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Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

As the finals of the season’s first major non-major loom, the two #1s eye the last obstacles in their quest for the prestigious Indian Wells crown.  Can the challengers spring an ambush, or will the top seeds receive their just deserts?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates a point against Maria Sharapova of Russia during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 18, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Wozniacki vs. Bartoli:  Hunting her second straight Premier Mandatory title, the world #1 has won 25 consecutive matches in the WTA’s elite tier of Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments.  But the last player to defeat Wozniacki at such an event was the quirky Frenchwoman who will oppose her in Sunday’s championship match.  On a sweltering afternoon in Cincinnati, Bartoli swept the Dane aside with the loss of only five games as her double-fisted groundstrokes darted through that fast court at unpredictable angles.  A former Wimbledon finalist, Wozniacki’s challenger prefers such swift surfaces to unleash a game that relies less upon point construction than first-strike shot-making, highlighted by a splendid second-serve return.  In addition to attacking the Dane’s second serve, the Frenchwoman must control her own delivery more consistently than she did late in her semifinal against Wickmayer, allowing her to start points inside the baseline on offensive terms.  Once a rally extends beyond seven or eight shots, the balance of power tilts sharply towards Wozniacki.  Against an opponent who anticipates an opponent’s gambits extremely well, Bartoli should consider reversing the direction of her shots and hitting behind the Dane in order to keep her physically and mentally off balance.  Especially considering an illness that descended before her quarterfinal, she probably will need some assistance from the world #1 in order to deliver the upset.

And Bartoli conceivably might get that assistance.  In the final here a year ago, Wozniacki sprayed a disconcerting quantity of groundstrokes throughout the court as she slumped to a straight-sets loss against the unintimidating Jankovic.  Just as in her recent losses at majors, she appeared to struggle with the magnitude of the situation, although the Dane won a gritty three-setter from leading rival Zvonareva for the Beijing title last fall.  Moreover, Indian Wells has earned notoriety for capriciously crowning underdogs such as Hantuchova and Zvonareva, victors over Hings, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic in previous finals.   Nevertheless, scant evidence suggests that the historical trend will continue this year.  On a moderately paced hard court not unlike the Indian Wells arena, Wozniacki yielded just two games to Bartoli in a Doha semifinal.  Although the Wimbledon finalist moves more effectively than one might suspect at first glance, she requires greater time to unleash her double-fisted groundstrokes than would a more conventional player.  The alert Wozniacki should seize the opportunity to slip inside the baseline whenever she notices that her opponent takes one hand off her racket.  More adroit moving laterally than forwards, Bartoli often struggles when brought to the net on her opponent’s terms, a flaw that Wozniacki might consider exploiting.  Whereas feeding balls deep down the center of the court frustrated Sharapova, though, the top seed will want to keep the Frenchwoman constantly moving in order to drain her illness-depleted energy.

Unlikely to receive full validation as a world #1 until she wins a major, Wozniacki nevertheless could cement her position atop the WTA by capturing the most significant title of her career so far.  An upset by Bartoli conversely would confirm the impression that the top titles women’s tennis lies open to any talented opportunist.  A precocious 20-year-old, Wozniacki should shoulder the pressure upon her with the maturity of a seasoned contender.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 19, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Nadal vs. Djokovic:   Whereas the women’s #1 arrives in the final as the considerable favorite, her male counterpart appears a slight underdog in his championship match.  Sharper against the reinvigorated Del Potro than in his previous encounters here, Nadal probably must elevate his performance even further in order to derail the momentum of the Serbian juggernaut.  Having not lost a match since November, Djokovic brings an unblemished 2011 record and six victories over top-10 players into his third final in the California desert.  Despite losing all eleven of his clay and grass meetings to Nadal, the Australian Open champion has collected seven straight-sets victories over the world #1 on hard courts against only five losses.  In a gallant effort against the Spaniard in the US Open final, Djokovic saved swarms of break points on his serve through three fiercely contested sets before finally succumbing to fatigue from his classic semifinal victory over Federer.  Even threatening the Spaniard on his beloved dirt, the Serb relentlessly takes the Mallorcan bull by the horns with fearless swinging volleys and a barrage of inside-out forehands that sets up his inside-in forehand or unparalleled down-the-line backhand.  En route to the Indian Wells title three years ago, Djokovic hammered his targets with relentless precision and never lost his serve during a comprehensive semifinal triumph that avenged his loss in the final here a year earlier.

