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Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

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Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 3

Sharapova vs. Pennetta:  In each of their three matches, a similar script has witnessed a player win the first set, sag in losing the second set, and then rebound to capture the third.  Not only undefeated when she wins the first set this year, Sharapova has compiled a stunning 12-0 record in three-setters, including eight comebacks from one-set deficits.  One thus would favor her should she engage in another epic with Pennetta, an emotional competitor with few clear weaknesses but few overpowering weapons.  Rarely does the Italian undermine herself, instead compelling opponents to sustain a solid if not spectacular level in order to conquer her.  Despite a poor first half, the 29-year-old veteran has shown flickers of improvement on the summer hard courts with triumphs over Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova.  Seeking her eighth straight victory, meanwhile, Sharapova surged forward from a shaky three-setter in her opener here to a commanding double-breadstick win under the Arthur Ashe lights.  The daytime breezes may trouble the 2006 champion’s ball toss and serve as they have in previous US Opens, while Pennetta’s high-percentage style should suffer less from the elements.  Toppled in the third round at two of her last three US Opens, Sharapova expects considerably more from herself this year and finally has the confidence to achieve it.  All the same, Pennetta probably will force her to hit an additional shot or two to finish points, a challenge to which the Russian has risen courageously in recent months.

McHale vs. Kirilenko:  As the year’s final major approached, hopes for American players focused mostly around surging men’s players like Harrison and Bogomolov, but the home nation’s women have stolen the spotlight from them.  Triggering memories of the US Open two years ago, Christina McHale aims to become the Oudin of the 2011 tournament after defeating eighth-seeded Bartoli in the second round.  Like her compatriot, this rising American thrives more when she can exploit the pace or placement of her opponent than when she must generate her own offense.  A smart counterpuncher with more power than Oudin, McHale benefited from the intimate confines of the Grandstand in her upset two days ago, for the home crowd clustered around that stadium to exhort her.  In the more intimidating atmosphere of Arthur Ashe, she must hold together her nerves better than she did two years ago in a night session here against Sharapova.   Moreover, the consistent but not powerful Kirilenko will force McHale to take the initiative in creating opportunities to take control of rallies.  Just as Oudin failed to solve the steady defense of Wozniacki two years ago, her successor may struggle to strike a balance between aggression and judicious shot selection—a skill that comes with experience.

Roddick vs. Sock:  Seemingly more and more defensive as he ages, the 2003 champion failed to catch fire from the spark of playing under the Arthur Ashe lights in the first round.  Still recovering from an abdominal injury this summer, Roddick has not recaptured the sting on his serve and has double-faulted with increasing frequency.  A combination of solid groundstrokes and occasional net forays sufficed to edge him past the unremarkable Russell in four sets, but one couldn’t escape the thought that this match would have ended much more emphatically a few years ago.  Likely to suffice against the untested Sock is a similarly solid performance from the veteran.  A fellow Nebraskan, Sock won his first career match at a major two days ago against Marc Gicquel, demonstrating explosive serve-forehand combinations.  The teenager can extract valuable lessons from his Arthur Ashe debut, and this match should become more competitive than their rankings would suggest.  While it seems implausible to expect him to win three sets from Roddick, Sock could capitalize upon the lulls in the older American’s fading game.  Known for a volatile temper, he should learn from his opponent’s example and curb his emotions in tense moments.

Haase vs. Murray:  Three years ago, the Dutchman defeated Murray at the former’s home tournament in Rotterdam.  Now elevated to #41 in the rankings, Haase has won 10 of his last 11 matches while capturing his first career title in Kitzbuhel and reaching the semifinals in Winston-Salem.  Defeating Verdasco at Wimbledon, he came within a few points of a two-set lead against Roddick in Melbourne this year before succumbing to injury.  This 24-year-old possesses effortless power with his serve and forehand but can lose the rhythm on both shots as a result of fluctuating technique.  More streamlined in his strokes and more versatile in his options, Murray sometimes can out-think himself against relatively straightforward opponents like Haase.  Yet the Scot, who also collected a (much more prestigious) title this summer, struck his much-maligned forehand with authority in an opening-round victory that grew more convincing as it progressed.  Efforts to flatten out that groundstroke has produced mixed results for Murray in recent months, so his refusal to retreat from that tactic illustrates a positive product of his trademark stubbornness.  Like the women’s #1, the men’s #4 can use such strategies to progress more smoothly through early rounds, conserving energy for the second week.

