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Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

First quarter:  While Nadal may loom above the competition here, the section’s most intriguing storyline concerns 2010 runner-up Berdych, whose surge into the top 10 began in Key Biscayne last year with victories over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling.  Less formidable but relatively consistent in recent months, last year’s finalist could advance to the fourth round without facing any opponent more intimidating than Gulbis.  Aligned to reprise their Indian Wells collision are Spaniards Almagro and Montanes, although one wonders whether Karlovic can exploit a wildcard to reprise his draw-shattering assault in the desert.  Well superior to either Spaniard except on his most erratic days, Berdych might experience a greater challenge if he confronts the Croat’s staggering delivery.  Hoping to reconstitute the serve that evaporated in the Indian Wells final, Nadal finds himself amidst three of the ATP’s rising stars.  After a potential first-round encounter with the recently disappointing Nishikori, the world #1 could face Lithunian prodigy Ricardas Berankis if the latter can overcome aging lefty Feliciano Lopez.  Reliant more on subtlety and deftness than on raw power, Berankis probably can threaten Rafa less than the effortless, electrifying shot-making of Dolgopolov, a possible fourth-round opponent.  Despite an indifferent performance at Indian Wells, the Ukrainian should have an opportunity to repeat his Australian Open upset over Tsonga.  If top seeds Nadal and Berdych do maneuver into the quarterfinals, though, the top seed will bring immense confidence from a 19-set winning streak against the Czech that dates from early 2007.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal vs. the 2010 finalist

Second quarter:  Like the first quarter, the second highest-ranked seed offers a more compelling narrative than the legend who shares this neighborhood with him.  A champion at this prestigious event last year, Roddick eyes a plausible third-round confrontation with the indefatigable Simon, who won their last meeting during the 2010 US Open Series but fell to the American at this tournament three years ago.  Lacking his former spark since his struggle with mono, the defending champion could fall from the top 10 if he fails to progress smoothly through this quarter.  Also in his vicinity is teenage sensation Ryan Harrison, who must attempt to capitalize upon his Indian Wells momentum at his home event.  Defeating Roddick at the 2009 Australian Open, Cilic has edged into relevance this season after the inexplicable, career-threatening slump that descended upon him a year ago.  Should the defending champion arrive in the quarterfinals, the competition could spike upwards dramatically against a player who has pitilessly blocked the American’s path to Slam glory since 2004.  Likely to have won at least four or five majors had Federer chosen soccer over tennis, Roddick nevertheless scored one of his two victories against the Swiss star at this tournament in 2008.  Moreover, the GOAT tumbled to a fourth-round loss against Berdych here last year and could face 2010 nemesis Baghdatis at that stage this year.  Already having defeated Murray and Del Potro during 2011, the Cypriot could cause trouble for Federer if he enters this tournament searching for motivation.  Or so Roddick fervently hopes.

Quarterfinal:  Federer vs. the defending champion

Third quarter:  Sharing this section are two players who fizzled like soggy fireworks in Indian Wells, Soderling and Ferrer.  Struggling with illness there, the Swede may have suffered from a peripatetic post-Melbourne schedule during which he captured two titles and a Davis Cup victory over Russia.  Although Ferrer swept through the clay event in Acapulco, he looked jaded in Indian Wells against Karlovic while playing uncharacteristically error-strewn tennis.  Yet the Spaniard can excel on these medium-speed hard courts, as demonstrated by two Miami semifinals.  A semifinalist here in 2010, meanwhile, Soderling could face Del Potro in a highly anticipated third-round encounter should the Argentine navigate past Kohlschreiber as he did in the desert.  On the other hand, the former US Open champion may enter this tournament weary from a Delray Beach title and an Indian Wells semifinal appearance.  This quarter thus offers fertile terrain for a dark horse like Raonic, who could hammer his mighty serves past Ferrer in the third round just as Karlovic did in the second round of Indian Wells.  Among the more experienced opportunists here are the one-handed backhands of Wawrinka and Gasquet.  Ferocious against anyone but Federer, the Swiss #2 upset Berdych last week and enjoys a comfortable early draw before tackling Ferrer, whom he rarely has faced on a hard court.  Aligned against Fish in a potential third-round clash, Gasquet dazzled in Indian Wells but must validate that apparent revival with consistent results before his momentum slows.

