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Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

At first glance, the numbers look more than respectable.  Few eyebrows would furrow over a 33-11 record that included two titles and five total finals across the span of just thirteen tournaments.  While  seven of the eleven losses came against players who have reached the top 10, four of those seven losses came against a current #1 (Serena), two former #1s (Henin, Clijsters), and a soon-to-be #1 (Wozniacki).  Yet circumstances converged to ensure that we will remember Sharapova’s 2010 campaign more for what she didn’t accomplish than what she did.

Elevating expectations before the season even began, victories over Venus and Wozniacki in January exhibitions extended Maria’s momentum from a Tokyo title the previous fall.  In a section of the Melbourne draw far from the Williams sisters, her recurrent nemeses, she seemed destined to reach the semifinal or perhaps the final of the major that she conquered in 2008.  On the first day of the tournament, however, Sharapova endured one of the longest and ugliest matches of her career.  This first-round defeat to Kirilenko hinged less upon her much-dissected serve than upon her groundstrokes, which erred by margins proportional to the significance of the points.  Equally ominous was Sharapova’s failure to tuck away a first set that seemed well within her control as Kirilenko served at 2-4, 15-40.   But the wasted opportunity would have receded into irrelevance had Maria completed the comeback that she began when Kirilenko served for the match.  Breaking her compatriot with fiery returns, she could not capitalize upon this momentum shift, as she had in a comparably epic Melbourne opener three years ago; instead, she meekly surrendered her own serve a game later at 4-5.

After this limp denouement, Maria marched into Memphis with much to prove.  Five mercilessly masticated opponents later, the Siberian lioness collected the second title of her comeback but had not defeated any foe more impressive than future Newcomer of the Year Kvitova.  Nevertheless, Sharapova surely arrived at Indian Wells hopeful that the tide had turned and that her Australian debacle was no more than an untimely hallucination.  Fortunate to escape an error-riddled opener against Dushevina, she then suffered an elbow injury in the third set of a battle with the tenacious Zheng.  Audiences would not see the Russian again until shortly before Roland Garros, when she broke from her routine by adding Strasbourg to her schedule after a premature return in Madrid.  At Strasbourg, Sharapova claimed her first career title on red clay, the surface that famously has baffled her throughout her career.  As in Memphis, she did not overcome a marquee opponent, but a three-set semifinal victory over clay specialist Medina Garrigues augured well for the fortnight in Paris.

Contrasting with her placid Melbourne draw, Sharapova’s draw at Roland Garros resembled a minefield, littered with not only Serena but four-time champion Henin and the surging Stosur.  Armed with a seven-match winning streak, she entered a third-round collision with the Belgian that thoroughly justified the anticipation surrounding it.  Extending over two days, this memorable encounter illustrated the potential congruency between the surface and Sharapova’s gritty determination, which enabled her to reverse the momentum after a disappointing first set and snap Henin’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her jaws firmly fastened around the Belgian as the latter served at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set, however, the Russian let those three pivotal break points evaporate and dropped six of the next seven games, unable to hold her serve again.

Maria Sharapova Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after the women's singles third round match between Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2010 in Paris, France.

Her competitive appetite undiminished, Sharapova built upon this valiant effort when the season shifted to grass.  Although she fell to Li Na in the Birmingham final, her serve crackled with renewed vigor throughout her preceding matches there; she also scored a satisfying revenge against her 2008 Wimbledon nemesis Alla Kudryavtseva.  When the All England Club released its draw, all eyes turned towards the uppermost section, which scheduled a Monday meeting between Sharapova and three-time champion, world #1 Serena Williams.  While Serena had resoundingly dispatched Maria in their most recent Slam final, British spectators recalled the Russian’s stunning upset over the American in the 2004 Wimbledon final.  As the Centre Court audience had hoped, Maria rose to the challenge during a first set defined by percussive serves and terse, emphatically terminated rallies.  In one of the season’s most meaningful tiebreaks, the two champions dueled on equal terms through the first eighteen points, three of which offered keys for Sharapova to unlock the first set.  At 9-9, however, a double fault and a Williams ace brought this suspenseful set to its conclusion, leaving the Russian to ponder what might have unfolded had she converted one of her three set points.  Although another set remained to play, the excitement soon ebbed as Serena secured the only break that she would need to escape this tense encounter.  Threatened much less severely by her later foes, she exploited the carnage that occurred at this year’s wildly unpredictable Wimbledon.  In retrospect, therefore, not only a match but perhaps a fourth major title might have slipped through Sharapova’s fingers with that pivotal tiebreak.  Had she eluded Serena, one would have fancied her chances against the trio of Li, Kvitova, and Zvonareva, whom the American defused in her place.

Nevertheless, Sharapova seemed less discouraged by the outcome than reassured by her ability to compete with the world #1 at a major.  Leveling her heavy-lidded glare at Indian Wells nemesis Zheng, she avenged that defeat in her Stanford opener before navigating through a three-set, 165-minute rollercoaster against Dementieva that hung in the balance until her last savage forehand.  Weary from consecutive evening epics, Maria would fall to Azarenka in the final, but the momentum from Stanford flowed into Cincinnati two weeks later.  On a slick surface friendly to her style, she outlasted newly crowned San Diego champion Kuznetsova and then trampled upon Radwanska and Bartoli with suffocating serving and impenetrable concentration.  Suddenly resembling her vintage self more than she had for most of her comeback, Sharapova reached a second straight final and a third meeting with a fellow Slam champion during a three-month period.

This momentous clash with Clijsters, however, set the stage for the frustrating performances that followed throughout the rest of 2010.  Racing through a comfortable first set, Sharapova looked nearly invulnerable on her own serve, while the off-key Belgian struggled to harness her strokes.  At 6-2, 5-3, victory lay within the Russian’s grasp as her opponent confronted three championship points.  Although Clijsters erased two of those chances with imposing serves, a relatively neutral rally evolved on the third point.  When an opening first beckoned, Sharapova didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice but hammered her favored backhand towards the edge of the line, hoping to end the match with one mighty blow.  The ball fell wide.  After a rain delay, the tide turned slowly but inexorably against the Russian, who suffered the most demoralizing defeat of her comeback so far.  Melancholy in its immediate aftermath, she showed scars of the disappointment in her unconvincing play at the season’s three remaining tournaments.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after a point played against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the women's singles match on day eight of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

A little lucky to escape the plucky Jarmila Groth in her 2010 US Open debut, Sharapova did record the second double bagel of her career during the middle weekend.  When she met top seed Wozniacki a round later, though, her performance sagged well below the level that she achieved against Henin and Serena at the two previous majors.  While the match stayed respectably competitive and featured numerous long games, Sharapova couldn’t summon her trademark precision and focus for more than two or three points at a time, playing into the hands of her tightly controlled opponent.  To Wozniacki’s credit, she maintained her poise as she sealed the most impressive single victory of her career thus far, but the inconsistency that infected almost every area of the Russian’s game reduced the pressure on the Dane.  As her season drifted towards a tepid conclusion, Sharapova won just one match in her last two events of 2010.  Her uneventful loss to Vesnina in Beijing seemed to come almost as a relief from the painful reverses that she had suffered over the preceding months.  When the offseason finally arrived, it provided a respite necessary to rekindle her appetite for the sport before a crucial campaign in 2011.