Peng vs. Goerges:  Steady meets streaky in this match between two top-20 stars who have recorded the finest seasons of their careers to date.  Whereas Peng has built her breakthrough upon reaching semifinal after semifinal, Goerges soared into instant notoriety by twice conquering Wozniacki on clay and winning the moderately notable Stuttgart title.  Congruent with those results are their personalities and playing styles, for the Chinese double-fister generally plays percentages and competes relentlessly throughout the match while the German can veer in and out of focus as she impetuously targets lines and corners early in rallies.  In their first career encounter, Peng will attempt to pepper the center of the baseline with penetrating groundstrokes that prevent Goerges from creating angles without too much risk.  The German owns far more firepower with both her groundstrokes and her serve, although the Chinese star has improved the latter stroke this year.  Hoping to take time away from her agile opponent, Goerges seeks to dictate points from inside the baseline and cannot recover easily from a defensive position.  Court positioning thus should offer a key to who holds the edge in this evenly matched encounter.

James Blake - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ferrer vs. Blake:  In the twilight of his career, the battered American shot-maker clings to the tenuous hope of leaving one last glowing memory behind him.  Such an accomplishment seems relatively plausible against Ferrer, whom Blake has defeated in both of their previous meetings and whose underpowered serve would seem to play into the hands of his crackling return.  A contrast to the Spaniard’s methodical style, the American’s breakneck pace could rush the fifth seed out of his comfort zone as it has with Nadal.  Nevertheless, Ferrer demonstrated his prowess even on these fast hard courts by reaching the 2007 semifinal, a feat that Blake at his best never could achieve.  Repeatedly raising the hopes of his fans only to disappoint them, this serial Slam quarterfinalist has gained most acclaim for gallant defeats such as his 2005 quarterfinal epic against Agassi.  Blake’s career may have suffered from the omnipresence of the more accomplished Roddick, a predicament with which Ferrer could empathize in the Nadal era of Spanish tennis.  When the two understudies collide, their returns of serve will mirror their conflicting perceptions of the game.  A personification of first-strike tennis, Blake takes massive swings at second serves and even first serves, whereas grinder par excellence Ferrer forces his opponent to play every point rather than attempt an outright winner.

Ljubicic vs. Nalbandian:  The history between these venerable bastions of the ATP extends back to 2004 across meetings at five different Masters tournaments, the year-end championships, and Davis Cup.  Never have they met at a major, however, where one would expect the injury struggles and fitness issues of the Argentine to hamper his performance.  Winning four of their last five meetings, the Croat possesses the superior serve and forecourt ability but less reliable groundstrokes.  Often at his best in the second half and especially the fall, Nalbandian still impresses sporadically with a two-handed backhand that creates shallow angles, drawing opponents far from the center of the court.  Although his timing has declined with age, the “grouchy gaucho” continues to challenge net-rushers like Ljubicic with pinpointed passing shots whenever his ailing legs permit.  Several years ago, they might have met in the quarterfinal or even semifinal of a major.  With physicality and raw power increasingly central to this sport, however, they meet in a second-round glimpse of how tennis might have developed in the absence of Federer and Nadal.   After a trip to the outer court, few will feel nostalgic for what might have been.

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

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

Champion:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

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

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

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

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

Agnieszka Radwanska - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 7

From the relatively arid draws of San Diego and Washington emerge few signals for the Premier Five and Masters 1000 tournaments ahead.  In fact, Del Potro’s nudge past Verdasco from #20 to #19 marked the only change in the rankings of the ATP top 20.  Nevertheless, these tournaments featured some surprisingly intriguing and entertaining tennis, most notably from the quirky hero and heroine who wove artful paths toward the champion’s podium.

A fine hour for finesse:  Retired magician Fabrice Santoro would have relished watching Stepanek and Radwanska carve through their draws to comfortably dispatch a pair of top-10 opponents in the finals.  Even before his routine victory over Monfils, Stepanek had conquered the far more powerful and athletic Verdasco with similar ease.  For her part, Radwanska rallied from a first-set bagel against Hantuchova and another one-set deficit against Petkovic, relentlessly chipping away at her opponents until they crumbled.  Not known for their outstanding serves, neither the Czech nor the Pole lost their serve throughout their Sunday collisions with two outstanding returners.  Especially notable in this regard was Stepanek, who perceptibly heightened his focus at crucial moments and never faced a break point even as the nerve-inducing upset neared.  Likewise, Radwanska compensated for her lack of first-strike power with uncanny instincts and a keen sense of placement.  Exploiting every area of the court, including the net, both champions varied spins and speeds throughout rallies, leaving their more programmatic, rhythm-oriented opponents marooned in confusion.  While Stepanek carved sharply angled volleys and abruptly changed the pace on his groundstrokes, Radwanska looped moonballs, feathered drop shots, and lofted precise lobs.  To be sure, one hardly expects the 32-year-old Stepanek to become a factor at the prestigious Masters 1000 events ahead.  Nor will Radwanska threaten the WTA’s heaviest hitters, like Serena or Clijsters.  But, on a week when most top stars rested, their distinctive games offered an entertaining diversion from the status quo that enlivened these events more than one would have anticipated.

