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Agnieszka Radwanska - 2011 China Open - Day 9

Invited to predict which woman stood in the best position to accomplish the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing, tennis analysts might have suggested Sharapova, Azarenka, Kvitova, or perhaps Wozniacki, who accomplished the same feat a year ago.  But we’d wager that few outside Poland expected Radwanska to claim the most significant title of her career one week before relegating it to second-most-significant status the next.  Only with an exceptional degree of focus, timing, and anticipation can a player impose her own style and vision of the game upon much more powerful foes.  Claiming her second straight title, Radwanska dulled the sting of her opponent’s shots and meticulously outmaneuvered them in rallies until they resembled cobras swaying harmlessly under the spell of a snake-charmer.  Skeptics will note that she faced neither Sharapova, Kvitova, nor Serena, whose high-octane offenses have shattered her spells before.  Nevertheless, the Pole befuddled two elite opponents in Azarenka and Zvonareva en route to the Tokyo title, while her gritty performance in outlasting Petkovic revealed resilience impressive for a player seeking the most significant victory of her career.  Moreover, she regularly found a deeper first serve or a riskier backhand when the moment demanded it, showing a capacity for modulation rare in the modern era.  The return of this deft, clever craftswoman to the top 10 travels some distance towards refuting the widespread criticism of the WTA as a leviathan comprised of fundamentally identical, interchangeable parts.   And, considering Radwanska’s success after distancing herself from her father, Wozniacki fans should feel reassured that their heroine made the correct decision this summer.  The Pole monopolized the hardware but not the headlines, though, and we cast our mind back to a few other storylines of the Asian double  as well.

Radwanska’s final victim in Tokyo, Zvonareva collected the runner-up trophy there following a commendable display of perseverance in the semifinals against Kvitova.  Rather than dissolve in frustration when the Czech started the match in scorching form, Vera dug into the trenches late in the first set, waited for a crack to emerge in her opponent’s self-belief, and then chipped away at that crack until Kvitova’s game crashed down around her.  In the final and against an inspired Ivanovic in Beijing, Zvonareva reverted to rubble herself under pressure.  Those debacles highlighted her career-long struggles in title matches and when defending huge quantities of points, critical flaws to be sure but not flaws that should diminish her overall improvements as a competitor.  Also impressive in a more modest way were the achievements of Kirilenko, who overcame a massive power differential to win two epics from Stosur and reach quarterfinals at both tournaments.  Doomed by her limited talents to remain in the second tier, she still has shown an opportunistic streak on several notable occasions, although the correlation of her elevated grunt with her elevated form may draw raised eyebrows from spectators (or rather listeners).  Most observers expected to hear a certain more famous shriek ricocheting through the air of Tokyo and Beijing, but an untimely ankle injury to Sharapova halted such hopes early in a Tokyo quarterfinal with Kvitova that already had become compelling.  On a brighter note, the new world #2 far surpassed the quality of her US Open performance in a fiercely contested two-tiebreak victory over Goerges that showcased her competitive ferocity.

After a disastrous US Open Series, Goerges showed signs of snapping that skid when she won consecutive matches at Tokyo and severely tested Sharapova throughout their ruthless slugfest.  The erratic brunette achieved the odd distinction of losing three consecutive sets in tiebreaks, however, as she failed to solve Kirilenko in her Beijing opener.  As 2011 fades, one will continue to wonder whether the real Goerges lies closer to the Goerges of the first half or the Goerges of the second half.  No such questions surround her countrywoman Petkovic, who more than compensated for her absence from Tokyo with a superb run in Beijing that brought her within two games of victory.  Rallying from a set-and-break deficit against Bartoli, she played relentlessly focused, intelligent tennis against Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals and tournament upset artist Niculescu a round later.  Few players have matured more quickly than Petkovic in the last few years, and fewer still have matured on court while remaining their quirky, engaging selves without racket in hand.  In the most important match of her career so far, she thought nothing of either the occasion or her winless record against Radwanska but played without fear or reservation, especially when she recovered from an 84-minute first set to bagel the Pole in act two.  Although the curtain didn’t descend on this marvelous three-act drama as Petkovic had hoped, she danced during the trophy ceremony with charming abandon and a smile on her face.  Less able to flash her trademark smile was Lisicki, who withdrew yet again from a tournament as injuries continue to blight her young career.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a shot to Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 5, 2011 in Beijing, China.

