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Daniela Hantuchova - 2012 Brisbane International: Day 1

Overshadowed by far more famous figures at their respective tournaments were the women’s finalists in Brisbane and the men’s finalists in Doha.  But, on the first weekend of 2012, these four players have come from shadow into light.

Hantuchova vs. Kanepi:  After the dust settled on a draw with five Slam champions and four #1s, two unseeded entrants will contest the Brisbane final.  Predictably unpredictable considering recent events in the WTA was Hantuchova’s march through an upper half that contained Serena, Clijsters, Stosur, and Ivanovic.  To be sure, injuries played a central role in her recent progress, which included a walkover from Serena (ankle) and a retirement from Clijsters (hip) after the Belgian had won the first set.  Nevertheless, Hantuchova competed with often uncharacteristic fortitude through much of her semifinal despite an 0-9 record against Clijsters.  As game upon game stretched to deuce upon deuce, one would have expected the more accomplished player to prevail, but instead the Slovak won a five-deuce game on her opponent’s serve and an eight-deuce game on her own serve.  Imaginatively exploiting the geometry of the court, Hantuchova served and returned impressively for extended spans.  Those areas play an especially significant role for a player whose indifferent movement prevents her from losing the initiative early in points.  But her opponent also does not display great agility, so she can finish points more efficiently than she did against Clijsters, without stringing together so many audacious groundstrokes.

Almost impenetrable on serve during her last three matches, Kanepi has conceded just one service game and faced four total break points against three top-20 opponents in Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone.  Relying less on angles than on raw power, her weapons have penetrated this medium-speed hard court with ease, while her ability to hold serve so comfortably has allowed her to take more chances in return games.  The Estonian can expect to secure more comfortable holds if she uses her wide serve to open up the court for her first groundstroke, which Clijsters did too sporadically in the semifinal.  Graced with the longest pair of legs in the WTA, Hantuchova struggles to reverse direction and arrange her feet when rushed out of her rhythm.  Among her main advantages over Kanepi is her deftness in volleys and drop shots, key reasons for her three-match winning streak against the Estonian.  Since neither player has accumulated much success in finals (or much experience, for that matter), nerves from the unexpected circumstances may well surface.  Having lost a fiercely contested Moscow final to Cibulkova in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi surely will bring heightened motivation to avoid a similar fate in her first tournament of 2012.

Monfils vs. Tsonga:  Only three times has this pair of rollicking Frenchmen intersected, twice on indoor courts and all three during the fall season.  The recipient of a walkover from Federer, Tsonga began the week in unremarkable fashion before brushing aside an anonymous Spaniard in the quarterfinals more efficiently.  Tasked with a much less anonymous Spaniard in his own semifinal, Monfils delivered a surprisingly complete display against Nadal with only a few flashes of his familiar whimsicality.  Earlier in the tournament, though, the world #16 narrowly survived Benjamin Becker in the sort of erratic, puzzling display for which he long has gained notoriety.  When he faces his compatriot, he must aim for the former rather than the latter level of performance while clinging closely to the baseline.  Tsonga’s net-rushing tactics and constant aggression should reap rewards if Monfils slips into passive counterpunching, offering the world #6 ample time to construct his combinations.  Just 4-11 in finals, Gael will attempt to become the first player outside the top 5 to win a final from Tsonga, who has distinguished himself on such occasions even in defeat.

Like Kanepi, Tsonga ended 2011 by losing a tense three-set final, albeit on a stage of far greater significance than the Kremlin Cup’s sterile chamber.  Also like Kanepi, he will hope to start 2012 by holding the larger trophy this time.  Possibly satisfied by his upset over Nadal, Monfils may slide into a psychological lull for his next match just as he did after his previous victory over Nadal here in 2009.  Or Tsonga also may find his concentration dulled by the entertaining exhibition that replaced his semifinal.  While their match might not offer the drama or tension that one would wish in a major semifinal or final, it should offer a sprightly coda to this minor tournament on the Persian Gulf.  Despite their fame for fierce forehands and bludgeoned serves, both Frenchmen enjoy a talent—and taste—for finesse that can produce unexpected moments of inspiration.  While the player who adheres to his more straightforward strengths should prevail, his opponent might win the contest of aesthetics.  And, for many French players, that contest seems just as significant as the contest captured by the scoreboard.

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

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

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

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

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We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

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Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

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After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!