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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

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.

Ad-in:

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.

Ad-out:

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.

In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 7

We preview the first day of quarterfinals at the Australian Open:

Azarenka vs. Radwanska:  Offering a greater contrast in styles than the evening encounter, this match opposes two players who have combined to win just one of nine quarterfinals at majors.  Throughout her career, Radwanska has experienced the frustration of navigating her way through early-round matches with her cunning and clean ball-striking, only to crash into the impenetrable obstacle of a far more powerful offensive player.  Azarenka lacks the overwhelming force of a Serena or a Sharapova, although her twelve games lost in four matches suggests a display of unrelenting dominance.  While Vika has won six of their nine previous meetings and four of the last five, she has found Radwanska a worthy opponent on almost every occasion.  Unable to hammer balls past the Pole from the start of the rally, she must construct points more carefully in a test of her patience, long one of the flaws that has retarded her progress.  When they met in a Sydney semifinal this month, Radwanska’s defense and precise shot placement drove Azarenka to distraction for more than a set before she found the composure necessary to outlast her tormentor.  Once she finds her range with her groundstrokes and strings together several penetrating balls, she leaves the eighth seed helplessly searching for answers.

For both women, the key to success lies in a shot not commonly considered one of their greatest assets:  the serve.  In Radwanska’s case, she must maximize her first-serve percentage to minimize the opportunities that Azarenka earns to wreak havoc on her second serve with her scintillating return.  If she aims to outmaneuver Vika, she cannot afford to start the point scrambling in whatever direction her opponent dictates.  The serve could help Azarenka’s cause in a different way by setting up more free points if she trades some percentage for power.  At key moments late in her victories over Barthel and Benesova, when the rest of her game grew shaky, the serve did not desert her.  That trend augurs well for her fortunes in this match and beyond.

Wozniacki vs. Clijsters:  With her place in the penthouse at stake in every Melbourne match, the world #1 has played with increasing conviction during each round, although she has not yet encountered an opponent equipped to seriously challenge her throughout the course of an entire match.  All the same, Wozniacki seemed to take the ball a little earlier when she has had the opportunity during her first four matches and curl cross-court groundstrokes at somewhat sharper angles.  Her collision with Jankovic again showcased her familiar strengths of endurance and groundstroke depth, at least on the few occasions when the Serb didn’t spray shots into the middle of the net, between the tramlines, or beyond the baseline.  While her resounding victory against that former #1 should have inspired confidence in Wozniacki’s fans, although her failure to sustain a double-break lead in the second set causes some concern and illustrated her inability to win free points on serve.

Widespread among the women here, that struggle to finish matches may hamper her against a woman who rallied from the brink of defeat to overcome Li Na a round ago.  Wozniacki has lost to Clijsters in arguably the two most important matches of her career, the finals of the 2009 US Open and 2010 year-end championships, so the pressure rests on her sturdy shoulders to reverse those outcomes, assuming that the defending champion can recover from her ankle injury.  Much as Wozniacki could do everything that Jankovic could and more, Clijsters can do everything that Wozniacki can and more, covering the court just as effectively, producing just as much depth, and transitioning more smoothly from defense to offense.   Kim continues to suffer the occasional mid-match lull, an endemic syndrome of aging champions that the Dane exploited when they played for the last title of 2010.  In her final Australian Open, though, she seems unlikely to succumb without a struggle, and sometimes a narrow escape can catalyze motivation while sharpening focus.  To keep her position in the penthouse for another day, Wozniacki may need to play one of her most complete matches in many months.  Beyond her familiar retrieving, she should redirect the ball more often, return more assertively, and stretch Kim along the baseline, tactics that brought Li within a point of victory but that will force the world #1 to leave her comfort zone.  Generally unsuccessful against the WTA veterans, the Dane should grasp a valuable chance to prove herself.