Although injuries, thorny draws, and other factors beyond her control played a perceptible role in her 2010 struggles, Sharapova never has relied upon excuses during adversity.  A mature competitor, she recognizes that champions design their own destiny rather than allowing fate to forge their fortunes.  In 2011, she must demonstrate that she still possesses the steely core of willpower and fortitude that propelled her to greatness and upon which she must rely in order to return there.

***

We resume our look back at the year that was with a review of 2010 as experienced by the second half of our pseudonym!

This second article of our US Open preview series discusses the challengers in the outer circle of contenders, players with legitimate aspirations to win the title but with less airtight cases than the favorites whom we outlined yesterday.  Selecting three members of the ATP and three members of the WTA, we explain why these less legendary players might find themselves with a bit of extra hardware to polish over the winter.

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1) Andy Roddick

Causes for confidence:  Recovering from a bout of mono that hampered much of his summer, Roddick dramatically exceeded expectations in Cincinnati.  After he vanquished fifth-ranked Soderling in a suspenseful third-set tiebreak, the top American extended his mastery over third-ranked Djokovic and nearly doused the flames of a scalding Mardy Fish.  The 2003 US Open champion always enjoys greater crowd support than any of his rivals in New York, creating an electric atmosphere that boosts his spirits in tight matches.  During his earlier hard-court campaigns this season, he scored triumphs over Soderling, Nadal, and Berdych at the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.  As illustrated in Cincinnati, Roddick responds better to heat and humidity than most of his future foes.

Causes for concern:  Visibly drained of energy late in his longer matches, the post-mono Roddick may not be ideally prepared for the best-of-five format at a major.  Once stellar in tight sets, Andy has dropped eight of his last eleven tiebreaks, and his prowess in closing out matches has wavered; he failed to serve out matches against Djokovic and Fish after squandering second-set match points against Soderling.  Moreover, there’s that little problem called Federer, who has defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and three Slam semifinals while compiling a 19-2 record against the American.

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2) Robin Soderling

Causes for confidence: A two-time Roland Garros finalist, Soderling came within a point of a fifth set against Federer in a US Open quarterfinal last year.  Despite his clay breakthroughs, the swift surface there should suit his percussive game better than any of the other majors.  The only player in the draw who has defeated both Federer and Nadal at majors, Soderling possesses more than sufficient swagger to assault the summit of the ATP.  His fearsome precision on both serve and groundstrokes should especially dazzle during a night session, when conditions are calmer. Traveling without coach Magnus Norman for the last several weeks, the Swede will be rejoined by his invaluable mentor before confronting the pressure of New York.

Causes for concern:  Ever an inflammable character, Soderling succumbed to his emotions too often during his summer campaign and displayed a disturbing negativity during a few of his recent losses.  Rebounding from TGUE (The Greatest Upset Ever) last spring, Nadal seems to have regained the momentum in that mini-rivalry with victories at the last two majors.  Lacking a Plan B, Soderling often struggles to maintain consistency throughout a tournament and may not be equipped to defeat a range of playing styles over the course of a fortnight; he has won surprisingly few titles considering his vast talents.

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3) Tomas Berdych

Causes for confidence: Rare is the player who takes up residence inside Federer’s cranium, but Berdych joined Nadal in that coveted piece of real estate after the Swiss admitted his anxiety when playing the Czech in Canada.  For the vast majority of that match, Tomas controlled as many baseline rallies as did Roger and kept his legendary opponent at bay with Del Potro-like groundstrokes.  After reaching the Roland Garros semifinals and the Wimbledon final, Berdych adapts well to the best-of-five format, which allows him to find his game, lose it, and find it again.  Yet fast hard courts remain his favorite surface, suggesting that he should improve upon dismal past performances at the US Open.  The Czech’s sturdier mentality will allow him to cope with his glamorous surroundings more capably than before.

Causes for concern: In response to an abysmal bit of scheduling by the Washington event, the old, churlish Berdych resurfaced to express his disgust with this minor tournament.  When he attempted to serve out his match against Federer, more importantly, the old Berdych resurfaced in a different way by donating egregious unforced errors as the pressure mounted upon him.  No such situation arose in Cincinnati, where the Czech suffered a routine loss to Baghdatis amidst discussion of a lingering injury.  Consequently, he brings little momentum to New York and will hope for a tranquil first week in which to regain it.

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

Causes for confidence:  Rebounding from a disastrous first half, the mercurial Russian relished her week in San Diego, where she battled to the title past Pennetta and Radwanska.  Armed with the confidence of that long-awaited victory, she tested Sharapova in Cincinnati before reaching the Montreal semifinal.  The 2004 US Open champion and 2007 finalist possesses a Clijsters-like athleticism that will be rewarded on the fast courts and a taste for showmanship that will be welcomed in New York.  Although Kuznetsova’s forehand comprises a more potent weapon than her backhand, she can hit winners from both wings and won’t easily be wrong-footed.  She also enters the tournament with a stronger health record than any of the other contenders, and durability should not be underestimated in the physically demanding context of a major.

Causes for concern:  Don’t be overly discouraged by her semifinal loss to Wozniacki in Canada, played under conditions that would have frustrated most competitors.  But that desultory defeat did remind audiences of her wayward focus, which has undermined on grand stages throughout her career.  Often more concerned with entertaining than winning, Kuznetsova sometimes derails herself with reckless, unintelligent shot-making.  And her game hasn’t returned for a substantial period, so her confidence may falter under pressure.  Furthermore, top contenders will punish her for the late-match nerves that she has displayed throughout this season.

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the most important title of her career so far, Wozniacki defeated a string of reasonably formidable opponents at the Rogers Cup and coped impressively with the rain-addled weekend.  The world #2 reached the final here last year by relentlessly exploiting the opportunities that arose and can be trusted to do so again.  More mature than her twenty years would suggest, she should respond calmly and coolly to the New York atmosphere.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki earned hard-court laurels at Indian Wells, where she reached her first Premier Mandatory final.  Recovered from the ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass seasons, she now covers the court as fluidly as ever and generally competes better than the WTA’s other rising stars.

Causes for concern:  Still susceptible to the occasional odd loss, the Pole-Dane folded meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati and struggled with the high temperatures there, an ominous portent for the Open.  Like Murray, she continues to lack an offensive weapon that would be rewarded on the fast courts (although, like Murray, she proved that counterpunchers can prosper in New York).  Dominating most of her peers, Wozniacki still struggles against most of the WTA veterans and never has defeated a former #1.  As the top seed, she will carry the proverbial “target on the back” into the draw and must cope with the additional burden of this position, not an easy task for a 20-year-old.

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3) Vera Zvonareva

Causes for confidence:  A surprise finalist at Wimbledon,  Zvonareva has scored two wins over Open favorite Clijsters this summer, which itself would suffice to feature her on this list.  Again a finalist in Canada, she dispatched her early opponents with an efficiency valuable in the seven-match fortnight at a Slam.  The meltdown potential that spelled her doom in New York a year ago has receded—although not disappeared—and allowed her to play a more focused, purposeful brand of tennis at key moments.  After struggling with ankle problems throughout her career, her balance looks much less awkward than previously and allows her to reverse direction more smoothly, an important asset on a fast court.  Far less familiar to mainstream fans and media than most contenders, she might coast into the second week with less of the exhausting scrutiny than her rivals will endure.

