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After clicking the WTA website’s link for the Bali draw, one might struggle to locate the bracket in what appears a mostly blank sheet of paper.  The only event in the sport that starts with the quarterfinals, the Tournament of Champions doesn’t quite live up to its name.  After all, the real “Tournament of Champions” just ended last weekend in Istanbul with a series of compelling encounters among top-eight opponents.  Absent from this idyllic island resort is any woman in that category, but the coda to the 2011 season does feature a curious assortment of rising stars, setting stars, supernovas, and black holes.  To paraphrase Larry Scott’s marketing campaign for the actual year-end championships, we look for a heroine in this heterogeneous octet.

Rising stars:

Lisicki:  The best server in the draw, her signature shot should earn her shoals of free points on this slick indoor surface.  Winning two International titles this summer, Lisicki recorded the most notable accomplishment of her career so far by reaching the Wimbledon semifinal with victories over Li and Bartoli, the latter of whom she might face in a semifinal here.  By the US Open, though, her torrid streak had subsided as untimely double faults and impatient shot selection increased.  One can imagine Lisicki developing into the next Stosur, armed with massive serve-forehand combinations and a perennial threat at Wimbledon.  For now, she remains a talent more raw and rough-hewn than those of her compatriots Petkovic and Goerges.  Having recovered from excruciating, career-threatening injuries more than once, though, this German gains underrated strength from her natural optimism.

Peng:  One of two double-fisters here, the Chinese #2 had gained little renown outside her home nation for her skills in singles.  Better known for her exploits in doubles, she accumulated more than 50 victories in 2011 (more than Li Na, in fact) when she occupied one side of the court by herself.  During the first half alone, Peng knocked off two Slam champions in Kuznetsova and Schiavone as well as Zvonareva, Li, and former #1 Jankovic.  Reaching five semifinals before Wimbledon, she still searches for her first career singles crown, an accomplishment that seems long overdue.  Like Lisicki, the Chinese double-fister has traced a steady downward arc over the past few months, probably the inevitable result of a season during which she played far more matches than she expected.  Facing Petrova for the third time this year, she faces a sterner task than in her two preceding three-set wins on slower surfaces.

Setting stars:

Hantuchova:  Just when one thinks that the willowy Slovak has wandered into the mists of history, she bursts back into relevance with a scintillating performance reminiscent of her top-5 days.  Although she collected her fourth title in Pattaya City after a win over Zvonareva, Hantuchova struck her richest vein of form during the clay and grass seasons.  Slashing Wozniacki to ribbons at Roland Garros, she raced to the Birmingham final and challenged eventual semifinalist Azarenka at Wimbledon before succumbing in three sets.  Hantuchova’s audacious angles and the pinpoint control that they require should dazzle on an indoor court, but she lost her opener here last year to an even more inspired Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Shortly Bali shifted from an ordinary event to the Tournament of Champions, she reached a final in this relaxed atmosphere that suits her personality.  Nevertheless, she will struggle to tame Lisicki’s serve in a rematch of the Birmingham final that she lost resoundingly.

Petrova:  The inaugural champion in College Park, this aging Russian lost her first match at nine of twenty tournaments this year while finishing just four wins over .500.  On days when her serve and reflexes remain crisp, Petrova still can compete with most players outside the top five or six.  While the surface will reward those strengths, it also may expose her ungainly movement as with Hantuchova.  In order to advance past the first round, Petrova must find a way to rediscover the mastery over Peng that slipped away from her in their last two meetings.  No matter how she performs in the sense of forehands and backhands, however, she rarely fails to entertain with her expressions of exaggerated disdain, caustic soliloquies to herself in Russian, or idiosyncratic outfits.  When she shifts from tennis into a career as a Russian television commentator, viewers should relish her piquant insights.