On the other hand, Rafa has won all of his most significant encounters with Nole, including all five of their finals and all of their meetings at majors.  When the stakes and the tensions rise highest, therefore, Nadal remains the sturdier competitor with a greater appetite for the battle.  Unable to decapitate both heads of the Fedal hydra at the US Open, Djokovic has not conquered the two legends consecutively since his breakthrough at the 2007 Rogers Cup.  Rafa has prevailed on each of the six occasions when his meetings with Nole have extended beyond the minimum number of sets, a tribute to his generally superior focus and fitness.  If Djokovic charges into an early lead, therefore, he must deliver the coup de grace rather than slipping into complacency and permitting his opponent to claw himself into the match.  Like his fellow #1, Nadal will relish the relatively slow courts at Indian Wells that favor a counterpuncher’s ability to track down penetrating groundstrokes and return them with interest.  As he demonstrated in the 2009 final, furthermore, his game adapts more smoothly to the desert’s variable weather conditions than those of rivals who rely more heavily on precision.  Uncharacteristically unreliable against Karlovic in the quarterfinals, Nadal’s passing shots sparkled on Saturday against Del Potro.  When Djokovic attempts to finish points in the forecourt, as he must in order to succeed, the Spaniard often will force him to hit complicated volleys or smashes.

Whether the Serb or the Spaniard suffers a reverse on Sunday, the Indian Wells runner-up could find swift consolation.  In the past two seasons, Murray and Roddick captured the Miami title after disappointment in the desert final.  We return shortly to preview the draws at the tournament after reviewing some of the more intriguing narratives from Indian Wells.

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

 

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

More than a month after the action climaxed in Melbourne, all of the leading ATP and WTA contenders reconvene for the first time.  On the eve of Indian Wells, we ponder a few intriguing narratives that the first marquee non-major of 2011 might trace.

Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Seven

1) Déjà vu for Nadal and Murray? In 2010, the world #1 entered the California desert rusty from an injury that halted his Australian Open campaign in the quarterfinals.  Frustrated in that round for the second straight year, Nadal returned this weekend to record an encouragingly commanding performance in Davis Cup.  As the clay season beckons, the two-time Indian Wells champion will seek to recapture his rhythm with a deep run on these slowest of all hard courts, but a title may lie a round or two beyond his grasp.  Also reprising his Australian Open result from 2010, Murray will hope to avoid a relapse into the malaise that beset him for months after his deflating loss in last year’s Melbourne final.  An equally dismal reverse in this year’s final perhaps contributed to a one-sided defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam, although the Scot blamed a wrist injury.  A former runner-up in the desert, Murray should flourish there if his psychological scars from Melbourne have healed.

2) How long can Djokovic and Soderling maintain their momentum? The two most successful ATP players during the first two months of 2011, the Serb and the Swede have compiled a shimmering 30-1 record with five titles.  Undefeated so far this season, Djokovic has scored five of his twelve victories over top-10 opponents, while Soderling has won four of the last six tournaments that he has entered and brings a ten-match winning streak to the desert.  Advancing within a set of last year’s final, he can project his power convincingly  even on sluggish surfaces, and the event’s relaxed atmosphere should suit his straightforward, plain-speaking nature.  But Soderling volunteered for Davis Cup duty on an indoor court in his distant homeland this weekend, raising questions about his readiness for the year’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  By contrast, Djokovic cautiously chose to spend the week replenishing his energies in preparation for perhaps the most demanding month on the calendar.  That decision seems more likely to reap rewards than Soderling’s commendable patriotism.

3) Will Clijsters and Wozniacki battle for supremacy? Since Wimbledon last year, the two genial blondes have divided every meaningful WTA tournament between them.  Clijsters has collected the three most significant titles in that span, the two majors and the year-end championships, while Wozniacki has rampaged through the Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments with the exception of Cincinnati—won by Clijsters.  Curiously, the WTA’s current top two have collided only once during their joint dominance, collaborating on a compelling although not quite classic final in Doha.  Seizing two previous titles on the sun-bathed California hard courts, Clijsters suffered an embarrassing early exit there in 2010 for which she will aim to atone.  One would welcome a title clash between the top two women, arguably more plausible than a meeting between the top two men.  A bubbling cauldron of flux lately, the WTA could benefit from the birth of a mini-rivalry at its summit.