Quarterfinal:  Wawrinka vs. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Undefeated since November, Djokovic has gripped the ATP in a relentless stranglehold.  Interrupting his quest for the Indian Wells-Miami double, however, were promotional activities that ranged from a Colombia exhibition and a Head video to two charity events in Miami.  Can Djokovic recover his focus from those distractions and batter his way to a title that he seized in 2007?  Surrounded by several slumping rivals, the Serb may not need to reach his highest level en route to the quarterfinals.  While Djokovic has handled Troicki with increasing ease, he routinely dismantled Querrey in their two hard-court meetings.  Even more stagnant than his compatriot, Isner admitted that a series of uninspired performances have eroded his conviction—not an auspicious situation in which to confront the world #2.  Eagerly anticipating his return to clay, Verdasco has looked listless and puzzled during his hard-court encounters in 2011.  Nor has he conquered Djokovic on a hard court since the 2005 US Open, long before the latter’s breakthrough.  Atop this section stands currently the ATP’s greatest enigma, a resident and former champion in Miami who defeated the Serb in the 2009 final.  Struggling with his serve, stamina, and self-belief on that occasion, however, Djokovic scarcely resembled the confident, fit, and technically flawless competitor who has sparkled this year.  Before a fruitless clay season begins, Murray hopes to reconstruct his own confidence with a few notable victories.  Unable to do so last year, he may crumble mentally if he confronts the player who comprehensively crushed him at the Australian Open.

Quarterfinal:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain (L) congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning championship point in their men's final match during day fourteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

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Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

No Melbourne mirage (Paris, San Jose):  Hard on the heels of his second-week appearance at the Australian Open, Milos Raonic took a crucial first step towards justifying the attention with a debut title in San Jose.  The stocky Montenegrin-turned-Canadian comfortably overcame the waning Blake and the waxing Berankis with serve-forehand combinations that rarely faltered despite his inexperience.  Confronting defending champion Verdasco in the final, Raonic revealed a precocious poise under pressure as impressive as his veering kick serves.  Undeterred by the Spaniard’s impenetrability on serve, San Jose’s new titlist preserved his focus through a complicated service game late in each set that likely would have spelled the difference between victory and defeat.  Moreover, the Canadian refused to relinquish the first-set tiebreak after Verdasco held four successive set points, a squandered advantage that haunted his higher-ranked foe thereafter.  While one cannot project Raonic’s future too closely at this stage, we noticed that he can stay in a rally longer than most powerful, slow-footed servers, while he generally finished points with ease once he gained the initiative.  Those traits suggest that this confident but not cocky newcomer should launch himself towards achievements from which both of his nations can take pride.

Both confident and cocky, Petra Kvitova rivaled Raonic for the upset of the weekend by defeating Clijsters in a startlingly comfortable final.  Announcing herself with a Wimbledon semifinal appearance in 2010, the 20-year-old Czech confirmed that breakthrough after an arid second half with a quarterfinal in Melbourne and now perhaps her most impressive accomplishment thus far.  Able to create angles and spins rare in a righty-dominated WTA, Kvitova saved match points against compatriot Zahlavova Strycova in the second round before surviving another third-set tiebreak against Wickmayer in the quarterfinals.  Then, she dropped just nine total games in the semifinal and final; the Czech thus can win both with and without drama, a useful trait to develop.  While we cannot quite warm to her harsh on-court mannerisms, we appreciate her ability to harness the wayward focus and unruly temper with which she struggled earlier in her career.  Like Zvonareva, Kvitova proved that mental flakiness does not always become a terminal disease.  (On the other hand, see below.)

Not again, Andy? (Rotterdam):  A tournament removed from a perplexing performance in the Australian Open final, Murray revived the specter of his 2010 post-Melbourne slump.  Likewise disconsolate after a straight-sets loss in last year’s final, the Scot proceeded to sag through the next five months with no semifinals and a handful of embarrassing opening-round losses.  Initially envisioning a respite from the battle, the two-time Australian Open runner-up may wish that he had followed his first impulses rather than moping through a first-round defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam.  Perhaps Murray aimed to reclaim a top-four seed before the marquee North American tournaments, but he succeeded only in echoing his 2010 malaise by dropping more than half of his service games for the second consecutive match.  By contrast, his replacement at #4 emulated Kvitova by winning his second title of the season after saving match point in an early round.  Steadily improving a once-ghastly finals record, Soderling coolly parried the thunderbolts that an inspired Tsonga flung at him.  From their respective performances, one might have thought that the Swede had reached the final in Melbourne, while Murray had lost to the unheralded Dolgopolov in the fourth round.

