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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

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National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

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South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

In a WTA rife with comebacks, injuries, and opportunists, the middle weekend often offers tennis as scintillating as the tournament’s climax.  That theme may continue with a fourth-round rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final, which will feature two of the three most impressive performers in this half of the draw.  Dropping just seven games in her last five sets, Clijsters has played herself into the fortnight and has survived the early meltdowns that have ambushed her at occasional Slams during her second career.  In a commanding victory over Hantuchova, who had troubled her in Brisbane this month, the defending champion retrieved and redirected balls with her familiar aplomb while showing no sign of her recent hip injury.  When healthy, Clijsters can transition from defense to offense more effectively than any woman in the WTA, except perhaps her opponent on Sunday.  Two victories from a third straight semifinal in Melbourne, Li has looked crisp as she once again has extended her momentum from a fine week in Sydney.  The Roland Garros champion owns the single most explosive weapon in this match with her forehand, although her two-hander has not failed to impress.  Overlooked amidst their excellent groundstrokes and movement are the serves of both women, which have functioned effectively this week.  Both Clijsters and Li possess very complete games and clean technique but can misfire for extended stretches, either through the presence of nerves or the absence of focus.  Unless they find their rhythms at the same time, a rollercoaster encounter could result, decided by who can finish points more effectively once they seize the initiative.

We preview each of the other singles matches as the second week begins.

Azarenka vs. Benesova:  Perhaps catalyzed by her Brisbane upset of Stosur, the least famous of the three Czech lefties extended her success here by comfortably defeating Peng.  Benesova exploited an open section of the draw, vacated by Schiavone, by swinging her hook serve and forehand to jerk less powerful opponents around the court.   But now the competition jolts upward abruptly against the third seed, who has looked one of the leading three or four title contenders here despite a wobble in her previous match.  As match point after match point slipped away against Barthel, Azarenka’s carefully managed nerves started to fray visibly until she unleashed a concluding burst of petulance mixed with relief.  Maintaining outstanding depth on her groundstrokes throughout the first week, she should succeed against Benesova simply by staying steady in both playing style and emotions.  Perhaps the most balanced player of her generation, Azarenka treads a middle path between the dogged counterpunching of Wozniacki and the fearless, sometimes reckless assaults of Kvitova.  Her serve remains the weakest component of her game, but she has protected it well here and has not yet encountered an elite returner.  Against Benesova, her backhand down the line should prove especially lethal as Azarenka aims to reach her second Melbourne quarterfinal with minimal difficulty.

Lopez vs. Nadal:  As the tournament began, Nadal generated news related to the ATP schedule, his opinion of Federer, and another injury to his knee.  To the relief of  his fans, he generated little news related to his tennis during an uneventful first week of straight-sets victories.  Experimenting with a heavier racket, his serve has looked clearly more formidable although still not at its level when he won the US Open.  Outside an occasional sloppy service game against Haas and Lacko, Nadal has provided his critics with scant ground for complaint so far.  With the exception of a Queens Club upset, he has suffocated Lopez throughout their careers by relying upon his far superior baseline consistency to erode his fellow lefty.  The older Spaniard impressed by conquering Isner in a five-setter during which her broke the American’s towering serve six times while losing his own serve only once.  But he struggled with double faults throughout that match, committing four during one crucial game that exposed his nerves.  Always high in winners and high in unforced errors, Lopez must record an outstanding first-serve percentage to threaten his compatriot on a sticky surface that blunts serves and rewards baseliners.  Not until the semifinal, perhaps, will Nadal find an adversary worthy of his steel.

Tomic vs. Federer:  In all three of his first-week matches, the home hope lost the first set as Melbourne heart rates accelerated.  Buoyed by the fervent Rod Laver crowds, Tomic demonstrated stamina remarkable for a teenager as he outlasted both Verdasco and Dolgopolov in five sets.  All the same, he cannot afford to allow Federer an early lead as he settles into the match, for the Swiss legend has proven himself an outstanding front-runner against heavy underdogs throughout his career.  After playing 14 sets in three matches and running for four miles on Friday night, Tomic will need to recover quickly for a match that will require crisp footwork, keen instincts, and a clear mind.  When he faced Federer in a Davis Cup playoff last fall, the teenager won a set and competed valiantly in the others.  The difference in that collision, the contrast between their serves could play a crucial role again as the 16-time major champion holds much more comfortably, while Tomic expends more effort on each service game.  Severely tested for nearly two full sets by Karlovic’s serve, Federer should feel less inconvenienced by the veering slices and spins of the Australian’s distinctive style.  As his career wanes, muscular ball-bruisers like Soderling, Tsonga, and Berdych have unsettled him, but the crafty artists of the court have enjoyed little more success against him on hard courts than they ever have.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  After losing the first four meetings to her fellow counterpuncher and stylistic ancestor, the world #1 defeated Jankovic three times last year in a striking momentum shift.  Many are the similarities between these women, who rely upon their movement more than their serving and project greater power from their backhands than their forehands.  Outside a shaky second set in the second round, Wozniacki has acquitted herself creditably throughout the first week, showing few signs of crumbling under the pressure of her ranking.  In the Dane’s position three Australian Opens ago, Jankovic succumbed in the fourth round and would not capture the top spot again.  With the opportunity to strip it from her opponent, she may bring more motivation than she has shown for much of her steady decline.  Overwhelming a trio of young challengers, such as the promising Christina McHale, Jankovic displayed few traces of her vintage self but did maintain her focus consistently as she waited for the raw teenagers across the net to falter.  The Serb saved break point after break point against McHale in a match that looked extremely tight early before developing into a rout.  Considering their stylistic parallels, this encounter of current and former #1s should hinge mostly upon execution.  Jankovic would seem to hold the edge in power and experience, while Wozniacki enjoys the advantage in mobility, consistency, and (arguably) composure, but each could surpass the other in any of these dimensions on any given day.  Expect a lung-burning series of rallies along the baseline as both women aim to win points than invite the opponent to lose them.

