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Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

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Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

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

 

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

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

Tokyo:

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

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

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

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

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

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

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

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

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

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

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

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

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Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Julia Goerges - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Bartoli vs. Goerges:  Not a factor on clay before this year, the former Wimbledon runner-up married her fast-court skills to her least friendly surface by reaching the Strasbourg final last week.  A player renowned for return winners and similarly potent first strikes, Bartoli will face an opponent who has built her suddenly augmented credentials upon two upsets over Wozniacki.  Goerges should count herself fortunate to have survived her three-setter with Safarova a round ago, however, for the Czech nearly buried her under a barrage of lefty forehands into her more vulnerable backhand.  Potentially vital in this match is the German’s far superior serve, which rarely undergoes the wobble experienced by Bartoli’s ungainly delivery at some stage in most matches.  While the French crowd that boosted Garcia will stand firmly behind Marion, Goerges appears a steady competitor unlikely to implode upon request.  But one wonders how she will adjust to Bartoli’s unorthodox, double-barreled style, having struggled to adapt to the distinctive weapons of Safarova.

Wawrinka vs. Tsonga:  The only Swiss star to feature on Chatrier today, Wawrinka knows that another encounter with his nation’s #1 lies just beyond a potential victory here.  Will that deflating realization infect the play of Federer’s doubles partner?  Behind his quarterfinal runs at each of the previous two majors loomed not only bellicose coach Peter Lundgren but an enhanced offense highlighted by the mightiest one-handed backhand in tennis.   Wawrinka could deploy that stroke to pin Tsonga into his relatively weak backhand corner, tempting the French hope to run around that shot to hit forehands and thus surrender a gaping swathe of court position.  Belied by the Swiss #2’s compact, unprepossessing frame, his serve often enables him to take command of points more frequently than he once could.  En route to his unexpected quarterfinals in New York and Melbourne, Wawrinka toppled Murray at the former and Roddick at the latter, so Tsonga represents a target well within his range.  The ebullient Frenchman proved against Andreev that baseline grinding alone will not erode him, though, requiring the Swiss to seize the initiative if he hopes to seize the day.

Del Potro vs. Djokovic:  Probably more anticipated than any first-round encounter, this collision will occur as the suitably dramatic late-afternoon shadows creep across Chatrier.  Yet the sun will not set on Djokovic’s 41-match winning streak unless Del Potro unleashes his most imposing performance since the 2009 US Open—and sustains it across the course of five sets against the most relentless mover in the sport.  The Argentine looked increasingly convincing after losing the first set of the tournament to Karlovic, measuring his balanced groundstrokes to the baselines and heightening his focus at potential turning points.  Nevertheless, Djokovic has thundered through his first two matches with bulletproof determination, perhaps emboldened by the prospect of the #1 ranking four wins ahead.  A personality gentler than his fearsome forehand would suggest, Del Potro may find the task posed by the second seed too formidable to even contemplate the possibility of victory so soon after his return from a leg injury.  Unless he finds an early ray of optimism, he may meekly bare his neck to the Serbian battleaxe.

Peng vs. Schiavone:  For some players, returning to the scene of their greatest achievements intimidates them into timid, uncertain performances.  Not so for Schiavone, who so far has frolicked on the clay where she sprawled in ecstasy a year ago.  The competition spikes upward with the resolute Peng, who has split her two meetings with Schiavone and menaced her throughout an airtight two-setter in Madrid this month.  Moreover, the rising Chinese star won three consecutive sets against top-three opposition in Brussels last week before succumbing to Wozniacki in the final.  Since Peng clearly believes that she belongs in the conversation with the elite, Schiavone cannot expect the assistance that her previous opponents generously provided in their own demise.  Always eager to engage in battle, the feisty Italian gladiator must sharpen her sword before dispatching an opponent worthy of her steel.

Tipsarevic vs. Federer:  Few can forget their magical meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, when the GOAT locked horns with a bespectacled Serb who had the audacity to extend him into an 18-game final set.  Surely remembering that blight upon his escutcheon with especial clarity, Federer has not earned an opportunity for revenge until now.  Although the clay can expose the Swiss legend’s sporadic bouts of inconsistency, Tipsarevic should find the dirt poorly suited to his low-percentage shot selection.