Del Potro vs. Federer:  Look beyond the 7-2 record, tilted towards the Swiss by the twelve consecutive sets that he won when their rivalry began.  Just a few months after he won three games from Federer in a quarterfinal at this tournament, Del Potro extended the 16-time major champion to five sets at Roland Garros.  A few more months afterwards came one of the more memorable ATP major finals of the last decade, in which the Tower of Tandil toppled Federer in five sets at the US Open.  Ending the year with another victory over the Swiss master at the year-end championships, Del Potro looked likely to become one of the thorns in Roger’s side for the foreseeable future.  Derailed by an untimely wrist injury, though, he scarcely resembled his former self in a desultory loss to Federer at Cincinnati last year, during which he consistently struggled with his serve and rarely subjected his opponent to any pressure on his own delivery.

Dogged by a back injury during his preparation for Melbourne, Federer has brushed any rumors of fallibility aside by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Especially impressive was his mastery over Australian home hope Tomic, who entered that match with momentum, vociferous crowd support, and confidence from having challenged Federer in their first encounter last fall.  But the four-time champion here dismissed the teenager with wave after wave of all-court brilliance, highlighted by pinpoint backhands.  When that less reliable shot follows Federer’s commands so faithfully, the rest of his game rises to vintage heights.   Across the net, Del Potro’s cross-court forehand offers the best guide to his confidence, which has must have risen after a series of progressively more emphatic victories.  When that explosive groundstroke crackles through the court rather than functioning as a rally shot, he can thrust opponents well behind the baseline and find short angles at his leisure.  One round before a projected semifinal with Nadal, Federer should benefit from such a test.

Berdych vs. Nadal:  Central to this quarterfinal are two statistics involving the Czech:  his six-tiebreak winning streak this tournament and his nine-match losing streak against the world #2.  Winning three successive tiebreaks to erase a one-set deficit against Almagro, Berdych will feel confident in his serve whenever a set reaches its climax.  On the other hand, Nadal may feel more confident in his serve than he often does, considering that he has used a heavier racket to add pace to the shot that cost him dearly during the US Open final last year.  But the more compelling statistic is the Spaniard’s uncanny dominance over a rivalry that initially rested on rather even terms.  Betrayed by his one-dimensional game and ungainly footwork, Berdych rarely has even threatened Rafa in matches on every surface, most notably a straight-sets defeat in the 2010 Wimbledon final.  During that tournament, the seventh seed had delivered the best tennis of his career with consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic, and yet Nadal dissected him with ease in a match thoroughly bereft of suspense.

In addition  to the suffocating and not entirely explicable mastery of the Spaniard over the Czech, the spotlight of majors often has unnerved the easily flustered Berdych with the exception of those two surges at Roland Garros and Wimbledon two years ago.  As though the seventh seed did not have so many cards stacked against him already, his dubious behavior at the end of his victory over Almagro in the previous round likely will have turned the Rod Laver crowd against him before the match begins.  Ever the epitome of sportsmanship himself, Nadal may gain additional motivation from Berdych’s slight to one of his countrymen.  Moreover, he surely will spare no energy in avoiding a third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals of what has proven his least productive major to date.

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.

Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

Although Djokovic may have dominated the ATP throughout 2011, several other players recorded noteworthy achievements.  Beyond the world #1, who achieved the most in 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain, blue shirt) beats Roger Federer (Switzerland, red shirt) in 4 sets, 7/5, 7/6, 5/7, 6/1, in the final to win the French Open 2011. Nadal:  Rarely has one player’s season been so inextricably intertwined with another player’s season.  Had Djokovic not transformed his career this year, Nadal likely would have won three major titles for the second straight year, ripped through the clay season undefeated for the second straight year, completed the Indian Wells-Miami double, and positioned himself to overtake Federer as the true GOAT in the near future.  Instead, the towering expectations upon the Spaniard combined with the Serb’s brilliance left many observers—and seemingly Nadal himself—disappointed with 2011.  When they gain perspective, they should recognize accomplishments such as seizing a record-tying sixth Roland Garros crown and reaching the final of three Slams on three different surfaces, an underrated feat.  While the Dodigs and Mayers of the world scored an occasional ambush in the second half, Nadal lost only one match between the Australian Open and Wimbledon to an opponent other than Djokovic.  Masked by his lack of a non-clay title this year, that near-impenetrability illustrates how little ground he actually has surrendered.  Unaffected by his struggles against Djokovic was his mastery over his other leading rivals, Federer and Murray (7-1 combined, 5-0 in the first half).  In 2009, a Davis Cup title launched Nadal towards the strongest season of his career in 2010, and he earned a similar momentum boost in 2011.  If the Serb flickers at all in 2012, the bull held at bay this year should charge.

