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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.

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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.

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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.

At first glance, the numbers look more than respectable.  Few eyebrows would furrow over a 33-11 record that included two titles and five total finals across the span of just thirteen tournaments.  While  seven of the eleven losses came against players who have reached the top 10, four of those seven losses came against a current #1 (Serena), two former #1s (Henin, Clijsters), and a soon-to-be #1 (Wozniacki).  Yet circumstances converged to ensure that we will remember Sharapova’s 2010 campaign more for what she didn’t accomplish than what she did.

Elevating expectations before the season even began, victories over Venus and Wozniacki in January exhibitions extended Maria’s momentum from a Tokyo title the previous fall.  In a section of the Melbourne draw far from the Williams sisters, her recurrent nemeses, she seemed destined to reach the semifinal or perhaps the final of the major that she conquered in 2008.  On the first day of the tournament, however, Sharapova endured one of the longest and ugliest matches of her career.  This first-round defeat to Kirilenko hinged less upon her much-dissected serve than upon her groundstrokes, which erred by margins proportional to the significance of the points.  Equally ominous was Sharapova’s failure to tuck away a first set that seemed well within her control as Kirilenko served at 2-4, 15-40.   But the wasted opportunity would have receded into irrelevance had Maria completed the comeback that she began when Kirilenko served for the match.  Breaking her compatriot with fiery returns, she could not capitalize upon this momentum shift, as she had in a comparably epic Melbourne opener three years ago; instead, she meekly surrendered her own serve a game later at 4-5.

After this limp denouement, Maria marched into Memphis with much to prove.  Five mercilessly masticated opponents later, the Siberian lioness collected the second title of her comeback but had not defeated any foe more impressive than future Newcomer of the Year Kvitova.  Nevertheless, Sharapova surely arrived at Indian Wells hopeful that the tide had turned and that her Australian debacle was no more than an untimely hallucination.  Fortunate to escape an error-riddled opener against Dushevina, she then suffered an elbow injury in the third set of a battle with the tenacious Zheng.  Audiences would not see the Russian again until shortly before Roland Garros, when she broke from her routine by adding Strasbourg to her schedule after a premature return in Madrid.  At Strasbourg, Sharapova claimed her first career title on red clay, the surface that famously has baffled her throughout her career.  As in Memphis, she did not overcome a marquee opponent, but a three-set semifinal victory over clay specialist Medina Garrigues augured well for the fortnight in Paris.

Contrasting with her placid Melbourne draw, Sharapova’s draw at Roland Garros resembled a minefield, littered with not only Serena but four-time champion Henin and the surging Stosur.  Armed with a seven-match winning streak, she entered a third-round collision with the Belgian that thoroughly justified the anticipation surrounding it.  Extending over two days, this memorable encounter illustrated the potential congruency between the surface and Sharapova’s gritty determination, which enabled her to reverse the momentum after a disappointing first set and snap Henin’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her jaws firmly fastened around the Belgian as the latter served at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set, however, the Russian let those three pivotal break points evaporate and dropped six of the next seven games, unable to hold her serve again.

Maria Sharapova Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after the women's singles third round match between Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2010 in Paris, France.

Her competitive appetite undiminished, Sharapova built upon this valiant effort when the season shifted to grass.  Although she fell to Li Na in the Birmingham final, her serve crackled with renewed vigor throughout her preceding matches there; she also scored a satisfying revenge against her 2008 Wimbledon nemesis Alla Kudryavtseva.  When the All England Club released its draw, all eyes turned towards the uppermost section, which scheduled a Monday meeting between Sharapova and three-time champion, world #1 Serena Williams.  While Serena had resoundingly dispatched Maria in their most recent Slam final, British spectators recalled the Russian’s stunning upset over the American in the 2004 Wimbledon final.  As the Centre Court audience had hoped, Maria rose to the challenge during a first set defined by percussive serves and terse, emphatically terminated rallies.  In one of the season’s most meaningful tiebreaks, the two champions dueled on equal terms through the first eighteen points, three of which offered keys for Sharapova to unlock the first set.  At 9-9, however, a double fault and a Williams ace brought this suspenseful set to its conclusion, leaving the Russian to ponder what might have unfolded had she converted one of her three set points.  Although another set remained to play, the excitement soon ebbed as Serena secured the only break that she would need to escape this tense encounter.  Threatened much less severely by her later foes, she exploited the carnage that occurred at this year’s wildly unpredictable Wimbledon.  In retrospect, therefore, not only a match but perhaps a fourth major title might have slipped through Sharapova’s fingers with that pivotal tiebreak.  Had she eluded Serena, one would have fancied her chances against the trio of Li, Kvitova, and Zvonareva, whom the American defused in her place.

Nevertheless, Sharapova seemed less discouraged by the outcome than reassured by her ability to compete with the world #1 at a major.  Leveling her heavy-lidded glare at Indian Wells nemesis Zheng, she avenged that defeat in her Stanford opener before navigating through a three-set, 165-minute rollercoaster against Dementieva that hung in the balance until her last savage forehand.  Weary from consecutive evening epics, Maria would fall to Azarenka in the final, but the momentum from Stanford flowed into Cincinnati two weeks later.  On a slick surface friendly to her style, she outlasted newly crowned San Diego champion Kuznetsova and then trampled upon Radwanska and Bartoli with suffocating serving and impenetrable concentration.  Suddenly resembling her vintage self more than she had for most of her comeback, Sharapova reached a second straight final and a third meeting with a fellow Slam champion during a three-month period.