Wozniacki vs. Hantuchova:  Whenever the graceful Slovak takes the court, two Hantuchovas alternate in confronting her opponents.  In the first set of her Miami meeting with Wozniacki this year, the feckless Hantuchova struggled to time or locate even the most routine swing volleys into the open court.  In the second set, the free-flowing Hantuchova executed improbable drop shots and exquisitely placed forehands with apparent effortlessness.  Probably anticipating an uneventful victory after the first set, Wozniacki needed her most dogged defense (and a bit of luck) to dodge a third.  Almost as lucky to avoid a final set against Wozniak, the Dane looked uneasy in a desultory performance that featured an unusually high quantity of unforced errors.  Whatever frailty she experiences, however, seems slight when juxtaposed with an emblem of physical and emotional fragility.

Gasquet vs. Bellucci:  Plats du jour at the two main appetizers of the clay season, these incorrigible underachievers enjoyed their weeks in the spotlight at the expense of Murray (Bellucci) and Federer (Gasquet).  A power merchant who spares little effort for finesse, the heir to Gustavo Kuerten bludgeons his backhand at a velocity almost equal to his sweeping forehand and with seeming indifference to the lines.  Likewise inclined to flirt with the perimeters of the court is his French foe, although the latter relies upon elegant forecourt touch as much as his crackling backhand and underrated serve.  Clay grants these players more time to arrange their elongated groundstroke swings, but it also tests their dubious fortitude under pressure.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Nine

Propping up dilapidated regimes late in the Roman Empire were lavish festivals and athletic competitions with which rulers placated their subjects even as the world around them crumbled, a tactic known as panes et circenses.  Although contemporary Italy lies in a less dire predicament, recent political turmoil might encourage Romans to retreat to the bucolic oasis of the Foro Italico.  There, the ATP triumvirate converges for the fourth time this year at a Masters 1000 event, having reached the semifinals on each of the three previous occasions.

First quarter:  Hobbled by injury, exhaustion, or other extenuating circumstances in many of his previous clay losses, Nadal must respond to the realization that his most recent opponent simply outplayed him on his favorite surface.  Although three successive runner-up finishes to the same player may have struck a blow to his confidence in their rivalry, the Spaniard should assault his quarter with vigor renewed.  As one would expect, Nadal has refused to distract himself with the duel over #1 that lies ahead, and he will need his focus immediately against Madrid semifinalist Bellucci.  The player who came closest to overcoming Djokovic in Madrid, the Brazilian can threaten Rafa but probably cannot defeat him., much like Gulbis on clay last year.  The top seed then could face lefty compatriot Lopez, who held a match point against Madrid and defeated Nadal last year on the vastly different lawns of Queens Club.  On the other side of this strong section stands Ferrer, surely eager to avenge an Indian Wells loss to Karlovic in the second round.  Almost certain to collide in the quarterfinals, the finalists in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will reprise this event’s 2010 final.  Ferrer came within range of troubling Nadal then, as he did in Monte Carlo this year, but he has lost his last ten clay meetings with Nadal while winning just one set during that span.

Second quarter:  Since 2007, Federer has fallen in Rome to the unheralded trio of Volandri, Stepanek, and Gulbis.  Slowest of all Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface here has punished the Swiss star’s faltering consistency as he ages.  Escaping from an inspired Lopez in his Madrid opener, Federer could find the mercurial Tsonga a compelling test in his Rome opener.  The Frenchman only once has troubled the world #3, however, and the latter’s confidence should have mounted after he forced Nadal into a third set last week.  While Andreev oddly has flustered the Swiss at majors, the Russian’s ranking has sunken so far that he needed to qualify for this tournament, so a meeting with Federer would represent his fifth match here.  Intriguing for its contrast of styles is the Tuesday encounter between Monaco and Berdych, which pits one of the ATP’s long-time clay specialists against a brutal ball-striker with limited versatility.  Elsewhere in this quarter lies the artistry of Gasquet, probably at his least effective on clay but somewhat resurgent after the Australian Open.  Should Federer and Berdych reach the quarterfinals, as seems plausible, the Czech will have one last opportunity to inject himself with self-belief before defending his prodigious accomplishments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.