The German found herself far from alone in succumbing to a foe other than an opponent, for Beijing witnessed such departures from Azarenka and Ivanovic.  In both cases, this most recent walkover and retirement extended a prevailing theme in a year littered with injuries for the two glamorous women.  For the raven-haired Serb, her injury ended the strongest week of her season so far, built upon the bones of fellow Slam champion Kuznetsova and top-5 opponent Zvonareva.  Not since winning Roland Garros in 2008 had Ivanovic scored consecutive victories over champions with the pedigrees of those two Russians, a feat that bolstered her confidence even as she admitted with artless honesty that it surprised her.  Probably regretting the opportunity to extend the momentum from her Tokyo semifinal, meanwhile, Azarenka likely surrendered any chance to overtake Wozniacki for the year-end #1 ranking at Istanbul.

Assigned strangely identical draws in both weeks, the current inhabitant of the WTA penthouse fell on her face once more.  Two of her three total wins came against the hard-hitting but one-dimensional Gajdosova, while three-set losses to Kanepi and Pennetta continued her summer embarrassments at the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory events that she had dominated in the second half of 2010.  Radiating much less confidence and poise than she did a year ago, Wozniacki failed to serve out the match in Beijing that she eventually lost—a lapse against a second-tier opponent inexcusable in a #1, notwithstanding the Italian’s gritty effort.  The Dane’s misery found plenty of notable company, however, amongst the season’s three first-time Slam champions.  Despite reaching the semifinals in Tokyo, courtesy of Sharapova’s retirement, Kvitova’s meltdown at that stage overshadowed her preceding victories over anonymous foes; moreover, it presaged her opening-round Beijing defeat to the equally anonymous Arvidsson.  Yet neither the Czech nor Stosur (one total win, two losses to Kirilenko) matched the catastrophe of Li Na, excruciatingly feckless before her home fans as she absorbed a first-round bagel against Niculescu.  As Istanbul approaches, observers will wonder whether any of these four players can challenge for the season’s last significant title, which promises a fascinating collection of veterans and novices.

That tournament still lies a few weeks in the future, though, and for now the spotlight returns to the ATP with previews of the later rounds in Shanghai.  A week from now, we will publish a similar article that reflects on the men’s passage through Asia.

 

 

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Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 5

Nadal vs. Murray:  As he seeks to capture his first 2011 title on a surface other than clay, the Tokyo top seed perhaps can empathize with the plight faced by his opponent.  While Nadal has failed all season to solve the challenges posed by Djokovic, Murray has suffered a parallel futility in his four meetings with Nadal, including semifinals at every major except the Australian Open.  Just as the Spaniard has enjoyed fleeting moments of supremacy over the Serb this year, the Scot has won sets from his nemesis on three of four occasions and played three highly competitive sets on the fourth.  Just as Nadal has experimented with nearly everything imaginable in the effort to trouble Djokovic, moreover, Murray has veered from the ultra-aggressive to the ultra-conservative in his attempts to crack the seemingly impenetrable conundrum before him.  Although the world #4 never dominated Nadal as Nadal had dominated Djokovic, he accompanies Djokovic as the only player to defeat Rafa at multiple majors.