Causes for concern:  An unassuming personality, Vera clashes with the extroverted atmosphere surrounding the Open.  Just as with Kuznetsova, moreover, her breakthrough has been recent, so it’s difficult to discern whether she can extend success at one major better than she could extend her 2009 triumph at Indian Wells.  Often following impressive results with early exits, she lost early in San Diego and Cincinnati after reaching the Wimbledon final.  Vera often underperforms in finals and has accumulated a 10-14 record in championship matches (1-3 this year); she won eight total games in the Charleston and Montreal finals, suggesting that she might not be able to finish what she starts.

***

By contrast, we are fully able to finish what we start.  Tomorrow comes Part III of the US Open previews, focusing on dark horses who (probably) won’t win the title but might spoil the fortnights of a few higher seeds.  Here’s a glimpse of the loveliest mane in the list:

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This first article in our series of US Open previews discusses the tournament favorites, the inner circle of contenders who most closely surround the title.  As with the Wimbledon previews, we outline both causes for confidence and causes for concern regarding each player, four from the ATP and four from the WTA.

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1) Roger Federer

Causes for confidence: A finalist in Toronto and a champion in Cincinnati, Federer duplicated his 2007 performance at the summer Masters 1000 events.  That year, of course, he captured the trophy in New York from the player who denied him the trophy in Canada; we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scenario unfold in 2010.  Avenging his Wimbledon loss to Berdych and reasserting his dominance over Djokovic, Federer’s Toronto performance demonstrated his ability to outlast his primary challengers in tense situations.  A week later in Cincinnati, he demonstrated that he could smother inspired dark horses by navigating past Nadal-killer Baghdatis and Murray-killer Fish.  The fast courts of Flushing suit Federer’s game better than the surface at any other major, sparking a streak of six consecutive finals there, and his superb fitness allows him to profit from the best-of-five format in steamy conditions more than any of his rivals except Nadal.

Causes for concern: Firmly in control of his matches against Berdych and Djokovic, Federer wavered in the second set and ultimately came within a few points of defeat on both occasions.  In order to progress efficiently through the draw and conserve energy for the later rounds, he can’t afford such lapses of concentration at the Open.  His draw at Cincinnati couldn’t have been much cozier on paper, featuring a bye, a walkover, a retirement, and just one seeded player (Davydenko); one imagines that his route in New York will be significantly more arduous.  But the most serious issue concerns his Toronto nemesis, Murray, who showed there that he finally has learned to attack Federer just as he attacks Nadal.  A rematch of their 2008 final would be the most compelling men’s championship match that one could expect this year.

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2) Rafael Nadal

Causes for confidence: Having won fourteen consecutive matches at majors, the world #1 seeks to join Federer in the career Slam club.  During his title runs in Paris and London, he overcame several of the players who most tormented him throughout his previous slump, such as Soderling and Murray.  The knees seem healthy after various surgical procedures, and his confidence generally rises in direct proportion to his health.  Almost as much as Federer, Nadal profits from the best-of-five format, which allows him to lose a tight set here or there while gradually wearing down the shotmakers who prosper on the Open’s fast courts.  A semifinalist in his last two appearances there, the Spaniard has followed a pattern of gradual but steady improvement each year that recalls his progress towards the Australian Open title in 2009.  Although Federer has established himself as the favorite, there is little evidence to suggest that he has overcome his mental fragility against Nadal.

Causes for concern: Highly fallible during the summer Masters tournaments, Nadal dropped a set to Kohlschreiber, faced a match point against Benneteau, mustered little resistance against Murray, and sprayed forehands wildly against Baghatis.  Rafa moves much less fluidly on hard court, often still lacks the depth on his groundstrokes, and sometimes displays a negativity never witnessed on clay or grass.  During the second half, fatigue typically prevents him from summoning his best tennis, while the slick surface in New York is antithetical to his movement-based style.  Unquestionably the steeliest competitor in the sport, he remains vulnerable to a swaggering shotmaker who can deny him the rallying rhythm upon which he relies.  Finally, his backhand will need to deliver much more consistently than it did in the past two weeks, for confidence in his weaker groundstroke has been essential to his previous hard-court success.

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3) Andy Murray

Causes for confidence: The almost certain US Open Series winner, Murray enjoys an excellent chance to secure his extra million if he can reproduce his Rogers Cup performance.  In Toronto, the introverted Scot became the first player since Del Potro at last year’s US Open to defeat Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Reminding audiences of his quarterfinal victory over Rafa in Australia, Murray suffocated the Spaniard with clutch serving and his lethal cross-court backhand.  In the final, he frustrated Federer with crisp returning and pinpoint passing shots whenever the Swiss legend ventured into the forecourt.  Clearly recovered from his post-Australian Open swoon, Britain’s #1 appears to relish his current coachless status and the independence that he has acquired from it.  Reaching both of his Slam finals on hard courts, Murray considers the US Open his favorite major and will feel much less pressure to succeed there than at the All England Club, two factors that bode well for a breakthrough.

Causes for concern: Unable to blunt Querrey’s power in the LA final and Fish’s power in the Cincinnati quarterfinal, Murray still is susceptible to being battered off the court by the ATP’s premier (and not-so-premier) powerhouses.  A year ago, Cilic dispatched him rather routinely in the round of 16; the Scot’s draw thus could be crucial in deciding his fate, for he often needs to play his way into a tournament in order to find his rhythm.  Although his serve has improved, Murray has yet to develop the type of first-strike weapon that thrives on the Open’s fast surface. As Mats Wilander dryly noted, moreover, his status as a Slam favorite remains dubious until and unless he wins one of them.

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4) Novak Djokovic

Causes for confidence: After a disheartening spring, Djokovic reinvigorated his 2010 campaign with a somewhat unexpected charge to the Wimbledon semifinals on his least favorite surface.  Later in the summer, he starred in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over Croatia and severely tested Federer deep in the third set of their Rogers Cup semifinal.  Reaching the semifinals or better at his last three US Opens, the Serb has lost to nobody other than Federer in any of those years.  The vibrant New York atmosphere ideally fits his personality, and this ebullient impersonator recaptured the acclaim of Open audiences last year after alienating them with harsh (albeit justifiable) criticism of Roddick in 2008.  Although less impressive than during his 2008 title run in Australia, his serve has grown into a more potent weapon in the last few months than it was at the outset of 2010.

Causes for concern: Predictably bothered by the Canada and Cincinnati heat, Djokovic will find scant relief when the stage shifts to humid New York.  His fitness comprises perhaps his greatest shortcoming, although his odd lack of confidence against elite opponents registers a close second.  Even when facing the relatively untested Berdych at Wimbledon, he slumped into defeatism too soon after encountering adversity; despite his prodigious talents, his appetite for competition simmers quite low.  This mixture of complacency and self-doubt rarely wins majors or defeats dangerous rivals, so Djokovic must quell those character traits before seizing a second Slam.