A tale of two top seeds:  While some #1 seeds tower above their draws, others perch there precariously.  Clearly in the latter category, Monfils and Zvonareva had looked vulnerable for much of 2011, so their mental frailty suggested that they might wilt under the pressure of their position.  Although both ultimately fell one round short, they recorded a handful of creditable victories in hard-fought contests.  The Frenchman impressed with his semifinal victory over Isner in a match delayed by rain during which he saved a match point in the third-set tiebreak.  An exuberant personality often lacking in competitive stamina or motivation, Monfils might have buckled under either the distractions of the weather or the American’s impenetrable serve.  By evading both of those pitfalls, the Washington top seed proved that a professional lurks behind the veneer of a charismatic performer.  As introverted as Monfils is extroverted, Zvonareva harbors a morose streak that might have undone her when she squandered a first-set lead against Ivanovic and ultimately lost the set on a double fault.  After she edged through a shaky second set on her seventh set point, though, the San Diego top seed revealed a champion’s DNA by asserting control early in the final set.  Zvonareva almost choked away another lead at the end, but the ability to choke and survive impresses at least as much as the ability to avoid choking at all.  Also praiseworthy was her victory over the streaking Lisicki in a three-set quarterfinal, during which she shrugged off multiple missed opportunities and steadied herself in the climactic moments.

The sluggish performances by both top seeds in the finals sprang in large part from fatigue, causing one to wonder the extent to which playing the Saturday evening semifinal places that finalist at a disadvantage against the finalist who played the Saturday afternoon semifinal.  Serena and Gulbis escaped that predicament last week, but they progressed much more comfortably.  Perhaps someone should research whether three-set Saturday night semifinals correlate inversely with success in Sunday afternoon finals, with additional variables for ranking, ranking of opponent, temperature, and magnitude of tournament….

Putting the US in the US Open Series: As so often happens, the American men have flourished this summer on their home hard courts.  Advancing to his first ATP semifinal in the Washington midsummer torpor, Donald Young raised eyebrows with a straight-sets victory over the dangerous but erratic Marcos Baghatis.  Within a point of his second final in the US Open Series, Isner elevated his ranking inside the top 30 and continued to menace opponents with far greater athleticism and natural talent.  Upsetting defending champion Nalbandian in the second round of Washington, Blake engaged in a second three-set epic with Isner that thrilled the local crowd, if not tennis purists.

In a much less frequent and thus more newsworthy development, American women flew their flag with pride at San Diego.  Despite falling a round short of last year’s quarterfinal appearance, Coco Vandeweghe mustered consecutive main-draw victories.  The fastest-rising teenager in the WTA top 100, Christina McHale likewise registered a pair of wins before succumbing to eventual champion Radwanska.  Rewarding the wildcard that the tournament offered her, Alexa Glatch ambushed the formidable lefty serve of Makarova, a challenge that has baffled many a more experienced player.  But the most remarkable accomplishment resonated from the racket of fellow wildcard Sloane Stephens, who repeated Vandeweghe’s 2010 feat by reaching her first WTA quarterfinal following a triumph over top-20 opponent Julia Goerges.  All of the above hinted that there might be life after death in American women’s tennis, or rather life after the retirement of the Williams sisters.

Briefly noted:

Welcome to the top 10, Andrea Petkovic!  Amidst the controversy over the divergence between rankings and reality in the WTA, the German’s rise and Stosur’s accompanying fall seemed to clearly reflect their recent performances.  A two-time Slam quarterfinalist in 2011, the German recovered from a dip during the grass season to reach another semifinal, from which she might have emerged had not her lunch decided otherwise.

Tremendously exhilarating at the moment, an unexpected title can poison a player’s ranking a year later.  Few would have picked David Nalbandian to win Washington last year, and his title defense stalled in his opening round this year.  As a result, an oddly inflated ranking tumbled 24 positions to the edge of the top 50, the difference between a seed and a lack thereof at the US Open.  The mercurial Baghdatis suffered a somewhat less precipitous plunge but also sagged well below that crucial 32nd position.  Although ample points await in Canada and Cincinnati, the current form of both players suggests that they will not recoup their losses.  Headed in the opposite direction was Stepanek, who halved his ranking as he climbed from outside the top 50 to inside the top 30.  If he remains active a year from now, though, he probably will suffer the fate of Nalbandian.