Perhaps the most recent turning point in their rivalry, or non-rivalry considering the Spaniard’s 13-4 advantage, came at the World Tour Finals on Murray’s home court in London. Breaking Nadal when he served for the match, the Scot then held a lead in the third-set tiebreak and came within two points of mounting a spectacular comeback in this semifinal classic, by far the best match of the tournament.  But Murray missed first serves late in the tiebreak and lacked clarity in his shot selection, confused as in their other encounters about the appropriate moments to pull the trigger in rallies. Burdened with such uncertainties only against Djokovic, Nadal has mounted in confidence throughout his current five-match winning streak over this rival.  Intimidated by Murray’s two-handed backhand during the first half of 2010, he looked alarmingly comfortable during much of their US Open semifinal in 2011, when he anticipated and retrieved most of his opponent’s offensive gambits with ease while rarely conceding control over a point once he had gained it.  The Scot attained an outstanding level of performance during the third set and early in the fourth, casting aside his fatalism and momentarily disconcerting Nadal with fearless and unpredictable aggression.  Much like the Spaniard’s performance in the third set of the US Open final, though, one hardly could imagine Murray playing a higher level of tennis—and yet he still lost, unable to sustain it throughout the course of an entire match.  This week, he has looked slightly the sharper player of the two rivals after surviving an opening-round threat from Baghdatis.  Demolishing the dangerous Ferrer on Saturday, he rarely looked ruffled as he struck both groundstrokes early and moved inside the baseline in a demonstration of confidence and commitment to offense.

In order to threaten Nadal on this slow hard court, Murray will need not only the first serve that has betrayed him this year against the Spaniard but the forehand that initially dazzled at Wimbledon before crumbling.  Throughout his semifinal, he repeatedly startled Ferrer with crackling forehands down the line, far from the risk-averse forehands that he normally directs cross court.  Seeking his third title in four tournaments, Murray hasn’t lost a match at a non-major since an opening-round defeat to Kevin Anderson at the Rogers Cup.  Perhaps the momentum from this streak has inspired him with the confidence necessary to trample his nemesis, and the goal of reaching #3 by the end of the season should add further motivation.  But Nadal has won every final that he has played this year against opponents other than Djokovic, responsible for more than half of his 2011 losses, while his frustration from those six setbacks may inspire him to redouble his determination when an opportunity beckons to claim a title without facing his nemesis.  In the absence of Djokovic and Federer from the Tour, the Tokyo final likely will foreshadow the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai next week.  After Nadal defends this week, Murray defends that title.  Can each man protect his 2010 conquest from the other?

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Winless in four intersections with the Pole, including two this summer, Petkovic augmented her already growing Internet notoriety with a frantic dash off court to vomit during their San Diego semifinal.  Although she blamed food poisoning, Radwanska’s multifaceted arsenal often proves an adequate source of vertigo itself.  Dominant in a semifinal against a resurgent Pennetta, her returning precision continually subjected her opponent to pressure in service games that eventually bore fruit when the Italian served for the set and the match.  Once content to retrieve and rally in neutral positions, the Tokyo champion has developed more comfort with offensive shots such as a backhand down the line with which she thrust Pennetta out of position.  While Radwanska never will become an elite shot-maker, her willingness to accept more risk more often would complicate the task of her rivals, who formerly could relax in the expectation of an offensive monopoly.  In contrast to the elongated strokes of Petkovic, the Pole’s crisp, compact swings perhaps deny her a little explosiveness but also enable her talent for deception by masking direction and pace until the last moment.

Nevertheless, Petkovic has impressed throughout her route through the Beijing draw, vanquishing a variety of opponents throughout the spectrum from power to finesse.  Heavily favored in her semifinal with Niculescu, she handled that situation with composure despite her lack of experience in these late stages of key tournaments.  With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Petkovic permitted the overmatched Romanian no ray of hope in an effort focused and methodical from start to finish.  As a result of its depleted field, this Premier Mandatory tournament often has seemed neither Premier nor Mandatory in most senses, providing neither premier-level tennis nor must-watch entertainment. But it remains the most important match in the careers of both women to date, causing one to wonder how both will handle the situation.  The more battle-hardened Radwanska would appear to enjoy the advantage in intangibles as she pursues her eleventh straight victory and first pair of consecutive titles.  On the other hand, Petkovic has embraced much more intimidating challenges and overcome much sterner odds several times this year.  The most distinctive personality in a Tour filled with distinctive personalities dominated Sharapova in a Slam night session and halted Wozniacki’s five-tournament winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments.  If she can accomplish those breakthroughs, Petkovic certainly can vault the Pole as well.