Murray:  While time continues to trickle away in his pursuit of his first major, the Scot reached the semifinals or better of every Slam for the first time.  As the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “almost means nothing.”  But Murray’s ability to weather the early rounds more consistently than he had in previous seasons will bring him more opportunities to conquer the elite, and mere probability suggests that fortune will smile on him sooner or later.  After a woeful beginning to his Masters 1000 season with opening-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, the world #4 showed unexpected courage in extending both Nadal and Djokovic to three sets on clay, his least hospitable surface.  Especially notable was his epic Rome semifinal against the Serb, who had crushed the Scot in Melbourne.  Demolished in a merciless first set, Murray rallied valiantly to within two points of victory.  His sweep through the Asian season probably looked more impressive on paper than in reality, considering the absences of Federer and Djokovic, although an emphatic victory over Nadal in the Tokyo final demonstrated the manifold challenges that he can pose when at his most confident.  Now he needs to translate that level of conviction to the majors, where his self-defeating fatalism surfaces most often.

Federer:  Through the US Open, the Swiss legend had looked relatively mortal with just one minor title in Doha and two two-set leads squandered at Slams.  All the same, Federer showcased his vintage form in the Roland Garros semifinals, when he halted Djokovic’s winning streak with timely serving and immaculate point construction.  After that triumph, his stumble against Tsonga one major later seemed especially unexpected and indicative of this champion’s depleted desire.  Even more surprisingly, Federer’s nerve betrayed him late in the fifth set of his US Open semifinal against Djokovic, a match that he often had dominated.  Responding to that bitter disappointment much as he had in 2010, he once again surged through the fall season when his younger rivals faltered.  His record-setting sixth title at year-end championships should have soothed  the sting of those setbacks against Tsonga and Djokovic, while his title at the Paris Indoors left him the only active ATP player to reach the final of every Slam and Masters tournament in his career.  Unable to preserve his momentum during the 2010-11 offseason, Federer hopes to handle a similar task in 2011-12.

Ferrer:  To no surprise was his continued excellence on clay, which included consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as a three-setter against Djokovic in Madrid.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s accomplishments on hard courts in 2011 did raise an eyebrow or two, especially his Australian Open semifinal appearance in which he severely tested Murray.  Whereas most clay specialists fade in the fall, Ferrer scuttled along the baseline with intensity undimmed and found himself rewarded with a second Masters 1000 final in Shanghai.  En route to that match, the diminutive Spaniard rallied from saving match point in the third round and fearlessly protected his modest serve through consecutive three-setters against Roddick and Lopez, much more impressive from the service notch.  It felt fitting, then, that Ferrer’s tenacity earned him a semifinal berth at the World Tour Finals, a tournament where he had failed to win a match just a year before.  In an era of glamorous superstars with nearly supernatural shot-making skills, his arduous brand of tennis has entrenched him in the top 5 and serves as a reminder of how far effort and attitude can substitute for innate ability.