Inching upward to her highest ranking since 2009, Ivanovic erased the memories of a first-round Stanford exit with a San Diego charge that brought her within a set of the final. Not having defeated a top-3 opponent since winning Roland Garros three long years ago, the former #1 displayed impressive competitive resilience against Zvonareva and dominated 2011 breakthrough artist Peng.  Victorious in only two of ten three-setters this year, Ivanovic must aim to improve her fitness for these extended encounters.  Nevertheless, she appears to have committed to her new coach more than to his predecessors, and the situational stability should buttress her volatile game.  Most promising of all was her success in close sets.  Previously 2-10 this year in sets that reached 5-5, Ivanovic rallied from 0-5 to win a tiebreak against Stanford conqueror Morita and rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the first set against Zvonareva.  Those comebacks sketch a competitor increasing in confidence and now within striking distance of once again becoming the top-ranked woman from her nation.

Ana Ivanovic - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 3

Which is not to say that, considering her dramatic ebbs and flows, one should not close one’s eyes and hope for the best.

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

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

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

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

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

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

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

***

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

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

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?

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A:

Clijsters:  Rewinding from the listless women’s final, the key to her tournament lay in her third-set performances against Stosur and Venus.  Seemingly in control of her quarterfinal with the Australian midway through the second set, Clijsters suddenly dropped serve five times in a row as both women struggled to find their rhythm amidst blustery conditions.  When the break-a-thon reached 3-3 in the decider, however, she summoned the fortitude and determination to eke out those last three precious games.  Similarly threatened after she squandered  a 4-2 third-set lead against Venus a round later, Clijsters again reined in her mind and her shots to deliver her best tennis in the semifinal’s climactic stages.  A trait only occasionally witnessed during her comeback, this resilience under pressure enabled the Belgian to defend a major title for the first time in her career.  Even if she doesn’t win a Slam outside New York, the last twelve months have allowed Clijsters to finally emerge from Henin’s shadow as a formidable competitor and champion.

Zvonareva:  Almost as surprising as her Wimbledon run was its counterpart here, in which Vera didn’t drop a set until the final.  While her draw may have looked less than fearsome, she adapted even more expertly to the adverse conditions than she did in the Indian Wells final a year ago.  Despite this offense-friendly surface, she fused sound tactics with steady execution in intelligently crafted victories over several players with significantly greater first-strike potential than her.  Difficult to thrust off balance, the Russian showcased her skills with virtually every shot and every area of the court, even the forecourt where many of her rivals struggle.  Through six rounds, she overcame a full spectrum of playing styles and established herself as the leading Russian, a status that she clearly values.  While the old, tempestuous Vera returned in the final, she should depart from New York filled with confidence for her 2011 campaign as well as the rewarding sensation of having fulfilled her vast potential.

A-:

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Federer:  On the eve of Super Saturday, he had matched and perhaps surpassed Nadal in the ruthless efficiency of his progress through the draw, which culminated with an emphatic victory over his Roland Garros conqueror.  In the quarterfinal against Soderling, the five-time US Open champion ascended close to the pinnacle of his former glory with pinpoint serving, feathery volleys, and forehand winners of every variety.  Two days later, hubris turned to nemesis when he succumbed to Djokovic for the first time in four US Open meetings.  Mentally absent for much of the second and fourth sets, Federer then became flustered when historically he has been poised; deep in the fifth set, he donated three egregious forehand errors to drop serve and two more on the last two points of the match.  The moral of his puzzling 2010 Slam campaign?  Don’t count him out at majors, but don’t count on him either.

Youzhny:   Over the course of the fortnight, New York fans unexpectedly discovered that the Russian can create a scintillating spectacle when he deploys his racket in the manner for which it was designed.  To be sure, Youzhny didn’t face either of the top two seeds in his section (see below), and his modest albeit graceful game will almost always fall short against the ATP’s current elite.  That said, he seized the opportunity of a benign draw with both hands, a task more demanding than it seems.  Slowly defusing the mighty serves of Isner in an entertaining four-setter, Youzhny displayed impressive resourcefulness as he relentlessly outmaneuvered the American.  In the quarterfinals, his fitness and tenacity shone brightly in a five-set epic against Wawrinka, during which he twice rallied from deficits.  A strong performer in the 2009 fall season, he’ll be a notable dark horse again this year.