Berdych vs. Cilic:  Like Radwanska, the Croat has reached his second final in Bejing after falling one match short of the 2009 title.  Also like Radwanska, Cilic has benefited from a benign draw in which he has not faced a seeded opponent but instead fellow giants Anderson and Ljubicic.  Those victories will have prepared for a third straight serving shootout with the third-seeded Berdych, who has not won a title since seizing Munich over two years ago.  The longest current drought in either top 10, that stretch has featured a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final as well as victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Soderling, but Berdych repeatedly has failed to string together victories or capitalize upon brackets that open for him.  This year, for example, he lost semifinals to Petzschner in Halle and Wawrinka in Chennai—both winnable matches that his superiority in overall talent should have tilted in his favor.  Also among the Czech’s four semifinal disappointments at minor tournaments was a defeat to none other than Cilic in Marseille, the Croat’s first victory over Berdych following two losses in 2009.  Equal to his opponent with five career titles, Cilic hasn’t collected a trophy since Zagreb in February 2010, so this Sunday in Beijing will bring long-awaited relief to one participant while extending the late-tournament frustrations of the other.  Whereas the Croat enjoys a more balanced groundstroke repertoire with a smooth two-hander, the Czech probably can unleash more potent first strikes from his first serve and forehand.  Not uncommon in the fall season, this final between second-tier threats will have few if any broad repercussions for the next season or those ranked above them.  Depleted by injuries and withdrawals, the ATP event in Beijing stands in the shadow of the Tokyo tournament rather than claiming equal status in the crescendo towards Shanghai, which we preview tomorrow.

Agnieszka Radwanska Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open at Ariake Colosseum on October 1, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan.

At first glance, Agnieszka Radwanska cuts an unremarkable figure far from the dazzling glitter of the celebrities who populate the upper echelons of the WTA.  Compact in physique and unassuming in manner, the Pole does not intimidate through her mere presence as do most Slam champions.  In fact, her outwardly unspectacular game has offered a foil for the offensive brilliance of her rivals as often as it has entangled them in snares of strategic confusion.  But now she stands as the favorite to win her first Premier Mandatory title, just a week after capturing the Premier Five crown in Tokyo.  While one should not confuse the Tokyo-Beijing double with the Indian Wells-Miami double or similarly formidable accomplishments, a sweep of the premier fall tournaments would propel Radwanska into the conversation of contenders for early 2012, at a moment when the WTA hierarchy looks especially vulnerable.

Her penultimate obstacle takes the form of a tenacious Italian veteran with whom she has split her two previous hard-court meetings.  Not deterred by her 0-5 record against Wozniacki, Pennetta astonished us by rallying from a one-set deficit in her quarterfinal to bagel the world #1 en route to a stirring comeback.  Lacking composure on such occasions before, the Fed Cup heroine found the courage to rebound after squandering a third-set lead amidst a series of unsightly unforced errors.  When Wozniacki served for the match at 6-5, 30-0, Pennetta halted the Dane’s momentum in its tracks with a discipline and confidence rarely witnessed from her.  Attempting to build upon that success, she possesses the versatility to gradually outmaneuver Radwanska from the baseline but will find her inflammable temper tested once again.  More familiar as a counterpuncher than an aggressor, Pennetta adapted effectively to a more offensive mentality against Wozniacki and will need to retain that degree of focus when she meets a player who has won nine straight matches.  Meanwhile, Radwanska will relish the opportunity to face an adversary less likely to maul her second serve or attempt to end points quickly than many of her recurrent nemeses.  In her recent victories over foes such as Zvonareva and Ivanovic, she has protected her serve exceptionally well by saving break point after break point while swiftly exploiting any chinks in her opponent’s armor.  The product of her notable intelligence and focus, this opportunism could carry her past many of her more muscular, less imaginative peers as long as her body can withstand the weight of their blows.  This summer, Radwanska overcame a painful shoulder injury to win the San Diego title and reach the Rogers Cup semifinal.  Without a massive ball-striker like Stosur, Serena, or Sharapova awaiting her over the weekend, she should not feel compelled to leave her artistic comfort zone, a dangerous prospect for her fellow semifinalists.