This momentous clash with Clijsters, however, set the stage for the frustrating performances that followed throughout the rest of 2010.  Racing through a comfortable first set, Sharapova looked nearly invulnerable on her own serve, while the off-key Belgian struggled to harness her strokes.  At 6-2, 5-3, victory lay within the Russian’s grasp as her opponent confronted three championship points.  Although Clijsters erased two of those chances with imposing serves, a relatively neutral rally evolved on the third point.  When an opening first beckoned, Sharapova didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice but hammered her favored backhand towards the edge of the line, hoping to end the match with one mighty blow.  The ball fell wide.  After a rain delay, the tide turned slowly but inexorably against the Russian, who suffered the most demoralizing defeat of her comeback so far.  Melancholy in its immediate aftermath, she showed scars of the disappointment in her unconvincing play at the season’s three remaining tournaments.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after a point played against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the women's singles match on day eight of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

A little lucky to escape the plucky Jarmila Groth in her 2010 US Open debut, Sharapova did record the second double bagel of her career during the middle weekend.  When she met top seed Wozniacki a round later, though, her performance sagged well below the level that she achieved against Henin and Serena at the two previous majors.  While the match stayed respectably competitive and featured numerous long games, Sharapova couldn’t summon her trademark precision and focus for more than two or three points at a time, playing into the hands of her tightly controlled opponent.  To Wozniacki’s credit, she maintained her poise as she sealed the most impressive single victory of her career thus far, but the inconsistency that infected almost every area of the Russian’s game reduced the pressure on the Dane.  As her season drifted towards a tepid conclusion, Sharapova won just one match in her last two events of 2010.  Her uneventful loss to Vesnina in Beijing seemed to come almost as a relief from the painful reverses that she had suffered over the preceding months.  When the offseason finally arrived, it provided a respite necessary to rekindle her appetite for the sport before a crucial campaign in 2011.

Although injuries, thorny draws, and other factors beyond her control played a perceptible role in her 2010 struggles, Sharapova never has relied upon excuses during adversity.  A mature competitor, she recognizes that champions design their own destiny rather than allowing fate to forge their fortunes.  In 2011, she must demonstrate that she still possesses the steely core of willpower and fortitude that propelled her to greatness and upon which she must rely in order to return there.

***

We resume our look back at the year that was with a review of 2010 as experienced by the second half of our pseudonym!

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Staring at an ominous deficit early in his semifinal against Isner, Djokovic demonstrated his revived willpower by breaking back after a marathon game that featured as many crisp returns as aces.  When he arrived at the tiebreak, the top seed struck a blow for versatility over one-dimensionality by dominating the American in a series of intelligently constructed rallies.  Throughout the match, in fact, Djokovic exerted firmer pressure upon Isner’s serve than he experienced on his own delivery, a reversal of expectations and an encouraging omen for 2011  Earlier this year, the Serb had struggled to hold serve at crucial moments, but his confidence in the shot clearly has returned.  His serve should play a key role against an exceptionally gifted returner in Ferrer, who compensates for his unprepossessing delivery by frequently breaking his opponents.  Grinding down less mentally sturdy opponents, the Spaniard followed an oddly lopsided victory over world #5 Soderling with a more characteristic nail-biter against Ljubicic.

Armed with improved fitness and focus, Djokovic should control most baseline exchanges with his superior first-strike power on both sets of groundstrokes.  Despite Ferrer’s compact, efficient two-hander, the top seed’s backhand probably stands without peer in the ATP, providing him with a weapon as formidable as his forehand.  Fond of pounding inside-out forehands, the remorseless Spaniard should beware of the top seed’s ball-redirecting skills, which could punish Ferrer if he exposes too much territory by running around his backhand to unleash his favorite shot.  If Djokovic exploits openings to approach the net, however, he will find his newfound forecourt talents sternly tested by the fifth seed’s pinpoint passing shots.  Although they have split their four previous meetings, the Serb has won four of their five hard-court collisions and ten of the twelve sets that they have played on this surface.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s lone ambush occurred in similar circumstances; he conquered a diffident Djokovic in the 2007 year-end championships after Novak had reached the US Open final.  Three years later, the Serb has gained maturity through adversity and should generate sufficient intensity to defend his title in the Chinese capital.