Supernovas:

Bartoli:  Resting atop the truncated draw, Bartoli would seem the clear title favorite based upon her 2011 resume.  Whereas most of her rivals captured their laurels at lesser tournaments, this second double-fister not only defeated Serena—an event memorable in itself—but halted the 13-time major champion’s title defense at Wimbledon.  At the previous major, the Frenchwoman delighted her compatriots by reaching an unexpected semifinal.  The runner-up at the first edition of the Tournament of Champions, Bartoli should feast upon the second serves of opponents with her rapier-like returns.  In fact, she could feast upon the first serve of her initial opponent, Medina Garrigues, before arranging a rematch of her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Lisicki.  Will the first strike of the event’s premier server or of the event’s premier returner prove more deadly?  Fresh from a three-set upset over Azarenka at Istanbul, Bartoli won Osaka two weeks before and nearly overcome Petkovic in Beijing, so she arrives in perhaps the most impressive form of all entrants.

Ivanovic:  For the first time since Roland Garros 2009, the former #1 attempts to defend a title.  Spurning the opportunity to protect her Linz crown, Ivanovic enjoyed one of her finest weeks this season two tournaments ago in Beijing, where she defeated Kuznetsova and Zvonareva while yielding just eight total games.  Under the guidance of new coach Nigel Sears, she has survived the first round at seven consecutive tournaments, her longest such streak since winning the French Open.  But the Serb’s luminous smile turned into a grimace when a back injury curtailed her Beijing surge.  Either the injury or the competitive rust that it caused likely contributed to her disappointing defeat to Keothavong in Luxembourg, and Ivanovic continues to nurse that back as she approaches this tournament.  A title defense looks implausible, although a return to these tranquil surroundings offers an excellent endpoint to another turbulent season for the Serb.

Black holes:

Vinci:  After dropping her first four career meetings to Ivanovic, the Italian exacted revenge upon the former #1 twice this year.  Her oddly veering backhand slice should stay low on this surface, like the quirky strokes of Date-Krumm last year, and disrupt her opponent’s rhythm.  But one wonders whether Vinci can display her artful counterpunching to its fullest on a court designed for offense.  Among Wozniacki’s second-half nemeses, she should appreciate her position in the weaker half of the draw and conceivably could reach the final if fortune smiles upon her.

Medina Garrigues:  When she won Estoril this spring, the Spanish veteran surely did not anticipate that her prowess on the dusty battlefields of Portugal would lead her to the beaches of Indonesia.  Accomplishing little outside clay throughout her career, Medina Garrigues enjoyed the most impressive week of her season when she mustered three straight wins in Miami.  Aligned to face Bartoli, she has scant cause for confidence against an opponent who has collected all four of their hard-court matches without conceding a set.  Nevertheless, a quarterfinal berth seems assured.

***

After Istanbul, you may have thought that the seasons of Kvitova and Zvonareva ended.  (Momentarily, they may have thought so too.)  But in fact they will meet once again this year next Sunday with a Fed Cup title at stake.  We return with a preview on Friday.

 

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Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

***

Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

***

After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

Without winning a title or even reaching a final, Ana Ivanovic can climb back into the WTA top 5 by the first week of August next year. A guest article from OnCourtAdvantage.com <http://www.OnCourtAdvantage.com> outlines a potential schedule and the results that Ana can record in order to achieve that projection.  (OCA is an organization devoted to the support and promotion of tennis, based in Hong Kong, that is run by a group of highly trained professionals with experience in the tennis industry.  Statistics have been verified by Kevin Fischer at the WTA; title and images supplied by Sharapovanovic.)

Former World No.1 Ana Ivanovic made a very strong finish to the 2010 season to move back into the Top 20.  The 2008 Roland Garros singles champion won 13 of her last 15 matches for the season, with 12 of those victories in straight sets. Following that streak the current World No.17 improved her 2010 win-loss record from 20-18 to 33-20.
 
The 2008 Australian Open runner-up won two of her last four tournaments in 2010, the Tournament of Champions in Bali and Linz in Austria.  The statuesque Serb also reached the quarterfinals of the other two tournaments, including at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.  There, Ana battled current world No.1 Wozniacki in Beijing through two tense sets before narrowly succumbing to the Dane.  (During this stretch, Ivanovic also made the quarterfinals at the Luxembourg tournament.)