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  One of two Germans to reach the second week at the Australian Open, Goerges enjoyed a promising first half to 2011 before fading dramatically—even evaporating—in the second half.  When she retired against Jankovic in Sydney, one harbored few hopes for her Melbourne campaign despite a resilient performance in a three-set loss to Sharapova last year.  Again showcasing her bold brand of tennis on these courts, she has recorded the strongest Slam effort of her still budding career and should not underestimate her chances to progress further.  Never more than a quarterfinalist at majors, Radwanska has demonstrated her ability to score a key upset here or there but has not produced a deep run, regularly undone by a player who overpowers her from the baseline and from the service notch.  During a stirring Asian fall, however, the Pole suggested that she might have enhanced her readiness to take risks, even if her puny serve may have no remedy.  She nearly stumbled against Mattek-Sands in her opening match but used her survival instincts to escape an opponent who cracked 80 winners.  Clearly superior to Radwanska on serve, Goerges will need to earn plentiful free points from that shot if she seeks to subdue her exceptionally nuanced, clever, and tenacious foe.  Once rallies begin, the eighth seed will hope to expose the German’s deficiencies in mobility and point construction, perhaps dragging her forwards at inconvenient moments.  To become a truly premier contender, Radwanska must overcome the second tier of ball-bruisers like Goerges more regularly.

Berdych vs. Almagro:  The match most likely to feature a fifth set, this meeting of the world #7 and world #10 seems academic in a sense because the winner will have only a negligible chance of upsetting Nadal.  A quarterfinal appearance still would represent a significant accomplishment for Almagro, whose game aligns just as well with hard courts as with clay.  But he has not excelled at the most prestigious events, managing just two Roland Garros quarterfinal amidst a host of first-week exits to far less talented opponents.  In stark contrast to the functional two-handed backhand of Berdych, Almagro’s elegant one-hander exemplifies his elongated swings, which can cost him time on faster surface.  These medium-speed hard courts should allow him to set up his elaborate swings without slowing the Czech’s serve too significantly.  Winning all three of his tiebreaks this fortnight, Berdych has relied upon his most formidable shot to set up his inside-out and inside-in forehands.  To reach his second straight Australian Open quarterfinal, he should keep Almagro pinned well behind the baseline, where he will struggle to penetrate the court and may attempt low-percentage shots from frustrated impatience.  Since they lack the ability to transition smoothly from defense to offense, the player who can assert himself early in the point usually will emerge victorious.  In their only previous hard-court meeting, at Cincinnati last year, Berdych delivered the terminal blow earlier and more often, winning with ease.

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  In all four of their previous meetings, the US Open champion has emerged triumphant, but their two 2011 clashes hint at intrigue ahead.  Since an opening five-setter, Kohlschreiber has played only four and a half sets in two rounds, so he should bring plenty of energy to track down the Argentine’s lasers.  Following an indifferent beginning to the tournament, Del Potro has looked more authoritative with each match and almost each set that he has seized.  As he completed his demolition of a helpless Yen-Hsun Lu on Friday night, his forehands rocketed through the court with an ominous explosiveness.  Nevertheless, Kohlschreiber can trade baseline bombs with the Argentine on both groundstroke wings, relishing the opportunity to redirect balls down the line.  The product of a particularly fluid motion, his serve sets up points almost as well as does Del Potro’s mightier delivery.  Content to decide points from the baseline, the Tower of Tandil rarely ventures towards the net, whereas the German will test his opponent’s passing shots by approaching opportunistically.  That strategy could help Kohlschreiber destabilize Del Potro’s timing, uneven since his wrist surgery.  In a best-of-five format, though, the Argentine’s heavier weight of shot and suffocating court coverage should frustrate a thrilling shot-maker who plays with much less margin for error.

Having shed these shimmering robes and braced herself for 2012, Ivanovic confronts many a daunting challenge in the dense Brisbane draw.  We glance across it in our first  tournament preview of the season to come.

Top half:  After a triumphant homecoming as the US Open champion, Stosur shoulders the unfamiliar burden of holding the top seed amongst a group that includes Serena and Clijsters.  At the 2011 Australian Open, among other occasions, the Aussie #1 has appeared ruffled by the expectations of her compatriots.  One wonders whether her major breakthrough will allow her to handle those situations with greater composure, for surely expectations will have risen even higher following her victory over Serena in New York.  Destined to face one of two streaky Czech lefties in the second round, Stosur must establish herself early in the tournament so that she can build confidence for the marquee clashes from the quarterfinals onwards.  First among those is a projected meeting with 2010 Brisbane champion Clijsters, who has played sparsely since early April but should shine in the relaxed atmosphere of this city near the sea.  Although rustiness might trouble this champion who relies on rhythm, she returned impressively from a far longer absence when she launched her second career.  Undefeated against both Stosur and Ivanovic, Clijsters will aim to exploit her more balanced game and far superior movement to outlast two players centered around first strikes and forehands.  If she survives a potentially intriguing opener against Paszek, the Serb can seek revenge for a loss to Belgian in Miami when she held five match points.  Nevertheless, the memories of that epic encounter should provide Clijsters with a significant psychological advantage in the sequel.

