just seven total games to Petrova and Pennetta, while she can draw confidence from the memory of her finals appearance on this court last fall.  Moreover, a relatively insignificant tournament like this ordinary Premier event offers her an opportunity to hone her aggression in preparation for grander stages.

Zvonareva: Reaching three previous finals in Doha, the top-ranked Russian collaborated with Hantuchova on a match that towered above this otherwise lackluster tournament like a minaret in the desert.  Zvonareva deserves full credit for surviving their 189-minute epic in better condition than the manicures of many viewers, and Hantuchova deserves sympathy for losing her second marathon match of the season after dropping a 219-minute battle at the Australian Open.  Undeterred by Hantuchova’s third-set resilience on serve, the second seed battled through equally arduous games on her own serve and stayed within range to exploit the predictable opportunity when it arrived.  Emotionally elated by avenging her Pattaya City defeat, Vera also will enter the semifinals physically weary—not an ideal condition in which to confront the grinding Jankovic.

When the Serb stood atop an anarchic WTA in late 2008, she won three consecutive hard-court collisions with Zvonareva before falling to her on this court in the year-end championsips.  As her star waned and the Russian’s waxed, the trajectory of their scintillating rivalry reversed itself with three victories last year.  While Zvonareva has faltered at times in early 2011, Jankovic has taken tentative steps towards revitalizing herself, so another twist might lie ahead.  This compelling semifinal will test the Serb’s surge in self-belief and perhaps inspire her to unexpected feats on the North American hard courts where she has prospered before.  Will the 2009 Indian Wells champion or the 2010 Indian Wells champion bring greater momentum from one desert to another?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Caro(usel) at the top: After the briefest of interregnums, Wozniacki marched into Dubai and terminated Clijsters’ one-week reign atop the rankings.  Although she nearly dropped sets to both Chakvetadze and Jankovic, the Dane ended her week in emphatic fashion by outclassing Kuznetsova in her seventh win across an eight-final span.  Wozniacki struck a blow for the WTA’s Generation Next against its aging aristocracy this week, but Clijsters may well regain the top ranking when she defends only third-round points at Indian Wells.  Tethered to finals points in the California desert, Caro perhaps could snatch the top spot back a fortnight later when the Belgian defends her Miami title.  Similarly unspectacular during last year’s clay and grass seasons, the prodigy and the veteran could trade the #1 ranking back and forth as spring turns to summer.  We don’t know where this rollercoaster will stop, but we expect to enjoy the ride—and the photo shoots that ensue each time that Wozniacki reclaims the top spot. 

Sleeping giants stir:  Ascending from year-long obscurity, two towers of power delivered warning salvoes to their peers.  A week after upsetting Melzer in Rotterdam, Cilic unexpectedly reached his first final since Munich last May.  On the indoor hard surface where he has reached four of his nine career finals, the Croat swept past the seventh-ranked Berdych  and then battled past Youzhny before snatching the first set from a scorching Soderling in the final.  While Cilic’s technique still looks laborious and unwieldy at times, he can generate explosive power from both groundstrokes when he times his elongated swings effectively.   Before the battlefields change to clay, he will hope to buttress this recent awakening upon a few imposing wins in North America, although his lowered ranking could pit him against a top seed as early as the third round.  Seemingly both physically and psychologically sturdy, Cilic might rejoin the circle of contenders more swiftly than the other comeback artist of the past two weeks.

Sidelined and demoralized by a wrist injury, Del Potro showed flashes of his familiar self during a semifinal run in Memphis that included a comfortable victory over Isner and built upon his semifinal in San Jose a week before.  Thoroughly outgunned by Roddick as he was by Verdasco, the 2009 US Open champion still lacks a critical fraction of confidence in the groundstrokes that once jerked Federer around Arthur Ashe like a puppet on a string.  Once he regains that extra bit of sting in his forehand, though, the other elements of his game look ready to slip into their appointed places.  Also in Memphis, Querrey finally snapped an embarrassing six-match losing streak by rallying from within two points of defeat against Istomin.  Quarterfinal conqueror Fish labeled the lanky Californian “the future of American tennis,” but American fans should hope that this future lies well beyond the horizon.