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As even as the record between Djokovic and Ferrer stands the record between Wozniacki and Zvonareva, who have split their four completed meetings and their two completed meetings this year.  But the scorelines of these last two encounters testify to their odd dynamic, featuring one occasion when the Russian sprayed balls everywhere except inside the lines (Montreal) and another occasion when the Dane never saw a mid-court forehand that she couldn’t shank.  Far more scintillating, their three-set clash in Doha last year illustrated the heights that this mini-rivalry could reach when both competitors deliver their best efforts.  Having dropped just one set through five matches, Zvonareva overcame a more arduous array of opponents yet surrendered just eight total games to Schiavone and home favorite Li Na.  In both of those matches, nevertheless, she thoroughly throttled those opponents during the early stages before faltering on serve once the finish line loomed.  The Russian must guard against a mental lull if she establishes an early advantage over Wozniacki, who exploited such a lapse a week ago in the Tokyo final against Dementieva.  Somewhat more powerful than the new #1, Zvonareva poses an especially formidable challenge for her because she can match the Dane’s consistency from the baseline.  Her dangerous but sometimes unreliable forehand might play a central role in the match’s outcome, as will her ability to jerk Wozniacki forwards out of her baseline comfort zone.  In their US Open semifinal, Vera not only strategized brilliantly beforehand but executed her tactics confident from beginning to end.  With an equally poised effort, Zvonareva can claim the second Premier Mandatory title of her career.  Despite her recent, deservedly lauded triumph over the emotional frailties that long beset her, the Russian’s poise still deserts her during finals and allows those inner demons to rear up from her psyche again.

 

Having won her last five finals, by contrast, Wozniacki has compiled a spectacular second-half winning streak at non-majors that began with her home tournament in Copenhagen and continued with titles in Montreal, New Haven, and Tokyo.  She contests her second Premier Mandatory final of 2010, having fallen to Jankovic in the Indian Wells championship match.  Conquering a player who will join her among the top three on Monday, the new #1 could consolidate her precarious status at the top while sending the returning Serena a message of intent.  Incurred in the quarterfinals, a knee injury chronically hampered her in a semifinal victory over Peer.  Beyond its impact upon her movement, the uncertain knee seemed to undermine her focus during the first set, when she uncharacteristically squandered a commanding lead.  On the other hand, her uncertainty over the injury impelled her to sting her groundstrokes more fiercely than usual, an exercise in aggression that could serve her well against Zvonareva.  In addition to her penetrating backhand, Wozniacki demonstrated an ability to flatten out her forehand that rarely surfaces when she enjoys maximum fitness.  (Why can’t we see this shot more often?)  Vital to her rise through the rankings, moreover, is an inner determination belied by her blonde braid and well-manicured nails.  Combining that trait with the confidence inspired by her four recent titles, the Dane hopes to outlast the one-woman Russian rollercoaster across the net.  By shoveling shots deep down the center and incorporating rhythm-blunting moonballs, she can lure the impetuous Zvonareva into attempting overly aggressive angles.  Wozniacki won’t do anything especially eye-opening on a key point, but she also won’t do anything especially horrific. While this unglamorous style doesn’t win her many fans, it has won and will continue to win her many matches as long as the WTA remains in its current state of flux.  Unless Zvonareva swiftly sweeps her aside in a pair of unblinkingly dominant sets, Wozniacki will be the last woman standing once again.

***

We return tomorrow with a preview of the Masters 1000 draw in Shanghai, but now it’s time to wave goodbye to a sometimes inspiring, often bizarre, and constantly scintillating week in Beijing!

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As the twin tournaments in Beijing escalate towards a climax, the action shifts from Moon Court to Lotus Court.  Which two men and two women will blossom in the Chinese capital?  Semifinal previews ahead…

Djokovic vs. Isner:  Maintaining the intensity that he displayed at the US Open, the defending champion here cruised past a Chinese qualifier and then easily overcame Simon, who had flustered him in four of their five previous meetings.  More motivated and purposeful than during the first half, Djokovic unleashed suffocating groundstrokes on both wings that pinned his victims well behind the baseline while regularly threatening them on their service games.  The latter objective probably lies beyond the Serb’s grasp when he confronts a towering American who nearly toppled him in a memorable Davis Cup clash this year.  Even on the Belgrade clay, Isner tested Djokovic’s resolve by relentlessly holding serve and exploiting openings with penetrating forehands.  Saving all six break points against Davydenko a round ago, he benefits from an especially effective wide serve in the ad court, where almost all break points are decided.  Generally sturdy on serve this week, the defending champion did suffer occasional lapses such as his attempt to serve out the first set against Simon, a game that witnessed seven deuces and several break points.  In order to destabilize Djokovic’s fluid, rhythmic style, Isner must serve aggressively on second balls as well as first balls, vigorously attack the Serb’s own second serve, and shield his indifferent backhand.  A threat to upset almost anyone when at his best, the distinctive challenge posed by the American will compel the top seed to sharpen his focus and guard his patience.  Most of Isner’s matches are decided by a few key points, adding a layer of dramatic suspense that compensates in part for his stylistic monotony.  In these encounters of short points and comfortable holds, very few significant moments will arrive, but those that do will be extremely significant.

