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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

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!

 

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