What a difference a week makes:  Weary from their last week’s accomplishments, none of the players who excelled at those smaller tournaments could translate their momentum to the Persian Gulf.  Days after title runs in Paris and Pattaya City, Hantuchova and Kvitova dropped their Dubai openers to Chakvetadze and qualifier Ayumi Morita, respectively.  Less notably, Pattaya City finalist Errani pried one game away from Stosur, a player whom she previously had threatened.  Perhaps exacerbating their struggles was the contrast between humid Thailand, climate-controlled Paris, and the windswept desert in Dubai.  Not forced to make such adjustments, the four semifinalists at this Premier Five event participated in neither Paris nor Pattaya City, although Kuznetsova and Pennetta did play Fed Cup.  In the WTA’s geographically sprawling schedule this month, choosing battles became a crucial step towards winning them. 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

What a difference a week doesn’t make:  Thrown into relief by the whiplash effect in the WTA, an exceptional degree of continuity prevailed in the ATP.  An ocean apart, Soderling and Almagro battered through their draws for the second consecutive week and overcame a resilient pair of opponents in their three-set finals.  Both the Swede and the Spaniard profited from the relatively benign draws in these 250 events, so one should not overstate their surges when the leading contenders reconvene at Indian Wells.  In Soderling’s case, though, the extra rankings points will further insulate his #4 position should Murray improve upon his meager 2010 results at the spring Masters events.

But the highest honors go to a player who fell just short of his second straight title after a riveting albeit stylistically one-dimensional final in Memphis.  Hammering 130 aces across five three-setters, Raonic demonstrated a fortitude remarkable in a player who just turned 20 in December.  More durable than one might expect for such a massive frame, the Canadian suffered many more dips in form than he did in San Jose, yet he rebounded sturdily from that adversity.  Unusually edgy in the first-set tiebreak against Roddick, he did not buckle in the second set but instead swatted away three match points in the 24-point second-set tiebreak.  Few would have faulted Raonic had he surrendered at 1-4, 30-40 in the final set, when he somehow clawed back onto even terms and saved another match point before the breathtaking denouement.  In the end, only the most spectacular shot of the season so far could subdue the Canadian.

The Russian bear growls:  While Davydenko, Sharapova, and Zvonareva all may have sagged recently, an implausible group of reinforcements arrived to bolster their nation’s pride.  Capitalizing upon her victory over Henin at the Australian Open and her ensuing Fed Cup exploits, Kuznetsova not only avenged her Melbourne loss to Schiavone but reached her most notable final since Beijing 2009.  Wedged into the top 20 after an eye-opening quarterfinal run, Kleybanova overcame compatriots Pavlyuchenkova and Zvonareva in imperious fashion before falling to recurrent nemesis Pennetta. Perhaps less surprising was the Marseille charge of Youzhny, who overcame not only a fiery Tsonga but a crackling French crowd to reach his first semifinal of the season.  Joining him in that round, however, was the forgotten Tursunov, fallen from the top 100 after nagging injuries but able to recapture just enough of his vintage firepower to record his first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2008.  As of this writing, however, all four Russians lost their openers this week in Dubai and Doha, so their caution seems advisable in projecting from the feats of last week.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Towering above the competition at the ATP 500 tournament in Dubai, Federer and Djokovic look destined to reprise their Australian Open semifinal collision.  Without Nadal, Soderling, or Murray to derail them, can anyone prevent a marquee final next Sunday?  We present a different sort of draw preview that discusses their potential obstacles individually.

Llodra (first round vs. Djokovic):  At his home Masters 1000 event last fall, the serve-and-volleying Frenchman halted the Serb’s title defense.  Can he perform the same feat as Djokovic defends another title?  Perhaps demoralized by his loss in the Davis Cup final, Llodra has not extended his impressive fall into 2011, and the wind-stroked desert differs dramatically from the laboratory-like conditions at the Paris Indoors.  On the other hand, Djokovic may start rusty and complacent in his first match since the Melbourne final.

Gulbis (quarterfinal vs. Federer):  After reaching the semifinal in Sydney, the world #24 has lost three straight matches, including a straight-sets loss to Benjamin Becker at the Australian Open.  During last year’s clay season, he appeared to have emerged from a protracted slump with a victory over Federer and near-victory over Nadal, but he reverted to his former self when he returned from a Roland Garros leg injury.  Seemingly destined to squander his potential, Gulbis won a set from Federer in Doha’s desert conditions last year and has the groundstroke firepower with which Del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych have unsettled the Swiss.  Nevertheless, he may not even reach their projected quarterfinal, since the dangerous Stakhovsky looms in the second round.

Baghdatis (quarterfinal vs. Djokovic):  Another player who flatters to deceive, the engaging Cypriot has reached a pair of quarterfinals this season after streamlining his physique during the winter.  Before retiring from the Australian Open for the second straight year, he ousted Del Potro and held the upper hand against Melzer until suffering an injury.  Back in the top 20, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at hard-court Masters 1000 events last season, where he demonstrated an unexpected degree of focus by prevailing in a pair of tense three-setters.  He has won at least one set from the Serb in each of their non-clay meetings, including a suspenseful semifinal at this tournament last year.  Then struggling for confidence after his notorious retirement in Melbourne, Djokovic overcame a one-set deficit with smarter shot selection and superior serving.  Not lacking for confidence this year, the two-time defending champion should extend his undefeated record against Baghdatis.