Wozniacki:  During her breakthrough performance against Sharapova, the ugly, “pushing” duckling from the land of Hans Christian Andersen turned into a swan on the largest arena in the sport.  There, the world #2 resolutely shouldered the burden associated with her top seeding to record arguably the most impressive single victory of her career.  When the Russian launched an inevitable late charge, her 20-year-old conqueror firmly refused to be intimidated by the occasion or the opponent.  Two rounds later, the swan turned back into an ugly duckling with a ghastly, wind-addled loss to Zvonareva, whom she had dominated just weeks before in the Montreal final.  Before winning a maiden major, Wozniacki still must add just a few more ounces of baseline aggression, but coveted Slam glory now lies within her reach.

Venus:  A tiebreak away from her first US Open final since 2002, the elder Williams imploded in spectacular fashion and played from behind for the rest of the semifinal.  Before that fateful tiebreak, however, Venus served stunningly and found just enough lines with her forehand to suffocate the defending champion.  A round earlier against Schiavone, moreover, she refused to let the WTA’s craftiest artisan derail her high-precision, high-risk groundstrokes at key moments.  Perhaps psychologically aided by the absence of her sister, Venus exceeded expectations considering that she entered the tournament with no hard-court practice at all. Her dress, on the other hand,…

French Open women’s finalists:  First-round losers at Wimbledon, Stosur and Schiavone rediscovered themselves much earlier than most observers had anticipated.  Reaching the quarterfinals on a surface alien to her style, the Italian routed a series of credible opponents before sternly testing Venus in two extremely tight sets.  (She also receives additional points for replicating Federer’s between-the-legs trick shot.)  If Schiavone continues to perform at this level, the American Fed Cup team will need at least one of the Williams sisters in order to capture the title from Italy.  Rebounding from a mysterious shoulder issue, the Australian rallied from the brink of defeat in her opener to compile a confidence-boosting run headlined by the match of the women’s tournament, a nail-biting victory over Dementieva.  Since Stosur never had advanced past the second round in previous US Opens, her fortnight illustrated the immense strides that she has accomplished in the past year.  Can she handle the pressure of competing before an Australian fan base starved for a home champion?  We can’t wait to find out.

B+:

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Soderling:  Despite an opening-round wobble, the Swede reached his third consecutive Slam quarterfinal and second straight US Open quarterfinal.  Thrashing future star de Bakker before patiently chipping away at Montanes’ defense, he displayed consistency as well as focus and determination.  Much less impressive was his quarterfinal performance against Federer, during which Soderling never seriously challenged the second seed after squandering break points in the Swiss legend’s opening service game.  Irritated by linespeople and the gusts that swirled around Arthur Ashe, the Swede showed traces of the brittleness that undermined him against elite opponents before 2009.  Nevertheless, his fortnight dramatically improved upon his limp performances of the past few tournaments, restoring him to the conversation for the fall indoor season that he relishes.

Kanepi:  Unlike fellow Wimbledon surprises Kvitova and Pironkova, the Estonian continued her journey into relevance with another upset over Jankovic and an even more impressive win over the rising Wickmayer.  Fed a bagel in the first set of that encounter, Kanepi revealed noteworthy grittiness by battling back to win the second set in a tiebreak before coasting through the third set.  Fickle gusts and a smart, experienced opponent frustrated her in the quarterfinals, yet consider how far she has progressed since qualifying for Roland Garros.  While Kanepi’s game is not the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasurable to watch, she has vastly improved her footwork and shot selection, from which she now is reaping well-deserved rewards.

Cibulkova:  Toppling 2004 champion and San Diego titlist Kuznetsova in the final sixteen, she was the only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals in either the men’s or the women’s draw.  A former Roland Garros semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak relied on her low center of gravity and seamless movement to unhinge the far more powerful Russian.  While Cibulkova’s inescapable physical limitations will prevent her from contending for major titles, she’s as ready as anyone to punish an erratic shotmaker.  Credit new coach Zeljko Krajan (of Safina fame/notoriety) for her welcome resurgence.

Wawrinka:  After falling meekly to Murray here two years ago, the Swiss #2 boldly attacked his occasional practice partner from the outset of their third-round encounter.  Aided by former Federer coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka then outlasted Querrey in a rollercoaster five-setter that demonstrated not only his enhanced baseline aggression but a newfound determination.  It can’t be easy to share both a profession and a passport with Federer, but New York fans could observe that Belgium isn’t the only tiny country with more than one tennis talent.