4) Can the last two WTA champions rekindle their desert magic? Grasping a trophy for the first time in more than a year, Zvonareva delivered a composed, confident statement of intent in Doha that triggered memories of her courageous 2009 title run at Indian Wells.  When mentally resilient, the Russian possesses a mixture of versatility, intelligence, and consistency that should shine on the slow courts and in the occasionally odd conditions here.   Likewise well-adapted to the desert’s demands are the counterpunching tactics of Jankovic, who broke free from a seven-month arid spell with consecutive semifinals in the Persian Gulf.  As her competitive vigor floods back, the memories of last year’s implausible surge could inspire the defending champion to ambush an unwary victim or two from the WTA elite.  Few players have exploited opportunities more effectively than the seasoned Serb, and few tournaments have provided more openings for opportunists.

5) Which draw will feature more surprises? Always a stage for the unexpected, Indian Wells featured an epidemic of eye-catching results last year.  The 2011 edition may prove no more predictable than its 2010 predecessor, since several bold shotmakers in both draws prepare to wreak havoc within the hierarchy.  In addition to the revitalized Del Potro, four Australian Open sensations could launch memorable runs.  Soderling’s Melbourne nemesis Alexander Dolgopolov showed few signs of ebbing during the South American clay season, while San Jose champion and Memphis finalist Milos Raonic could serve his way to a noteworthy upset.  The first woman to win multiple titles this season, Petra Kvitova engineered victories over Stosur, Pennetta, and Clijsters that showcased her competitive maturity.  Although fading a bit recently, Andrea Petkovic illuminated Australian arenas with a Brisbane finals appearance and a comprehensive Melbourne triumph over Sharapova, punctuated by her signature post-match shuffle.  Will the Petko-dance debut in the desert?

5+1) Who will profit from Ellison’s investment? Alone among all tournaments, Indian Wells features the Hawkeye challenge system on every court where balls are struck, a contribution from tournament sponsor Larry Ellison.  It’s only a matter of time before the Oracle CEO becomes the favorite entrepreneur of an unheralded journeyman (or journeywoman) toiling in obscurity on an outer court.  We hope that other venues follow Ellison’s example in expanding their deployment of electronic review, a resource that all players deserve.

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open Day 12

Hunting a third consecutive title this week, Federer has pounded aces, slashed volleys, and glided with leonine majesty across the Bercy court.  The top seed has faced break points during just one of his thirty service games, typically cruising through them in two or three minutes.  In his fourth straight week of action, he has shown few signs of either physical or mental fatigue but instead has displayed an urgency absent from his previous fall campaigns.   Considering the slick surface and his glittering performances this week, one easily forgets that Federer had not reached even a semifinal at the Paris Indoors before this year; in fact, it remains the only Masters event where he has not contested a championship match.  Between the Swiss legend and a Nadal-tying 18th shield lie three opponents who have toppled him exactly once in 21 attempts and never on a hard court.  Spared from facing Masters 1000 nemesis Murray, Federer confronts the far less troubling challenge of cooling a feverish French crowd in his semifinal meeting with Monfils.  Although they haven’t met on a hard court since early 2008, the world #2 has won twelve of thirteen total sets from a player whose showmanship he seems to disdain.  An emblem of the sport’s elite dimension, Federer frowns upon the idiosyncratic albeit entertaining antics of his Saturday opponent.  This dissonance in their styles and personalities should lend intrigue to an encounter that theoretically should produce scant suspense.