Youzhny (semifinal vs. Federer):  A two-time finalist at this Persian Gulf oasis, the 2010 US Open semifinalist owns one of the ATP’s finer one-handed backhands.  Able to project as much offense with that shot  as can Federer, Youzhny atoned for a disappointing exit in Melbourne with creditable performances in Rotterdam and Marseille.  At the latter event, his versatile, understated game blunted Tsonga’s unbridled power before the Russian wasted a match point in a semifinal loss to Cilic.  Recent history aside, his record against Federer stands at an inauspicious 0-10, and the Swiss has won their last 16 sets in a streak dating back to Halle in 2003.  Yet other long-time victims of Federer, such as Davydenko and Soderling, ultimately broke through after years of futility, so one should not discount a player with inspiring memories of his previous trips to the desert.  Last year, Youzhny came within a few key points of the Dubai title after outplaying Djokovic for a set and a half.

Simon (semifinal vs. Federer):  The architect of two accidents against the Swiss grandmaster, Simon nearly added to his disconcerting success in the second round of the Australian Open.  Few players have erased a two-set deficit against the 16-time major champion, but the Frenchman displayed his characteristic grit by grinding down Federer one rally at a time.  Derailed by injuries early last season, Simon reaffirmed his relevance with a title in Sydney and a victory over the vanishing Davydenko in Rotterdam.  Although he fell to Baghdatis in his Dubai opener last year, he reached the semifinal at this event’s 2009 edition and dragged eventual champion Djokovic deep into a sweat-soaked third set.  Before he can face Federer, however, Simon must solve the conundrum posed by first-round opponent Youzhny, who has won all seven of their previous encounters.

Ljubicic (semifinal vs. Federer):  With Indian Wells just over the horizon, can the ATP’s smoothest pate rekindle the magic of that spring surge?  Deep in the autumn of his career, Ljubicic became Tursunov’s first notable victim in Marseille but conquered Baghdatis in a third-set tiebreak a week earlier.  Similar to Youzhny, he has lost ten consecutive meetings to Federer and has not won a set from him since 2005.  Although the Swiss often has played an unfocused, inconsistent brand of tennis in their recent meetings, that level has proved sufficient to dispatch the Croat in straight sets.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Berdych (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Probably the most plausible ambush artist in the draw, the world #7 has begun to recover from his second-half swoon to build upon his summer accomplishments.  The occasional odd losses can still recur, though, as illustrated by a lopsided defeat against Wawrinka in the Chennai semifinal.  Impressively sturdy in the first week of the Australian Open, Berdych dropped just a single set through four rounds before colliding with Djokovic, who dismantled him with disdainful ease.  (The second-set tiebreak seemed more the consequence of the Serb’s boredom than the Czech’s brilliance.)  A contrasting narrative unfolded three majors ago at Wimbledon, where the underdog upset the favorite almost as authoritatively.  Perhaps ruffled by the odd desert conditions, though, he has won just one match in each of his four Dubai appearances.

Troicki (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  As we explored in an earlier article, the second Serb has challenged his compatriot on occasions such as their second-round encounter here last year.  A few months later at the US Open, he extended the eventual runner-up to five sets and thus should believe that he can break through against Djokovic as he rises in the rankings.  The world #18 fell twice to opening-round opponent Kohlschreiber in 2010 and fell meekly to potential quarterfinal opponent Berdych in Miami.  Yet he enjoyed a pair of sturdy weeks in Sydney and Rotterdam, where he bookended a retirement in Australian with a final and a semifinal.  The Serb has lost only to the eventual champion in all four tournaments that he has played in 2011, and three of his four losses have come against top-five foes.

Davydenko (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Languishing in the lower echelon of the top 50, the 29-year-old Russian has struggled to string together consecutive matches since injuring his wrist at Indian Wells.  Although he has threated the Serb repeatedly in the past, Davydenko has lost four consecutive matches since reaching the final in Doha with a victory over an ailing Nadal.  He did defeat potential second-round opponent Berdych last fall, but the confidence that has played a vital role in his success must surely lie at a low ebb.

***

We return shortly to untangle some of the intriguing storylines that developed last week and then detour to Doha for the WTA Premier tournament.

OnlyWire: The Magic Button!

Twitter Updates

Error: Please make sure the Twitter account is public.