Much more accommodating than the top quarter is the section that houses Serena, who appears in Brisbane for the first time.  Inactive since the US Open, the 13-time major champion likely simmers with motivation to erase her disappointment there.  More successful at the Australian Open than at any other major, she claims to start the season in full physical health—ominous news for her rivals.  Third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski dazzled at this stage of 2011, reaching the Sydney quarterfinals and winning a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne.  But she mustered little resistance to Serena at the US Open and may struggle to overcome home hope Casey Dellacqua, always more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else.  Highlighting this quarter is the first-round meeting between Slovaks Hantuchova and Cibulkova, separated by eight inches and six years.  While Hantuchova lacks the athleticism to survive baseline rallies with Serena, Cibulkova lacks the wingspan to return many of her serves.  A semifinal against Stosur or Clijsters would elevate the level of competition substantially, though, testing the American’s patience and concentration more than she would prefer at an event of this magnitude.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

Bottom half:  Less imposing than the top half, this section features one of the least imposing Slam champions and least accomplished #1s in the history of the WTA.  Sharing a quarter, Jankovic and Schiavone collaborated on a pair of scintillating three-setters at Roland Garros and Cincinnati last year.  Probably spurred by momentum from that victory, the winner reached the final on both occasions.  After she received a retirement from Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak, she next sets her sights upon a second Kazakh in Voskoboeva.  Meanwhile, the diminutive Spaniard Suarez Navarro unfolds an elegant one-handed backhand that contrasts with the Serb’s more streamlined two-hander.  Neither Schiavone nor Jankovic ended 2011 in especially impressive fashion, so both should welcome the opportunity to collect morale-boosting victories against unremarkable opposition.  Should they meet in the quarterfinals, Jankovic would hold the surface advantage while Schiavone might hold a fitness edge, judging from her heroics in Melbourne a year ago.

A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, Petkovic compiled a consistently solid second half before succumbing to a knee injury.  More rested than many of her colleagues, she reached the final in Brisbane 2011 with a victory over Bartoli.  Opening her week is a first career meeting Peer, who hopes to elevate her ranking from a deceptive #37 to its position inside the top 20 from early last year.  While Petkovic appeared in quarterfinals at every major but Wimbledon, possible quarterfinal foe Pavlyuchenkova gained only a little less acclaim by reaching quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open.  Similar to the German in playing style, the 20-year-old Russian has compiled far more experience than her age would suggest and seems equally ready to move a tier higher in the WTA hierarchy, provided that she can improve her serve.  Although have faced each other only once, just a few months ago in Beijing, Pavlyuchenkova and Petkovic should intersect more and more often if their careers continue on such promising trajectories.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with her WTA Tour World Number 1 trophy in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel on October 12, 2010 in Beijing, China.

First quarter:  Battered by Gajdosova and banished by Kanepi in Tokyo last week, Wozniacki hopes that this week’s title defense fares better than its predecessor.  Remarkably, she could face the same pair of opponents again in her first two matches, although the booming serve of Lisicki might disrupt that odd serendipity.  Absent from action since the US Open, the 17th-ranked German suffered a slight dip in form following her Wimbledon semifinal appearance and will engage in a bruising second-round battle of first-strike bombs.  Lisicki resoundingly defeated Wozniacki twice in 2009, so the world #1 certainly will have earned a quarterfinal berth should she navigate her Viking vessel around such a dangerous reef.  Less dangerous are her potential quarterfinal opponents, headlined by Schiavone and home hope Peng Shuai.  A quarterfinalist in Beijing two years ago with wins over Jankovic and Sharapova, the Chinese double-fister will aim to steal a bit of the spotlight from newly crowned Slam champion Li Na.  Meanwhile, Schiavone lost her first-round match in Seoul and has looked shaky for most of the second half.  Perhaps more intriguing than the bold-faced names, therefore, are two of Wozniacki’s Slam nemeses this year:  the flamboyant Hantuchova (Roland Garros) and the gritty Cibulkova (Wimbledon), who has struggled lately with an abdominal strain.  In a section with ample talent but plenty of questions hovering over its leading combatants, the hour seems ripe for an unexpected heroine to make a statement.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Second quarter:  Spiked with three Slam champions, this quarter could feature a second-round clash between fellow Roland Garros titlist Ivanovic (2008) and Kuznetsova (2009), should the Serb defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm for the fourth time in less than a year.  Although she displayed flashes of her vintage brilliance in a Wimbledon epic against Venus, 2011 has proved much less kind to the aging Japanese legend than 2010.  Last year’s runner-up Zvonareva should arrive either determined to win one more match than she did in Tokyo or deflated from still another loss to Radwanska, an opponent whom she formerly had dominated.  Should she arrange a third-round clash with the winner of Ivanovic-Kuznetsova, however, one would fancy the steady Russian’s chances to outlast either of those erratic opponents in an encounter of oscillating momentum.  What reward would Zvonareva gain for such an achievement?  As she did in Cincinnati, she could confront the challenge of defeating Radwanska less than a week after losing a final to the Pole, a challenge to which she could not rise this summer.  Inadvertently positioned to rescue Zvonareva is her semifinal victim last week, Kvitova, who delivered a generally reassuring series of performances in Tokyo.  On the other hand, her unsightly meltdown against a player infamous for such meltdowns herself continues to trigger concerns surrounding her maturity.  Kvitova can ill afford such a lapse when she meets the stingy Radwanska in the third round, for the Tokyo champion will magnify and exploit the flaws in her still-raw style.  At Eastbourne this year, they dueled into a third-set tiebreak before the Czech’s power prevailed.  She could profit from the dip in performance that one expects from both Tokyo finalists.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:   A member of the Wozniacki “déjà vu” club, Stosur likely will reprise her second-round meeting with Kirilenko in Tokyo should she neutralize Pironkova, who tested Zvonareva for a set last week.  To the surprise of some, the Aussie’s competitive experience proved no shield to the hangover suffered by all three of the WTA’s first-time Slam champions this season.  Just weeks after stunning Serena in such spectacular fashion, she should aim to reassemble her motivation before the year-end championships in Istanbul but may fall victim to one of her steady opponents here.  Nevertheless, Stosur will enjoy a distinct serving advantage over most early opponents except Julia Goerges, an enigmatic German who extended Sharapova to two tiebreaks in Tokyo following an indifferent summer.  If this ambitious German rediscovers her spring prowess, a path to the quarterfinals might lie open.  Among the most compelling questions surrounding this tournament is the tennis with which Li Na will either dazzle or dismay her compatriots.  Although she left little imprint upon Beijing in recent years, the reigning French Open champion reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics in her nation’s capital, vanquishing Venus and Kuznetsova en route.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in their vicinity, Li should feel relatively sanguine about a draw that she will tackle with the guidance of her coach-husband rather than Michal Mortensen.  That new arrangement might infuse the Chinese superstar with fresh energy, valuable against Guangzhou champion Scheepers or the persistent Dulko.  Should she reach a quarterfinal with Stosur, though, Li somehow must solve an opponent who has dispatched her in all five of their meetings while conceding one total set.  Slightly less likely is a rematch with New Haven nemesis Cetkovska in the quarterfinals.  Like a volcano that quietly accumulates lava before exploding, Li has spent a career alternating between long dormant periods and abrupt, ephemeral explosions of greatness.  She has accomplished almost nothing in the last four months, so…