A man for all surfaces (Costa do Sauipe):  Less unheralded following a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov joined Raonic as the second first-time finalist of the weekend.  Winning greater acclaim for offense than defense in Melbourne, the Ukrainian showcased his overlooked movement in a victory over the clay-loving Starace.  Unable to duplicate Raonic’s feat when he faced Almagro in the final, Dolgopolov nevertheless competed with creditable vigor against an opponent with far greater accomplishments on this surface, including a title here three years ago.  Although hard courts have become the dominant currency of the ATP, such versatility can only accelerate the evolution of his still raw game.  Mercurial shotmakers like Dolgopolov can learn the more nuanced skills of point construction on clay, which tests their fitness as well as their patience and thus offers a foundation for building maturity.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts after losing a point in her first round match against Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Thaid up in knots (Pattaya City):  Divergent from the soothing surroundings of this resort was the notably nervy tennis that unfolded there, infecting one star after another.  First to fall, the glamorous Kirilenko let triple match point vanish against a qualifier and then watched a third-set lead evaporate with a dismay that may have contributed to her opening loss in Dubai.  Just hours afterwards, Ivanovic tottered within a game of defeat when she confronted Craybas, who seemed to have receded into the mists of tennis history long ago.  Tiptoeing through that quagmire, the Serb surrendered meekly a round later to the guile of Roberta Vinci.  When an opportunity to reach the final beckoned, however, the Italian modulated from fearless to feckless herself.  But the most prominent downfall of all occurred atop the draw when two-time defending champion Zvonareva wobbled through a perilous three-setter against Peng only to unravel in familiar fashion against Hantuchova.  Failing to serve out the first set, the Russian soon soaked herself in a monsoon of exasperated disbelief at the Slovak’s precisely placed groundstrokes.  (One seriously questions her ability to win a major if the prospect of capturing a third straight title in Thailand unnerved her so strikingly.)  Ironically, a competitor notorious for emotional frailty surmounted the turmoil around her to collect her first title since 2007 and just the fourth of her career.  Can Hantuchova muster one more implausible surge at Indian Wells, the scene of her finest achievements?

While the men’s draw featured several suspenseful five-setters, Day 1 did not ruin the manicures of the leading women or their supporters.  That trend could shift on Day 2 when the most famous working mom in tennis opens her Melbourne campaign against the 2009 finalist and former #1.  Thoroughly embarrassed by another Russian here a year ago, Clijsters hopes to avoid a relapse when she faces Safina, with whom she has split their two meetings during her comeback (both in Cincinnati).  Almost invincible against non-Russians, the three-time US Open champion has posted an indifferent 5-5 record since the start of 2010 when she plays someone from Safina’s nation.  As the first set of the Sydney final demonstrated, the Belgian’s game still can evaporate at unexpected moments and drift hopelessly beyond her control.  On the other hand, Safina’s game may have fractured beyond repair after a career-threatening back injury that descended late in 2009, exacerbating the mental frailty that she displayed as #1.  After winning a set from Wickmayer in Auckland, the Russian secured just one game from Bartoli in Hobart, but the scoreline did not reflect the multiple-deuce games that littered their encounter.  The night-session atmosphere probably favors the more confident Clijsters, thrusting Safina into an uncomfortably intense setting where she collapsed against Serena in the 2009 final.  For Marat’s sister, though, a loss would drop her outside the top 100 and into the murky realm of wildcards or perhaps qualifying draws, so she may approach this clash with additional motivation.  Yet she has won two or fewer games in half of the sets that she has played against Clijsters, including two bagels and four breadsticks, so an ugly rout could develop if Kim seizes control before Safina settles into the match.

Elsewhere on Day 2:

Nalbandian vs. Hewitt:  Curiously, this vintage encounter opposes the victor and the vanquished from the last Wimbledon final before Federer’s lease on the All England Club began.  A finalist last week in Auckland, the Argentine scored encouraging victories over Isner and Almagro.  Despite advancing age and questionable fitness, Nalbandian continues to lurk among the dark horses at every prominent event when healthy, for his uncanny timing and immaculate ball-striking have flustered even Federer and Nadal on repeated occasions.  Probably less naturally gifted than his adversary, Hewitt has fully capitalized upon his potential with a gritty work ethic antithetical to the underachieving Argentine, whose motivation has seemed tepid and sporadic at best.  The two-time major champion likely realizes that few Australian Opens remain in the twilight of his tennis odyssey, as do his fervent supporters.  Etching indelible memories onto their minds, the Australian once collaborated with Baghdatis in an early-round epic that resulted in the latest finish ever witnessed in Melbourne.  Unless Nalbandian sweeps him aside efficiently, Hewitt’s superior fitness (both physically and mentally) likely will produce another marathon and perhaps another rousing victory.