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

Causes for confidence: Freed temporarily from the shadow of her more glamorous compatriot, the defending champion extended her American hard-court winning streak by battling to the Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Often considered too gentle for her own good, Clijsters defied this perception by tenaciously surviving Sharapova’s assault in the final there and by escaping multiple deficits in the quarterfinals against Pennetta.  Her balanced groundstroke game and outstanding athleticism hinders opponents from wrong-footing her as easily as some of her more powerful, less agile colleagues.  Winning both of her majors in New York, the Belgian generally showcases her best tennis in the summer season and will be especially fresh this year after a foot injury curtailed her spring campaign.  Although a hip strain fueled a quarterfinal exit in Canada, she sounded convinced that the injury would not hamper her preparations for the Open.  (In fact, she may find herself better prepared than the four semifinalists there, forced to wait in limbo until the precipitation stops.)

Causes for concern: Not a weapon like the deliveries of Sharapova or Venus, the Belgian’s serve became an outright liability on multiple occasions in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup.  When one element of her game disintegrates, the other components often descend with it as she struggles to adapt to the circumstances.  Rallying from within five points of defeat against Mattek-Sands in her Montreal opener, Clijsters has suffered chronic premature losses in her comeback, including third-round debacles in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  Her last two defeats have occurred against the mentally suspect Zvonareva, not a player accustomed to upsetting elite contenders, so a dangerous floater could threaten in an early round before she settles into the tournament.

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2) Maria Sharapova

Causes for confidence: A finalist in three of her last four and four of her last six tournaments, Sharapova came within a point of inflicting a 2-and-3 drubbing upon Clijsters in Cincinnati before rain and then fatigue intervened.  At Stanford, she not only avenged her Indian Wells loss to Zheng but secured her first notable wins of 2010 with morale-lifting victories over Dementieva and Radwanska.  Dispatching San Diego champion Kuznetsova in her Cincinnati opener, Maria adjusted surprisingly comfortably to the sultry conditions that week.  Untroubled by a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal, she should arrive in New York healthier than she has been there since her 2006 title.  The slick surface and glamorous atmosphere of the Open mirror Sharapova’s personality; she relishes playing under the lights and never has lost a night match at a major.  Without recent Slam nemeses Henin and Serena in the draw, Maria will be poised to extend the surge of stirring performances that began with her Strasbourg title in May.

Causes for concern: While the fast courts at the Open enhance Sharapova’s first-strike ferocity, their speed also can expose her movement when opponents stretch her laterally.  Maria’s last two appearances concluded in ignominious third-round exits during which her serve unraveled in spectacular fashion, so one should observe the performance of that shot under pressure.  Even in Cincinnati, Sharapova lost the rhythm on her serve when attempting to close out matches, suggesting that her once-bulletproof confidence has not returned completely after injury travails.  During the two and a half years since her breathtaking run at the 2008 Australian Open, Maria has reached just one Slam quarterfinal (2009 Roland Garros).

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3) Venus Williams

Causes for confidence: Just as Clijsters will benefit from the absence of Henin, Venus should benefit from the absence of her sister and the scrutiny that such a situation inevitably provokes.  Her serve still sizzles through the court more fiercely than any of the other contenders, allowing her to hold serve with greater regularity.  Favoring short exchanges over extended rallies, the swift surface will shield Venus from the consequences of her increasingly erratic groundstrokes; fewer shots are required in order to win points from the baseline.  Probably more gifted in the forecourt than any of the other leading ladies, Serena’s elder sister also can exploit the fast courts to finish points at the net.  After a dismal Wimbledon, moreover, she may prove more motivated than ever to deliver a performance that reaffirms her relevance.  Startlingly, she has won only two fewer Slams (7) than the rest of the draw combined (9).

Causes for concern: Not having played since that Wimbledon loss, Venus enters with no hard-court matches this summer and without having won the Open in nine years, a period longer than many tennis careers.  (Interesting fact:  she has won no tournaments in 2009-10 except Dubai and Acapulco, both of which she won in both years.)  A factor in her loss to Clijsters there last year, her knee injury may forestall a deep run by hampering the 30-year-old’s service rhythm as well as her footwork.  Possessing virtually no B-game, she generally is ghastly when anything less than magnificent and may not be able to maintain her best tennis throughout a fortnight against seven different opponents with diverse playing styles.  Outside Wimbledon, in fact, Venus has reached just one Slam semifinal since 2003 (the 2007 US Open).

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4) Victoria Azarenka

Causes for confidence: Finally free from the hamstring injury that crippled her clay and grass seasons, the Belarussian bombshell returned to her early-season form during the US Open Series.  While capturing the Stanford title, Azarenka lost no more than five games in four of her five matches against opponents including Stosur and Sharapova.  As of this writing, she has reached the Rogers Cup semifinals with emphatic victories over Li Na and Bartoli, who often are formidable at this stage of the season.  (An unkind draw in Cincinnati witnessed her demise at the hands of a suddenly resurgent Ivanovic, no easy first-round assignment.)  Fusing power with intelligence and bold shotmaking with above-average movement, she is a more complete player than any of the WTA’s other rising stars.  Signaled by a Sharapova-esque shriek and a dog named Rolex, the Belarussian’s strutting personality should shine in a city that celebrates showmanship and swagger far more than the other Slam venues.

Causes for concern: A heavily hyped prodigy during her teenage years, Vika broke through only temporarily with the 2009 Miami title and three consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Still her greatest flaw, this phenom’s overly volatile temper has cost her matches on important stages, such as a third-round encounter with Schiavone at last year’s US Open and a clash with Wozniacki at the year-end championships in Doha.  Under the bright lights of New York, she will feel the pressure of intense media scrutiny, not a situation to which she has responded maturely in the past.  Although she defeated both Sharapova and Clijsters this summer, she has struggled against elite contenders at key tournaments; note that she fell to Maria in Beijing and Clijsters in Miami, both Premier Mandatory events much more significant than Stanford and Eastbourne.

***

We return tomorrow with the challengers, the outer circle of contenders with legitimate title aspirations but a little further removed from the season’s final grand prize.  Happy reading!

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After a virtuoso performance in the Australian Open final, Federer has lost three consecutive championship matches on three different surfaces.  Attempting to halt this trend tomorrow, the Swiss grandmaster confronts a player who ambushed him on a North American hard court two years ago.  The stunning victor in that Indian Wells semifinal, Fish has lost only one match in four tournaments since Wimbledon as he prepares for his fourth final of the summer.  Ever eager to erase blemishes upon his glory, the 16-time major champion generally has exacted revenge upon journeymen who have frustrated him, although the task has grown more difficult late in his career.  While Federer comfortably dismissed Indian Wells nemesis Baghdatis in the semifinals, he admitted to uncertainty and anxiety when meeting Miami and Wimbledon nemesis Berdych at the Rogers Cup.  Having spent less than three and a half hours on court this week, the GOAT did not face a break point in his uneventful semifinal and more than once held serve in less than two minutes.  He will need to settle into his service rhythm at a much earlier hour tomorrow, a challenge with which he struggled last Sunday in Canada.  Down two breaks immediately to Murray there, Federer rallied to break the Scot’s less formidable delivery and temporarily rejoin the battle; however, he can’t afford to surrender an early advantage to Fish, who has lost his own serve just twice in five matches and more than ten hours.  The Swiss legend’s second Cincinnati title came against home hope Blake in 2007, a leisurely stroll through the sun during which the then-#1 never found himself forced to leave his comfort zone.  Yet this American’s arhythmic, net-rushing style will put pressure upon Federer’s returns, dismal in their Indian Wells encounter.  Central to Federer’s success on Sunday is his concentration, which has wavered with increasing frequency in 2010 and hasn’t always returned when summoned at crucial moments.  Against Baghdatis, he dazzled at the net but faltered a bit on passing shots, an area vital against the forward-moving Fish.  From the baseline, though, he enjoys a significant advantage even on these fast courts, for his groundstrokes remain more consistent than the American’s, while forehand-to-forehand exchanges almost invariably will swing in his direction.