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter:  A tight two-set encounter, Petkovic’s victory over Safarova determined one of the week’s most intriguing first-round matches.  By dispatching the WTA’s second most dangerous Czech lefty, the WTA’s most dangerous German moved a step closer to an Istanbul berth and showed little sign of sliding into complacency after a US Open quarterfinal.  Two rounds ahead, Petkovic might encounter the third most dangerous Czech lefty in Benesova but more plausibly would encounter Bartoli or Christina McHale.  The rising teenager ambushed the double-fisted Frenchwoman in New York, although that task will prove more daunting without the vociferous American fans to exhort her.  Not at her most impressive in Tokyo, US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova faces recent Quebec champion and fellow serpentine surname Zahlavova Strycova.  Either the 20-year-old Russian or Seoul titlist Martinez Sanchez could pose a stern test for Azarenka, who might meet the equally feisty Laura Robson in her first match.  While the second seed has struggled with lefties before, including Martinez Sanchez, Vika twice has lost sets to Pavlyuchenkova and probably would prefer to avoid her on the court where “Nastia” once defeated Venus.  Rather than a predictable second straight quarterfinal against Bartoli, an encounter between the brash Belarussian and the pugnacious Petkovic would offer the scintillation of the uncertain.  Only once have they clashed before, in a Moscow three-setter, and their relatively even strengths should intertwine for a blazing battle from the baseline as well as a fiery clash of personalities.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

Benesova vs. Stosur:  Reinvigorated with a stirring week in Rome, last year’s finalist must recover swiftly from the illness that troubled her there.  Stosur recently defeated Benesova on clay, but the Czech lefty reached the second week at the Australian Open by upsetting a pair of seeded opponents.  Opening the fortnight’s action on Philippe Chatrier, the Aussie may feel some flickers of the pressure that hampered her play at the season’s first major.  While Beneosva almost certainly cannot outplay her for an entire match on this surface, we might gain a window into Stosur’s current confidence as she enters the scene of her most glorious victories and most painful defeat.

Ferrer vs. Nieminen:  Like Stosur, the second-ranked Spaniard suffered from illness in Rome that may have filtered into an unimpressive performance in Nice.  After reaching a Masters 1000 final on clay and another semifinal last season, Ferrer fell meekly to Melzer in the third round at the major where he should prosper the most.  If he has not fully recovered his energy, the aging lefty Nieminen could trouble him as he did a few months ago in Rotterdam.  Nevertheless, Ferrer’s far superior fitness should bolster him in the best-of-five format against his occasional doubles partner, whom he overcame in a Melbourne four-setter.

Hewitt vs. Montanes:  Receding into the mists of tennis history, Hewitt has battled gallantly through multiple surgeries as he attempts to resist the evolution of the game.  The valiant Aussie’s counterpunching tactics no longer can frustrate the ATP elite, and repeated injuries have slowed his once formidable movement.  Against the offensively challenged Montanes, however, he might find one more opportunity to thrill his devoted Aussie fans in a match certain to feature grueling rally after grueling rally.  Armed with the competitive willpower of a champion, Hewitt may ambush a player who relies just as much upon high-percentage point construction and stingy defense.  But the surface edge swings the advantage clearly towards Montanes, who has defeated even Federer on clay.

Jankovic vs. A. Bondarenko:  Fourteen meetings normally suggest a hard-fought rivalry between two players near the peak of the game.  In this case, by contrast, the frequency of this non-rivalry tells nothing about the relative strengths of its components.  Jankovic has won twelve of their thirteen meetings, with eleven of the wins coming in straight sets.  After recording three bagels and four breadsticks against the unfortunate Ukrainian, perhaps she can expand the menu to croissants.

Rybarikova vs. Kuznetsova:  When Kvitova abandoned the Rome tournament to play her local challenger in Prague, she surely expected to cruise to an uneventful title.  Such proved not the case, for Rybarikova squashed the Czech’s dreams of hometown heroics.  A Birmingham champion two years ago, the Slovak possesses the flat strokes and limited movement more suited to grass or the indoor hard-court in Memphis where she won another title this year.  Her Prague ambush might have meant nothing at all in the larger picture, but she now faces a highly vulnerable opponent who has lost four opening-round matches in 2011 and four to players outside the top 50.  On the other hand, Kuznetsova also has defeated three top-10 players this year, in addition to Henin, as she continues to translate unpredictability into Russian.

Peer vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Hailed as a genuine threat when she won Rome in 2010, Martinez Sanchez has proven those proclamations unfounded as she has sunk below the top 75.  Not as dazzling as she was during that championship run, she remains a more compelling adversary than her ranking suggests.  Against a baseliner like Peer who moves better laterally than forwards and prefers longer rallies, the Spaniard’s drop shots and serve-volley tactics could pose complicated questions.  On the brink of the top 10 earlier this year, the Israeli has slumped to the edge of the top 20 as she has struggled to integrate timely aggression into her naturally counterpunching style.  Like Jankovic, she may prefer to return to what she does best and accept her limitations rather than attempting to have her pain au chocolat and eat it too.