A finalist here last year, Monfils came within a tiebreak of claiming his first Masters shield before his frenzied fans.  Watching him maneuver past Murray, we reflected that the exceptionally fast court speed may benefit this feline counterpuncher by forcing him to play shorter, more aggressive points.  Armed with ample offensive weapons, Monfils usually rallies purposelessly from the baseline rather than unleashing them.  In his quarterfinal, however, he rarely failed to exploit an opening and approached the net with confidence.  After his concentration predictably dipped in the second set, he recovered impressively to snatch away the initiative from his higher-ranked opponent.  And his drum-beating, flag-waving compatriots refused to let him surrender when he tottered towards near-certain defeat against Verdasco.  Nevertheless, home-court advantage could not rescue Monfils during his three previous clashes with the world #2.  While all of those matches unfolded on clay rather than the Frenchman’s favored hard courts, Roger also prefers the asphalt of Bercy to the dirt of Roland Garros.  Last year here, however, the much less dangerous Benneteau built a spectacular upset over Federer upon inspired shot-making and relentless fan support.  Not traveling to London for the year-end championships, Gael still targets a meaningful objective in 2010:  the Davis Cup final.  The leading singles member on the French team, he could bring substantial momentum to Belgrade if his week rises from memorable to magical.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France (L) and Robin Soderling of Sweden (R) pose with their trophies after the singles final of the ATP 35th ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament at the Ahoy Centre Rotterdam on February 24, 2008 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Stunning two former champions this week, Llodra has proudly hoisted the banner of serve-and-volley tennis on the hard court best suited to this style.  The Eastbourne champion leaped and lunged through tense first sets against both Djokovic and Davydenko before those prestigious foes folded swiftly in the second set.  Although Llodra’s style requires precision and intense focus for extended periods, it demands a similar investment from his opponents, who must connect with low, pinpoint returns and capitalize upon the rare opportunities that emerge.  Will Soderling prove equal to that task?  Seeking his first career Masters final, the moody Swede still oscillates between overwhelming and underwhelming in the same tournament.  The French crowd could not salvage more than four games for Simon against Soderling, however, nor could Roddick repeat his two victories over the world #5 earlier this year.   After a modest fall season, he should have accumulated precious confidence from those wins as London looms.   But an unexpected loss to Llodra could reverse this encouraging surge, so Soderling can’t afford to let fantasies of Federer invade his mind.  He has fallen twice to the Frenchman on indoor hard courts, including a quarterfinal this year in Marseille.  Since they have played three tiebreaks in five total sets, one suspects that this encounter might be decided in a few fleeting moments, such as a net-skimming return or bold second serve.  In the Swede’s two previous Masters semifinals, he fell far short of his brutal best and contributed to his own demise with unsightly errors.  A far more complete player than Llodra, he probably will atone for those earlier disappointments—but not before French hearts flutter with ephemeral hope.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the final Masters 1000 match of 2010!

 

Just as Ivanovic is descending a London East End staircase here, she descended the staircase of the WTA rankings this week.  The charming Serb dropped 30 spots from #28 to a pedestrian #58, which one would expect to exert a serious impact on her upcoming schedule.  Here are some of the other notable moves in the WTA and ATP rankings after Indian Wells:

WTA:

Wozniacki (2):   New career high after reaching the final.

Azarenka (7):  Dropped a spot, trading places with Dementieva, after failing to reproduce last year’s semifinal result.

Jankovic (8):  The title netted her just one spot, little reward for all of her hard work here.

Stosur (10):   The Aussie’s top-10 debut comes after a semifinal run.

Sharapova (12):  The highest ranking of her comeback so far.

Wickmayer (14):  A career high despite a relatively early exit.

Zheng (19):  Back in the top 20 after a pair of gritty three-set wins.

Kleybanova (22):  A career high after upsetting Clijsters en route to the quarters.

Zvonareva (23):  A nine-place drop after failing to defend her title.

Henin (33):  Accumulated the three-tournament minimum necessary to be listed in the rankings, but still required a wildcard for Miami.

Pavlyuchenkova (35):  A ten-place drop after failing to defend last year’s semifinal result.

ATP:

Nadal (4):  Falls ever-so-slightly behind Murray after failing to defend his title.

Gonzalez (11):  Out of the top 10 (replaced by Tsonga) after skipping Indian Wells in order to aid Chilean earthquake relief.

Ljubicic (13):  Halved his ranking by stunning three top-8 players en route to the title.

Berdych (20):  Reaches the top 20 after crushing Verdasco and Troicki.

Wawrinka (23):  Rankings slide continues after skipping the event.

Baghdatis (30):  Back in the top 30 after upsetting Federer in a comeback that continues to accelerate.

Tomorrow:  WTA Miami preview; Wednesday:  ATP Miami preview!  🙂

The startling results from Indian Wells certainly kept us on our toes, much like Maria in the picture above (she looks considerably better in the pose than we do, though).  We’ll cast a glance back over the most momentous events from the desert and tell you who has Ad-In, who has Ad-Out, and who stands at Deuce.