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Favoring Fish is the noontime scheduling, for which his previous rounds have prepared him better than have Federer’s.  The third seed has played in the day session only once and has yet to experience the most extreme conditions of this summer heat, although his training in Dubai should have conditioned him for such situations.  Meanwhile, the Atlanta champion should attempt to take the ball early and shift the rallies into backhand-to-backhand exchanges, since his crisp two-hander represents the only area of his game in which he is distinctly superior to the GOAT.  If Federer struggles with timing on his groundstrokes, Fish might want to place his returns deep down the center of the court rather than allowing his fabled foe to create the running, sharply angled shots that showcase his unsurpassed reflexes.  When his first-serve percentage dips, he should continue to be aggressive with his second serve in the awareness that neutral rallies favor the Swiss, who has more weapons at his disposal and becomes most formidable when given time to deploy them.  Although errors do occasionally creep into Federer’s game, Fish must seize opportunities as soon as they arise without waiting for a higher-percentage opening.  His best chance to capture a maiden Masters 1000 title in 2010—joining fellow veteran Ljubicic—lies in dictating play at all costs.  Having overcome Verdasco, Murray, and Roddick this week, the American’s confidence must be soaring higher than it ever has in his erratic but engaging career.  In his two previous Masters 1000 finals, he dragged a more heralded opponent into a final set and even held match points against Roddick in his previous Cincinnati final; clearly, the magnitude of the occasion will not disturb him any more than did the reputations of his earlier victims here.  If Federer fails to produce convincing tennis, Fish will be ready to pounce upon any frailties that emerge.

Does Federer hook the American, or does Fish seize the GOAT by the horns?  Despite the unglamorous setting of Cincinnati, more may lie at stake in this match than one would think.  A title defense here not only secures the #2 seed at the US Open but sends Federer into New York as the perceptible favorite for a sixth US Open crown, having come within one win of a summer Masters sweep.  By contrast, a fourth consecutive finals loss might dent his confidence before the year’s final major.  Combined with the desire to reverse the outcomes of both the Toronto final and his last collision with Fish, the determination should motivate Federer to deliver the crisp, meticulous, and focused performance necessary to defuse his dangerous challenger.

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***

Following a sodden day and night at the Rogers Cup, the final there remains undecided and perhaps a mirage altogether, considering the vast quantities of rain expected to descend upon Montreal during the next two days.  If the semifinals are played tomorrow and the final on Monday, we will return tomorrow with a preview of the championship match.  Otherwise, our next article will initiate a four-part series of US Open previews:  the contenders (Monday), the challengers (Tuesday), the dark horses (Wednesday), and the draw itself (Friday or Saturday).  Happy reading!  🙂

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Since the 2009 Australian Open, a jaunty upstart almost invariably has derailed a collision between Federer and Nadal just when the tennis world was bracing itself in anticipation.  In Cincinnati, the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis thwarted hopes of a rivalry renewed by scoring his second win of 2010 over a reigning ATP #1.  Can the flavor of the week replicate his Washington finals run, and what does his performance this summer portend for the US Open?  One of those questions is answered below, while the other question will be answered next week.

Baghdatis vs. Federer (3):  For the second consecutive week, a player attempts to knock off Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Ever a dangerous adversary despite his issues with fitness and motivation, Baghdatis preceded his first career win over Rafa with creditable victories over Cilic and Berdych.  Just weeks removed from his Australian Open title, Federer dropped a third-set tiebreak to the charismatic Cypriot after squandering match points in the second set.  That uncharacteristic defeat triggered an arid spring for the Swiss legend, but he appears to have emerged at least partly from that malaise with morale-boosting victories over Berdych, Djokovic, and Davydenko on the American hard courts.  A three-time champion in Cincinnati, Federer doesn’t wilt under the oppressive heat as do so many of his rivals; he’ll be much better rested for this semifinal than Baghdatis, having spent barely two hours on court this week.  If sets stay close late, the ghosts of Indian Wells could creep into his mind just as the phantoms of Miami hovered over him when his lead over Berdych evaporated in Toronto.  Although he probably won’t be motivated by personal revenge, Federer expects himself to defeat opponents like Baghdatis and can rely on far more free points from his serve than could Nadal.  Unless the Cypriot can force the GOAT into backhand-to-backhand exchanges at pivotal junctures, it’s hard to imagine that lightning will strike twice.  Beyond that vicious two-hander, there’s no area of his game in which he is equal (let alone superior) to the Swiss.  Pick:  Federer, 70-30.

Fish vs. Roddick (9): Like Sharapova here a week ago, Fish seeks to reach the final in four of his last six tournaments while duplicating his eye-opening victory over Roddick in the Atlanta semifinals.  Prior to that confrontation, however, the top-ranked American had thoroughly dominated their rivalry and had regularly prevailed in the tiebreaks and 7-5 sets in which these two outstanding servers so frequently find themselves.  Almost as successful in the heat as Federer, Roddick once again dismissed the physically and mentally fragile Djokovic in the quarterfinals; since the 2009 Australian Open, he has won nine consecutive sets from the Serb.  Perhaps more impressive was the conviction that Roddick displayed in his previous win over Soderling, when he shrugged off a series of wasted opportunities and preserved his focus despite manifold distractions.  On the other hand, Murray could remind the ninth seed that Fish rarely lets his adversaries off the hook (haha) when they waste opportunities against him.  Escaping a one-set deficit and a 2-4 deficit in the climactic tiebreak of his quarterfinal, Fish delivered his best tennis when it mattered most, a refreshing reversal of his normal trends.  Since the two Americans have lost their serve three times between them in this tournament (Fish once, Roddick twice), break points will be at a premium and a tiebreak or two almost inevitable.  Whereas Fish has won four of the five tiebreaks that he has contested here, Roddick has prevailed in just two of four, extending an uncharacteristic drought in these situations that began with his Wimbledon loss and continued through a tiebreak in his Atlanta loss to Fish.  We expect a high-quality encounter with a crackling atmosphere created by the local crowd.  While Fish will pin his hopes upon audacious shotmaking, Roddick will rely upon his consistency and high-percentage point construction to overcome a compatriot with far less experience at the sport’s highest level.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

In Montreal, the Stanford and San Diego champions remain in the quest for a second US Open Series title, but will they progress to Sunday’s final?