Tsonga:  Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year, the world #6 scarcely distinguished himself through May but then finished 2011 in sparkling style.  Within a single month, Tsonga scored comeback victories over both Nadal and Federer, holding his serve against the latter throughout the last four sets of their Wimbledon quarterfinal.  The charismatic Frenchman fused the past with the present during that classic encounter, interweaving vintage serve-volley tactics with ferocious forehands from behind the baseline.  Emboldened by that achievement, Tsonga repeated it at the Rogers Cup but could not at the US Open after an entertaining victory over Fish that extended his curious effectiveness in five-setters.  Two small titles in Metz and Vienna behind him, he surged into the last two tournaments of the year before losing to Federer three times in fifteen days.  That odd fact should not obscure a signature victory over a battered but determined Nadal in London, which vaulted Tsonga into the semifinals at the Spaniard’s expense.  Nor should it obscure his second appearance in the Paris Indoors final, where the expectations of his compatriots did not burden him but rather lifted his spirits.

Berdych:  Despite accomplishing little of note at the majors, he remained in the top eight after a steady second half that ended the longest title drought of any player in the ATP or WTA top 10.  Relatively bland in personality and playing style, Berdych recorded few memorable moments in 2011 but also generally avoided unsightly disasters, outside a loss to Stephane Robert at Roland Garros.  On only one other occasion did he lose his first match at a tournament (to Nishikori in Basel), while he registered sixteen quarterfinals or better.  At the year-end championships, Berdych might well have finished the round-robin stage undefeated had not his weapons deserted him in a third-set tiebreak against Djokovic.  He registered few other wins over top-10 opponents bud did overpower Federer in Cincinnati, and his lone title in Beijing followed a three-set victory over Tsonga.  When every element of Berdych’s unwieldy game fits together, he can conquer virtually any foe through his sheer ball-striking power. Yet his dearth of titles and meager success against the elite illustrates the rarity with which he can string together such matches, and his 2011 campaign fell well short of his 2010 breakthrough.

Fish:  Scanning the ATP rankings, it seems strange to see an American ranked higher than long-time flag bearer Roddick.  A first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals, Fish thoroughly deserved that distinction after an excellent campaign at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.  Buoyed by the American fans, he defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinals, while another semifinal appearance in Cincinnati featured his first career victory over Nadal.  Just as impressive was his performance the previous week in Canada, when he outplayed Djokovic for extended stretches of the Rogers Cup final before the Serb’s more balanced style prevailed.  Gifted with outstanding net-attacking skills, Fish poses his greatest threat when he seizes the initiative rather than rallying behind the baseline, as this relaxed competitor sometimes prefers.  Although he reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal, he did not distinguish himself at the hard-court majors in uneven losses to Robredo and Tsonga.  Leading the reeling Frenchman by two sets to one at his home major, Fish allowed one poor service game to derail his hopes for a second straight Slam quarterfinal.  Still, he represents American tennis with a poise and dignity absent from the man whom he supplanted as his nation’s #1.  Despite an injury, Fish competed with resolve during his three losses at the World Tour Finals, displaying a commendable professionalism in defeat.

Tipsarevic:  Cast into Djokovic’s shadow for most of his career, the second-ranked (and sometimes third-ranked) Serb had not won a tournament until this year despite scoring several notable upsets and near-upsets.   When his compatriot reached #1, though, Tipsarevic found the inspiration necessary to reach the top 10 for the first time while winning his first two titles and reaching five total finals.  Not aesthetically pleasing to watch, his functional style can produce a power belied by his compact physique on both his serve and his groundstrokes.  In contrast to Wawrinka and Troicki, moreover, his respect for the top-ranked player from his nation did not snuff out his competitive spark.  Before an injury halted him, Tipsarevic waged a fierce battle with Djokovic in a US Open quarterfinal and ended the world #1’s season in London.  His quirky personality will continue to fuel controversy, but it adds further texture to an already diverse top 10.

Nishikori:  Ranked well below the other players at a modest #25, Nishikori appears on the list as a result of becoming the highest-ranked man in Japanese history, a goal that he set for himself when his career began.  Moreover, he reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Shanghai, where he defeated Tsonga, and recorded his first victory over a reigning #1 in Basel.  Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert, Nishikori already has progressed further than many might have expected, and he finally has recovered from a series of injuries.  A counterpuncher in the mold of Ferrer, he now can set new ambitions for himself.