Much less competitive than the first semifinal in terms of ranking and accomplishments, the clash between Petkovic and Niculescu would seem to scarcely test the German.  Against top-20 opponents Bartoli and Pavlyuchenkova, the German impressed with her command of her game and emotions at key points when the momentum of the match threatened to spin away from her.  Just as she had snuffed out the Frenchwoman’s third-set comeback, she prevented the mighty Russian from charging into a final set by winning the match-ending tiebreak decisively.  The only woman to reach three major quarterfinals this year, Petkovic has managed to balance the competitive demands of the Tour with her plethora of outside interests while maintaining a consistency superior to most rising stars.  Her upward mobility springs from this ability to blend diversity in life with consistency on the court, and a Premier Mandatory title would lie well within reach until one recollects her 0-4 record against Radwanska.

On the other hand, Petkovic hasn’t entirely quelled the specter of the unpredictable, inexplicable defeat that has plagued nearly all WTA prodigies.  Recent examples of that genre on her record include a loss to Arantxa Parra Santonja at the last Premier Mandatory event, in Madrid, and a strangely desultory effort against Ksenia Pervak at Wimbledon.  During the second half, though, Petkovic has fallen only to Radwanska (twice), Jankovic, and Wozniacki while reaching the quarterfinals or better at five straight tournaments.  Projected to reach the top 30 with one more victory, Niculescu already has won six matches this week—one more than Radwanska would win should she collect the title.  Progressing from the qualifying draw to the semifinals, the quirky Romanian deserves credit for never yielding to the superior reputation and talents of her opponents.  Like Radwanska, she has dared to diverge from the WTA blueprint for success, a style that Azarenka succinctly described as “hard, harder, and hardest.”  Although Petkovic fits largely inside that mold, she also has acquired a more sophisticated tactical sense with which she constructed a thoughtful, coherent plan in her victories over Sharapova and Wozniacki, among others.  If she can combine that dimension of the game with her far superior weight of shot, the idiosyncratic German should reach her third final of 2011.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 China Open - Day 5

As the action in the last WTA Premier Mandatory event of 2011 approaches the weekend, the action shifts inwards from Beijing’s poetically named Moon Court to the National Tennis Stadium and Lotus Court.  We consider the quarterfinals of an upset-riddled week in Beijing that saw seven of the top eight seeds exit before this stage.

Wozniacki vs. Pennetta:  Handed a script virtually identical to last week in Tokyo, the world #1 managed to craft a happier ending in Beijing.  Faltering against Groth and succumbing to Kanepi at the Premier Five event, Wozniacki atoned for that embarrassment by dominating the former and edging the latter at key moments late in the second set.  The Dane’s path now grows smoother in the quarterfinals against an opponent who never has defeated her in five meetings, including two encounters on clay most suited to Pennetta’s strengths and hostile to Wozniacki’s style.  Victorious in a grinding three-setter against Cibulkova, the Italian veteran will need her legs to recover quickly for what promises to become another match of extended rallies.  Struggling to win any matches at all for much of 2011, Pennetta reinvigorated her career with a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open, highlighted not only by an upset over Sharapova but a gritty, tense victory over Peng in which she overcame heat sickness and several set points.  That level of fortitude, often absent from her matches, could add intrigue to an encore of a Doha collision in which Wozniacki lost only two games.

But Pennetta lacks the power to hit through the Dane from the baseline, and the depth of the defending champion’s groundstrokes will prevent her from stepping inside it.  Her average offense has forced her into attempting to outlast Wozniacki, not a promising strategy on a hard court against such a consistent opponent.  Even if Pennetta stays positive, one struggles to imagine this match extending beyond two competitive sets unless the world #1 plays well below her abilities.  While not negligible, that possibility grows less prominent as the tournament progresses, for Wozniacki generally settles more deeply into her comfort zone from one round to the next.