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Azarenka (10) vs. Zvonareva (8):  In this fascinating mini-rivalry between the Stanford champion and the Wimbledon finalist, don’t overestimate Zvonareva’s 4-2 lead.  After the Russian won the first nine sets that she played against the Belarussian, Vika has won the last four sets and both of their 2010 meetings.  At the Australian Open, Zvonareva led by a set and a break before a few wayward groundstrokes and double faults uncorked yet another of her signature meltdowns.  Sturdier this week than in her previous US Open Series appearances, the Wimbledon finalist will become the top-ranked Russian in next week’s rankings, while Azarenka hopes to rejoin the top 10 with a title run here.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against Clijsters for the second time this year, Vera profited from an ominous leg injury incurred by the Belgian.  Meanwhile, the Minx from Minsk has rolled past opponents such as Li and Bartoli without dropping a set, although she did save four set points during a second-set tiebreak against the Frenchwoman.  Azarenka has lost just three service games in four matches, a remarkable accomplishment for a player without an overwhelming serve.  Slightly more powerful and slightly less consistent than Zvonareva, the 21-year-old Belarussian favors her smooth two-handed backhand just as does the Russian, so expect cross-court rallies to develop in that direction more often than between their forehands.  Despite an early Cincinnati loss, Azarenka has proved herself a far sterner competitor than the Wimbledon finalist; she plays the important points more confidently and will be eager to establish herself among the leading contenders for the US Open.  Pick:  Azarenka, 70-30.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Reprising their scintillating fourth-round epic from last year’s US Open, the Russian and the Pole-Dane should perform a largely straightforward offense-defense pas de deux.  Armed with a forehand more potent than any of Wozniacki’s weapons, Kuznetsova should control most of the baseline rallies and will be more comfortable finishing points off at the net, where the second seed often looks helplessly marooned.  But the task of blunting the Russian’s assault casts last year’s US Open finalist in her favorite role, soaking up pace and elongating rallies into mind-numbing wars of attrition.  Therefore, the match rests squarely in Kuznetsova’s hands to win or to lose; in the 2009 US Open, she lost it with reckless shotmaking at untimely moments.  Finally regaining the form that won her two Slam titles and brought her to two US Open finals, Sveta should approach this match with greater confidence and patience than she might have a few months ago.  A titlist in the inaugural Copenhagen event but otherwise dormant since Miami, Wozniacki showed her familiar grittiness by outlasting Pennetta in the third round before smothering an irritable Schiavone in the quarterfinals.  Still relying upon errors from her opponent to win matches, however, she may not find Kuznetsova as generous as she would wish.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

***

After a thought-provoking group of quarterfinals, what intrigue will the semifinals serve for us?

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After a predictable increase in dramatic tension on Thursday, all eight of our projected semifinalists in Cincinnati and Montreal advanced within a round of their appointed destination.  The early rounds sometimes provide compelling evidence for altering one’s forecasts, however.  Did we change our Saturday’s semifinal lineup?  Answers straight ahead…

Nadal (1) vs. Baghdatis:  Rallying from the brink of disaster to outlast Benneteau in a three-hour epic, Nadal dropped his serve five times under the scorching Cincinnati sun.  One win away from Federer, he confronts an mercurial foe who has upset Cilic and Berdych in straight sets, bookended around an edgy victory over Bellucci.  Similar to most of the players who have troubled the Spaniard, Baghdatis can crack explosive winners from his flat, two-handed backhand, which he strikes with little margin for error.  Last fall, in fact, he won a set from the recuperating Nadal on the Asian circuit, displaying Davydenko-like precision and timing.  If the Spaniard enters the contest jaded from his Thursday war of attrition, the Cypriot might well upset a world #1 for the second time this year; he overcame Federer at Indian Wells after a memorable comeback.  Yet Rafa remains a vastly superior competitor to Baghdatis, who chooses  style over substance too often to become a regular contender.  Pick:  Nadal, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Davydenko (6):  After a career of futility against the Swiss grandmaster, Davydenko finally cracked the code during the London year-end championships last fall.  Following that triumph with a routine January victory in Doha, he entered the Australian Open as a trendy pick to capture his maiden Slam.  For the first set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, he jerked the GOAT around the court seemingly at will; then, at 6-2, 3-1, 40-15, reality struck as the eventual champion reeled off 13 consecutive games.  Having restored the balance of power in this pseudo-rivalry, the third seed enters this quarterfinal extremely rested after receiving a bye, a first-set retirement, and a walkover in the first three rounds.  Meanwhile, Davydenko hasn’t regrouped entirely from a wrist injury this spring, suffering repeated losses to players outside the top 50 since his return.  Showing signs of life in a three-set comeback over Ferrer, he nevertheless demonstrated negative body language while committing 46 unforced errors, which revealed persistent frailty on almost all of his strokes.  It’s difficult to see him summoning the nerve to win a tight match from Federer at this stage in his return, and it’s even more difficult to see him dispatching the defending champion routinely.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Fish (W) vs. Murray (4):  Two opposing storylines define this quarterfinal match, one dating from Miami and the other from Toronto.  Enduring an embarrassing second-round defeat against the American this spring, Murray surely will be spurred to exact revenge on a comparable surface.  After falling to Verdasco in last year’s Australian Open, retribution at Indian Wells was swift and brutal.  On the other hand, the easily irked Scot struggled mightily with the scorching midday temperatures in a marathon victory over Gulbis and has trudged through the draw much more laboriously than has Fish.  Murray has won consecutive tournaments only once in his career despite his sturdy fitness, and nobody has completed the Canada-Cincinnati double since 2003 (Roddick).   Winning all three of the tiebreaks that he has played this week, Fish has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set; the light balls and relatively fast surface favor his all-offense playing style more than Murray’s counterpunching agility.  In the wake of his stirring Toronto performance, the Scot surely has little at stake beyond the mission of personal revenge.  It might be enough to motivate him, or it might not.  Pick:  Fish, 55-45.

Roddick (9) vs. Djokovic (2):  Battling past a stubborn Swede and his own seething temper, Roddick delivered a crucial pre-US Open statement at the last possible opportunity.  Since he sustained a four-set loss to the Serb at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked American has seized the momentum in their somewhat acerbic (by ATP standards) rivalry by defeating Djokovic at Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Montreal last year.  Dropping just one set of the eight that they played in 2009, Roddick has exploited Novak’s occasional uncertainties on serve with consistent, stingy rallying.  Now that those issues have begun to recede, the matchup has swung closer to equilibrium.  Furthermore, the two-time Cincinnati champion will enjoy a mere 16 hours of rest after his night-session victory on Thursday, so he’ll need to summon his mono-depleted energy more swiftly than he would prefer.  But a key factor aligned with Roddick the aforementioned Ohio heat, in which these players will be immersed at their 2 PM start time.  His style of play is less taxing than the Serb’s, usually enabling him to hold serve with less effort, and soaring temperatures always exact a severe physical and psychological toll upon Djokovic.  Somehow, Roddick always exposes his latent, damaging fatalism.  Pick:  Roddick, 60-40.