Verdasco:  Leading by a break seven games into his quarterfinal with Nadal, he crumbled in familiar fashion with a cascade of characteristic ineptitude, from consecutive double faults to an overhead that sailed several rows into the crowd.  Before that match, though, the flamboyant Spaniard obtained satisfying revenge over Wimbledon nemesis Fognini, stifled summer sensation Nalbandian, and rallied from a two-set deficit against indefatigable compatriot Ferrer.  Trailing 4-2 in the final set of that match and 4-2 in the final-set tiebreak, the eighth seed mustered an improbable burst of energy to win the last five points of their epic encounter.  Spectators won’t remember his 90 unforced errors as long as they remember the last winner that he hit:  an electrifying forehand passing shot that curled around a frozen Ferrer as Verdasco sprawled on the court in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.

B:

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Ivanovic:  Building upon her startling Cincinnati run, the stylish Serb comprehensively dominated three quality opponents, including past tormentor Zheng Jie.  Comprehensively dominated herself by Clijsters in the fourth round, Ivanovic left New York having moved another step forward in her winding road back to the top.  While her shot selection still puzzled at times, her backhand and return of serve looked crisper than they have since 2008, while her forays towards the net reaped regular rewards.

Sharapova:  For the second straight major, she fell to top seed in the fourth round in a valiant effort marred by untimely double faults.  If Sharapova seeks to add another Slam to her trio of titles, she must be able to rely on her serve as an asset rather than compensating for it as a weakness; at the moment, however, it’s uncertain whether this concern can be permanently resolved.  On the other hand, her competitive fearlessness remains undimmed, she adapted surprisingly well to the windy conditions, and her two-outfit ensemble dazzled as much as the explosive groundstroke winners that she still can crack at will from anywhere on the court.  Whether Sharapova wins or loses, her flair for the dramatic and the audacious provide greater entertainment value than many of her higher-ranked, less flamboyant colleagues.

Dementieva:  Having experienced nearly every flavor of heartbreak by now, Elena battled tooth and nail with Stosur in the most compelling women’s match of the tournament.  True to her familiar patterns, she ultimately snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but she deserves credit for continuing to compete with unflinching resolve despite her endless series of past disappointments.  If she ends her career as the best player of her generation never to win a major, it won’t be for lack of effort or desire.

Gasquet/Monfils:  Ever the consummate entertainers, these two Frenchmen delighted the New York crowd with inspired, often surreal shotmaking.  After a lengthy arid spell at majors, Gasquet returned to the second week with a resounding upset over Davydenko, which he consolidated with an authoritative win over quirky South African giant Kevin Anderson.  When the former prodigy fell to his compatriot in the final sixteen, however, Gael noted Richard’s preference for form over function and style over substance as well as his struggle to cope with pressure or adverse conditions.  Ironically, the same description fit Monfils himself perfectly in his loss to Djokovic a round later.  More concerned with the journey than the destination, these Frenchmen lack the motivation or concentration to contend for key titles, yet the first weeks of majors would be duller without them.

Nalbandian:  Entering the tournament, a trendy topic of discussion concerned not whether the enigmatic Argentine would reach a quarterfinal with Nadal but how severely he would test Rafa once he reached their rendezvous.  We never found out, as Nalbandian nearly crashed out to the anonymous Rik de Voest in his opener and mustered little resistance against a mortal-looking Verdasco in the third round.  In the twilight of his career, the best-of-five format clearly burdens his fragile body and mind with excessive pressure.

B-:

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Jankovic:  Nearly dragging Serena into the third set during their 2008 final here, the Serb has won just three total matches in her last two appearances at the US Open and has never been quite herself since the controversy surrounding her short-lived status as #1.  Once able to wear down all but the most relentless offenses on any surface, Jankovic now struggles against even standard-issue aggressors on surfaces other than clay or the slowest of hard courts.  Although she will continue to challenge at Roland Garros, her decline should serve as a cautionary tale to Wozniacki and other rising players with a similar affinity for counterpunching.

Kuznetsova:  While we didn’t consider Sveta  a serious title contender, we expected a modestly noteworthy from the San Diego champion and Montreal semifinalist, bolstered by a new coach.  Having led Cibulkova in both sets of their fourth-round encounter, she still found ways to lose to an opponent ranked barely inside the top 50 and whose game is far less suited to the fast courts in New York.  Perhaps she should consider the example of her compatriot Zvonareva, much less athletically talented but much more sturdy in the muscle that matters most.  (Hint:  it’s inside the skull.)

Davydenko:  After he sagged to a listless defeat against Gasquet, he said that he was discarding all of his rackets and equipment in order to have a completely fresh start.  It’s certainly needed after a summer that effectively erased his momentum from his heroics in late 2009 and early 2010, but regrettably the clock is ticking on this scintillating veteran.