Shvedova vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Both reaching the second week of Roland Garros last year, they stood as monuments to either the current dearth of WTA clay specialists (viewed pessimistically) or the ability of two heavy hitters to project their power onto a hostile surface (viewed optimistically).  Both the Russian and the pseudo-Kazakh have suffered from a concerning quantity of injuries that have hampered their attempts to establish momentum.  Absent from the Australian Open, Shvedova may require a few months to regain her shot-making precision, which often placed her atop the WTA power rankings in a measure of sheer velocity.  The highest-ranked teenager in the sport, Pavlyuchenkova must develop a sturdier serve to complement her penetrating groundstrokes before taking the next step forward.  The narrow confines of the outer court where they collide should illuminate their first-strike power by creating more opportunities to strike terminal blows early in the rally.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2



As Murray’s final feeble forehand faded into the net, our thoughts wasted little time in turning towards the events that unfolded at the season’s first major.  We review the most dazzling success stories, the most courageous overachievers, and the most tepid underachievers of the 2011 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Djokovic:  Rarely forced to summon his finest tennis in the final, the third seed earned his second Slam title not only with his celebrated groundstroke offense but also with his often overlooked defense.  Frustrating the easily frustrated Scot, Djokovic not only tracked down potential point-ending shots but placed them in awkward positions that restored the rally to equilibrium.  Before the second straight anticlimactic final in Melbourne, however, the Serb had relied upon more familiar weapons and his enhanced serve to overwhelm Federer in a semifinal less competitive than the score suggested.  A round before that victory, Djokovic cruised past the ball-bruising Berdych with superior athleticism and versatility.  Gliding among his manifold talents as smoothly as a figure skater, the 2011 men’s champion stayed calmly confident throughout a fortnight that revealed his renewed self-belief.  Has he finally learned how to sharpen his focus at crucial moments?  Or was it merely the presence of Ivanovic in his box that lifted his morale?  We’ll find out on the North American hard courts that mirror his balanced style so well.  A+

Clijsters:  Whereas a Williams or an Henin can race effortlessly past their opponents, the four-time Slam champion has honed a meticulously constructed game perhaps more complete than any of her peers.   Absent from her arsenal during her first career, though, was the steely determination that defined the rivals who snatched Slam trophies while she meekly raised runner-up plates.  Still far from savage in her comeback, Clijsters nevertheless has found the mature poise to outlast adversity.  This trait emerged when she overcame unsteady sets against Cornet, Makarova, and Radwanska to comfortably ease through tiebreaks.  It emerged again when she raised her level several notches against a far more formidable Zvonareva in the semifinals.  But it emerged most strikingly when she patiently outlasted a surging Li after dropping the first set and struggling to hold serve in the second.  Gradually quelling the doubts that besieged her, this once fragile competitor navigated to a victory less gorgeous than gritty.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam, she might reconsider her retirement plans if these triumphs continue.   A

Li:  Shouldering the expectations of a nation with aplomb, the Chinese veteran dispatched her first five opponents with an efficiency that evoked a much more fabled champion.  When she confronted world #1 Wozniacki, Li delicately toed the line between exploiting opportunities to launch a swift strike and gradually maneuvering the Dane out of position.  After she seized the momentum late in the second set, she refused to relinquish it to an adversary renowned for her resilience.  Remarkably unflustered by the magnitude of the occasion, the Chinese star edged relentlessly towards her historic, hard-earned victory.  Li then dropped the first eight points of the final but clawed her way into the contest one penetrating groundstroke at a time.  Through the first set and a half, she comprehensively outplayed the three-time US Open champion before the nerves that she had suppressed for so long finally surfaced in a few tentative overheads and swing volleys.  Unless injury intervenes, one suspects that a second opportunity might not elude her.   A

Murray:  Nestled in a comfortable section of the draw, the two-time finalist enjoyed a relatively tranquil route through the first four rounds.  Despite a third-set lapse against Dolgopolov, Murray conquered the sort of bold shot-maker who has troubled him at previous hard-court majors.  Less convincing against Ferrer, Murray nevertheless relied upon his seamless movement and court coverage to outlast the Spaniard who lacked the ability to overpower him.  After Murray escaped an epic opening service game in the final, we expected him to draw confidence from the reprieve.  Instead, one poor game at 4-5 in the first set derailed him for good, leading to a slovenly comedy of errors in which even a bemused Djokovic participated at times.  While the first six rounds illustrated Murray’s vast reservoir of talent, the seventh round demonstrated his urgent need to dispel the negativity that continues to undermine his potential.  Flinging away an opportunity to win his first major without defeating either Federer or Nadal, he may struggle to recover from a Sunday debacle even more dismal than his defeat here last year.   A-

Wozniacki:  Unlike so many Slam-less #1s before her, the Dane marched resolutely through a moderately imposing section of the draw.  Disproving those who believed that she would wilt under the intensified scrutiny, Wozniacki secured the top ranking after Melbourne with a comeback quarterfinal victory over Schiavone.  That collision represented a triumph for her conservative, often criticized style against one of the most imaginative shot-makers in the draw, who acquitted herself impressively despite her starring role in the next entry on this list.  And one should recognize that Wozniacki came within a point of victory before Li Na snatched a finals berth away from her.  While playing percentages still has not won the Dane a major, it will propel her deep into most important draws.  But the 20-year-old may find her precocious maturity tested by the disappointment of failing to convert a match point in a Slam semifinal.  A-

Francesca Schiavone Francesca Schiavone of Italy is congratulated after the fourth round match by Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

4:44:  Just two majors after Isner-Mahut, Kuznetsova and Schiavone collaborated on a labyrinthine encounter that featured 50 break points, nearly 500 serves, and a third set longer than several five-set matches at this year’s Australian Open.  Vindicating the equal prize money system, this duo managed to maintain their scintillating all-court tennis as day turned to dusk while spectators  stayed transfixed by the suspense.  Buoyed by her upset over Henin a round earlier, Kuznetsova showed flashes of her Slam-winning form as she carved out six match points, only to watch the Italian methodically erase one after the next.  The Russian then resisted valiantly when Schiavone twice failed to serve out the match before rallying from a 0-30 deficit to capitalize on her third opportunity.  Unlike the Isner-Mahut exercise in futility, these long-time rivals accompanied their gaudy scoreline with engaging rallies that showcased a variety of talents.  One nearly forgot to watch the clock.  A-