A top-five ranking on the WTA Tour usually requires a player to have a ranking points total in a range between 4700 and 5000 points.  Ivanovic currently has 2,600 WTA ranking points, and her No.17 ranking will see her receive a bye in the 1st round of some events.

Surprisingly, the stylish Serb could return to the Top 5 in the next eight months while reaching one Slam semifinal and advancing beyond the quarterfinals in no other tournament.  This pattern would allow her to predominantly defeat opponents ranked lower than her.  Currently just outside the top 16, she seems likely to enter that group early in the new season.  As a top-16 seed at majors, for example, Ana would need to defeat at most one player ranked above her in order to reach the quarterfinals.  On occasions when she gains a top-16 seed at a 64-player draw, she also would need to defeat at most one higher-ranked player to reach the quarterfinals.

Ivanovic has played in three Grand Slam singles finals and averaged two singles titles per year over the past four years. To meet the projected quarterfinals consistently in the proposed 2011 tournament schedule below, she would need to have a 38-13 win loss record from 13 tournaments. The proposed schedule provides 11 weeks of rest from tournament play and adds only one tournament compared to her tournament load during the same period in 2010.
 
Do you think that Ana can do it? We certainly do!

The following are the results that Ivanovic achieved from her 2010 tournament schedule:
 
Semifinalist – Brisbane = 130pts (32 draw);
2nd round – Australian Open = 100pts (128 draw);
2nd round (bye 1st round) – Indian Wells = 5pts (96 draw);
3rd round (bye 1st round) – Miami = 80pts (96 draw);
1st round – Stuttgart = 1pt (32 draw);
Semifinalist – Rome = 395pts (64 draw);
2nd round (bye 1st round) – Madrid = 5pts (64 draw);
2nd round – Roland Garros = 100pts (128 draw);
2nd round – s-Hertogenbosch = 30pts (32 draw);
1st round – Wimbledon = 5pts (128 draw);
2nd round – Stanford = 60pts (32 draw); and
1st round – San Diego = 1pt (32 draw).

2011 suggested schedule for Ivanovic:

1.  Sydney 30-draw QF = 120pts

2. Australian Open 128-draw QF = 500pts

2 weeks after the Australian Open without tournaments.
Play 2 consecutive weeks in the UAE and Qatar to minimize travel and better acclimatize to the local weather conditions and the court surface.

3. ADD Dubai 56-draw QF =200pts

4. ADD Doha 28-draw QF = 120pts

2 weeks after Doha without tournaments.

5. Indian Wells 96-draw QF = 250

6. Miami 96-draw QF =250

END of hard court season

1 week after Miami without tournament play.
 
START of clay court season:

7. Stuttgart 30-draw QF = 120pts

8. Rome 56-draw QF = 200pts

9. Madrid 64-draw QF = 250pts

1 week after Madrid no tournament

10. Roland Garros 128-draw SF = 900pts  

END of clay court season

1 week after Roland Garros without tournament play.

START of grass court season

Play 2 consecutive weeks in the UK to minimize travel and better acclimatize to the local weather conditions and court surface.

11. Replace s’-Hertogenbosch (Netherlands) 220K with Eastbourne (UK) 28-draw QF = 120pts 

12. Wimbledon QF = 500pts

END of grass court season  

3 weeks after Wimbledon without tournaments

START of the US hard court season

13. Stanford QF = 120pts

Remove San Diego in order to peak for the major tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, which are held consecutively.

***

Ivanovic would gain at least 120 points from each of these 13 tournaments.  Since she has five results from August 2010 onwards that provide more than 120 points (Cincinnati, US Open, Beijing, Luxembourg, Bali), she would drop two of the 120-pointers from the first half in order to fulfill the 16-tournament requirement.  Nevertheless, she would have 4990 points by the beginning of August 2011, well within the top-5 range.  From a realistic perspective, we expect Ana to suffer a handful of pre-quarterfinal losses, but we also expect her to surpass the quarterfinals at some events.  Thus, the OCA projection provides a useful measure for the Serb’s potential progress if she extends her momentum from the second half of 2010.  In December, of course, we will review Ivanovic’s season in a special article of our own amidst a series of similar articles that review 2010 in tennis.