Ivanovic vs. Radwanska:  Whereas the other three quarterfinals showcase pairs of opponents with distinct similarities, few styles diverge more strikingly than the first-strike weapons of Ivanovic and the subtlety of Radwanska.  Evenly matched on most occasions, they have split their six previous meetings and have contested a third set in three of their last five.  Although their last two encounters ended in straight sets, three of the four sets played lasted 12 or 13 games; rarely have they decided a set by a margin of more than one break.  Concealed by their deadlocked record is the momentum shift in which Radwanska has won their last three meetings after Ivanovic collected the first three.  Crucially, though, that shift coincided with the Serb’s precipitous descent from glory in 2009, suggesting that the outcomes of their matches hinge upon her performance much more than upon the Pole’s ripostes.  Parrying the thrusts of Azarenka and Zvonareva in impressive Tokyo victories, Radwanska won the most important title of her career to date last week and enters this quarterfinal on an eight-match winning streak.  Despite a somewhat frustrating Slam campaign, 2011 may ultimately become the year in which she graduates from intriguing dark horse to a genuine threat at the most significant tournaments.  Few players have maximized their potential more meticulously than the Pole, who has made far more than many of her peers from far fewer raw materials.

Over the last three years, the opposite argument has applied to Ivanovic, unable to harness her natural talents as she searched for stability in her emotions and in her supporting cast.  While the former issue remains unresolved, the latter situation finally crystallized after Wimbledon with a team compiled from the new (Nigel Sears) and the old (Scott Byrnes).  The author of consecutive upsets over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva, Ivanovic thumped not just her famous forehand but her less potent backhand with authority this week—a key to her confidence and ultimately her success.  Still searching for a more reliable serve, however, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage against Radwanska to win the short points where she holds an advantage.  Designed to undermine the frail of mind, the Tokyo champion will hope to distract Ivanovic from her straightforward, rhythmic baseline assault and maneuver the Serb into uncomfortable positions on the court and in her mind.  Unlike the volatile Russians whom the former #1 swept aside before, Radwanska will not collaborate on her own demise.

Kirilenko vs. Niculescu:  Among the hallmarks of the fall season is at least one quarterfinal at its major tournaments between unseeded players who profited from opportunities offered by ailing or listless contenders.  (Of course, cynics might argue that we always can expect at least one such quarterfinal at a WTA event in the age of “paranarchy,” or parity/anarchy.)  Nevertheless, Kirilenko’s accomplishment does not entirely surprise, considering her quarterfinal appearance at Tokyo last week and second-week charge at the US Open.  Previously able to excel only sporadically, such as a quarterfinal at the 2010 Australian Open, she has sustained this sequence of impressive singles results perhaps longer than at any other time in her career.  Long dangerous on the doubles court, Kirilenko has channeled some of her skills there into singles, volleying as well as anyone in the WTA lately and unleashing sparkling passing shots.  These evolutions in her game have helped to compensate for her unexceptional groundstrokes, which display neither the explosive racket acceleration nor the ability to target lines and corners of the WTA elite.

Against Monica Niculescu, though, those shortcomings might not hinder the Russian’s hopes.  The closest counterpart to the magical Fabrice Santoro in the women’s game, this eccentric Romanian outwits rather than outhits the opposition, exploiting her uncanny instincts and sensitive hands.  Projected to reach the top 50 next week, she exploited Li Na’s puzzling malaise to the fullest before routing Guangzhou champion Scheepers.  In a WTA filled with ball-bruising, generally straightforward offenses, this quarterfinal represents a rare opportunity to contemplate two diversified games simultaneously.  Their styles contrast not with each other but with the power-oriented brand of women’s tennis ubiquitous in this era.