Kei Nishikori - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five

Federer vs. Ferrer:  The only undefeated player remaining in the tournament, its five-time champion looks poised to extend his perfect record into the final Sunday.  On hard court and clay, indoors and outdoors, Federer has throttled Ferrer in all eleven of their meetings, including an ignominious rout in the 2007 final of the year-end championships.  That match halted one of the finest weeks of the Spaniard’s career in emphatic fashion while marking the endpoint to one of the finest seasons not only the GOAT’s career but perhaps in tennis history.  During the four years that have passed since then, they have collided only three times.  Although Federer dismantled Ferrer once more in London last year, the diminutive counterpuncher extended him to a final set in their other two encounters.  As the Swiss master’s career wanes, his consistency has begun to ebb in occasional lulls that could play into his opponent’s hands.  After dominant first sets against Fish and Tsonga here, for example, Federer’s focus waned early in the second set and resulted in a victory less straightforward that it initially seemed.  But equally significant was his ability to regroup in the third set, especially on serve, and reaffirm his authority rather than letting the momentum turn against him for good.

With that ugly head-to-head record looming over his head, Ferrer shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that he can challenge the defending champion.  From the outset, most options lie closed to him.  Despite his improved serve, he cannot rely upon that shot to equal or surpass Federer’s deadly delivery.  Nor can he outhit the Swiss from the baseline in a battle of bruising forehands; the contest for court positioning inevitably will tilt in Federer’s direction, considering his far superior shot-making ability and heavier first strike.  If Ferrer scurries frantically behind the baseline, simply focused on retrieving everything that he can, he will allow Federer to close off angles and methodically finish off points at the net, an area in which he excels.  Instead, Ferrer must remain in the counterpunching mold (for he has little choice but to do so), but he must counterpunch intelligently with groundstrokes as deep as possible that keep his opponent moving and off balance.  For two and a half matches this week, the Spaniard executed those tactics to perfection by displaying uncanny anticipation and redirecting the ball down both sidelines with sparkling timing, albeit not pinpoint accuracy.  Meanwhile, his passing shots threaded needles that left Murray, Djokovic, and initially Berdych raising their eyebrows in grudging admiration.  His compact physique and efficient ball-striking can profit from the surface’s low bounce, a characteristic that Federer’s low contact point also exploits.

Rarely short of willpower, Ferrer proved this week that his game can succeed against elite if battered opponents on the surface least suited to it.  Few players would have rebounded from a disastrous 0-3 collapse in London, when he failed to win a single set, and marched within two service holds of a 3-0 record there a year later.  Nevertheless, he bitterly regretted letting Berdych slip away in a match when a victory would have allowed him to play Tsonga rather than his perennial nemesis.  Should he bring that fatalistic attitude to his semifinal, he will not seriously threaten Federer.  If Ferrer needs a timely injection of optimism, though, his coach could remind him of what happened to the Swiss star two years ago in a semifinal on this court.  Armed with a 12-0 record against Nikolay Davydenko, Federer stumbled to a shocking defeat that propelled his conqueror to the most significant title of his career.  Will another ambush await him against another of his long-trampled victims?

Berdych vs. Tsonga:  Down a set and twice down a break in the second set to the ATP roadrunner par excellence, Berdych certainly could have let his mind drift towards the offseason and 2012.  Then he Yet he swiftly broke back immediately after surrendering his serve both times and denied Ferrer any fresh hope in the third set.  After he had carelessly thrown away a tight second set to Nadal, Tsonga also could have wandered mentally when the tide seemed destined to flow against him decisively.  Yet he reeled off 11 of 12 points from a span that started in the second game of the third set and ultimately decided the match.  Not normally known for as much fortitude as each of their opponents, both the Czech and the French proved themselves unexpectedly durable in the efforts that earned them their first semifinal berths at this tournament.  Supplanting the ATP top two, who dominated most of the season, are two more mercurial but immensely talented figures who have approached this week with far more desire than either Nadal or Djokovic.  Their semifinal should compensate in substance for what it lacks in glamor.  Whereas a title here would add a relatively minor luster to Novak’s or Rafa’s resumes, it would represent the most significant achievement of Berdych’s or Tsonga’s career.