We return tomorrow with a preview of the World Tour finals similar to our Doha preview!

After an eventful week of tennis, we pause to review the action that unfolded at four events on three different continents.

Transmission reference: BALI101

1)      The Ascent of Ana continues:

Charging to her second title of the fall, Ivanovic won matches in every way possible:  a rout, a nail-biter, and a hybrid that hovered between the two extremes.  Relentless in her 57-minute quarterfinal, the Serb surrendered just a single game to world #20 Pavlyuchenkova behind a barrage of thunderous serves.  Although she adjusted swiftly to a surface faster than she prefers, Ivanovic struggled to adapt to the distinctive style of Kimiko Date Krumm.  The age-defying Japanese legend baffled Ana for most of the first set with deceptive angles and low groundstrokes that barely skimmed across the net before darting through the court.  Facing double set point on her serve, however, Ivanovic collected herself just in time to reel off six consecutive games and seemingly seize control.  Unwilling to yield so easily, Date Krumm battled back into this memorable semifinal by rallying from a 3-5 deficit in the second set, saving a match point, and climbing out of a 2-4 hole in the second set tiebreak.  Yet this comeback remarkably failed to fluster the Serb; armed with her revived confidence, Ana broke the Japanese veteran immediately in the third set and cruised behind her own serve thereafter.

Despite her sterling record in finals, Ivanovic began the title match against Kleybanova rather tentatively and only relaxed after she broke the Russian midway through the first set.  At that stage, she reeled off 14 consecutive points to establish command.  Too resilient a competitor to let the trophy slip away, Kleybanova halted the Serb’s momentum early in the second set, while nerves caused Ivanovic’s ball toss to wander unpredictably.  Down double break point at 5-5 in the second set, though, Ana relied on her improved movement to track down a penetrating Kleybanova approach and lash an implausible passing-shot winner.  She rode this momentum surge into the tiebreak, where her opponent conceded a costly double fault for the only mini-break.  A stunning cross-court forehand and an ace later, Ivanovic had scored her tenth victory in eleven matches and vaulted back into the top 20 at #17.  Having been ranked outside the top 60 after Wimbledon, Ana improbably ends her 2010 campaign ahead of fellow Slam champions Sharapova and Kuznetsova.  As she acknowledged afterwards, this second taste of success will inject her with additional motivation during the offseason.

2)     Home-court advantage reigns (mostly):

Robbed of his home title by a bold Serb last year, Federer thrilled his compatriots by avenging that defeat in 2010.  Enjoying a tranquil route to the final, he inflicted yet another dent upon Roddick’s armor in a semifinal performance that showcased his still-crisp reflexes and instincts.  As the Swiss master braced himself for an encore of last year’s Basel final, he probably drew confidence from his title run in Stockholm last week as well as his victory over the Serb in Shanghai.  Ominously, the first two sets of the final recalled their US Open meeting, where Federer had secured a tight first set before suffering a mental lapse in the second.  Reversing that trajectory with an emphatic final set, though, the world #2 confirmed his Shanghai success and extended his momentum in this key rivalry.  Before he departed to share lunch with the ballboys, Federer claimed that this triumph evoked similar emotions in him to winning his elusive Roland Garros title.  Even allowing for post-championship hyperbole, that statement revealed a more human, even endearing dimension to the lofty GOAT.

Amidst a Valencia draw riddled with upsets, Ferrer played the local hero by conquering the fearsome Soderling for the second time this fall.  The Spaniard secured his second ATP 500 title of 2010 by overcoming compatriot Marcel Granollers in a final that few observers anticipated before the week began.  Probably best known for defeating Soderling at this year’s Australian Open, the understated, unseeded Granollers sprang unpleasant surprises upon Shanghai semifinalist Monaco as well as the rejuvenated Simon.  His charge to the final illustrated not only the advantages of playing at home but the depth of Spanish men’s tennis, seemingly unique in its ability to produce legions of champions and finalists on all surfaces.  (Kudos to the Frenchman, though, who adroitly defused the twin threats of Verdasco and Davydenko just weeks after seizing the title in Metz.  Davis Cup captain Guy Forget must seriously consider him for singles action in Belgrade).