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Bartoli (17) vs. Azarenka (10):  Reprising their captivating Stanford quarterfinal, these fierce competitors have advanced to this stage with commanding victories, including Azarenka’s first career win over Li Na.  While the Belarussian hasn’t evolved into a player who can dominate her peers week-in and week-out, she appears to be in the midst of a torrid stretch that might return her to the top 10 in next week’s rankings.  When the women last played in Montreal, a 19-year-old Azarenka came within a set of the final, so the surface and venue clearly complement her game.  All the same, Bartoli led Vika by a set and a break during their Stanford quarterfinal before fading, and the Frenchwoman has dropped just two games in two matches here.  (One wonders whether her demolition of Benesova was performed in the hope that the Bradenton-bound Jankovic was watching.)  We expect plenty of sizzling, flat groundstrokes, thunderous returns, and prolonged rallies in what appears to be the quarterfinal of the day in Montreal.  Pick:  Azarenka, 65-35.

Clijsters (5) vs. Zvonareva (8):  For the first time in six attempts, the Russian ambushed the Belgian at Wimbledon this year during a match in which a listless Clijsters gave Vera all of the assistance that she could have desired.  Nearly a second-round casualty in Montreal, the Cincinnati champion carries a 14-match winning streak on American hard courts into this confrontation as she prepares for her title defense in New York.  Clijsters and Zvonareva have honed somewhat similar styles, buttressed on symmetrical groundstrokes, fluid movement, and point construction more than on first-strike power from serves and returns.  In addition to these tennis-related similarities, they share the pattern of radical mood swings, which can lead them to zone in and out of matches with alarming alacrity.  If Clijsters is complacent from her title last week, Zvonareva has more than sufficient talent to take advantage.  But one should note that Kim is far more comfortable on hard courts than on grass and that her previous loss to the Russian occurred during a rusty stretch following her springtime foot injury.  Although the Belgian doesn’t seem the vengeful type, she should be especially focused against a player who recently proved that she can threaten her; focus is generally the key for Clijsters, as it is for so many of her colleagues.  Pick:  Clijsters, 60-40.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Zheng:  Quietly overcoming Rezai and now Dementieva, the understated Chinese counterpuncher faces the flamboyant Russian.  After another win over Radwanska (and another three-setter), Kuznetsova’s confidence must be climbing as she continues to demonstrate improved concentration late in matches against quality opponents.  She may need to showcase that skill again in her quarterfinal, for Zheng battles fearlessly for every point and rarely donates significant points to opponents.  If the Russian can punish her benign serve, however, the Chinese star will struggle to take command of rallies and expose Kuznetsova’s backhand.  Wobbly at times during her San Diego title run, Sveta’s own second serve can be easily attacked by crisp returners such as Zheng, so don’t be surprised to see multiple breaks and closely contested games.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 75-25.

Schiavone (6) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Winning consecutive matches this week for the first time since Roland Garros, the Italian defeated the Dane-Pole during that stunning fortnight.  In their quarterfinal match at the year’s second major, Schiavone unveiled Wozniacki’s discomfort at the net and with handling a variety of spins and slices.  Designed to trade penetrating missiles from a respectable distance, the second seed struggles with the Italian’s clever nuances while lacking the firepower to regularly hit through her from the baseline.  (Interesting fact:  Wozniacki had defeated Pennetta a round before playing Schiavone in Paris, just as is the case here.)  Nevertheless, last year’s US Open finalist possesses a superior serve and greater consistency, which allowed her to steadily grind down Pennetta on Thursday night.  Although the Italian’s artistry makes Wozniacki’s style seem monochromatic, one imagines that the 20-year-old will prevail after some nervy moments; their previous rounds featured a combined 22 service breaks.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 60-40.

***

We’ll return tomorrow to discuss the semifinals, probably including Federer-Nadal XXII!  And don’t forget to keep an eye on New Haven, where the draw should be released soon.  That charmless city will become uncharacteristically charming next week…

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After three days of sporadically entertaining but largely straightforward tennis, most of the favorites in both Cincinnati and Montreal remain in the hunt for the last two significant titles before the US Open.  The round of 16 comprises the first substantial hurdle for several leading contenders, so we break down each of these clashes to discuss who is most likely to survive…and who is most likely to enjoy a few extra sessions on the practice court before heading to New York.  😉

Nadal (1) vs. Benneteau:  Probably best known for his upset of Federer at last year’s Paris Indoors tournament, the Frenchman tested Djokovic in hot, humid conditions a week ago in Toronto.  Yet he lacks the mighty serve, groundstroke depth, and mental resilience to overcome Nadal, who looked average for much of the Rogers Cup but rarely loses to ATP journeymen.  Expect the Spaniard’s consistency to wear down Benneteau fairly routinely. Pick:  Nadal, 80-20.

Baghdatis vs. Berdych (7):  Often dismissed for lack of motivation and fitness, Baghdatis has enjoyed a mini-revival this year and recently reached the Washington final.  His flat, crisply angled two-handed backhand trumps the Wimbledon finalist’s two-hander, while his serve has developed into a more substantial weapon.  Armed with a much more formidable forehand than the Cypriot, however, the Czech possesses much greater first-strike potential and should relish the fast conditions in Cincinnati.  Unless Baghdatis can drag Berdych into repeated backhand-to-backhand exchanges, there are few ways for him to threaten his more powerful adversary.  Pick:  Berdych, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Kohlschreiber:  Courtesy of Denis Istomin’s retirement, Federer has advanced to the final 16 having played just seven games, an advantage that may profit him as the tournament progresses.  Across the net stands one of the few players to have taken a set from Roger at Wimbledon in recent years.  Kohlschreiber’s one-handed backhand complements his versatile forehand to provide him with striking power well above what one would expect from his compact, unimposing physique; last week, he impressed by reaching the Rogers Cup quarterfinals and threatening Nadal in a tense three-setter.  Surely brimming with confidence after winning two tight matches last week over Berdych and Djokovic, Federer previously has demonstrated his prowess in Cincinnati’s muggy weather by winning the title in two of the last three years.  As long as he can avoid an untimely mental lapse, he should outlast the German.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Ferrer (10) vs. Davydenko (6):  The high-octane offense of the Russian and the indefatigable defense of the Spaniard should bring out the best in each other.  Balancing Davydenko’s superior hard-court credentials is the wrist injury from which his game still is recovering.  Against Ginepri, the sixth seed occasionally struggled with his footwork and shot selection, vital elements of his game; on the other hand, Ferrer overcame the dangerous Querrey rather comfortably in front of his home crowd.  Can he capitalize upon the Russian’s inconsistency, or will he be forced too far behind the baseline to cut off Davydenko’s angles?  Pick:  Davydenko, 60-40.

Fish (W) vs. Gasquet:  Seizing headlines from Roddick during the US Open Series, the long-overlooked Fish relied upon improved fitness to win consecutive titles in Newport and Atlanta.  Never a consistent performer, he then crashed out early in Washington and Toronto before rising again here with consecutive victories over Simon and Verdasco.  Avenging an Australian Open loss to Youzhny in the first round, Gasquet hasn’t yet regained the momentum lost by his extended absence last year, despite occasional flickers of brilliance.  Pick:  Fish, 60-40.