Zvonareva:  Like Wozniacki, she largely vindicated her elevated stature by reaching the semifinals, although the world #2 looked less convincing than the Dane for much of the fortnight.  Extended to a third set by Bojana Jovanovski in the second round, she regrouped to ease past three consecutive Czech lefties (see below).  But then she offered little meaningful resistance to Clijsters after a horrifically shanked smash prevented her from reaching 4-4 in the first set.  A solid player with no glaring flaws, Zvonareva should continue to dominate the journeywomen of the WTA, but she seems to lack the self-belief to break through at a major.  Nevertheless, her meltdowns clearly have grown both less frequent and less extreme, suggesting that she will contend for the top non-majors.  A-/B+

Ferrer:   A point and a set away from a debut Slam final, the Spaniard profited from the injury incurred by Nadal early in the quarterfinal.  On the other hand, he demonstrated his underestimated hard-court prowess before that stage with a series of resounding victories.  Also impressive was his ability to blunt the raw power of Milos Raonic, conceding just a dozen unforced errors across four sets.  Although his tiebreaks against Murray disappointed, he challenged the Scot more vigorously than one might have expected considering the gulf between them in talent and accomplishments.  A-/B+

German women:  Reaching her first career Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic extended the momentum of her second-week appearance at last year’s US Open.  Handed a walkover by Venus, she profited from a lackadaisical performance by Sharapova but deserves credit for withstanding the Russian’s predictable eleventh-hour surge.  Armed with a similarly combative attitude and fierce groundstrokes, Julia Goerges upset top-20 resident Kanepi in the second round before collaborating with Sharapova on one of the tournament’s most scintillating exercises in unvarnished baseline might.  Will they eventually restore their country to the limelight in a sport where it once stood tall?  B+

Dolgopolov:  We found much to appreciate in his insouciant swagger and audacious ball-striking, although his technique and focus require some refinement.  After consecutive five-set victories over Tsonga and Soderling, he sank his teeth into a quarterfinal against Murray with admirable confidence.  Even if his shot selection remains a bit puzzling at times, he should strike fear into the leading contenders on fast hard courts where he needs to hit fewer winners in each rally.  His peers may wish that they shared his effortless serve and a court coverage surprisingly comprehensive for an offense-oriented player.  B+

Radwanska:  Seemingly doomed against Date in her opener, the Pole climbed out of a double-break deficit in the final set and later would save two match points before outlasting Peng.  A canny counterpuncher with almost no first-strike power, Radwanska never will win a major but has earned her return to the top 10 with one of the most distinctive and nuanced games in the WTA.  Additional credit for reaching the quarterfinals of a major from which she tentatively had withdrawn last fall.  B+

WTA lefties:  Since virtually all of the last decade’s Slam champions have swung with their right hand, one found the first-week success of the southpaws surprising and a bit refreshing.  Running aground on the shoals of Zvonareva, the Czech lefties Benesova and Kvitova combined to dispatch no fewer than four seeded players, while their compatriot Safarova held set points against the world #2 in the second round.  The most likely to leave an impact on the WTA, Kvitova relied upon a versatile forehand and a harsh combative energy to topple Stosur and Pennetta.  And one should not forget the exploits of Russian lefty Makarova, generally considered a doubles specialist.  Before stretching Clijsters into a first-set tiebreak, she won two final sets against Ivanovic and Petova that totaled 32 games.  B+

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes his face with a towel in his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer:  Beginning another Slam semifinal streak, the defending champion oscillated between the divine and the mortal realms throughout the first week.  Two rounds after he squandered a two-set lead to Simon in a draining, nerve-jangling encounter, Federer needlessly tossed away a set to the unprepossessing Robredo.  Dominant against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, he shifted from predator to prey in his semifinal against Djokovic.  Had he found a way to win a second set in which he led 5-2, that encounter could have veered onto an entirely different trajectory.  At that stage, however, Federer proceeded to lose eight of the next nine games, a sin that he never would have committed in his prime.  Having heard similar statements after a similar loss here three years ago, we hesitate to proclaim the end of the Federer era, but for the first time since 2003 he holds none of the major titles.  B+/B

Berdych:  Having reached the final two majors ago and crashed out in the first round one major ago, the enigmatic Czech struck a balance between those two extremes in a quarterfinal run that included a victory over Verdasco.  Utterly unable to disturb Djokovic in the quarterfinals, though, he won just eight games from the eventual champion and remains vulnerable to anyone who can expose his monochromatic style.  The draw will need to unfold in his favor in order for him to win a major.  B+/B

Wawrinka:  Jettisoning his wife and child in order to extract as much as he could from his career, the Swiss #2 looked stronger than the Swiss #1 during a first week in which he did not drop a set to Monfils or Roddick.  Buttressed by pugnacious coach Peter Lundgren, the gentle Wawrinka seemed on the verge of igniting an inner fire.  Then he played the Swiss #1 and wilted again, winning just seven games.  B

Azarenka:  In our 2011 preview, we predicted that the Belarussian would rebound from a wildly erratic 2010 campaign.  From one perspective, reaching the second week of a major constituted a small step forward from her premature Slam losses last year.  From the other perspective, she should have found a way to muster more than perfunctory resistance to Li Na, an opponent whom Azarenka had severely tested and even defeated in the past.  Counterbalancing her outstanding backhand, footwork, and movement, her forehand disintegrates more readily than it once did, and her serve remains more a liability more often than a weapon.  B