Transmission reference: CAGB121

3)      Viva Flavia:

Nevertheless, home-court advantage couldn’t rescue the US Fed Cup team from their more talented Italian foes, spearheaded on this occasion not by Schiavone but by the tempestuous Pennetta.  Delivering two of her team’s three victories, Flavia atoned for an uninspired 2010 campaign and compensated for a puzzlingly erratic performance by the Roland Garros champion in the third rubber.  Two moments from Pennetta’s weekend especially impressed, for they represented the two potential turning points of what could have been a tightly contested tie.  Having watched a 5-1 lead slip away in the first set against Mattek-Sands, the Italian suddenly found herself staring at a set point in the set’s twelfth game.  With an invigorated American crowd exhorting her opponent, Pennetta mustered her nerve and fought her way into the tiebreak, where she played intelligently high-percentage tennis while the American imploded.  Had she let that set unravel, though, Mattek-Sands might not have relinquished the initiative; instead, Italy took a commanding, virtually terminal lead after Saturday.

Less obviously crucial was the second moment, which occurred just two games into Pennetta’s Sunday clash with the untested but mighty Coco Vandeweghe.  After cheering Oudin to an astonishing victory over Schiavone, the home crowd watched with delight as the teenager broke the Italian in the opening game and advanced to 40-0 on her own serve.  Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Pennetta swept aside game point after game point before converting a break point seven deuces later.  Having halted Vandeweghe’s impetus, she thoroughly dominated proceedings and trimmed the burly American down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes. A week after winning the doubles title in Doha, Pennetta proudly clinched the Fed Cup title for her nation just as she had in 2009.

***

We return to preview the Paris semifinals on Friday; until then, enjoy the tennis!

 

 Ana Ivanovic snapped a two-year title drought by winning the Generali Ladies in Linz. It was the site of her last title, in 2008, the year she won the French Open. (AP Photo)

A contrast with the solemn atmosphere of Doha, the Bali Tournament of Champions concludes the WTA season on a light, refreshing note.  The event’s second edition might offer more scintillating tennis than the largely lackluster week at its prestigious cousin, which provided a compelling final but scant entertainment en route.  Although few fans will follow the events in Indonesia, several players should welcome the opportunity to end their 2010 campaigns with an uplifting performance that can motivate them during the offseason.  We discuss each of the eight participants.

Li:  Barely denied a berth in Doha, the Chinese superstar often has stressed her commitment to this understated event.  Mostly uninspired in the second half after a Wimbledon quarterfinal run, Li did surge to the Beijing semifinals when the draw opened invitingly for her.  A tournament later in Moscow, she lost to the ghost of what once was Anna Chakvetadze.  These jagged momentum shifts have defined the Chinese star’s career, but she has peaked at excellent moments this season and will finish in the top 10 if Dementieva withdraws her ranking.  How will Li respond to the distinctive test posed by Date, who has flustered a host of equally experienced and mentally sturdy opponents?  On paper, she should win this title rather comfortably, which probably means that she won’t.

Rezai:  Blessed with far more power than her size would suggest, the French firecracker sizzled to titles at the Premier Mandatory event in Madrid and a minor tournament in Bastad.  Since mid-July, however, Rezai has fizzled while winning just six matches in nine tournaments and losing to three players outside the top 100.  Her fans hope that this second-half plunge resulted merely from fatigue, yet one must wonder whether Madrid represented not a breakthrough but an anomaly, similar to Martinez Sanchez’ conquest of Rome.  Capturing Bali 2009 in anticlimactic fashion when Bartoli retired, Rezai should relish the fast-paced indoor hard court here, which will reward her fondness for relentlessly pulverizing a tennis ball.  Often flamboyant to a fault, Rezai rarely fails to scintillate even when not at her best.