Ferrer vs. Ljubicic:  Although the Spaniard has won all but one of their previous meetings, they have met just once on a surface other than Ferrer’s beloved clay.  The diminutive David did win that Dubai clash in three sets, but Ljubicic’s crackling serve has dispatched two top-10 players already this week in echoes of his implausible fortnight at Indian Wells.  Mellow and leisurely while Ferrer is fiery and frenzied, the Croat overcame both US Open semifinalist Youzhny and a rather tepid Murray, probably still pondering his New York demise.  Also limp this week was the Spaniard’s most recent victim, Soderling, who normally excels on this surface and during this stage of the season.  One of the finest returners in the ATP, Ferrer’s sparkling reflexes and compact strokes will force Ljubicic into more rallies than he would prefer.  Possessing a serve vastly inferior to his opponent’s delivery, the Spaniard proved equal to a similar dynamic in his victory over the world #5.  Despite his limited power, he continues to compete with an unflinching tenacity matched by few opponents—and certainly not by this particular opponent.  Far from feckless on fast surfaces, Ferrer recorded his best Slam performance at the swiftest major of all when he reached a semifinal at the 2007 US Open.  But will his admirable willpower outweigh the avalanche of aces that Ljubicic can casually unleash?  The amiable Croat ultimately holds the key to his own destiny, for a stellar serve generally trumps a stellar return game in the ATP.

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Li vs. Zvonareva:  Splitting their six previous meetings, all on hard courts, the Chinese and the Russian should engage in a scintillating battle of backhands.  Li strikes her groundstrokes a little earlier than Zvonareva, creating bolder angles but allowing herself less margin for error.  Delighting her compatriot fans, the ninth seed rampaged through her first few rounds before a less dominant victory in her quarterfinal against Sevastova.  By contrast, Zvonareva recorded her most emphatic win of the week in her preceding match, a stunningly one-sided demolition of fellow top-10 resident Schiavone.  Both players can fall prey to their nerves as often as their opponents and can donate perplexing gaffes when seemingly in a commanding position.  When they dueled for the bronze medal in Beijing two years ago, Li staggered through a ghastly first set but then nearly snatched the second set from a visibly tightening Zvonareva before crumbling in its final moments.  With two such volatile and unpredictable competitors, any outcome could result from a 50-minute rout to a third-set tiebreak.  If the Chinese and the Russian display their impressive talents at the same time, however, captivating rallies and tensely contested service games should ensue.  And no lead will be safe.

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Now 22-1 at non-majors since Wimbledon, the Great Dane seeks revenge for an unexpected loss to the Israeli in Dubai.  To the chagrin of Ivanovic fans worldwide, Wozniacki suffered no wobble after clinching the #1 ranking with a victory over Kvitova.  On the other hand, she did suffer a second-set tumble that didn’t hamper her movement for the rest of that match but might return to haunt her a day later.  Having not dropped a set through four rounds, Peer has equaled her best career performance at an event of this magnitude, a 2007 semifinal at Indian Wells.  Dormant until Dubai, she had lost both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki that had reached completion (a third meeting ended in a retirement).  Breaking down their games one shot at a time, one can’t discern any area in which she enjoys a discernible advantage over the Dane.  When they met in the Middle East, Wozniacki’s game had sagged to a particularly low ebb, underscored by an Australian Open loss to Li Na that featured just three winners from the then-teenager.  Unless Wozniacki delivers an inexplicably hapless performance like her US Open semifinal, she should ease through to a Tour-leading seventh final of 2010. Since Peer can’t outhit her from the baseline, the new #1 should consider elevating her own aggression in order to gain experience that could aid her against more formidable opponents ahead.

***

The lights may have dimmed on the Moon Court, but several stars remain upon which to gaze in thoughtful contemplation.

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On the lyrically entitled Lotus Court and Moon Court, eight opportunistic competitors have advanced to the quarterfinals at the WTA’s last significant event outside the year-end championships.  Not all stars glow with equal luminosity, though.  We organize them below from supernovas to Sevastovas.

Wozniacki:  Having swiped the #1 ranking from the world’s most famous manicurist, the Great Dane now has won 21 of her last 22 matches and 16 consecutive matches at non-majors.  Few players who can blunt her momentum remain in the draw, which includes none of the storied Slam champions against whom she typically struggles.  During her first two rounds, Wozniacki rebounded from a stomach complaint to dispatch the often tricky Errani and exact satisfying revenge from her Wimbledon conqueror, Kvitova.  Although the Dane fell to Ivanovic on the medium-speed hard courts of Melbourne two years ago, the Wozniacki of 2010 has evolved far beyond the Wozniacki of 2008 and will bring a much sturdier degree of self-belief to their encounter.  Having won her last five finals, the top seed displays none of the nerves that cripple so many of her rivals in championship matches.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki’s vaunted consistency has wobbled occasionally during her last two tournaments; in Tokyo, she escaped these lapses, but she couldn’t escape them in New York.  And how sharply will her motivation dwindle after capturing the top spot?  To her credit, Wozniacki seems more focused upon winning matches than wooing the computer, and the inevitable controversy over her rise to #1 won’t escalate to a maelstrom until after the event.

Zvonareva:  Probably a bit dazed from her US Open heroics, the most successful Russian of 2010 trudged to an uninspired exit in Tokyo last week.  Sturdier at this tournament, Zvonareva posted two tight wins over talented compatriots en route to a quarterfinal with Schiavone.  Although Safina remains far beneath her former heights, she had defeated Vera at prestigious events and thus posed the sort of psychological test that often has flustered the world #4.  After routing Petkovic for the second time in three tournaments, Zvonareva weathered the tenacious Kirilenko and displayed her best tennis in the match’s culminating stages, always an encouraging omen.  Her head-to-head record against the reigning Roland Garros champion looms at an intimidating 9-0, including five consecutive hard-court victories since early 2008.  (Oddly, they meet in the Chinese capital for the fourth time in just over two years; Schiavone has not won a set in the three previous Beijing meetings.)  In the semifinals, Zvonareva probably will clash with another of her victims during that bronze-medal run in the 2008 Olympics, Li Na.  Likely to prevail in that meeting, the second seed would seek to improve upon her dismal 2010 record in finals.  During four straight defeats in title tilts this year, Zvonareva has won five or fewer games on all of those occasions.