Soderling:  Never having won consecutive matches the season’s first major, the Swede finally reached the second week  and appeared to struggle with a foot injury during his five-set loss to Dolgopolov.  While his embarrassingly error-strewn performance that day may have stemmed from the ailment, we expected more determination and less listlessness from a player who had dominated the Brisbane field and just captured the #4 ranking from Murray.  Soderling retains that status after the tournament, but the Scot has effectively regained fourth place in the ATP food chain for the moment.  B/B-

Sharapova:  Easily surpassing her abysmal performance here in 2010, the 2008 champion showed glimpses of her once-majestic form in the second set against Razzano and the last two sets against Goerges.  Defeated for the first time in a Slam night session, however, she never quite arrived on the court against Petkovic until she trailed by a set and 5-1.  Although (as Petkovic discovered) she remains a difficult foe to finish, her chances of winning seven straight matches at a major in the near future seem remote at best.  Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt rekindle the focus and intensity in a competitor who now seems sporadically disinterested?  B/B-

Samantha Stosur Samantha Stosur of Australia serves in her third round match against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Stosur:  With the eyes of Australia upon her, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist crumbled embarrassingly against Kvitova in a Rod Laver night session.  Unable to sustain multiple leads in the first set, Stosur failed to test the Czech lefty thereafter and continues to struggle with self-belief.  We may not find out until the clay season whether this congenial veteran will stagnate or continue to climb.  B-

Roddick:  A principal reason why no Americans reached the quarterfinals at the season’s first major, he may have found himself fortunate to escape Robin Haase in the second round, when the Dutchman struggled with an ankle injury.  No such deus ex machina descended to save Roddick in the fourth round, though, when Wawrinka routinely menaced his serve and regularly outhit him from the baseline.  Unable to win as many points on his first serve as he once could, the American has not quite regained his energy after a bout of mono last year.  But at least he didn’t flame out in the opening round like the frustrating Querrey.  B-

Davydenko:  What a difference a year and a wrist injury make.  Last year, commentators labeled him a legitimate contender for the Melbourne crown.  After a first-round defeat at this year’s Australian Open, the Russian looks ready to recede into obscurity as his ranking dips outside the top 30.  C

Jankovic:  Still a threat on clay and the slowest hard courts, the Serb has a losing record since Wimbledon and must reverse her fortunes dramatically in order to mount a somewhat decent title defense at Indian Wells.  Always ill, injured, or exhausted, she may spend the rest of her career paying for her foolishly workaholic schedule during her peak.  C

Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Nadal:  At least for now, Rod Laver remains the only men’s player who has won four consecutive majors in the Open era.  Entering the tournament depleted by illness and an overextended offseason, Nadal nevertheless accelerated steadily through the first four rounds and seemed on the verge of launching  yet another second-week surge.   Rivals and fans alike must wonder what might have happened had his ever-beleaguered body not betrayed him as it did here in 2010.  Incomplete

Milos Raonic:  Charging out of nowhere through the qualifying draw, he won as many matches as did the eventual champions, conquered US Open semifinalist Youzhny, and took a set from a top-10 opponent (Ferrer).  Can this virtual unknown consolidate that success, or will he become the Gilles Muller of Melbourne?   Visitor Permit

Ivanovic:  Undone as much by an untimely abdominal injury as an inspired Makarova, the 2008 finalist competed doggedly throughout an epic first-round defeat far more creditable than last year’s second-round fiasco.  Having not reached a Slam quarterfinal in three years, she nevertheless showed sufficient self-belief to battle deep into the third set and save five match points.  If Ivanovic can restore her health, this setback should not derail her for long.  Guarded optimism still seems appropriate for Ana, although she must capitalize upon the impetus of her  impressive fall campaign before it dissipates.   Temporary leave of absence

Venus:  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men might not be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again after accumulating injuries forced her first career retirement at a major.  We have not yet penned her tennis obituary, but we have compiled preliminary notes.  Permanent leave of absence?

Henin:  Some loved her.  Others hated her.  Everyone will miss her.  Nobody should miss our retrospective article on her, coming soon in Australia Tennis Magazine.    Honorary degree

***

Still a trifle knackered from the first Slam of the season, we return by the end of the week with a Fed Cup preview of all World Group and at least some World Group II ties.  Until then, we wave a fond farewell to Melbourne!

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Rafael Nadal of Spaincelebrates a point during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Cilic:  Far more talented than the Spaniard’s previous victims, the Croat routed him late in 2009 but will find a far more determined opponent this time.  Not quite rising to his vintage brilliance, the top seed still has cruised almost casually through his first three encounters against overmatched opponents.  In the sole exception, Tomic raced to a double-break lead in the second set before discovering what happened to the mouse who pulled the tiger’s tail.  Rafa’s fitness remains somewhat dubious following an illness in Doha that has left him looking a bit wearied at times and seems to have depleted his confidence in his normally superb physical condition.  Yet his lanky foe found himself dragged through five physically and emotionally draining sets in a third-round meeting with Isner, who came within a tiebreak of supplanting Cilic in the second week.  Also raising questions over the Croat are the erratic results that he posted last year as his technique startlingly disintegrated.  Although his forceful two-handed backhand could knock Rafa onto his heels, Cilic’s loopy forehand can fracture under the pressure that a resilient baseliner like Nadal will apply.  Only in the serving department does the challenger hold an advantage over the champion, who has not recaptured the percussive delivery that he unleashed so unexpectedly in New York.

Raonic vs. Ferrer:  The first qualifier to reach the second round of a major since 1999, the newfound pride of Canadian tennis won as many matches to reach this stage (seven) as the eventual champion in Melbourne will require.  Once leading the tournament in aces, Raonic must establish control over their exchanges with that opening shot before the grittier, far more experienced, and far fresher Ferrer subjects him to death by paper cut in a series of endlessly extended rallies.  Successful in the past against mighty servers, the Spaniard seeks to atone for his second-round disappointment here last year, when he surrendered a two-set lead to Baghdatis.  In 2011, by contrast, Ferrer dropped just one set in the first week  as he flung bagels and breadsticks at his hapless foes.  Unless Raonic can assert himself from the outset, one imagines  that his Cinderella run will end rather meekly at the hands of the ATP’s steadiest returner.