Jankovic vs. Kudryavtseva:  Highly fallible during the second half of 2010, the Serb looks to recapture the form that brought her the Indian Wells title last spring.  Unleashing a temper as flaming as her hair, Kudryavtseva showcased her fearsome offense in a Wimbledon upset over Sharapova in 2008 and a near-upset there over Venus a year earlier.  The Russian’s forehand penetrates the court with ease, menacing the type of inconsistent counterpuncher that Jankovic can become when low in confidence.  But can Kudryavsteva rein in her unruly weapons at crucial moments and maintain her level throughout two or maybe three sets?  In that regard, the Serb comfortably trumps her volatile adversary.

Ana Ivanovic - Adizero Speed Week In Melbourne

Makarova vs. Ivanovic:  For the second consecutive major, Ana opens against the Russian lefty who stunned the Eastbourne draw as a qualifier last year.  Frequently flashing her signature smile during the Hopman Cup and yesterday’s Rally for Relief, Ivanovic will seek to carry her relaxed attitude into a relatively gentle draw that she can exploit.  Dueling Azarenka for more than three hours  in Sydney, however, Makarova has an imposing serve and a striking knack for saving break points, even more perceptible than with the typical lefty.  Like Kudryavtseva above, her streakiness often prevents her from delivering her best tennis for more than a few games at a time.  Much more consistent since last summer, the Serb may experience a few nerves at the tournament where she once reached the final, while a strained abdominal muscle stirs slight concern.  Guided by the insightful Antonio van Grichen , Ivanovic has gained an air of quiet confidence after conquering her self-created demons, and the crowd should support her vociferously from the first ball onwards.

Date-Krumm vs. Radwanska:  Hobbled by injury last fall, the fabulously versatile Pole has not won a match since Tokyo and has not played since Beijing.  In fact, her entry in the Australian Open surprised most observers and causes us to wonder whether she has leapt to a premature decision that she will regret.  Across the net, the oldest player in the WTA has no regrets at all about a comeback that has ambushed two former #1s and a host of other players half her age.  Slapping groundstrokes at implausible angles with oddly truncated swings, Date-Krumm hopes to jerk Radwanska from side to side like a windshield wiper.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Pole aims to unsettle and exhaust the crafty veteran by exposing her to a variety of speeds and spins.  Sophisticated tennis fans will relish the subtle talents of both players as they delicately uncover each other’s flaws.

Vandeweghe vs. Cornet:  Once considered the future of women’s tennis in her nation, the Frenchwoman confronts a hard-serving foe often considered the future of American women’s tennis.  At the Australian Open occurred the collapse against Safina that precipitated Cornet’s seemingly irreversible spiral.  After three qualifying matches, Vandeweghe may enter the main draw somewhat weary, but her brash self-belief should help bring her past the easily wilting phenom of the past.

Berankis vs. Matosevic:  During the Australian Open wildcard playoff, we warmed to the mercurial Aussie as he launched a spirited comeback against Luczak to earn a berth in his home major.  Yet he will not find his task comfortable against the top-ranked Lithuanian in the ATP, who punches well above his diminutive stature.  Likely to reach the top 20 eventually, the boyish Berankis has reached the top 100 after gorging himself upon challengers while winning a match apiece at each of the last two majors.  Can he extend that streak?

Petrova vs. Pervak:  Last year’s quarterfinalist exited both Brisbane and Sydney in the opening round, while Pervak clawed her way through qualifying into the main draw at the former event.  There, she overwhelmed former top-5 star Chakvetadze before winning a set from ultimate champion Kvitova, who had ousted Petrova much more routinely a round earlier.  We watched the petite lefty against Sharapova at Roland Garros last year, where she convinced us that she possesses both the game and the mentality to threaten a fading, fragile veteran.

Cirstea vs. Lucic:  Not unlike Cornet, the exotic-looking Romanian formerly seemed destined to become the standard-bearer of her nation’s tennis hopes.  Hampered by injuries over the past two years, Cirstea merely seeks to reassert her relevance against yet another of the WTA’s comeback artists.  Lucic has enjoyed a far less successful return than her fellow veterans but did take a set from Jankovic at last year’s US Open with her flat, heavy groundstrokes; we look forward to watching her on grass.

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We return tomorrow with the Day 3 preview!  As before, feel free to comment if you would like to share any recommendations for matches to highlight.