Ad-In:

Ljubicic:  Asked who was most likely to defeat Djokovic, Nadal, and Roddick en route to a Masters Series title, not many fans or analysts would have mentioned the aging Croat.  But he found a superb serving rhythm, flattened out his forehand, and capitalized on almost all of the opportunities that he received.  In a tournament famous for surprises, his title ranks high on the list.

Jankovic:  Seemingly deflated and demoralized against Errani, the smiling Serb regrouped stunningly to record comfortable straight-set wins over Kleybanova, Stosur, and Wozniacki–not a murderesses’ row but a challenging trio nonetheless.  Perhaps her reconnection with the Bolletieri team will help her turn around the recent slump.  She struck the ball more cleanly and with more confidence during the last three matches in the desert than she had since mid-2008.  Let’s hope that she capitalizes on her momentum from this title over the next few weeks and that the other two Serbs soon follow her trail back to the top.  Two years ago, Ivanovic won this title before winning the French Open; will Jankovic repeat her compatriot’s feat?

Soderling:  The author of the Greatest Upset Ever proved once again that he’s more than a Nadal-killer, expertly stifling Lopez and Tsonga before dismantling an off-key Murray in the quarters.  He nearly reached his first career Masters Series final, and surely it’s only a matter of time before he does.

American men:  Although he won’t be satisfied with falling to Ljubicic in a tight final, Roddick produced the best performance that he has ever enjoyed in the desert.  He didn’t lose his serve in five of his six matches here, but perhaps the most encouraging news was his ability to navigate sub-par stretches of play in the semis before finding a way to win against Soderling.  Despite an exhausting Davis Cup weekend in Belgrade, Isner followed up his recent success with two commanding wins and a tenacious performance against Nadal in the fourth round.  Querrey smoothly handled the dangerous Jeremy Chardy before falling to Isner; the two teamed to reach the doubles semifinals.  Michael Russell knocked off Andreev before testing Murray.  And James Blake, probably in the twilight of his career, delivered an inspiring win over Ferrer and nearly ousted Almagro.  Does this veteran have another impressive result or two in him?

Baghdatis:  He was the Canas of 2010, ambushing a slovenly Federer in a third-set tiebreak.  In his case, however, the upset extends an invigorating resurgence that began with his run to the Sydney title.  The sometimes overly sober men’s game could benefit from the presence of another carefree personality like the Cypriot near the top.

Kleybanova:  Not only did she knock off Kim Clijsters in a Baghdatis-like third-set tiebreak, but she followed up the win with a stirring comeback against Suarez Navarro.  Future top 10?  Probably not.  Still, she’ll likely become a top-20 regular and intimidating dark horse at most of the significant events.

Stosur:  Taking over the Aussie mantle from Lleyton Hewitt, the third-best serve in women’s tennis will reach the top 10 for the first time.  She produced a resolute win over defending champion Zvonareva while charging to the doubles final.  Her nuts-and-bolts style may not be beautiful to watch, but it’s effective against the WTA rank-and-file.

Larry Ellison: The new sponsor demonstrated his commitment to the sport by appearing at the tournament every day from the third round forward.  Also, he focused his attention on the tennis (rather than socializing with his neighbors) and tastefully refrained from promenading onto the court during the trophy ceremonies.

Deuce:

Hit for Haiti:  The exhibition fulfilled the main purpose for which it was designed:  raising money.  As a demonstration of goodwill and grace among tennis superstars, however, it fell just a little short.

Federer:  Kudos to him for showing up at the event despite his recent illness and for attempting to calm troubled waters in the Hit for Haiti.  Moreover, he delivered the best point of the exhibition with a spectacular series of reflex volleys.  That night witnessed his best tennis of the tournament, unfortunately.

Nadal:  He showed flashes of his old self against Isner and Berdych as well as more positive body language.  The puzzling, passive loss to the Croat revealed that Rafa still isn’t quite the same, however, especially in terms of controlling his once bullet-proof nerves.  He said that he never should have been in the deciding tiebreak in the first place, and he was right.  On a positive note, he won the doubles title by defeating top-seeded Nestor and Zimonjic in the final.

Wozniacki:  It may sound harsh to put a finalist in this category, but she didn’t face anyone scarier than her BFF Radwanska and yet recorded just two straight-sets wins in the tournament.  Against Jankovic, it became painfully apparent that she still lacks a point-ending shot and that she hasn’t developed the mind of a champion, two shortcomings that will cost her dearly in pivotal matches until she addresses them.  Consistency is commendable, but if you don’t move forward in this fast-paced sport, you’re moving backward.