Third quarter:  In an ATP where the top three have distanced themselves so far from their challengers, one quarter in a Masters 1000 draw always lies open to the opportunists.  Exploited most recently by Bellucci, this loophole might expand to admit Troicki, who recorded an impressive straight-sets victory over Davydenko in the first round.  Yet the potential dark horses here seem few in number, including no clay specialists outside the ageless Chela and Starace.  Therefore, the fourth-seeded Murray might progress at least to the quarterfinals despite his usual fecklessness on this surface.  Seemingly revived from a post-Melbourne swoon that embarrassed his entire nation, the Scot caused Nadal’s brow to furrow in a three-set, three-hour Monte Carlo semifinal. Murray has enjoyed repeated success against his most notable potential obstacle en route to the semifinals, Melzer, although the Austrian defeated Federer in Monte Carlo before stumbling to a perplexing early exit in Rome against the anonymous Gimeno-Traver.  Often veering wildly in form from one tournament to the next, the eighth seed may not thrive on a sluggish surface that will require him to hit a longer series of audacious angles in order to finish points.  Although Murray and the accelerating Simon own superior consistency, they may struggle to penetrate the court with their less impressive firepower.  As in Madrid, the player who emerges from this section will face a monumental challenge thenceforth, so one must curtail one’s sense of perspective to fully appreciate the events that unfold here

Fourth quarter:  Occupying this lair is the terror of the ATP, who has lunged within range of reaching the #1 ranking after Roland Garros or perhaps Wimbledon.  Barely blunted by the transition from hard courts to clay, Djokovic continues to rend his victims limb from limb with an offense worthy of Del Potro, movement worthy of Nadal, and poise under pressure worthy of Federer.  The runner-up to Djokovic in the 2008 Rome tournament, Wawrinka has accomplished less on clay than expected after a scintillating start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  The Swiss #2 has won sets from the Serb on clay but has not yet encountered him in his current breathtaking incarnation and probably lacks the willpower to snap the streak.  Notorious for his success in the role of spoiler, Soderling certainly possesses the necessary willpower to tarnish Djokovic’s perfect 2011.  Before taking aim at that prestigious target, though, the world #5 must defuse the assault of Verdasco.  Unimpressive during a loss to Lu in Madrid, the Spaniard regrouped with a sturdy victory over Raonic, who overcame him twice in February.  Former nemesis Almagro also might intersect with the fifth seed in a third-round encounter of unsubtly pummeled groundstrokes.  While nobody can feast upon a fallible foe more voraciously than Soderling, the Swede lately has lacked the confidence and competitive resilience required to topple the Djokovic who so expertly smothered Nadal in Madrid.

Rafael Nadal Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) and Rafael Nadal of Spain share a moment during the prize giving ceremony after the mens final during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

Roger Federer Mens finalist Rafael Nadal and  Roger Federer of Switzerland hold aloft their trophies after the mens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Among the oddest moments of the 2010 season was the final shot (or non-shot) of their meeting last year in Madrid, a whiff by the 16-time major champion on the twelfth point of the second-set tiebreak.  Rarely has a Masters 1000 tournament ended in such anticlimactic fashion, but their 2009 final in the Caja Magica likewise exuded an air of anticlimax.  Exhausted by his semifinal classic with Djokovic that year, Nadal could not consistently challenge his archrival.  Nevertheless, each Madrid final propelled its victor towards the Roland Garros title three weeks later.  An altered schedule has reduced that potential impact, while Federer does not pose as serious a threat to Rafa’s supremacy on Court Philippe Chatrier as he once did.  Yet intrigue still hovers around their third meeting in the Spanish capital, where the atypically fast surface theoretically should offer the Swiss star his best possible opportunity to unseat the world #1 on clay.  In a quarterfinal victory over Soderling, his first win over a top-5 opponent this season, the third seed never lost his serve and moved more smoothly on the slippery surface than in earlier rounds.  During two brief excursions to the Caja Magica, meanwhile, Nadal has not lost his own serve and surrendered eight total games in performances crisper than many of his previous Madrid efforts.