Soderling vs. Dolgopolov:  Spared from facing Tsonga at this stage, the Swede will target a charismatic Ukrainian thoroughly unfamiliar to him and to less devout fans.  But Dolgopolov’s commanding performance in the last two sets against the 2008 finalist, befuddled by his curiously timed groundstrokes that resembles swings less than swipes.  In the second week of the season’s first major for the first time in his career, Soderling has preserved the scintillating form that carried him to the Brisbane title two weeks ago, although his previous opponents lacked the baseline firepower to test him.  Instead, he could arrange his clumsy feet and measure his targets with effortless precision, under no pressure to prevent an opponent from regaining the initiative in the rally.  A vicious ball-striker who almost (but not quite) rivals the fourth seed, Dolgopolov will unsettle the Swede with a bit of his own medicine.  The key to this match may lie in Soderling’s superior serve, though, which has befriended him at crucial moments in 2011.

Melzer vs. Murray:  Two years ago at the Australian Open, the counterpunching Scot mercilessly dispatched the volatile lefty.  More intriguing to recall is their surly third-round collision at the 2008 US Open, when Melzer edged within two points of what then constituted a monumental upset over a surly Scot.  Friction sparked between their personalities on that occasion and may again if Melzer maintains the explosive shot-making that will bring him to the top 10 after the tournament ends.  Despite a victory over Nadal in Shanghai and Djokovic at Roland Garros, the Austrian has arrived only recently in the ATP elite after four consecutive second-week appearances at majors.  Troubled by Baghdatis until injury overtook the Cypriot, his audacious gambits reap fewer rewards on this medium-speed court than on the slicker fall surfaces where he prospered.  The fifth seed contrastingly should thrive on a surface with a bounce friendly to his high contact point and a speed suitable to his lithe movement. Winless in four meetings with Murray, Melzer may rest content with yet another sturdy Slam performance rather than pressing himself to reprise that US Open epic.

Peng vs. Radwanska: Conquering the seventh-seeded Jankovic in the second round, the double-fisted Chinese star hopes to walk in the footsteps of 2010 semifinalist Zheng.  Better known for her success in doubles than in singles, Peng has displayed adept net skills and competitive poise throughout her first three victories, not only closing out the Serb with ease but overcoming cramping to defeat Morita a round later.  Once considered unlikely to even play in Melbourne, Radwanska now targets her second quarterfinal at the year’s first major after narrowly eluding Kimiko Date Krumm.  The Pole has grown more confident with each match as she plays herself into the tournament, honing the timing on her artistic style and finding greater depth on her groundstrokes.  Since both players threaten more with their return than their serve, one expects  a match filled with service breaks in which no lead is safe.

Makarova vs. Clijsters:  While the three-time US Open champion lost fewer games than any player in the draw during the first week, the Russian lefty lost more games than any player in the draw.  Apparent in her Eastbourne title run last year, Makarova’s competitive zeal shone through in two upsets over seeded opponents that extended deep into third sets.  The world #49 played well above her ranking to ambush both Ivanovic and Petrova, who found few answers for her ruthless angles and formidable serving.  The clear favorite to win this title, Clijsters must elevate her game from the 41-error performance that disfigured Rod Laver Arena in her third-round victory over Cornet.  Although experience clearly favors the only hard-court Slam champion still in Melbourne, Makarova will exploit the foibles that the Frenchwoman graciously declined to punish.  In her first two victories, though, Clijsters looked virtually invincible as she conceded just four games in four sets; thus, one suspects that the Cornet wobble may have stemmed partly from her loss in the same round here last year.   The Russian has lost 13 games per match on average during this tournament, and Kim needs only 12.

Pennetta vs. Kvitova:  Probably the most evenly matched women’s collision of the day, it features two players who overcame adversity in their last two rounds.  Trailing Stosur 5-3 in the first-set tiebreak, Kvitova regrouped to win the next four points with blistering forehands and never looked troubled again en route to the upset.  Although Pennetta scored only a small upset over the tenth-seeded Peer, she came within four points of defeat in the second set before dominating a tiebreak and battling through a tense final set.  The Italian veteran will have gained confidence from avenging an emotionally fraught loss to the Israeli at the previous major, while her victory over Zvonareva in Sydney reminded audiences of the dangers posed by her deceptively bland style.  But will she allow the quirky, inflammable Kvitova to unnerve her, or will she patiently wait for the lulls that inevitably interrupt the Czech lefty’s brilliance?  Since both players currently smolder outside the top 20, both could gain substantially from a quarterfinal or perhaps semifinal appearance here.

Benesova vs. Zvonareva:  Not unlike Oudin at the 2009 US Open, Kvitova’s compatriot and fellow lefty has ousted two seeded Russians with a determination much less characteristic of the Czech than it was of the American.  After 31 consecutive first-week losses at majors, Benesova finds herself in the second week for the first time in her career and should not be discounted against a fallible world #2 despite the disparity in their rankings.  Shrugging off a lopsided second set against Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, the world #60 refused to succumb in the third set as she fought off multiple break points with fearless forehands and drop shots.  Much less than fearless in the first week, Zvonareva allowed a second-set lead to slip away against Safarova and suffered through a 20-point tiebreak before avoiding a second straight three-setter.  Seeking her third consecutive major final, she has displayed only fleeting glimpses of the intelligent point construction and competitive poise that characterized her achievements at Wimbledon and the US Open.  With recurrent nemesis Pennetta perhaps lurking in the quarterfinals, Zvonareva has one last chance to deliver a statement of intent before the pressure rises.

***

Having previewed every clash on Day 8, we will discuss all of the remaining singles matches at the 2011 Australian Open as the second week unfolds.

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