Pavlyuchenkova: When the WTA first unveiled this event, Larry Scott et al. considered it a platform for the Pavlyuchenkovas of the world—talented but raw upstarts unfamiliar with grand stages.  Much like her compatriot Kleybanova, the top-ranked teenager secured the first two titles of her career this year (Monterrey, Istanbul).  Even more promisingly, she reached a marquee semifinal at Cincinnati after ambushing Dementieva and Wickmayer.  At the US Open, “Pavs” recorded three routine victories to reach the second week, where she justifiably failed to solve the Schiavone conundrum.  On the other hand, she enters Bali on a three-match losing streak and has struggled with the peculiarly Russian disease of double faults, a highly ominous trend for a player still in the evolutionary process.

Yanina Wickmayer

Wickmayer: Opening the year with an 11-match winning streak that included the Auckland title, this fiercely competitive Belgian demonstrated her potential when she nearly upset compatriot and comeback queen Henin in Melbourne.  A quarterfinalist in Miami, Wickmayer faded through the summer and hasn’t won a match at the WTA level since an epic victory over Schnyder at the US Open.  More sensible than many of her peers, Yanina played (and won) a challenger before settling too deeply into a slide.  Free from the shadow of Clijsters and Henin, the third-best Belgian might shine in Bali.  She finds herself in the more tranquil section of the draw, facing a winnable match against Hantuchova.  Together with Ivanovic, she possesses the strongest serve in Bali, always an asset on a fast court.

Ivanovic:  Surely relieved to have ended her two-year title drought in Linz, the ever-smiling Serb tests her renewed confidence against solid but not overwhelming opposition.  Even before her Linz achievement, Ivanovic enjoyed an encouraging second half that included victories over three top-20 opponents, a semifinal in Cincinnati, and a second-week appearance at the US Open, where she lost to eventual champion Clijsters.  While her sunny personality mirrors her surroundings, her reinvigorated serve and forehand should crackle through the court.  Moreover, Ana opens against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she dispatched twice during her slump and who lacks the stylistic variety that could disrupt her rhythm.  If Ivanovic should advance to the semifinals, a daunting challenge would await from either Li or Date.  At this stage, however, every match won constitutes an important step forward into relevance as Ana prepares to reassert herself in 2011. 

Kleybanova:  Gifted in both singles and doubles, the Russian won two of her first three Asian tournaments this year.  Beyond those maiden titles in Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, Kleybanova became one of just three players to defeat Clijsters on a hard court in 2010 when she snatched a third-set tiebreak from the Belgian at Indian Wells.  In Melbourne, she dominated Henin through a set and a half before her serve faltered.  Yet the Russian still awaits the career-changing breakthrough that would catapult her into the top 15 or 20.  She struggled in the US Open Series where she had thrived last year, although one of her victories came at the expense of Rezai, her first opponent in Bali.  A dangerous dark horse rather than a consistent contender, Kleybanova won’t lie dormant for long.

Hantuchova:  Unlike most of her colleagues here, Daniela has gracefully eased into the twilight phase of a career filled with magnificent shotmaking and painful meltdowns.  Her elegant, versatile game should have garnered more than three career titles, but Hantuchova’s imaginatively angled groundstrokes and delicate forecourt finesse remain a pleasure to watch.  The clever albeit brittle Slovak has enjoyed her previous visits to the Indonesian island, basking in an atmosphere without the pressure that recurrently unnerves her.  Considering Wickmayer’s recent stagnation, Hantuchova has a plausible chance to collect a win or two, but she has drifted outside the top 30 this year as her triumphs over elite opponents have grown increasingly sparse.  Nevertheless, flashes of her former brilliance burst forth against Venus in Miami and during a semifinal surge in San Diego.

Date:  Her fairytale comeback became one of the most intriguing stories in the WTA during a year somewhat low in intrigue.  Can the ageless Japanese star reach a ranking lower than her age?  Inside the top 50 until recently, Date has overcome seven top-20 opponents this year.  In a short tournament where fatigue will play a minimal role, a fittingly bizarre conclusion to 2010 doesn’t lie outside the realm of plausibility.  Seeking to transcend the record set by Billie Jean King, Date aims to become the oldest champion in WTA history.  Without the burden of expectations, she can swing more freely than anyone in the draw.

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If Doha is not the final event of the WTA season, neither is Bali.  We return on Friday with a preview of the Fed Cup final.