Li:  Vociferously exhorted by her compatriots, the flamboyant Chinese hope has shown few signs of the illness that forced her to withdraw from Tokyo.  Emphatic against the inflammable Kleybanova, Li has trampled upon her first three foes with the smooth relentlessness that characterizes her game at its best, a level that she reached during the Olympics two years ago here.  Implacable when focused, she should dismiss Sevastova’ pedestrian game as briskly as she dispatched the unheralded Kerber.  Considering the Chinese star’s shot-making talent and crisp ball-striking, one suspects that she could have won many more titles had injuries not derailed her at inopportune moments.  On the other hand, Li ultimately crumbled under the pressure of China’s expectations when she faced Zvonareva for the Olympic bronze medal.  If she faces the Russian again in parallel circumstances, those memories might return.  A Slam semifinalist this year, Li has yet to acquire a title as prestigious as her home tournament, but no player remains in the draw against whom she would find herself clearly overmatched.  Demoralizing at the time, her underwhelming summer may have positioned her for an explosive fall, since she enters these events fresher than her more renowned rivals.

Schiavone:  Following her spine-tingling Roland Garros fortnight, most commentators sensed that the Italian would spend the rest of her season in contented contemplation of her unexpected prize.  The feisty Schiavone confounded expectations again, however, by reaching three consecutive quarterfinals at the prestigious events in New York, Tokyo, and Beijing.  Overcoming talented Slovenian youngster Polona Hercog with ease, she rallied from a one-set deficit against fellow veteran and doubles expert Dushevina.  Despite her history of futility against Zvonareva, Schiavone probably enters their quarterfinal with greater motivation, incited by the goal of finishing a season in the top 10 for the first time.  Away from clay, the Roland Garros champion must rely upon an especially advantageous draw in order to win an elite tournament.  That said, the draw here has settled into a relatively benign condition after a fusillade of early upsets; last fall, Schiavone claimed the Kremlin Cup in a similarly opportunistic manner.  If the Italian can circumvent Zvonareva, she might ultimately find herself in another final, a situation where she has flourished as much as the Russian has floundered.

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Ivanovic:  Avenging two 2010 losses to Bartoli in the first round, the sensuous Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  Although her serving percentage has lagged below optimal levels, Ivanovic has dominated behind her first serve and unleashed forehands reminiscent of her 2008 glory.  Most importantly, Ana rediscovered her inner resolve when she captured two tiebreaks from Tokyo finalist Dementieva, a round after she erased a substantial second-set deficit against Govortsova.  Reversing a trend that characterized her slump, the former Roland Garros champion delivered her most impressive tennis at the most critical moments, including two aces in the match-ending tiebreak and a bold backhand winner on match point.  With no rankings points to defend this fall, Ivanovic has capitalized upon the opportunity to inch up the rankings in preparation for a 2011 return to relevance.  While she has won both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki, those matches occurred at the zenith of the Serb’s ascendancy in early 2008.  She should enter their quarterfinal free from pressure or expectations, allowing those factors to settle squarely upon the shoulders of the newly crowned #1.  At the US Open, however, Ivanovic proved emotionally unable to summon that insouciant attitude against the defending champion.  Having not captured a tournament since 2008, Ana remains far from reaffirming her status as an elite title contender.

Peer:  Experiencing a modest revival in 2010, the steely Israeli has delivered perhaps the most commanding performance of the tournament, during which she has surrendered more than two games in just one of the six sets that she has played.  Upon closer analysis, though, these lopsided scorelines may speak as much to the quality of her opposition as to her own brilliance.  Dispatching a Chinese wildcard in the first round and Serbian qualifier Jovanovski in the third round, Peer confronted only one foe with any experience on this stage, the seemingly ageless Schiavone.  Nevertheless, the road doesn’t become much more arduous in the quarterfinals, where another Swiss player lies ahead.  If Peer advances to a potential semifinal with Wozniacki, she should gain confidence from her victory over the Dane in Dubai, the tournament that triggered her renaissance.  But the newly minted #1 presents a much more imposing challenge now than she did in February.  Even in the area of her greatest strength, consistency, Peer can’t equal Wozniacki unless the latter’s breathless schedule exerts a toll upon her physical and mental reserves.

Bacsinszky:  Even dedicated fans know little about the wide-eyed Swiss upstart, who profited from a recurrence of Azarenka’s leg injury after barely edging Tokyo sensation Julia Goerges in a third-set tiebreak.  Presented by Vika with a second life, Bacsinszky capitalized with aplomb by ousting Sharapova-killer Vesnina in a much more comfortable affair.  Against Peer, she won’t find herself regularly overpowered or outmaneuvered, yet her inexperience and impetuosity probably will play into the Israeli’s hands.  While the WTA has unveiled numerous surprises throughout the year, the Beijing Premier Mandatory title seems even more remote from a player of Bacsinszky’s status than did the Madrid Premier Mandatory title from Rezai.