American men:  Hobbled by an ankle injury, Isner nevertheless competed valiantly during his third-round loss to Youzhny, which is more than can be said of his compatriots.  Preoccupied with distinguishing his right foot from his left, Roddick ponderously plodded to a second-round exit against the sprightly Tipsarevic.  Despite the exhortations of thousands of his countrymen, Blake failed to recapture any shreds of his former New York magic during a routine loss to Djokovic; a round later, Fish showed little spark or backbone against the Serb, who looked vulnerable early in the tournament.  The last home hope, Querrey flirted tantalizingly with reaching a first career Slam quarterfinal before lethargically succumbing to the more versatile and—critically—more intense Wawrinka.

C:

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Murray:  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by mighty sluggers such as Soderling or Del Potro, one can understand.  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by the not-so-mighty Wawrinka, we have a problem.  Like Sharapova’s serve, this issue may not lie within the power (haha) of the Scot to resolve, but flattening his forehand and staying closer to the baseline would be essential steps towards winning the maiden major that once seemed inevitable.

Berdych:  When was the last time that an ATP player reached the Wimbledon final and exited the US Open without winning a set?  Just as it seemed that the Czech had conquered his inner demons and had crossed the threshold of realizing his potential, he Czeched out again against the admittedly surging Llodra (yet another of those entertaining, enigmatic Frenchmen).

Mother Nature:  Not content to co-star in a commercial with Serena, she felt compelled to interfere in match after match on Arthur Ashe by unleashing unexpected gusts from all directions.  The fickle wind played mischievously with the balls and the minds of the players, creating curious exercises in improvisation rather than meticulously constructed points.  Among its most prominent victims were Soderling and Wozniacki, but a host of players found themselves forced to eschew precise shot-making for the not-so-simple objective of keeping the ball in the court.  Nevertheless, the wind’s merry mayhem did lead to some attractive and atmospheric tableaux:

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***

Did anyone seem strangely absent from this article?  Tomorrow, we return with a more extensive look at the best of the best, the two players who received an A+ from their exploits at the final Slam of 2010.

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On a Saturday afternoon a year ago, Sharapova succumbed to the steely challenge of a precocious American upstart.  In the 2010 US Open, she faces another home hope even more anonymous than was Oudin, for Beatrice Capra never has appeared in a major before this fortnight.  Stunning Aravane Rezai in a tightly contested three-setter, she earned her position in the third round with a mental resilience modeled upon…Sharapova.  Yet the confident, poised Maria of 2010 barely resembles the tentative, self-doubting Maria of 2009, who became the principal architect of her own demise with a record-breaking cascade of double faults.  With her serve and fortitude restored, the 2006 champion will seek to impose her presence and her willpower upon this match from the outset, overwhelming the teenager with a weight and depth of shot that she has not yet experienced.  Hampering Maria’s efforts, however, will be the high winds expected in the afternoon, a sharp contrast from the controlled conditions in which she typically thrives.  In the second round against Benesova, Sharapova never quite settled into a service rhythm as gusts swirled around Arthur Ashe Stadium, imperiling her towering ball toss and causing her first-serve percentage to sag.  Yet the glamorous Russian adjusted effectively to the circumstances as the match evolved, despite her trademark stubbornness.  Unfamiliar with her opponent’s game, Maria may need several games to acquaint herself with Capra’s strengths and flaws.  During the early stages, therefore, the American might thrill her local supporters with echoes of her startling performance against Rezai.  Once Sharapova finds the timing on her serve and the rhythm on her groundstrokes, though, her challenger will struggle to survive the Russian’s murderous barrage of high-precision missiles.

Jankovic vs. Kanepi

Having won consecutive matches for the first time since Wimbledon, the Serb hopes to gradually discover her form as she plays herself into the tournament.  In previous majors such as the 2008 Australian Open, Jankovic similarly shook off her rust and steadily improved her consistency and movement as the fortnight progressed; unlike most elite players, she struggles from playing too little more than from playing too much.  Within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals this summer, Kanepi captured her maiden title soon afterwards and has resurrected her career from a slump that forced her to qualify for Roland Garros.  Even then, however, she rigorously tested Jankovic in a three-set rollercoaster that awakened memories of her triumph over the Serb last year.  Not a factor in the US Open Series, the Estonian should find her mighty first-strike potential heightened by the fast courts here.  On the other hand, that advantage might be balanced by the sprawling dimensions of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which will allow the fourth seed to track down a few more balls than she could in more confined surroundings.  Suffering mid-match lapses against both Halep and Lucic, Jankovic must maintain her concentration against an opponent both physically and mentally capable of upsetting her.