Tennis Channel:  The network’s round-the-clock coverage was a vast improvement over the lackadaisical efforts of Fox Sports in recent years.  Nevertheless, its decision to televise a men’s match replay (Murray-Russell) rather than a live women’s match (Kleybanova-Suarez Navarro) was inexcusable. 

Ad-Out:

Djokovic:  His loss looked better in retrospect after Ljubicic won the title, yet he barely escaped Kohlschreiber in a comedy of errors during the preceding round and should at least have challenged the Croat.  After the draining Davis Cup tie in Belgrade, one didn’t expect him to be at his crisp, scintillating best.  At the same time, though, top players find a way to pull through a match even when they’re tired and frustrated.  He doesn’t seem like the world #2 right now.

Murray:  He’s going to climb past Nadal into the 3rd spot after this tournament, but his performance here did little to merit it.  The Scot slumped and pouted through two ugly victories against Seppi and Russell, profited from an injured Almagro, and then offered listless target practice for a fiery Soderling.  Whatever he was practicing in Dubai didn’t seem to have paid off.  Or maybe he was preoccupied with choosing Great Britain’s next Davis Cup captain.  Either way, he’ll be feeling the heat in more ways than one when the action shifts to Miami.

Cilic:  The latest tower of power from Croatia churned through a mediocre first set, finally got the chance to serve for it…and then didn’t win a game for the rest of the match.  He turned down a request for a press conference after his loss to Garcia-Lopez with the comment that he had “nothing to say.”  Neither do we, Marin. 

Belgians:  Who would have guessed that Wickmayer would win the same number of matches as Clijsters and Henin combined, or that the number would be two?  For the sake of the WTA and these much-hyped comebacks, let’s hope that the waffles are better in Miami.

Russians:  The event started ominously for them when top-seeded Kuznetsova hit herself rather than her opponent off the court.  It didn’t get any better when Sharapova’s elbow and Davydenko’s wrist developed their own agendas.  Defending champion Zvonareva didn’t defend for long.  The engaging and wacky Youzhny must have had a premonition, for he didn’t even come.  But the collective train wreck entered the domain of comedy when Dementieva lost not because her own serve was too weak, for once, but because her opponent’s was.  Yes, you read it correctly.

Azarenka:  The Belarussian bombshell continues to bemuse.  Either she is severely testing Serena and Venus, or she is meekly exiting to the likes of Schiavone and now Martinez Sanchez.  Like Murray, the pressure will be on her in Miami, where she defends an important title for the first time in her career.

Myself:  My crystal ball took a substantial hit during this tournament, although coming out ahead of the Tennis.com fortunetellers.  Let’s look forward to smoother seas (no hurricanes, please) in Miami.  Nevertheless, scanning the rest of this list, I seem to be in some decent company, don’t I?

Check back tomorrow for a rankings update!  🙂

The final at the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the decade fell a little flat after the untimely exit of the Spaniard pictured above,  but the thunderous string of upsets has opened the door for two of the Tour’s long-overshadowed citizens.  Ljubicic has never won a title of this magnitude, while Roddick has spent the past several years in the shadow of Federer and Nadal after his initial breakthrough.  Neither player is likely to see many more of these opportunities as their careers wane, so the final should be laden with a sense of urgency that could compensate for the absence of top-5 global icons.  We’ll go through the same procedure as for the WTA final:  head-to-head, recent form, three pieces of advice, shot-by-shot, and then the prediction in pictorial mode.

Head-to-head:  Roddick leads 7-3 (5-2 on hard courts)

They haven’t met since their quarterfinal here three years ago, which Roddick claimed in two tiebreaks.  Their 10 meetings have featured 12 tiebreaks, so don’t be surprised to see one or two more tomorrow.  Although the American and the Croat split their last four meetings, Roddick has consistently held the advantage on this surface.  The one eye-opener in their head-to-head is Ljubicic’s five-set Davis Cup win in California, a match that showed his ability to conquer the home favorite in the most adverse conditions.