Sevastova:  A game away from defeat in her opener against Stosur, the Latvian somehow broke the Australian’s formidable serve on two straight occasions to record her third notable upset of the season.  On the similarly medium-speed hard courts in Indian Wells and Monterey, Sevastova downed first Ivanovic and then Jankovic in losses that seemed to illustrate the struggles of the Serbs more than her own talents.  Sharing a passport with Gulbis, she has crafted a vastly divergent game from Ernests that relies upon paceless, soporific groundstrokes to lull opponents into febrile errors.  Following a surprising three-set win over Cibulkova, Sevastova received a walkover from Petrova, who probably would have ended her run.  We expect Li Na to prove less accommodating than the Russian.

***

Look for further astronomical observations from the Chinese capital in the days ahead!

 

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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

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After a three-hour semifinal that featured 17 service breaks, Wozniacki staggered into a Tour-leading sixth final of 2010. Having won her last four championship matches, the top seed will be favored to overcome Dementieva, whom she narrowly edged in the New Haven semifinal days before the US Open.  If the Dane does capture this Tokyo title, she will find herself firmly positioned to capture the #1 ranking with a modest quarterfinal showing in Beijing.  (A glance at the draw there reveals no obstacle more formidable than Pavlyuchenkova, whom Wozniacki expertly dismantled in Tokyo.)  And, although Premier Five events don’t substitute for majors, another elite title might dull the knives that skeptics already are sharpening should the 20-year-old become the third Slam-less #1 since 2008.

At stake for Dementieva is no such grand prize, but the 2005 champion could gain crucial self-belief after a season that started promisingly with two early titles but that has been blighted with untimely injuries.  Now in the twilight stage of her career, the Russian surely realizes that her window of opportunity is shrinking swiftly.  Reasserting her relevance at key tournaments, an uplifting conclusion to her 2010 campaign could lay the foundation for a resurgent 2011.  Even without a compelling incentive, though, Dementieva competes rigorously on all stages and has maintained an exemplary work ethic.  Advancing to the final without dropping a set, she has already dispatched two higher-ranked opponents here (Zvonareva and Schiavone).

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From that labyrinthine collision with Azarenka spring causes for concern that might imperil Wozniacki a day later.  A commanding first set complete, the top seed suffered an uncharacteristic lapse in her consistency; even her trusty backhand deserted her and capriciously darted outside the doubles alley.  Justifiably perplexed by the situation, Wozniacki waged a largely futile battle with herself for most of the second set, which wouldn’t have reached a tiebreak had Azarenka not wobbled just as severely.  The stark momentum shift that occurred early in the third set then testified to the Dane’s capacity for rebounding from adversity and exercising what we have termed “the art of amnesia.”  Steady and poised once again, she marched into a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead…and then nearly let this three-break advantage evaporate.  When the top seed finally served out the match on her third attempt, she profited significantly from hasty errors donated by her friend.   Thus, while Wozniacki again demonstrated her admirable survivor skills, she also revealed periods of frailty similar to those that she endured against Zvonareva at the US Open.  An experienced veteran like Dementieva will pounce upon such opportunities more efficiently and judiciously than did the still-raw Azarenka.

Rewinding to her New Haven meeting with the Olympic gold medalist, the Dane’s supporters should feel more sanguine about her chances.  A more reliable server than Dementieva (admittedly no great distinction), Wozniacki generally held more comfortably when the match became close.  After a dismal first set that recalled her second set against Azarenka, she regrouped just as she did in the third set of her semifinal here.  Meanwhile, the Russian proved unable to summon her crispest tennis deep in the final set of their New Haven clash, failing to serve out the match and surrendering an early lead in the deciding tiebreak.  Mentally much sturdier than the veteran, the 20-year-old more easily casts aside her more egregious miscues.  When she squandered multiple match points before the tiebreak arrived in New Haven, she never slumped into defeatist resignation.  On a more technical level, Dementieva often found herself mired in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, which clearly favor Wozniacki.  Stepping around her backhand to unleash her more potent forehand, the Russian risked surrendering crucial court positioning; this factor might resurface on Tokyo’s fast courts.

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Crafting parallel styles, Wozniacki and Dementieva have built their reputations upon rhythmic, high-percentage baseline ball-striking, buttressed by crisp movement and alert anticipation.  Both players often recoil from taking the initiative, so the conventional wisdom that the more offensive player will prevail may not apply here.  In New Haven, Dementieva resolutely forced the issue and decided the majority of the points, yet she fell excruciatingly short.  Several months earlier in the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki sought to seize command of the rallies against fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, a strategy that appeared to cloud her mind and stifle her instincts.  The Tokyo title may be won not by the bolder shot-maker, therefore, but by the player who lures her opponent from her comfort zone and exposes her limitations more effectively.  In such an encounter, minimizing weaknesses could be as crucial as maximizing strengths.