Blake vs. Djokovic

As addicted to drama as Jankovic, Djokovic relishes the atmosphere of the night session arguably more than any of his rivals.  But Blake’s ardent fans also will relish the night session and will enter determined to secure victory for the home hope with whatever means available.  Contemplating retirement earlier this season, the American appears to have found new life at his home major, where he generally displays his finest tennis.  How will the Serb respond to the adversarial environment?  Two years ago here against Roddick in another night session, he delivered one of the most brilliant performances of his Slam career, suffocating the American with pinpoint groundstrokes on both wings.  Nevertheless, he has faltered perceptibly on several occasions since then when the crowd clearly favored his opponent.  While Blake still possesses a scintillating backhand and return, Djokovic possesses far more weapons and infinitely greater consistency at this stage in his career, so this match theoretically should be routine if not one-sided.  When the Serb had opportunities to convincingly slam the door on the overmatched Petzschner, however, he meandered purposelessly into a tiebreak and nearly an extra set.  If Blake can unleash a few blazing forehands early in his return games, he might rush Djokovic out of his rhythm and implant seeds of doubt in the Serb’s mind.

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Kuznetsova vs. Kirilenko

Reinvigorated over the summer with a San Diego title and a Rogers Cup semifinal appearance, Kuznetsova lost only to Sharapova and Wozniacki during the US Open Series.  In order to prove her return to the elite circles where she belongs, however, the 2004 champion in New York must conquer a compatriot who toppled her twice this year.  Although both of those wins occurred on a clay vastly divergent from Arthur Ashe Stadium, their recent history might imbue Kirilenko with confidence and Kuznetsova with uncertainty.  Better known for her doubles exploits, “the other Maria” can’t match Sveta from the baseline but can maneuver her expertly around the court with an array of spins and touch shots rarely witnessed in singles.  Similar to her doubles partner Radwanska, Kirilenko won’t bludgeon a higher-ranked opponent off the court with blistering shot-making; instead, she will give erratic shotmakers every opportunity to fall on their own swords.  Repeatedly flirting with disaster even during her San Diego title run, Kuznetsova will need to exercise her self-discipline and patience, carefully constructing points rather than indulging in reckless gambits.

Soderling vs. de Bakker

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which Soderling answers the call?  Will it be the slovenly Swede who nearly let his first-round match slip away against a qualifier, or the impeccably serving Swede who throttled Taylor Dent for the second time in three majors?  On the fast courts of Flushing, his massive first-strike potential should shine as it did during the latter stages of his quarterfinal against Federer there last year.  Not designed for consistency, Soderling won’t need to hit as many balls in order to terminate rallies with his customary brutality.  Like other sluggers, though, he would prefer a bit more time to set his sluggish feet before pummeling his groundstrokes, on which he can err wildly when off balance.  Fortunately for the Swede, he faces a relatively inexperienced adversary with no more stylistic versatility than himself, for de Bakker centers his game around a thunderous serve, a percussive forehand, and short points.  While the Dutch star seems destined to reach the top 20 or better, he has yet to overcome an opponent of Soderling’s magnitude.  Consider this match an intriguing glimpse of the ATP’s future, a paradigm set in part by Soderling himself:  tall, baseline-bound, and with point-ending power on both wings.

Gasquet vs. Anderson / Monfils vs. Tipsarevic

Achieving a mildly unexpected upset in the second round, Gasquet reminded New York audiences of how devastating his shotmaking flair can be.  Such reminders have been few and far between lately, which made his stunning display of all-court tennis all the more impressive; the Frenchman’s victory over Davydenko constituted perhaps the most impressive win of his post-Pamela career.  Happily situated in a comfortable district of the draw, Gasquet can reap substantial rankings rewards if he can capitalize upon this opportunity to capture a winnable match from South African giant Kevin Anderson.  Notorious for mental frailty, the Frenchman must summon self-belief and willpower in order to weather the avalanche of aces and unreturnable serves while protecting his own delivery and heightening his focus at key moments.  Possibly awaiting him on Monday is Roddick’s nemesis Tipsarevic, who achieved his own upset less from feats of uncanny athleticism than from fearless tenacity.  Unruffled by either his opponent’s massive serve or his self-absorbed tantrum, the Serb could profit from the peaks and valleys that invariably creep into Monfils’ vastly entertaining game.  While these two matches don’t feature any legitimate title contenders, their participants should feel galvanized by the chance to exploit this friendly section and might compete with more urgency than the marquee stars at this stage in the tournament.

***

On the middle weekend of the Open, intrigue often swirls as strongly as the breezes.  As much as we enjoy drama and suspense, though, we hope that the first half of our pseudonym earns safe passage into the second week for the second consecutive major.

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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