Petkovic vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Combining for five Slam quarterfinals between them this year, the futures of women’s tennis in Germany and Russia never have raised their rackets against each other with malice in their hearts.  This first career meeting thus may prove the most meaningful of the Beijing quarterfinals, perhaps foreshadowing Slam quarterfinals or semifinals a few years ahead.  Typical of most Russians in her hit-first, think-later approach to the sport, Pavlyuchenkova possesses sufficient firepower from both groundstroke wings to overcome movers much more adept than Petkovic.  Her two-handed backhand should expose her opponent’s less reliable two-hander, while her return will punish meek second serves.  Hampered by injuries throughout her still-nascent career, Pavlyuchenkova also has struggled with double faults, a concerning sign at such a young age.  If Petkovic loses serve, therefore, she can remain confident in the knowledge that plenty of opportunities to equalize will emerge.  Central to the German’s fortunes is the task of taking time away from Pavlyuchenkova, who does not impose herself when kept in motion and who has not yet learned how to restart a point from a defensive position.

In an epic collision with Bartoli, Petkovic excelled in denying the double-fister chances to plant and fire her lethal groundstrokes.  Less encouraging was the near-disaster that saw her squander a 5-1 lead in the third set, which continued her previously observed tendency towards uncertainty when she needs to deliver the coup de grace.  A flaw perhaps springing from Petkovic’s competitive inexperience, it has afflicted Pavlyuchenkova as well in episodes like her Roland Garros loss to Schiavone.  But the former junior #1 avenged that reverse convincingly with a three-set victory in New York, suggesting that she can thrust disheartening setbacks behind her.  Since both women play with so little margin for error, barely skimming their flat groundstrokes across the net, their games can catch fire or freeze without warning.  We expect an entertaining, emotional rollercoaster of service breaks that might unwind into a third set.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with her WTA Tour World Number 1 trophy in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel on October 12, 2010 in Beijing, China.