What are those strengths and weaknesses?  We outline a shot-by-shot breakdown of who has the edge:

Serve:  Wozniacki

Return:  Dementieva

Forehand:  Dementieva

Backhand:  Wozniacki

Volleys:  Neither

Movement:  Both

Mental:  Wozniacki

***

While the final chapter of Tokyo remains unwritten, the first pages of Beijing are about to be penned.  We march into the Chinese capital with a quarter-by-quarter preview tomorrow.

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Pressure may have been a privilege for Billie Jean King, but for China’s Li Na it is an inescapable fact of life.  Long burdened with the towering  expectations of her compatriots, Li nevertheless has brilliantly represented Chinese tennis on the biggest stages in the sport.  Not just personal achivements, her successes have proved vital in sparking a wave of talented compatriots to follow in her footsteps–an influence that few players can claim.  Consequently, Li is the subject of our second player profile, in which we will recall five highlights and five lowlights of her career, discuss three strengths and three weaknesses in her game, and conclude with a preview of what her future may hold.

Highlights:

5)  2006 Wimbledon:  Li announced herself to the international tennis audience on the biggest stage of all, overcoming 2004 US Open champion Kuznetsova and Nicole Vaidisova (then a formidable threat on grass) en route to the quarterfinals.  Her performance at the All England Club made her the first Chinese player ever to reach the final eight in a Slam draw and, more tellingly, illustrated her ability to threaten the WTA elite under the most pressure-filled situations.

4)  2008 Gold Coast:  After a lengthy injury absence in 2007, few tennis aficionados expected Li to rebound immediately by seizing the most important title of her career so far.  In this Australian Open warm-up tournament, she once again defeated the still-dangerous Vaidisova before scoring a gritty three-set win over the already promising Azarenka in the final.  Watching her steadily wrest control of the match away from the Minx from Minsk, we were struck by her mental fortitude and composure on key points. 

3)  2007 Indian Wells / Miami:  Although her high-risk game doesn’t naturally suit the California desert’s ultra-slow hard courts, Li slashed her way past consummate counterpunchers Jankovic and Zvonareva.  In the semifinals, she split two tightly contested sets with eventual champion Hantuchova before fading in the final set.  Just a fortnight later, she ambushed Clijsters in Miami with the bold shot-making panache that has defined her style.  These glittering results diverged from a trend in her career, which has witnessed oscillations between stunning success and deep disappointment.  In these consecutive major events, Li hinted at the dominant player that she could become; it’s difficult to determine how her year would have developed had she not missed the entire second half with injury.

2)  2010 Australian Open:  Not only did Li reach a Slam semifinal and penetrate the top 10 for the first time in her career, but she accomplished these longtime goals in dramatic fashion by upsetting Wozniacki and Venus.  After relentlessly eroding the Dane’s dogged defenses, she looked uncharacteristically perplexed during the first set and a half of her encounter with the seven-time Slam champion.  When Venus served for what appeared to be a routine quarterfinal, however, Li lofted two exquisitely executed lobs and capitalized on the sudden momentum shift.  Failing to serve out the match at the first opportunity in the final set, she maintained her steely focus, broke the American again, and slammed the door in style with a pair of flamboyant forehands. If she had eked out the two tiebreaks against Serena in a fiercely contested semifinal, we would have backed her to win the Melbourne title.

1)  2008 Olympics:  Although many observers might have considered Li’s semifinal (bronze-medal match) run here less significant than her Australian achievement, we placed it at the head of this list because of the immense pressure on her to excel before her home audience in what they consider the world’s premier sporting event.  Most WTA players would have crumpled under the weight of the occasion, but instead Li rose above all expectations to overcome Kuznetsova and Venus.  More than just another highlight on her resume, this performance at the Beijing Olympics provided inspiration for a future generation of Chinese tennis players–a contribution to her sport and her nation that one can’t easily quantify.

Lowlights:

5)  2006 Estoril:  After splitting two extremely tight sets with her charming but feisty compatriot Zheng Jie, Li found herself forced to retire from the final before the third set.  The physical rigors of her uncompromising style not only cost her a title but portended numerous injury-caused absences in the future.

4)  2008 Stuttgart:  Having toppled the newly crowned US Open champion Serena Williams in this fall indoor hard event (since moved to the spring clay season), Li failed to capitalize on her momentum and fell meekly to Petrova one round later.  Throughout her career, she has repeatedly struggled to transform significant upsets into titles or deep tournament runs, a product of the inconsistency that we discuss below.

3)  2009 Birmingham:  In the semifinals of this pre-Wimbledon grass court event, Li defeated Sharapova for the first time in her career after a series of frustrating losses to the Russian in key tournaments (see the next entry).  As in Stuttgart, though, she proved unable to translate the momentum into a title, losing a highly winnable match to the untested Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, who still has yet to emerge as a serious force in the WTA.  In order to fulfill her vast potential, Li will need to find a way to regularly win the matches that she ought to win. 

2)  2008 US Open:  One might have expected that the flamboyant Li would rise to the occasion against the ever-frail Dementieva on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis venue.  Moreover, she had just captivated international audiences with her Olympics breakthrough (chronicled above); we picked her to pull off what would have been a noteworthy yet not shocking upset.  Instead, she fell on her sword in a cascade of ugly unforced errors, either unable or unwilling to modulate her natural aggression.  This section of the draw had opened up considerably, which only underscored the squandered opportunity here.