As Rafa’s ascendancy over Roger has inexorably mounted, their rivalry has pivoted less around the question of “can Nadal topple the GOAT?” than the question of “can Federer conquer his nemesis?”  Following a lackluster loss to Nadal in Miami, some would suggest that the question has become “can Federer keep the match competitive?”  Although that formulation seems premature, the burden clearly rests on the Spaniard to maintain his current dominance over their rivalry.  This shift should allow the 16-time major champion to play with the fluid, confident aggression so rarely evident in his recent matches against Nadal.  But is Federer ready to recognize this shift and assume the underdog’s mantle?  Central to his achievements, a streak of rigid stubbornness may prevent him from perceiving himself as anything other than the favorite and the established champion, a role that he has played so well for so long.  In this waning phase of his career, Federer may need to become less gracious and more gritty.  Now when he plays Nadal, the inevitable uncertainties of an aging champion seep into his game and demeanor.  Virtually impenetrable on his favorite surface already, Rafa requires no such assistance in conquering the suave Swiss matador once more.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic:  At each of the first three Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, excluding the optional Monte Carlo event, the top three players have advanced to the semifinals.  At each of these tournaments, the architect of an unexpected breakthrough joins them—Del Potro in Indian Wells, Fish in Miami, and Belluci (perhaps most surprising of all) in Madrid.  And one can hardly claim that the Brazilian has profited from early upsets that vacated his draw, for he defeated fourth-seeded Murray and seventh-seeded Berdych in straight sets to reach the semifinals.  In an era when surface specialists have begun to decline, Bellucci’s progress through this prestigious event may suggest the continued relevance of expertise on clay.  Personifying the trend towards all-court versatility among the ATP’s elite, however, is a semifinal opponent buoyed by his victory over dirt devil par excellence Ferrer.

Repeatedly stymied by the Spaniard in their previous clay meetings, Djokovic will have acquired confidence from reversing those setbacks in a fiercely contested three-setter.  To be sure, some of the Serb’s self-deprecating grimaces, smirks, and shrugs crept back when he failed to capitalize upon a potentially decisive momentum shift that carried him from 3-4 in the first set to 2-0 in the second.  Impeccable late in the first and third sets, his serve grew unreliable on key points during the second set.  Counterbalancing those causes for concern, however, was his victory celebration after he ended the match.  Delighted but not delirious with joy, Djokovic conducted himself as a champion who had his expectations of eventual victory confirmed after an especially arduous battle.  That heightening maturity will serve him well against a competitor as raw as Bellucci, who at a certain psychological level must feel content to have penetrated as far into the draw as he already has.

Goerges vs. Azarenka:  Facilitating the German’s charge to the Porsche title, the world #5 retired after winning the first set of their Stuttgart meeting.  The latest potential sensation to emerge from the WTA, Goerges must take care to avoid following the routes of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai, who effectively evaporated after excelling on the road to Roland Garros last year.  Petkovic’s compatriot seemingly has a game better adapted to hard courts than to clay, but she demonstrated her ball-striking might by battering through Wozniacki’s defenses in consecutive weeks, no mean feat.  After three three-setters, she comfortably dispatched Pavlyuchenkova in a battle between German and Russian rising stars.  Her eight arduous hours in singles competition, however, contrast with the nearly effortless progress of Azarenka, detained for an hour or more by only one of her four opponents here.  Although she lost a set to Safarova for the first time in six meetings, the fourth seed finished that quarterfinal on an uplifting note, revealing no sign of the physical or mental frailty that has dogged her in long matches before.  While Goerges has won ten straight matches, Azarenka has won her last eighteen encounters excluding retirements and has not faced a match point since February.  Like their fellow semifinalists, these feisty competitors diverge from the familiar model of clay counterpunchers.  Capable movers with respectable consistency, Vika and her challenger nevertheless prowl the baseline eager for the first opportunity to launch a lasered groundstroke.  Can Azarenka finish in Madrid what she started in Stuttgart?

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  In their first career meeting, two players who will rank in the top 10 on Monday hope to rebound from suspenseful quarterfinals.  The formerly flaky Kvitova deserves high praise for chipping away at the baseline fortress of Cibulkova, who mustered far sturdier opposition to the Czech than in their previous clashes this year.  As Li Na has shown herself, inflammable upstarts become ever more dangerous when they gather impetus, and the Chinese star needed all of her competitive tenacity to subdue the startling surge of Bethanie-Mattek-Sands.  Eight years older and considerably more weathered than Kvitova, the sixth seed may not enter their semifinal as fresh as the 21-year-old Czech.  On the other hand, she adapts her movement to the clay more adroitly and strikes the ball a little earlier, allowing her to take the initiative more frequently in exchange for assuming greater risks.  While the Czech owns the superior serve, the Chinese enjoys a more scintillating backhand with which to complement her forehand.  Among the most mercurial personalities in a mercurial WTA elite, these two players will have combined to reach five finals and lose seven first-round matches in this season alone.  One thus expects an unpredictable match filled with stunning shot-making but also some egregious errors as Kvitova and Li target more lines than one typically would find in a clay semifinal.  Perhaps more prescient than Ion Tiriac knew was his suggestion of changing the surface color from red to blue.