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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

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

Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefly noted:

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Maria Sharapova of Russia during the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University on August 1, 2010 in Stanford, California.

Inaugurating the US Open Series for the WTA is the 28-player tournament at Stanford’s intimate stadium, where four top-10 players and three Slam champions converge.  Like the overstuffed draws at Sydney and Eastbourne, this tournament’s small scale and sterling entry list combine to produce fascinating encounters from the opening round onwards.

Top half:  Returning as the top seed and defending champion, Wimbledon semifinalist Azarenka hopes to extend her first-half momentum from what has become the finest season of her career.  Since a bye instantly moves her within one win of the quarterfinals, she could face top-20 opponent Cibulkova in her second match of the tournament.  The Slovak bedeviled Vika for prolonged stretches of their Miami meeting, which she led by a set and a break before fading.  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, Cibulkova also has enjoyed one of her most successful seasons but faces a tricky opener against Date-Krumm.  Eliminating Safina and winning a set from Dementieva here last year, the ageless Japanese legend struggled throughout the first few months of 2011.  Nevertheless, she rebounded brilliantly at Wimbledon to collaborate with Venus on a second-round classic that illustrated her uncanny knack for exploiting the geometry of the court.  Also mounting a comeback in this section is Mirjana Lucic, who troubled Cibulkova at Wimbledon.  The Croat opens against Christina McHale, perhaps the brightest ray of hope for the future of American women’s tennis although far from a future superstar.

Projected to meet Azarenka in the semifinals is 2009 champion Bartoli, reinstated in the top 10 following stirring surges at the European majors.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, the eccentric double-fister ambushed former champions in each of those tournaments (Kuznetsova and Serena, respectively).   But she failed to blunt Lisicki’s serving power on the grass and will face one of two imposing servers on this fast hard court, either Canada’s Rebecca Marino or home hope Coco Vandeweghe.  In the quarterfinals, Bartoli might reprise her meeting with Ivanovic at last year’s tournament, should the former #1 progress past Morita and a qualifier.  While those victories would seem well within range, recent losses to opponents like Larsson and Cetkovska suggest that anything could happen when the Serb takes the court.  Early in her partnership with Nigel Sears and Scott Byrnes, Ivanovic will hope to draw emotional stability from the secure support team around her.  If she does reach Azarenka in the semifinals, she will have more positive memories to bolster her confidence than does Bartoli, repeatedly dominated by the Belarussian.

Semifinal:  Azarenka d. Bartoli

Bottom half:  In arguably the weakest section lies 2010 semifinalist Radwanska, who has relished the extra jolt of pace with which this slick surface endows her underpowered strokes.  The Pole has suffered a series of uncharacteristic setbacks this year, however, as a souring relationship with her father-coach may have contributed to her depleted confidence.   Also searching for a momentum boost is Stosur, last year’s top seed but now hovering at the fringes of the top 10.  Banished from the first week of every major this season, the former Roland Garros runner-up has found her limited game exposed by those with a more balanced range of weapons.  Still a threat when she finds her first serve regularly, Stosur defeated Serena here two years ago but likely will open against doubles partner and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki.  The mightiest server of her generation, the German should score yet another upset and perhaps proceed to a quarterfinal against Radwanska that would showcase a dramatic contrast of styles.  In the aftermath of her Wimbledon breakthrough, though, will Lisicki suffer a lull in her motivation?

Wedged uncomfortably into the lowest quarter are the two greatest attractions of the draw, responsible for collecting 16 of the 17 majors owned by Stanford participants.  Thirteen of those belong to an unseeded player currently ranked outside the top 100, who will ignite her campaign against the woefully overmatched Rodionova.  Among the most intriguing first-round matches in the draw is the encounter that pits Goerges against Kirilenko to decide Serena’s second-round foe.  After a sparkling clay season that included a title and two wins over Wozniacki, the German receded from the spotlight during the grass season as her compatriot Lisicki shone.  If she can find the consistency to outhit Kirilenko, her penetrating first-strike power could challenge Serena, still rusty at Wimbledon.  Eyeing a probable opener against Hantuchova, Sharapova seeks to move a round further than at her last tournament and her last Stanford appearance.  Excelling on the specialty surfaces this year, she must conquer an opponent who also scored notable albeit more muted accomplishments in recent months.  The three-time major champion stands alone among the top 20 in winning two or more matches at every tournament this year, but she probably must snap a five-match skid against Serena to continue that streak.

Semifinal:  S. Williams d. Lisicki

Final:  Azarenka d. S. Williams

***

Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina kisses the championship trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the Countrywide Classic finals in Straus Stadium at the Los Angeles Tennis Center-UCLA on August 10, 2008 in Westwood, California.  Del Potro defeated Roddick 6-1, 7-6(2).

Casting a brief glance at the relatively meager ATP draw in Los Angeles, a few defining characteristics emerge.  The most prominent figure here, 2008 champion Del Potro, already has rejoined the top 20 and will hope to elevate his ranking further during his most successful period of the season.  Among his rivals is the enigmatic future star Grigor Dimitrov, who continues to alternate flashes of brilliance with inexplicable lapses.  In fact, the LA draw features a host of such unpredictable competitors, from former Australian Open finalists Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Gulbis and Malisse.  Forgotten figures like Haas and Tursunov also hope to snatch a few fleeting moments of glory as their careers dwindle.  Hoping to build upon his Atlanta semifinal, top American prospect Ryan Harrison will confront fellow rising star Ricardas Berankis in the first edition of what may become a recurrent rivalry.  Fresh from defending his Atlanta title, Fish looks likely to appear in a second straight final, where he will find Del Potro a taller task than Isner in tennis if not in literal terms.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

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