Recent form:

Roddick:  Solid and occasionally excellent.  The top-ranked American started 2010 positively by seizing the Brisbane title but faltered against Cilic in Australia, partly because of a nagging shoulder injury.  He sustained a slightly disappointing loss to Verdasco in the San Jose final before falling to the up-and-coming Querrey in Memphis.  His decision to skip the recent Belgrade Davis Cup tie has been vindicated by his performance here, where he eased past several overmatched opponents before navigating through a scratchy semifinal against Soderling. 

Ljubicic:  Dormant until suddenly spectacular.  Once the third-ranked player and a four-time Masters Series finalist, the mild-mannered Croat had compiled a modest 5-4 record this year prior to the event and seemed drifting towards a placid retirement.  Suddenly, he stunned a weary Djokovic in straight sets and celebrated his 31st birthday by rallying from a one-set deficit against Nadal.  This tournament has had a history of surprises, and a debut Masters 1000 title for Ljubicic certainly would preserve the pattern.

Three tips for Roddick:

1)  Take chances on Ljubicic’s serve, especially the second serve.  Roddick should be holding serve comfortably and quickly on most occasions, so he should try to punish any soft second serves in order to put Ljubicic on the back foot.  Once Roddick takes the initiative in a point, the slow-footed Croat will struggle to recover.  Moreover, second-serve pressure will add pressure to Ljubicic’s first serve and perhaps convince him to sacrifice pace for a higher percentage, which ultimately would play into Roddick’s hands.

2)  Keep it simple.  The American is at his best when he plays by instinct; despite recent additions to his game, he still relies on power rather than finesse.  Solid and steady should get the job done on this occasion.  Unlike in his matches against Federer, Nadal, Del Potro, or Murray, he won’t need to do anything unexpected, risky, or extraordinary in order to win. 

3)  Use the home-court advantage.  Except for Ljubicic’s support group and a small cluster of Croatian diehards, almost the entire stadium will be in Roddick’s corner tomorrow.  It always seems as though his serve has a little extra sting and his groundstrokes have a little extra zip with an enthusiastic crowd on his side, as has been demonstrated in Davis Cup.  That said, he’ll want to stay relatively calm if and when he reaches an opportunity to close it out.

Three tips for Ljubicic:

1)  Conserve energy.  He’s probably a little physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after his nail-biting win over Nadal, so he won’t be at his freshest in the final.  Therefore, he’ll want to focus his energy on his own service games rather than exerting himself in the effort to win a meaningless point or two on Roddick’s serve.  His only real chance in this match is to keep holding serve, squeeze his way into a couple of tiebreaks, and hope that Roddick blinks.

2) Maximize the first serve.  Once the rally gets started on equal terms, Roddick is the more consistent and versatile player; he’ll win the majority of the extended, neutral points.  Consequently, Ljubicic must gain the upper hand immediately with an overwhelming serve that sets up a weak reply.  Yet a low first-serve percentage will regulary expose his much weaker second serve.  It’ll be intriguing to see how the Croat balances aggression with consistency on this vital shot.

3)  Pull the trigger early and often.  Ljubicic can’t wear down Roddick from the baseline, and a war of attrition is a war that he will inevitably lose.  As soon as he finds an opening, he needs to rip a groundstroke towards it and try to take over the point.  His 100-mph backhand bullet at 1-2 in the third-set tiebreak today was a perfect example of how one bold, unexpected winner can set the tone for the next several minutes, especially at a crucial stage.  If he’s successful with this tactic early in the match, he may plant some doubt in Roddick’s mind. 

Who has the edge?  Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Roddick

Return:  Roddick

Forehand:  Roddick

Backhand:  Ljubicic

Volleys:  Ljubicic

Movement:  Roddick

Mental:  Roddick

And finally…who will win?

Enjoy the finals!  🙂  We’ll be back tomorrow with a tournament wrap before moving on to Miami next week!

In 2008, Ivanovic scored a major breakthrough in the desert by defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Will Wozniacki score a breakthrough of her own?  The two finalists have developed essentially the same counterpunching styles, which have served them well this week on the slow-as-molasses surface.  A win for the Pole-Dane would represent a major triumph for the WTA’s Generation Next and move Wozniacki distinctly ahead of her more powerful but more volatile rival, Azarenka.  Conversely,  a win for Jankovic would send the same message as Venus’ win over Azarenka in the Dubai final a month ago:  the ancien regime isn’t going to let the sans-culottes near the Tuileries anytime soon!  We’ll start with the head-to-head and recent form, give three pieces of advice to each finalist, wrap up with a shot-by-shot breakdown of who has the edge, and then…pick a winner.  (Scroll to the bottom if you want, but you’ll miss all the good stuff between here and there!)

Head-to-head:  Jankovic leads 3-0 (2-0 on hard courts)

It’s not as ominous for Caro as it looks; we can discount the Wimbledon match on a surface where neither woman plays her best.  Their meeting at the year-end championships in Doha last year, moreover, doesn’t demonstrate a great deal because Wozniacki was struggling with a serious hamstring problem.  The only matchup that does matter is Jelena’s three-set win at the 2008 US Open, when she rallied from a one-set deficit to dominate the last two sets.

Recent form:

Jankovic:  Ghastly.  One of the most charming smiles in tennis had little reason to smile this year, dropping her 2010 debut to the enigmatic Szavay before falling to Alona Bondarenko in the Australian Open third round after winning their 9 previous meetings.  Since January she was thumped by Zvonareva in a Dubai quarterfinal and embarrassed by Sevastova in the first round of Monterrey.  In fact, she came within two points of a straight-sets loss in the fourth round here against Sara Errani before (at least temporarily) righting the ship against Kleybanova and Stosur.  Her only impressive result this year was a three-set Fed Cup triumph over Kuznetsova, not off to a blazing start in 2010 herself.

Wozniacki:  Unimpressive but not dreadful.  She lost exhibitions to Venus and Sharapova in Hong Kong (no surprise there) before losing a desultory match to Li Na in the Australian Open fourth round, during which she hit only three winners.  In Dubai, she succumbed to a resurgent Peer.  Like Jankovic, she hasn’t faced a marquee player en route to the final; also like the Serb, she escaped near-catastrophe against an unimposing foe, coming within two games of a loss to Vania King in her opening match.  She dominated third sets against Petrova and Zheng, however, which should give her confidence if this match comes down to a decider.

Three tips for Jankovic:

1) Let the racket do the talking.  Like her fellow Serb Djokovic, Jankovic can get derailed on big stages through her propensity to put on a melodramatic show for the spectators.  It can be great entertainment, but it distracted her from the task at hand in probably the most significant match of her career thus far, the 2008 US Open final.  She’ll want to keep her head on track against the unflappable Wozniacki.

2) Make Caro think about it.  Wozniacki played an solid first set against Clijsters in last year’s US Open final, then wavered when she had the opportunity to serve it out and quickly faded thereafter.  Even if Jankovic trails early, she might easily reverse the momentum if she keeps the match close and gives Wozniacki a chance to buckle under the magnitude of the situation.

3) Don’t hesitate to throw punches.  Jelena is facing an equally consistent opponent, for once, so she’ll need to jump out of her trademark counterpunching game at times and try to dictate play.  Impersonating a backboard (or “Pong” from Roddick’s commercial) won’t get the job done as it might against a Safina or Kuznetsova.  Aggression doesn’t come naturally to the Serb, but she has demonstrated enhanced readiness to come forward and finish points during this event.

Three tips for Wozniacki:

1)  Enjoy the moment.  Despite their respective rankings, the pressure is on Jankovic in this match as the older, more experienced player who has won several top-level titles.  Wozniacki already has secured the #2 ranking by reaching the final and has not yet inspired the expectations that hover above a perennial champion on the biggest stages.  She needs to remember that she has little to lose and much to gain from whatever happens.

2)  Hit behind JJ.  The Serb is brilliant at covering the open court with eye-popping gets, but like most roadrunners she’s less impressive when she has to reverse direction.  More often than not, she’ll hit the ball off-balance and float back a mid-court sitter that can be more easily attacked; even Errani successfully deployed this tactic against her.

3) Stay alert. Jankovic has acquired a reputation for muddling through a match until the crucial moments, then suddenly elevating her game to ambush her unwary opponent.  No lead is safe against her (although no lead is safe with her, either).  Wozniacki needs to retain her focus ever more vigilantly should a set or the title seem almost within her grasp.

Who has the edge?  Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Wozniacki

Return:  Jankovic

Forehand:  Wozniacki

Backhand:  Jankovic

Volleys:  Neither

Movement:   Both

Mental:  Wozniacki

And now…who will win?

 

We’ll be back to preview the ATP final for you in the same way!  🙂

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