First quarter:  Battered by Gajdosova and banished by Kanepi in Tokyo last week, Wozniacki hopes that this week’s title defense fares better than its predecessor.  Remarkably, she could face the same pair of opponents again in her first two matches, although the booming serve of Lisicki might disrupt that odd serendipity.  Absent from action since the US Open, the 17th-ranked German suffered a slight dip in form following her Wimbledon semifinal appearance and will engage in a bruising second-round battle of first-strike bombs.  Lisicki resoundingly defeated Wozniacki twice in 2009, so the world #1 certainly will have earned a quarterfinal berth should she navigate her Viking vessel around such a dangerous reef.  Less dangerous are her potential quarterfinal opponents, headlined by Schiavone and home hope Peng Shuai.  A quarterfinalist in Beijing two years ago with wins over Jankovic and Sharapova, the Chinese double-fister will aim to steal a bit of the spotlight from newly crowned Slam champion Li Na.  Meanwhile, Schiavone lost her first-round match in Seoul and has looked shaky for most of the second half.  Perhaps more intriguing than the bold-faced names, therefore, are two of Wozniacki’s Slam nemeses this year:  the flamboyant Hantuchova (Roland Garros) and the gritty Cibulkova (Wimbledon), who has struggled lately with an abdominal strain.  In a section with ample talent but plenty of questions hovering over its leading combatants, the hour seems ripe for an unexpected heroine to make a statement.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Second quarter:  Spiked with three Slam champions, this quarter could feature a second-round clash between fellow Roland Garros titlist Ivanovic (2008) and Kuznetsova (2009), should the Serb defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm for the fourth time in less than a year.  Although she displayed flashes of her vintage brilliance in a Wimbledon epic against Venus, 2011 has proved much less kind to the aging Japanese legend than 2010.  Last year’s runner-up Zvonareva should arrive either determined to win one more match than she did in Tokyo or deflated from still another loss to Radwanska, an opponent whom she formerly had dominated.  Should she arrange a third-round clash with the winner of Ivanovic-Kuznetsova, however, one would fancy the steady Russian’s chances to outlast either of those erratic opponents in an encounter of oscillating momentum.  What reward would Zvonareva gain for such an achievement?  As she did in Cincinnati, she could confront the challenge of defeating Radwanska less than a week after losing a final to the Pole, a challenge to which she could not rise this summer.  Inadvertently positioned to rescue Zvonareva is her semifinal victim last week, Kvitova, who delivered a generally reassuring series of performances in Tokyo.  On the other hand, her unsightly meltdown against a player infamous for such meltdowns herself continues to trigger concerns surrounding her maturity.  Kvitova can ill afford such a lapse when she meets the stingy Radwanska in the third round, for the Tokyo champion will magnify and exploit the flaws in her still-raw style.  At Eastbourne this year, they dueled into a third-set tiebreak before the Czech’s power prevailed.  She could profit from the dip in performance that one expects from both Tokyo finalists.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:   A member of the Wozniacki “déjà vu” club, Stosur likely will reprise her second-round meeting with Kirilenko in Tokyo should she neutralize Pironkova, who tested Zvonareva for a set last week.  To the surprise of some, the Aussie’s competitive experience proved no shield to the hangover suffered by all three of the WTA’s first-time Slam champions this season.  Just weeks after stunning Serena in such spectacular fashion, she should aim to reassemble her motivation before the year-end championships in Istanbul but may fall victim to one of her steady opponents here.  Nevertheless, Stosur will enjoy a distinct serving advantage over most early opponents except Julia Goerges, an enigmatic German who extended Sharapova to two tiebreaks in Tokyo following an indifferent summer.  If this ambitious German rediscovers her spring prowess, a path to the quarterfinals might lie open.  Among the most compelling questions surrounding this tournament is the tennis with which Li Na will either dazzle or dismay her compatriots.  Although she left little imprint upon Beijing in recent years, the reigning French Open champion reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics in her nation’s capital, vanquishing Venus and Kuznetsova en route.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in their vicinity, Li should feel relatively sanguine about a draw that she will tackle with the guidance of her coach-husband rather than Michal Mortensen.  That new arrangement might infuse the Chinese superstar with fresh energy, valuable against Guangzhou champion Scheepers or the persistent Dulko.  Should she reach a quarterfinal with Stosur, though, Li somehow must solve an opponent who has dispatched her in all five of their meetings while conceding one total set.  Slightly less likely is a rematch with New Haven nemesis Cetkovska in the quarterfinals.  Like a volcano that quietly accumulates lava before exploding, Li has spent a career alternating between long dormant periods and abrupt, ephemeral explosions of greatness.  She has accomplished almost nothing in the last four months, so…

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter:  A tight two-set encounter, Petkovic’s victory over Safarova determined one of the week’s most intriguing first-round matches.  By dispatching the WTA’s second most dangerous Czech lefty, the WTA’s most dangerous German moved a step closer to an Istanbul berth and showed little sign of sliding into complacency after a US Open quarterfinal.  Two rounds ahead, Petkovic might encounter the third most dangerous Czech lefty in Benesova but more plausibly would encounter Bartoli or Christina McHale.  The rising teenager ambushed the double-fisted Frenchwoman in New York, although that task will prove more daunting without the vociferous American fans to exhort her.  Not at her most impressive in Tokyo, US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova faces recent Quebec champion and fellow serpentine surname Zahlavova Strycova.  Either the 20-year-old Russian or Seoul titlist Martinez Sanchez could pose a stern test for Azarenka, who might meet the equally feisty Laura Robson in her first match.  While the second seed has struggled with lefties before, including Martinez Sanchez, Vika twice has lost sets to Pavlyuchenkova and probably would prefer to avoid her on the court where “Nastia” once defeated Venus.  Rather than a predictable second straight quarterfinal against Bartoli, an encounter between the brash Belarussian and the pugnacious Petkovic would offer the scintillation of the uncertain.  Only once have they clashed before, in a Moscow three-setter, and their relatively even strengths should intertwine for a blazing battle from the baseline as well as a fiery clash of personalities.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka