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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 - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

Stuffed with nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20, the WTA draw in Sydney features spectacular entertainment and fascinating collisions from the first round onwards.  As Ivanovic discovered in an opening-round loss to Safarova, a draw so small and so star-studded offers almost no place to hide.

Top half:  Like Kvitova in the bottom half, Wozniacki receives a bye into the second round that will allow her to regroup from a moderately encouraging week in Hopman Cup.  Defeated by Kvitova and tested by Pironkova there, the world #1 improved as that exhibition progressed and should bring confidence into a meeting with her conqueror in Sydney last year, Cibulkova.  Also in Wozniacki’s quarter, though, are two top-10 players in Petkovic and Radwanska.  The top-ranked German did not distinguish herself at Brisbane while struggling to hold serve, perhaps still rusty from a knee injury that hindered her late in 2011.  In the first round, Petkovic would meet her projected quarterfinal opponent in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova, who likewise looked unimpressive there.  With an Australian Open quarterfinal soon to defend, the world #10 surely would welcome an opportunity to gain more match practice.  Fortunate to draw a qualifier in her first match of 2012, Radwanska aspires to begin this season as brightly as she ended last fall, with consecutive titles at marquee Asian tournaments.  The intriguing Pole might reprise her Beijing final against Petkovic before once again meeting her friend Wozniacki, who has dominated her for most of their careers.

Like Radwanska, Azarenka lifts a racket with malice in her heart for the first time this year when she faces a qualifier in her opener.  Considering Jankovic’s entertaining battle with Schiavone last week, the best match of the Brisbane tournament, the Serbian former #1 might challenge the third seed if she can escape Julia Goerges.  Nevertheless, Azarenka ended last season on an especially encouraging note and may have accumulated too much momentum to succumb to an occasionally dangerous dark horse like Jankovic.  In her quarterfinal awaits the unpredictable Bartoli, who enjoys perhaps the most comfortable draw of all, starting with a qualifier and continuing with the long-faded Dokic.  Although she finished the Hopman Cup with a 1-2 record in singles, the double-fister nearly defeated a resurgent Li and severely tested Kvitova for a set while mercilessly double-bageling Gajdosova.  Of her nine matches against Azarenka, though, Bartoli has emerged victorious from only a retirement and a meaningless round-robin matches at the year-end championships.  On most surfaces except grass, the Belarussian’s balanced style will outlast her.

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Bottom half:  Whereas the top half seemed the stronger section in Brisbane, the lower half looks more imposing in Sydney.  Hoping to improve upon her early exit here last year, Zvonareva confronts the challenge of facing Kuznetsova just after the erstwhile two-time major champion reached the semifinals in Auckland.  The task of defeating a compatriot often has flustered Russian woman, and neither of these two has proved themselves exactly steely under ordinary circumstances.  But the route of the winner grows briefly smoother thereafter with the streaky Safarova blocking them from the quarterfinals.  By that stage, defending champion Li Na hopes to have consolidated a promising performance at the Hopman Cup, where she lost only one set in three singles matches.  With vast quantities of points soon to descend upon her shoulders, she can ill afford a slump as Melbourne looms.  Having lost four of her last five matches to Zvonareva, including the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, Li might bring extra determination to a clash with another player who must defend a significant result at the Australian Open.  If this battle of backhands should happen, it might provide insight concerning whether either or both of these women might become a genuine contender during the following fortnight.

Aligned to meet in the first round are two recent Slam champions in Stosur and Schiavone, both of whom first tasted greatness relatively late in their careers.  Although less notable, the meeting between Vinci and Hantuchova might offer comparable intrigue with the contrast in styles between the biting slices of the Italian and the smooth swings of the Slovak.  Can Schiavone rebound physically from her draining week in Brisbane, and can Hantuchova rebound mentally from her demolition in the final?  At the base of this section lies Kvitova, who could reach the top ranking with a title here.  While we would not expect the pressure of that possibility to unnerve her, we also would not expect it to infuse her with additional purpose.  After winning all four of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, Kvitova eyes an accommodating path to at least the quarterfinals with Lisicki’s withdrawal.  But week-to-week dominance has eluded her so far.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark reacts to a point against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wozniacki:  About three months into the season, the world #1 looked poised to either finally break through at a major or at least continue her dominance at the most significant non-majors.  At that stage, Wozniacki not only had continued a winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments that extended back to the 2010 Rogers Cup but had recorded her best result to date at the Australian Open, where only a prodigious effort by Li Na halted her.  Then, without warning, her game unraveled on a sultry afternoon in Miami against Petkovic, and she never quite collected herself for the rest of the season.  Over the rest of the spring and summer, Wozniacki would lose matches to Goerges (twice), Hantuchova, Cibulkova, Vinci, and Christina McHale as her impressive consistency deserted her.  Especially troubling was the Wimbledon loss to Cibulkova, in which the Dane won the first set 6-1 before growing progressively more flustered as the match slipped away.  Downed by Kanepi and Pennetta in her Asian title defenses, Wozniacki trailed by a set and a break in the only match that she won at the year-end championships.  Although she did reach the US Open semifinal for the third straight year, she mustered little resistance to Serena and found herself fortunate to escape Kuznetsova two rounds before.  Undeterred by her declining fortunes on court, Wozniacki also engaged in some odd off-court behavior throughout 2011, most notably mocking the cramping spasms of a certain 10-time major champion.  Her accomplishment of holding the year-end #1 ranking for two straight years reflects much less on her than on the ranking system.

Zvonareva:  Looking back a few years from now, one wonders whether we will perceive her 2010 season as similar to Berdych’s 2010 campaign:  an unexpected mid-career surge of a highly talented but critically flawed competitor who then receded to a more familiar level of performance.   Zvonareva’s season started brightly with a third consecutive Slam semifinal appearance, built in part upon the bones of Kvitova.  With consecutive victories over top-six opponents in Doha, she displayed perhaps her most convincing tennis of the year, shifting seamlessly from defense to offense in one of the WTA’s most balanced styles.  Demolished by Azarenka in a Miami semifinal, the Russian faded during the European seasons and fell in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense.  After a nine-match winning streak in Baku and San Diego, she suffered the first of four second-half meltdowns against Radwanska that became one of the dominant narratives in her season.  Two of those losses came in finals, where the advantage of Zvonareva’s experience could not counterbalance her disadvantage in emotional composure.  Unlucky to draw Stosur in a US Open quarterfinal, she lost three of four matches at the year-end championships.  In short, Zvonareva’s season hovered around the boundary between respectability and mediocrity, judged by the standards that she set a year ago.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors, the former junior #1 showcased her brutal ball-striking on surfaces of all speeds.  Not intimidated by Serena in New York, she traded blows with the 13-time major champion as confidently as she dueled with defending champion Schiavone in Paris.  Pavlyuchenkova also displayed competitive courage on two other occasions:  when she defended her Monterrey title and when she turned the tables on Schiavone just two majors after losing their Roland Garros meeting.  Somewhat concerning is her struggle with double faults, however, which reached its apex (or nadir) in Baku when she struck 25 in one match and 52 across the course of three matches.  In a player so young, a serve so unreliable still could improve significantly, so Pavlyuchenkova should focus upon remedying that department of her game before such habits become rooted too deeply.  But the newest standard-bearer of Russian tennis should win plenty of matches next year based on her fierce groundstrokes alone

Peng:  In a memorable year for Asian sports, China’s #2 earned a modest breakthrough of her own as her compatriot Li Na thrilled a continent.  The double-fister of a disposition more pleasant than Bartoli reached five semifinals on three different surfaces in the first half alone before her results tapered in the second half.  Scoring 12 victories over higher-ranked opponents, she reached the second week of three majors and ambushed four players who ended the year in the top 15.  As her groundstrokes peppered the center of the baseline, opponents struggled to create angles or set their feet crisply.  Known mostly as a doubles specialist before 2011, Peng may want to balance her schedule more carefully in 2012 to protect herself from the injuries that accumulated this year.

Jankovic:  Title-less for the first year since 2006, this precursor to Wozniacki lost to her descendant three times after having won all of their previous meetings.  The reversal of their mini-rivalry illustrated Jankovic’s decline in consistency, essential for her counterpunching style and likely a terminal condition.  Winning two total matches at the three non-clay majors, the former #1 fell outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.  All the same, she collaborated with several of her conquerors in compelling matches from Doha and Miami (Zvonareva and Petkovic) to Roland Garros and Cincinnati (Schiavone and Sharapova).  Filled with oscillating momentum, those melodramatic three-setters will have satisfied her trademark appetite for drama.  While her hopes of winning a major will remain a mirage, Jankovic’s sporadic flashes of feistiness still adds spice to matches that otherwise might seem bland.

Kuznetsova:  As with several of the other players on this list, the best came first for Kuznetsova in 2011.  Thwarted as relentlessly by Henin as Roddich by Federer, she gained the grim satisfaction of defeating the Belgian in the last match of her career.  One round later, Sveta contested the most memorable women’s match of 2011 in a thriller with Schiavone that lasted nearly five hours and during which she held five match points.  Following that spectacle, Kuznetsova reached the final in Dubai but then almost totally evaporated with opening-match losses in five of her next six tournaments.  Bursting back into relevance with a Roland Garros quarterfinal, she nearly repeated that feat at the US Open against a hapless Wozniacki.  In that late-night comedy of errors, the Russian led by a set and 4-1 before the tide turned inexorably against here.  Littered with stunning winners and absurd errors from every corner of the court, that sprawling encounter offered a metaphor for everything that Kuznetsova could have achieved—in this season and in her career—and everything that she has not.

Cibulkova:  Proving that stature does not always correlate to success, the plucky Slovak toppled Wozniacki twice as well as four other members of the year-end top 10.  Ever willing to engage in wars of attrition, she outlasted Zvonareva in an epic Indian Wells three-setter and threatened eventual champion Azarenka more than any of her other opponents in Miami.  Despite the inherent limitations on her power, Cibulkova clubbed forehands with remarkable pace throughout her Wimbledon quarterfinal run.  Assisting her in constructing points around that shot as much as possible, her coach Zelkjo Krajan has burnished his reputation by succeeding with two such different pupils in Cibulkova and Safina.  His disciple ended 2011 in the most satisfying fashion imaginable by winning her first career title at the Kremlin Cup after twice rallying from one-set deficits, including a dramatic comeback in the final.

Hantuchova:  Nine times out of ten, the elegant Slovak crumbles under the pressure of facing elite opposition and contributes to her own demise.  On the tenth time, Hantuchova unleashes a virtually unplayable barrage of acutely angled groundstrokes and expertly placed volleys.  That inspired version of the Slovak appeared against Zvonareva when she raced to the Pattaya City title without dropping a set, and then again for extended spans of their Doha quarterfinal, one of the most thrilling and relentless explosions of shot-making that the WTA witnessed all year.  Over the next few months, Hantuchova would stifle Wozniacki, Li, and Venus by defying the odds of her low-percentage shots for longer than one would believe possible.  Frustrating to watch when her shots misfire, Hantuchova embodies the ebbing but still stunning aesthetic dimension of tennis at a time when the sport’s physicality has captured the spotlight.

Pironkova:  Many players perform far above their normal level at a certain tournament, having developed comfort with the surface or the setting.  For examples of such anomalies, consider Hantuchova’s two Indian Wells titles or Schiavone’s consecutive Roland Garros finals.  Or consider the nine wins that Tsevtana Pironkova has registered in her last two Wimbledon appearances, including two over five-time champion Venus (by eerily identical scores) and two more over finalists Bartoli and Zvonareva.  The willowy brunette even extended Kvitova to a third set this year with a seemingly unremarkable game.  If Pironkova signed some Faustian bargain that allowed her to excel at exactly one tournament on the calendar, she certainly chose well.

Kerber:  Thoroughly anonymous until the US Open, the German lefty carved through the section of the draw vacated by Kvitova and Sharapova to reach the semifinals, where she temporarily struck fear into Stosur.  For now, her suddenly exalted station in the WTA testifies less to her talents than to the extreme unpredictability of women’s tennis, similar to Greta Arn’s year-opening title in Auckland.  But Kerber can revise our interpretation of that narrative in 2012, and she owns the lefty weapons to make a legitimate attempt at consolidating her momentum.

Ivanovic:  In a season rather similar to 2010, the former #1 enjoyed her second half much more than a first half filled with the indignities of first-round losses at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and elsewhere.  Long fond of Indian Wells, Ivanovic must have relished a quarterfinal appearance there, especially a commanding victory over countrywoman and bitter rival Jankovic.  Within a point of scoring a spectacular upset over defending champion Clijsters in Miami, she let slip away a thrilling encounter from which she needed a few months to recover.  Lacking an exclusive, full-time coach for much of her post-2008 tribulations, Ivanovic found stability in a partnership with Nigel Sears.  That stability ultimately translated into a confidence that she had lacked while compiling a dismal record in three-setters and tiebreaks, the areas that most test a player’s fortitude.  Reaching the second week of the US Open, Ana delivered consecutive victories over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in Beijing before extending her reign over Bali.  Defending a title for the first time, she ended 2011 with her seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope restored once more.

We join Ana in wishing you a Happy Holiday.

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

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 2, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Less than two weeks after the US Open finals, the fall season ignites with a Premier Five tournament in Tokyo that features seven of the WTA top 10 although not two of the season’s four Slam champions or Serena Williams.  The top two in the world and the top two seeds, Wozniacki and Sharapova won the last two editions of this event, so they will hope to begin the march towards Istanbul with commanding performances here.

First quarter:  After falling in the US Open semifinal last year, Wozniacki vaulted from that achievement to consecutive titles in Tokyo and Beijing.  Despite the relatively fast surface of the Ariake Colosseum, she eyes a comfortable route to the semifinals, far from the leading power-hitters who could topple her.  Thwarted in her openers at her last two Premier Five tournaments, the Dane can rely upon her familiar steadiness to withstand the erratic Gajdosova or the inexperienced Marino.  While US Open quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta might await in the third round, she has lost all five meetings with Wozniacki and twice on the clay that most favors her strengths against the top seed.  Aligned to face the defending champion in the quarterfinals is the former generation’s Wozniacki, Jankovic, who came within a few points of the Cincinnati title before suffering her sixth straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major.  Runner-up to Sharapova here two years ago, the Serb initially dominated the Dane before losing three times to her this spring in clashes between the WTA’s two premier counterpunchers.  Lurking to intercept Jankovic in the third round, US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber would need to repeat her New York upset over Radwanska.  In her opener, meanwhile, the loathsome Quebec champion Zahlavova Strycova aims to engage Jelena in a contentious catfight.  But the Serb should survive such distractions and the lefty style of Kerber before Wozniacki outlasts her again.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  An undeserving first-week loser in New York, Azarenka will fancy her chances of striking deep into the draw should she maintain the level that she showed during the second set against Serena there.   She has won all six sets that she has played against most probable third-round opponent Peer, although the Israeli has struggled this season following  a 2010 campaign that brought her to the verge of the year-end championships.  Among the intriguing players in this section is Radwanska’s sister Urszula, who qualified for the main draw after reaching the Tashkent semifinals and likewise qualifying for the US Open.  Considered a more offensive player than Aga, the younger Radwanska defeated first-round opponent Zakopalova earlier this year but probably could not threaten Azarenka.  In the lower section of this quarter, two double-fisters brace for collision in Peng and Bartoli, the former of whom has enjoyed a career season and perhaps the latter as well.  Inspired by an upset over Cibulkova in New York, Irina Falconi seeks to build upon a promising summer against home hope Ayumi Morita.  The most compelling first-round encounter in this section, however, pits rapidly rising American teenager Christina McHale against the former prodigy Tamira Paszek.  Known for epic matches against Jankovic and Schiavone at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Paszek rebounded from injuries to reach her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon this summer—defeating McHale resoundingly en route.  A combined 11-2 against Peng and Bartoli, Azarenka will find herself in a winnable quarterfinal no matter the opponent, able to rely upon her symmetrical groundstrokes and superior movement.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  Unaccountably frowning upon Zvonareva, the draw deities once again assigned her a likely quarterfinal meeting with Stosur, who has won their last eight encounters.  Even before that stage, the Russian might find her solid but not electrifying offense tested by Cibulkova, who gradually ground her down physically and emotionally at Indian Wells.  Amplifying her forehand while committing to greater aggression, the Slovak has registered two victories over Wozniacki this year despite disappointing for most of the summer as an abdominal strain hampered her.  Can countrywoman and Guangzhou finalist Magdalena Rybarikova ambush Cibulkova and trouble Zvonareva?  That possibility looks doubtful, which suggests that the 2011 US Open champion should meet the 2010 US Open runner-up once more.  The only serious threat to Stosur before the quarterfinals, Ivanovic plays a style strikingly similar to the Aussie with serve-forehand combinations masking an indifferent backhand.  While they have split their four previous meetings, all in uneventful fashion, one would favor the US Open champion over the former Roland Garros champion because of her recent serving superiority.  On the other hand, first-time Slam champions Li and Kvitova suffered post-breakthrough hangovers that continue to linger.  In the first match since stunning Serena on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stosur cannot afford such a lapse when she faces Kirilenko for the second straight tournament.  Collaborating on a 32-point tiebreak at the US Open, they might produce another scintillating encounter with their crisp net play, refined in doubles.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  From a champion in 2009 to a first-round victim in 2010, Sharapova has mirrored her career’s radical oscillations in her fortunes at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.  Two years ago, her unexpected title charge followed the ignominious 21-double fault loss to Oudin in New York, illustrating her talent for reinvigorating herself immediately after her setbacks.  In 2011, another dismal three-set loss in the third round of the US Open might perform the same function, inspiring Sharapova to visit retribution upon her next sequence of opponents.  As proved the case last year, though, she could face a challenging opening assignment in New Haven finalist Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon before defeating Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li Na consecutively at the Yale tournament.  Sharapova’s conqueror in 2010, Kimiko Date-Krumm, has fallen in the same quarter again but now will target Wimbledon champion Kvitova.  Since blazing 222 winners to capture her first Slam title, the Czech flamed out of the North American hard-court season with just two victories in three tournaments.  Although she should solve the fading Date-Krumm (perhaps not without difficulty), US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova poses a more formidable obstacle in the third round.  These budding rivals have split their four meetings, including two this year, and have reached third sets in all of them.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, therefore, the Russian’s accelerating momentum and their past history incline one to slightly favor an upset.  Sharapova certainly would prefer an upset, for she has won 14 of her last 15 matches against fellow Russians and her only meeting with Pavlyuchenkova, albeit in three sets.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open Tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 3, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.

We return to continue the stories of Tokyo by the quarterfinals or so, perhaps with an excursion to Bangkok beforehand.  (If the title reference whizzed past you like a Sharapova backhand, consider investigating the work of Yasujiro Ozu.)

For the first time, the Rogers Cup events will occur concurrently rather than consecutively.  Unlike the other concurrent ATP / WTA events, however, this veritable smorgasbord of tennis will unfold in two cities five hundred kilometers apart.  This dubious decision may benefit television audiences but hinders those who enjoy attending the two Rogers Cups in consecutive week.  While concurrent events generally succeed when held at the same venue, the same-time-but-not-same-place concept strikes us as exceedingly foolish.  Just like the fans in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, and other tennis capitals, the fans in Canada should not have to choose between the two outstanding draws that we discuss below.

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain poses for photographers after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during the final of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 15, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

First quarter:  Often troubled by Davydenko before, Djokovic likely will contest his 50th match of 2011 against the quirky Russian who has declined so steeply since wrist surgery last year.  When Kolya now appears in headlines, he generally has functioned as the foil for the breakthrough of a youngster or home hope.  Far more formidable is the challenge posed a round later by Del Potro, despite his disappointing loss to Gulbis in Los Angeles.  Winning a set from the Serb at Roland Garros this year, the Tower of Tandil never has toppled the world #1 but might approach their match with greater motivation.  A contrast to his repeated successes against Nadal and Federer, Del Potro’s futility against Djokovic suggests that he must leave his comfort zone to conquer him.  Barring such an extraordinary performance, the top seed would encounter a much more comfortable quarterfinal against his compatriot Troicki or perhaps Monfils, distinctly inferior in competitive will.  After his conquest of the All England Club and rise to #1, one wonders how much motivation Djokovic will bring to his quest for a fifth Masters 1000 crown of 2011.  Still, he has not lost before the semifinals since the Paris Indoors last year and should have refreshed his energies during the midsummer break.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  In this section proliferate the ATP’s most notable one-handed backhands, from Federer and Gasquet to Kohlschreiber and Almagro.  Just a month after falling to Tsonga at Wimbledon, the third seed may have the opportunity to exact revenge from the Frenchman in the stadium where he lost a third-set tiebreak to him two years ago after holding a 5-1 lead.  Seeking to intercept that tantalizing collision, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Tomic hopes to rival Ryan Harrison’s summer surge rather than suffering the post-Wimbledon slump of Grigor Dimitrov.  The quarter’s other side features a first-round encounter between look-alikes Stakhovsky and Kohlschreiber but no real contenders.  Like the winner of the Djokovic-Del Potro clash, the winner of a potential Federer-Tsonga meeting would fancy his chances against either of the bold-faced names here.  Fusing grace with power in their one-handed backhands, Gasquet and Almagro should offer an exuberant shot-making display in the third round.  Both players climbed unexpectedly into the top 10 or its immediate environs this season, as the Frenchman recorded second-week runs at two majors and a Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome.  Unlikely to repeat that feat here, he did defeat Federer during the aforementioned Rome run and has a winning record against Tsonga.  Comment se dit “dark horse” en français?

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Eclipsed this year by the other members in the Gang of Four, the two-time defending champion defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days at last year’s Toronto event.  Also conquering Del Potro in the 2009 final, Murray typically has showcased his finest tennis on North American hard courts and finds himself in the weakest section of the draw, allowing him to preserve energy for the weekend climax.  Littering his section is the detritus of yesteryear like Ferrero and Nalbandian or clay specialists like Montanes and Andujar.  In the third round, Murray might encounter Federer’s understudy Wawrinka, who defeated him at last year’s US Open en route to consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Since the Australian Open, the Swiss #2 has shown little confidence and less consistency against not just the elite but the ATP journeymen.  A more compelling test might come in the quarterfinals, where Murray might encounter either the Los Angeles titlist Gulbis or Los Angeles runner-up Fish.  Wisely withdrawing from Washington to rest his ankle, the American will rely on his experience to conquer his recent nemesis.  Spurred by consecutive finals appearance in the first two US Open Series events, Fish also can recall his Cincinnati victory over Murray last year should he face him in a quarterfinal.  If Judy Murray has her hopes answered, though, Feliciano Lopez will carve his way through this flaccid section to set up a second consecutive quarterfinal with her son.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Fourth quarter:  Lost in the scrutiny of his struggles against Djokovic were Nadal’s achievements between Indian Wells and Wimbledon.  Falling just a win short of his third Channel Slam, the new #2 has lost only once since the Australian Open to an opponent other than Djokovic, while recording seven victories over other top-5 opponents.  Aligned to meet Nadal in the third round is his compatriot Verdasco, who challenged him so memorably at the 2009 Australian Open but never has defeated him.  If the seventh-seeded Berdych can escape a Dolgopolov fresh from his debut title, he would attempt to halt a prolonged drought against Rafa during which he once lost 19 consecutive sets.  Solid but unremarkable this season, the Czech has evinced few flickers of the form that carried him to the Wimbledon final last summer, and he has not won a title at any level since 2009.  Towering over his surroundings is the perpetually dangerous Karlovic, who came within two points of defeating Nadal on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But perhaps the most vigorous test for the second seed might come from Gilles Simon, an indefatigable competitor with earlier success against Rafa and a crowd favorite in this Francophone city before.  Only if his lingering foot injury hampers the Spaniard’s explosive athleticism, however, will he become vulnerable for a pre-semifinal upset.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final: Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Djokovic

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses for photographers after defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the final of the  Rogers Cup at Stade Uniprix on August 23, 2010 in Montreal, Canada.

First quarter:  Following an indifferent European spring, Wozniacki will need to right her Viking vessel immediately in order to survive a section that includes two of the three players who have defeated her at majors in 2011 .  As early as the third round, the defending champion could face San Diego semifinalist Ivanovic, who tested her in Beijing last fall and dragged world #3 Zvonareva through three tense sets on Saturday.  The survivor from this battle of current and former #1s next might duel with Roland Garros champion Li Na, although Li has proved erratic in the past following her greatest accomplishments and will not fancy the prospect of facing Peng Shuai in the second round.  Defeating her compatriot earlier in 2011, Peng has compiled a consistent season during which she has regularly challenged elite opponents.  One can say the same of Cibulkova, who has defeated Wozniacki twice this year and notched a victory over Ivanovic in Fed Cup (albeit on clay).  The new prototype for players who aim to transcend their diminutive stature, the Slovak excels at covering all but the fastest courts and generates deceptive pace from her forehand.  A less imposing rival for Wozniacki in this section, Stosur seems likely to fall well outside the top 10 by the end of the US Open if the level of her performances continues its inverse correlation with the magnitude of events.  Yet she too has troubled the Dane before, so the world #1 certainly will have earned her semifinal berth if she does arrive there.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Having fallen to Radwanska in the San Diego final on Sunday, Zvonareva could meet the cunning Pole again on Thursday.  Wedged into her section also is inaugural College Park champion Petrova, far from a title threat at significant tournaments but as much of a potential dark horse as her first-round opponent Gajdosova.  An encore of the Brisbane final could unfold in this section should seeds Petkovic and Kvitova progress to the third round, yet one suspects that the Czech lefty’s first tournament since winning Wimbledon may not inspire her competitive energies.  A competitor as volatile and erratic as Li, Kvitova likely will suffer a lapse in form until at least the US Open. Reaching the semifinals in San Diego to secure her top-10 debut, Petkovic remains too raw and plays with too little margin for error to topple Zvonareva’s consistent, versatile baseline arsenal.  The Russian’s consecutive finals should infuse her with confidence, as should her memories of a run to the Canada final last year.    Courageously overcoming a shoulder injury to win San Diego, Radwanska probably cannot sustain her artistry for a second straight week.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter:  Lurking here is Roland Garros semifinalist and Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova, who must lose little time in rebounding from a dismal loss to Serena at Stanford.  An intriguing potential opener with rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski could precede a clash with Stanford finalist Bartoli, back in the top 10 after winning nine matches at the last two majors.  Often at her finest on the North American hard courts, the double-fister has struggled to protect her serve against Sharapova’s scorching return and, in her father’s opinion, lacks the belief that she can threaten her.  If Bartoli can find that belief, though, her own penetrating returns could test the Russian’s confidence in her serve following a four-match stretch in which it has chronically disappeared.  Disappearing as well in the opening match of her Stanford title defense, Azarenka should halt her losing streak at two in a comfortable section of the draw.  Barring her path to the quarterfinal is Pavlyuchenkova, who twice has won sets from her this year but, like Sharapova, has suffered severe albeit sporadic serving disruptions.  The WTA’s top-ranked teenager donated more than 50 double faults during three matches at her last tournament (Baku) while failing to build upon the momentum of her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Stopped by Sharapova at Stanford and Radwanska in San Diego, Hantuchova won a set from Azarenka at Wimbledon and could take advantage of any lapse.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  No fewer than four Slam champions reside in this elite district, of which the lowest ranked may prove the most dangerous.  Fierce and focused as she charged to the Stanford title, Serena may bring slightly less motivation now that she has dispelled her post-Wimbledon uncertainties.  Nevertheless, one’s imagination falters at the thought of a dormant and dispirited Jankovic finding a way to overcome even a tepid Serena, despite their history of thrilling encounters.  Having played only one tournament since Miami, Clijsters pursues a similar mission to Serena’s objective during the US Open Series:  accumulating sufficient matches to mount a credible charge at a major that suits their strengths.  These US Open champions would collide on Thursday as Djokovic and Del Potro do battle in Montreal, forcing television viewers to hold onto their remotes and internet viewers like us to use multiple streaming windows.  In the first meeting since their famous “foot fault” clash of 2009, one expects a scintillating encounter between two competitors who will want to deliver a key pre-Open statement.  Unlikely to leave an impact upon the summer hard courts are the two bold-faced names higher in the quarter.  Just six months removed from their 4-hour, 44-minute Australian Open epic, Schiavone and Kuznetsova will hope for a swifter decision on this occasion.  Balancing their hard-court resumes against those of Serena and Clijsters, one nourishes little optimism for their chances in a quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Final:  Zvonareva vs. S. Williams

Champion:  S. Williams

Maria Sharapova - Bank of the West Classic - Day 5

As premier players well know, staying at the top presents a greater challenge than getting there.  Following their Wimbledon exploits, the leading WTA performers there found themselves tasked with preserving their momentum through the three-week midsummer hiatus.  While first-time Slam champion Kvitova remained inactive last week, the others who broke through on the grass delivered their opening statements of the second half.  The only member of this group in College Park, Tamira Paszek succeeded in building upon her surprise Wimbledon quarterfinal by extending top-seeded Peer to three sets and 186 minutes in a tightly contested semifinal.  The player whom she defeated to reach that quarterfinal, Ksenia Pervak, had summoned a similarly encouraging effort by reaching the final of the equally minor tournament in Baku a week before.  Although nobody should confuse either tournament with an occasion of consequence, the additional wins should confirm each player’s confidence that their grass-court accomplishments represented a turning point rather than an anomaly.

But the week’s most compelling WTA action occurred on the opposite coast, where Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova as well as semifinalists Lisicki and Azarenka sought to showcase their talents.  By far the most impressive of this group was the 21-year-old German, whose third consecutive semifinal demonstrated a consistency and durability absent during her recurrent injuries.  In two of her Stanford victories, Lisicki overcame two dramatically different playing styles in the serve-oriented Stosur and the death-by-paper-cut style of Radwanska.  Unbroken on serve against the former, she adjusted to the more unpredictable rhythm of the latter and competed resiliently even when the match looked on the verge of slipping away after the second set.  Less statistically excellent than the Stosur victory, the Radwanska win impressed us more because it showed Lisicki’s ability to win without depending entirely on her aces.  Dropping serve several times during that match, the German battled fiercely to regain the breaks and did not waver in focus during the numerous multiple-deuce games that developed.

Less remarkable were the weeks enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by the other two members of Wimbledon’s final four who appeared at Stanford.  In the opening match of her title defense, Azarenka slumped to a stunning defeat against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100, the lowest-ranked player to defeat the world #4 on a hard court since 2006.  While one doffs the hat to New Zealand #1 Erakovic for her first win over a top-20 opponent, the Wimbledon semifinalist scarcely resembled the contender that she hopes to become during a limp, helpless third set.  A round later, Erakovic would win just two games against Wimbledon quarterfinalist Cibulkova, whose resounding victory merely heightened the defending champion’s embarrassment.  Also eager to put an underwhelming week behind her, as she said herself, is the Wimbledon runner-up.  Only sporadically brilliant during a three-set victory over Hantuchova, Sharapova dropped seven straight games at one stage in that match and then lost nine of the first ten games in an unjustifiably anticipated quarterfinal with Serena.  Able to compensate for her fickle serve with scorching returns against most opponents, the Russian cannot rely upon that plan against a server like the American.

On the other hand, the relative fortunes of Lisicki and Sharapova depended substantially upon their proximity to the eventual Stanford champion, who played as though one could have dropped the last two digits from her triple-digit ranking.  Against the Wimbledon semifinalist and finalist, Serena conceded just seven total games as her spontaneous athletic shot-making soared past the more mechanized offenses of her opponents.  Vital to her title run, as usual, was the 13-time Slam champion’s serve, which surrendered only five service breaks in five matches—an excellent week even by ATP serving standards.  Rarely witnessed at an event lacking in prestige, Serena’s competitive ferocity saturated Stanford’s modest arena and prevented opponents from accumulating emotional energy of their own.  Her last victim and Wimbledon nemesis, Bartoli, attempted to assert herself early in the match with fistpumps and glares after almost every point with a positive outcome, but her self-exhortations looked less like expressions of inner confidence or willpower than efforts to convince herself that she could win.  Reserved for key points and outstanding shots, by contrast, Serena’s growls and clenched fists illustrated the confirmation of her expectations.  Despite the cascade of stunning aces and winners that flowed from her racket this week, we will remember longest a point that she lost.  In a semifinal long since decided, Lisicki dragged Serena into the net with a drop shot, then lobbed over her head, and then feathered another drop volley.  At most non-majors, one might have expected the younger Williams to concede the point after the first or second of these shots.  This time, she charged down the first two and nearly the third before sprawling on the sideline as it eluded her.  Honed by her year-long absence, Serena’s relentless competitive appetite propelled her as much as her serve towards a title that she relished more than one would have imagined.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point against Marion Bartoli of France during the final of the Bank of the West Classic at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on July 31, 2011 in Stanford, California.

Will that hunger carry her to a third US Open crown?  Tempering enthusiasm over her week at Stanford is the realization that she defeated only one genuine contender in New York there (Sharapova), and her dominance over the Russian merely continued a pre-existing trend.  Serena did not face any of this year’s Slam champions at Stanford, nor did she confront current #1 Wozniacki or an in-form Azarenka, both of whom have troubled her before.  At the Premier Five events that lie ahead, we may gain a clearer understanding of where she fits into the field at a wide-open Open, for Li or Kvitova might well prove more formidable challenges than those that she faced last week.

Not the only unseeded champion of the US Open Series, Serena accompanied a most unlikely figure in her charge to a California champion’s podium.  Notorious for his slothful work ethic, this inveterate ambush artist triggered memories of past upsets over Federer and Djokovic with his quarterfinal victory over Del Potro.  In the past, though, Gulbis generally had failed to extend the impetus from those stunning accomplishments; before this week, he had won only one title at a tiny event in Delray Beach.  Breaking from that precedent here, he scored his first victory over a top-10 opponent in a semifinal or final in a tense, compelling encounter with Atlanta champion Fish.  The first set unfolded much as a cynic might have scripted it with the pampered, profligate Latvian wasting opportunities to break before double-faulting on set point.  But the narrative crumbled midway through the second set, when Gulbis declined to content himself with an excellent week and turned the tide decisively.  Although he nearly wasted a 5-1 lead in the final against a visibly tiring opponent, but the three consecutive winners with which the match ended suggested an uncharacteristic poise under pressure.  Perhaps the shift to a new coach, the equally enigmatic Guillermo Canas, has provided Gulbis with a temporary injection of motivation that will anesthetize him against complacency for the next few months.

As Fish continued to accelerate from his Wimbledon quarterfinal into a successful summer, Ryan Harrison also built upon his fine effort at the All England Club in a five-set loss to Ferrer.  In his second straight semifinal, the swiftly rising American teen dueled Fish far more convincingly than during their Atlanta meeting.  Undeterred by a first-set bagel, Harrison clawed himself back into the match against a far more experienced opponent and came within a few points of his debut final.  The outlook for American men’s tennis no longer looks so bleak, especially considering his successes this year against Raonic and Berankis, contemporaries likely to rival Harrison for significant titles in two or three years.

Challenging Nadal throughout their suspenseful four-setter at Wimbledon, Del Potro appeared to have regressed somewhat in Los Angeles. Somewhat like Sharapova, his unremarkable week stemmed in part from the vagaries of a draw that placed him near the eventual, unexpected champion.  Nevertheless, the 2009 US Open champion not only struggled at times to dispatch the faded Blake but should have found a way to at least hamper and harry Gulbis as Fish did.  Notwithstanding the Latvian’s eventual title and history of victories against elite opponents, Del Potro must summon stronger performances against these dangerous dark horses in order to reassert himself as a contender.

After one week of the US Open Series, more questions have been asked than answered.  We look forward next week to untangling the leading storylines from San Diego and Washington, following a preview of the now simultaneous Canadian tournaments.

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

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

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

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

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

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

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

***

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

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.

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