Only once have these sporadic ambush artists and sporadic underachievers collided on the court.  In a Beijing semifinal, they split two competitive sets before Berdych established control in the decider over Tsonga en route to his only title of the last two seasons.  Unlike the contrasting styles of Federer and Ferrer, the tactics of these two semifinalists distinctly resemble each other.  Both men will unleash explosive first serves that they complement with massive forehands.  Both men have built their accomplishments this week upon their ability to follow either a penetrating serve or forehand to the net, Tsonga more often than Berdych.  For significant stretches this week, both men have struggled with their timing on returns or their rhythm in rallies that lasted more than a few strokes, Berdych less often than Tsonga.  Neither possesses many alternatives if their serve falters or their fierce groundstrokes misfire, so each should hammer away with their trademark weapons regardless of results.

Among the factors that could separate them is the Frenchman’s vibrant imagination, which crafted exquisite drop shots that left Nadal helplessly marooned in the forecourt.  More straightforward in his approach, Berdych did display an acute sense of the court’s geometry with his volleys this week and during his semifinal run at the Paris Indoors.  Nevertheless, he lacks Tsonga’s ability to combine bone-crushing power with a feathery touch, a mixture probably absent from everyone else outside the top 5.  Berdych’s main advantage lies in his steadier focus, a factor separate from his (sometimes unsteady) nerve.  Although he can crack under pressure, the Czech generally does not let a lead escape him through the complacency that saw Tsonga donate three double faults as he served for the match against Nadal.  Deep into his third three-setter of the week, he delivered the coup de grace to a reeling Ferrer with minimal ado.  But will his accumulated fatigue haunt him as Tsonga stretches the court both laterally and vertically?  With players so evenly matched in strengths and weaknesses, the second semifinal should offer the superior suspense to justify its selection as the evening showpiece.

Novak Djokovic - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  Ambling aimlessly along the baseline, the world #1 looked as though he would have preferred to have spent his evening basking in his Monte Carlo home rather than toiling through an arduous battle against David Ferrer.  After the first few games of their encounter, Djokovic exuded few sparks of energy while retreating into the self-deprecating mannerisms familiar from his struggles in 2009-10.  Having branded his hegemony upon the ATP and devoured the majority of its elite titles, Djokovic now seems somewhat satiated with success.  Under the chilly blue lights of the O2 Arena, his movement often has looked labored, his shot selection perfunctory, his technique unsteady, and his emotions somewhere between negative and nonplussed.  As his match with Berdych edged towards its climax, he released none of the full-throated roars that accompanied similar suspense in his victories earlier this year.

And yet Djokovic remains in contention for a fourth consecutive semifinal berth at the year-end championships, in part because of Murray’s withdrawal.  Fortunate to have escaped with a win against Berdych, who outplayed him for much of their encounter, he would consider himself unfortunate not to secure a vital second win against an accommodating compatriot.  Never has Tipsarevic defeated Djokovic, although never have they met as a pair of top-10 opponents.  As proud of his countryman’s rise as any other Serb, the veteran may have accumulated too much respect to thwart his chances of advancing from the group.  Unable to advance himself after his loss to Berdych, Tipsarevic may content himself with serving as the platform for his nation’s greater good.

On the other hand, history suggests that the older Serb can challenge the younger Serb despite the marked gulf in talent between them.  In all three of their meetings, Tipsarevic has won at least one set, and he traded blow for blow with Djokovic on even terms for two sets at the US Open this summer before an injury led to his retirement.  Undaunted by his exalted surroundings, the tattooed eccentric marched to a match point against Berdych on Wednesday with the bravado that has accumulated throughout his breakthrough season.  Once again, however, he fell just short of victory in a theme that has plagued him throughout his career, most notably in a five-set loss to Verdasco at this year’s Australian Open.  Down a match point to Berdych, Djokovic displayed a keener survival instinct by trimming his unforced errors and elevating his focus as he tottered on the edge of defeat.  Despite his depleted condition, the willpower of a champion briefly flickered from him.  Moribund against Ferrer as the match slid hopelessly out of his grasp, he might have mustered more competitive muscle had not the Spaniard so resolutely denied him all hope.  His loyal friend should not prove so merciless.

Even if Djokovic does dispatch his compatriot and survive until the semifinals, though, his chances of challenging Federer or Tsonga look slim indeed.   In his last round-robin match, the world #1 should capitalize upon the chance to deliver a statement more worthy of his ranking before the opposition stiffens this weekend.  And maybe release a roar or two as well.

Ferrer vs. Berdych:  Asked to predict which player would not drop a set through two matches in London, few outside Ferrer’s native province would have named the Spaniard ahead of the usual suspects.  As Murray and Djokovic have faltered, though, the world #5 has burst into the lead of Group B with his familiar fortitude.  Renowned for one of the most consistent returns in the ATP, Ferrer displayed an improved serve this fall as he once cruised through eight sets without a break.  But more remarkable is his ability to play game after game, rally after rally without committing a single unforced error from the baseline.  The Spaniard’s seemingly inexhaustible patience reaped rewards repeatedly against the injured Murray and a disinterested Djokovic, whose frustration mounted with each penetrating reply to a groundstroke that would have hurtled past many an opponent.  By playing each point with the same intensity, Ferrer won the psychological battle over both of his higher-ranked opponents well before the match ended.  Unlike Tsonga against Nadal, moreover, he did not grow careless even when his lead looked insurmountable.

Those traits should bolster Ferrer’s cause on Friday much as they have in his previous encounters with Berdych, the type of more powerful and more mentally fallible foe whom the Spaniard delights in defusing.  After consecutive epics in his first two matches, the Czech may arrive emotionally if not physically weary from the experience of losing after holding match point and winning after saving match point.  A point more against Djokovic, and Berdych would have qualified by now.  A point less against Tipsarevic, and his chances of advancing would have expired.  To be sure, his fortunes do not look especially bright against an opponent who has won their last four meetings, including two on indoor hard courts, and five of seven overall.  Despite his capacity for ball-striking ferocity, Berdych generally will find that rallies tilt against him if Ferrer survives his first strike.  As he spars with the heavy-footed Czech, the Spaniard’s superb footwork and agility should enable him to outmaneuver his opponent in most rallies that last longer than five or six shots.  For that reason, the length of their exchanges should offer a guide to the outcome.  Central to Berdych’s semifinal appearance in Paris was his willingness to attempt volleys and exploit the angles of the court.  Will Ferrer’s court coverage negate that strength?

With his semifinal berth assured, the Spaniard may lack some of his trademark intensity.  Even if he loses in straight sets, he will advance to meet Federer on Saturday.  Still, a competitor of his caliber might not know how to reduce his energy level at will, so Berdych should not expect complacency across the net.

Tomas Berdych - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Two

Tipsarevic vs. Berdych:  Twice during his tense duel with Djokovic, Berdych edged to the verge of a victory that would have positioned him auspiciously for a semifinal appearance.  With the world #1 far from his suffocating self, the Czech stood within two points of triumph at 4-5 in the third set and within one point at 5-6.  Both times, unsightly unforced errors squandered the opportunities, most notably a wayward forehand on match point that wandered outside the line had it crossed the net—which it didn’t.  A sloppy tiebreak later, Berdych finds himself without margin for error and with a familiar nemesis across the net in another Serb.  Toppling the Czech in four of their five previous meetings, Tipsarevic replaced the injured Murray, ironically an opponent whom Berdych probably would have preferred despite his higher ranking.

A tribute to sport’s mental dimension, the second-ranked Serb’s dominance over the top-ranked Czech perplexes when one considers the latter’s superior firepower on serve and groundstrokes.  Shorter and more compact, Tipsarevic covers the court more efficiently than the lanky Berdych, but movement alone does not win matches on the slick surfaces where they have clashed.  Instead, the world #9 simply has exuded more competitive desire than the world #7, diffident too often in his underachieving career.  Inspired by the feats of his compatriot, Tipsarevic in fact has overachieved considering his limited talents by reaching the top 10.  As his Slam upsets over Roddick and near-upset over Federer attest, the Serb habitually rises to the occasion when the spotlight shines most brightly.  Although he never has appeared at the World Tour Finals, his mental fiber should not buckle in his unfamiliar surroundings.  Since he missed only one round-robin match, Tipsarevic still theoretically could advance

While Berdych favors a more straightforward, programmatic approach to the game, his quirky opponent often eschews the tennis textbook for spontaneity.  Only if his streaky serve stays steady, though, can Tipsarevic compensate for the Czech’s superior weight of shot from the baseline.  Against an opponent who can scramble with abandon, Berdych will want not only to stretch the court but to follow his forehands or even some serves to the net.  That strategy aided him in securing his first career victory over Tipsarevic in Paris.  Although it earned him less success against Djokovic on Monday, the Czech should remember that not all Serbs thread their passing shots so expertly.  Across the net, Tipsarevic should aim to redirect his groundstrokes, since Berdych becomes much less dangerous when he leans in the wrong direction or fails to set his feet properly.  In a match between two baseliners with generally similar styles, execution should prove more decisive than strategy.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  Moping and seemingly resigned for much of his first London match, the world #1 proved how far he towers above most of his competition by defeating a top-eight opponent with (for him) a mediocre performance.  Much less explosive and much more erratic than for most of 2011, Djokovic won mostly by staying alert to prey upon his opponent’s nerves when they arose at the climactic tiebreak.  Two or three years ago, he probably would have lost this match in straight sets or when Berdych surged forward by a break in the third, but comebacks have grown routine for him in a year that has ranged from the implausible to the surreal.  With his most difficult match of the round-robin phase behind him, Djokovic likely will score the crucial second win over an obliging Tipsarevic on Friday.  Before then, though, the Serb faces the unexpected leader of a group that also once included  the recently scorching Murray.

Only once has Djokovic lost to Ferrer in six hard-court meetings, relying upon his far superior serve and somewhat superior return to seize control of points immediately.  The most tenacious workhorse in the ATP, the fifth-ranked man normally requires greater effort to win rallies after starting many of them on neutral terms.  But observers such as ourselves envisioned Ferrer’s Monday meeting with Murray in parallel terms, anticipating an uneventful passage for the local favorite.  What unfolded instead was an uneventful passage for the Spaniard, or at least as uneventful a passage as his strenuous style of endless baseline exchanges permits.  In fine fettle since the US Open, Ferrer reached two semifinals and a final during a fall season that normally doesn’t welcome most players who have forged their reputations from the red clay of spring.  An indefatigable man for all seasons, he arrived in London seemingly untroubled by either fatigue or the specter of his disaster in the O2 Arena last year.

Eager to profit from Murray’s accumulating injuries, Ferrer could repeat that ambush against a physically and mentally weary Djokovic.  Observers might recall their meeting at the year-end championships four years ago, when the Spanish retriever sank his teeth into a staggering Serb during the first appearance at this tournament by both players.  As Murray discovered in the seemingly endless sequence of rallies, Ferrer can make even a fast court feel very slow indeed through his keen anticipation and instincts.  On the other hand, Djokovic can project more firepower on both groundstrokes than can the Scot, so a technically and tactically crisp effort would smother the Spaniard.  Even when they met during the Spring of the Serb this May, though, Ferrer managed to mire the future #1 in the grinding style that he prefers.

The initial stages of the match might prove critical in setting the tone.  If the world #5 claims an early lead, as Berdych did, he won’t let it disappear without a struggle for which his opponent may not have the appetite.  But he will lack an answer if Djokovic delivers a performance worthy of his stature.  Like a blank canvas, Ferrer allows opponents to paint an image of their choosing on his matches.

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