1)  2009 French Open:  Many readers may be surprised to find a fourth-round Slam showing atop this list, but our choice stems from the context here.  Despite losing the first set to Sharapova, she had rebounded to win 10 of the next 12 games from a distinctly rusty Maria, a surge that propelled her to a 4-2 third-set lead.  With the match on her racket and an increasingly fatigued opponent across the net, she let the Russian find her footing, take over the rallies, and reel off the next four games.  Considering that the rest of her half included the unimposing Cibulkova, the still-raw Azarenka, and the mentally tottering Safina, Li certainly could have fought her way into the French Open final had she closed out the match.  And, as we know well, anything can happen in a Slam final.

Strengths:

1)  Backhand.  Crisp and efficient with her technique on this stroke, Li can direct it with conviction towards either sideline or corner.  Even when she struggles with the rest of her game, her backhand rarely deserts her for extended periods.  During her matches against Sharapova, she prevailed several times in protracted backhand-to-backhand rallies, no easy feat for opponents confronting the Russian’s colossal two-hander.  Li moves extremely well towards that side of the court (better than towards her forehand), so her superior footwork and balance allow her to lean into the shot and generate additional pace.

2)  Self-belief.  Beneath her steely facade lies a resilient confidence in her abilities, without which she could not have scored her eye-opening wins over virtually every marquee WTA player in the last decade.  Whereas some opponents walk onto court with eyes glazed in the acceptance of inevitable defeat, Li approaches even her most daunting matches with a predatorial gleam in her eye.  This self-belief matches the fearless aggression in her game; rather than retreat into passivity after unforced errors as do so many of her peers, Li fires her weapons with redoubled determination.

3)  Imagination.  During her rallies with Venus in Melbourne, Li consistently kept the American off balance with ingeniously angled groundstrokes that opened up the court in unexpected ways.  Even when her opponent appeared to have firmly seized the upper hand, she often delivered a crafty riposte that enabled her to transition from defense to offense.  Her run at the Olympics also showcased her talent for hitting balls from anywhere on the court to anywhere else; when Li settles into a shot-making rhythm and displays her ability to redirect the ball, few players are more breathtaking to behold.  Well equipped to resist raw power, even expert counterpunchers such as Jankovic and Wozniacki have struggled to weather this hurricane of unbridled creativity.

Weaknesses:

1)  Inconsistency.  On both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels, Li struggles to maintain momentum after spectacular stretches of play.  She often follows an excellent result with a lackluster performance, or a lengthy sequence of winners with an equally lengthy sequence of errors.  In part, her failure to capitalize on long-term momentum stems from the numerous injuries that have derailed her at inconvenient stages and for extended periods.  The short-term momentum, however, is an issue that she must address in order to prevent opponents from finding new life, which needlessly prolongs early-round matches even if it doesn’t necessarily reverse the outcome.

2)  Finishing points.  Li’s laudable aggressive instincts sometimes boil over the top, inspiring her to attempt a shot closer to the line or more jaggedly angled than would suffice to win the point.  If the court lies open and her opponent is marooned outside the doubles alley, there’s no need to nibble at the opposite sideline.  When her game is a fraction off, those picture-perfect winners turn into ghastly, often costly miscues–effectively donations.  We’d like to see Li enhance her net skills, which would not only decrease the opponent’s reaction time but enable her to create angles more safely.  Nevertheless, we have to admit that her flair for (melo)dramatic shot-making provides marvelous entertainment, whether for better or for worse.  😉

3)  Stubbornness.  A product of her self-belief, this trait surfaces when Li misses the same shot (and/or the same line) several points in a row.  We’re not suggesting that offense-minded players should retreat from natural aggression into a tentative Plan B; there’s a reason why Plan B is Plan B and not Plan A.  Neither would we suggest that Li and others play to their opponents’ weaknesses rather than to their own strengths.  But a player with multiple weapons should consider trying a different shot or form of aggression if one of her weapons doesn’t seem to be clicking at a given moment (e.g., trading a down-the-line forehand for a crosscourt forehand).  

Recap:

 If Li can stay healthy over the next few years, she has a legitimate chance to win a Slam or at least reach a final.  As she has amply demonstrated, she can overcome anyone on any occasion.  As she has equally amply demonstrated, she can lose to anyone on any occasion.  Although thrilling for fans, this unpredictability could cost her over the course of two weeks and seven matches against a variety of playing styles.  However, a little help from the draw and a timely burst of momentum could carry her all the way, especially in this uncertain period in women’s tennis.  As we mentioned above, she might well have won the Australian Open this year had she eked out just a few more points against Serena.

We suspect that Li’s best tennis still lies ahead, and that she will capture at least one top-level title (probably not a major, but a Premier event).  If you think that we’re overly optimistic, feel free to tell us so.  But be careful before you underestimate Li Na.

***

Hope that you enjoyed this second player profile.  Our third edition will feature Russian ATP star Mikhail Youzhny.  Meanwhile, coming up this weekend is the inaugural edition of “(TW)2.”  Rather than provide further explanation, we’ll let you guess what that abbreviation might signify over the next few days!  🙂