Gulbis vs. Murray (4):  Fresh (or not) from his first title of 2010, the Scot comprehensively drubbed Gulbis at two Slams last year in matches that illustrated his adeptness at stifling a more powerful opponent with ingenious point construction.  Far more formidable than he was a year ago, however, the Latvian has honed his concentration and patience during key rallies under the tutelage of Safin-maker Hernan Gumy.  Perhaps a little weary from his Canadian exertions, Murray dropped a set to rising Frenchman, Chardy, while Gulbis squeaked through a third-set tiebreak against crafty lefty veteran Melzer.  We expect the fourth seed to cope more successfully with the mid-day Ohio heat than than will the Latvian, whose form has faltered a bit after a promising clay season.  If Gulbis can maintain a high first-serve percentage, though, he might relish the light balls and fast court, which favor the staccato playing style that he prefers.  Pick:  Murray, 70-30.

Soderling (5) vs. Roddick (9):  Barely weathering a stern challenge from the evergreen Hewitt, the Swede looked several notches below his midseason form and often struggled to find the court after a rally extended further than five or six shots.  Recovering from mono, Roddick also has looked rusty at times in his first two matches, and he continued his recent tiebreak struggles by losing one to Stakhovsky in his opener.  The American’s main task will be to survive the first few blows from the Swede, who can overpower anyone on a hard court with his savage groundstrokes that skim so close to the net.  In longer rallies, Roddick’s superior consistency will give him the edge.  Whereas Soderling often lets his emotions overheat when confronted with a hostile crowd, the American will relish the support his compatriots, many of whom have witnessed his two title runs here.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

Nalbandian (PR) vs. Djokovic (2):  Nightmares for prognosticators, both the Argentine and the Serb have proved enigmatic, unpredictable competitors.  While an epic three-set battle with Federer in the Toronto semifinals should have inspired Djokovic to raise his level, narrow losses to his top 5 peers often have discouraged him into apathy.  The second seed did defeat Nalbandian with little ado in Monte Carlo, but the former Wimbledon finalist didn’t revitalize his year until another stirring Davis Cup performance in July.  Most dangerous when he has nothing to lose, David might well rattle the Serb if he starts the match impressively.  Nevertheless, his sharply angled two-handed backhand will meet its match in Djokovic’s smoothly timed two-hander, and there is no single area of Nalbandian’s game in which he surpasses his opponent.   The Serb’s greatest enemy may be the torpor-inducing midafternoon heat to which scheduling caprice will subject him. Pick:  Djokovic, 60-40.

Moving northeast to Montreal…

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Benesova (Q) vs. Bartoli (17):  The eccentric Czech lefty’s upset of Montreal’s top seed resulted much more from Jankovic’s ineptitude than from her own brilliance, for the Serb never inflicted the sort of pressure on Benesova that normally causes her to crumble.  We anticipate no such profligacy from Bartoli, who is gathering momentum on the summer hard courts and reached the semifinals on the last occasion that the women played in Montreal.  Unlike Jankovic, she won’t allow Benesova time to set up for her loopy forehand and calmly line up angles.  Pick:  Bartoli, 75-25.

Azarenka (10) vs. Li (9):  The most intriguing WTA encounter of the day, this clash pits two brilliant backhands and two (in)famously streaky competitors.  A champion in Stanford and a first-round loser in Cincinnati (courtesy of Ivanovic), the Belarussian has lost both of her meetings with the Chinese star in three extremely tight sets, including a 2009 Tokyo loss during which she squandered multiple leads.  It’s nearly impossible to pick a winner among these two, especially considering their resounding early wins in Montreal; neither players possesses an overwhelming serve or an impressive net game, relying almost exclusively on scorching groundstrokes.  Since Azarenka strikes the ball slightly harder and moves slightly better, she has the physical edge.  Yet Li has the mental edge, as she does over so many of her weak-willed colleagues, so a long match with multiple momentum shifts would tilt in her direction once again.  It’ll be up to Azarenka to ensure that the momentum doesn’t shift.  Pick:  Azarenka, 55-45.

Clijsters (5) vs. Kanepi:  A point away from reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian has resurrected what seemed to be a career en route to the dustbin of tennis history (to paraphrase Trotsky).  Barely escaping a shocking first-round demise at the hands of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the Cincinnati champion may gain some momentum from her second lease on life, as have Querrey and Hantuchova in recent weeks.  While we don’t expect her to win the title in Montreal, we do expect her to survive the mighty but still erratic Kanepi.  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

Szavay vs. Zvonareva (8):  Already winning two titles this summer, Szavay hopes to follow Kanepi’s example by surging back into relevance at significant events.  An impressive step in that direction was her three-set comeback win over Wickmayer, who has sped past her in the ranks of the WTA’s Generation Next.  Although we haven’t watched Szavay for over a year, we recall the potency of her serve and backhand, which fueled a US Open quarterfinal run in 2007.  Indifferent in San Diego and Cincinnati, the surprise Wimbledon finalist has seemed no more confident than after her equally surprising run to the 2009 Indian Wells title.  She might struggle against a cocky upstart with nothing to lose, for she faltered against Coco Vandeweghe two weeks ago.  On the other hand, her crisp, fluid style devoured the ball-bruising Shvedova in her opener.  Pick:  Zvonareva, 70-30.

Radwanska (7) vs. Kuznetsova (11):  A rematch of the San Diego final, this collision of an artful counterpuncher and a volatile shotmaker provides a rare contrast of styles in the increasingly homogenous WTA.  Under the extreme pressure of a final, Sveta let Radwanska off the hook late in the second set of a match that she had controlled before ultimately outlasting the Pole.  It’s unlikely that the Russian would let such a lead slip in the much less nerve-jangling circumstances of a third-round encounter, although her penchant for drama found expression in the six three-setters that she has played among her last eight matches.  Halting Pavlyuchenkova’s momentum in the first round, Kuznetsova has regained some of her poise when attempting to close out matches, the arena that most troubled her during her perplexing slide.  (Interesting fact:  the players are tied high in the US Open Series standings, so this result could have implications for bonus prize money in New York.)  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

Zheng vs. Dementieva (4):  Growing streakier with age, the Russian defending champion delivered one of her worst performance this year in Cincinnati—by her own admission—but bounced back to dismiss the sporadically challenging Zakopalova.  A perennial threat to upset top seeds with her low, penetrating groundstrokes, the Chinese doubles specialist barely edged past French firecracker Rezai, who had served for the match at 6-5 in the second set.  Without a crackling serve to earn her easy holds, Zheng will need all of her trademark steeliness as she battles through each game and point.  Despite a recent leg injury that forced her to miss Wimbledon, Dementieva’s fitness and return game looked solid at Stanford, although her serve and competitive drive remain as questionable as ever.  Pick:  Dementieva, 60-40.

Schiavone (6) vs. Safina:  Recording her first pair of consecutive victories since the Australian Open, Safina extended her Montreal winning streak to seven matches following her 2008 title here.  The most noteworthy win since her back injury, her three-set triumph over Petrova represented just Dinaraa’s second win in seven meetings over her compatriot; reversing the pattern of her losses, she rallied from a late deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  In the wake of her memorable French Open triumph, Schiavone has earned the right to be complacent until the Fed Cup final in November.  Although her crafty combinations might disrupt the Russian’s rhythm, Safina wants (and needs) a strong performance far more desperately, probably inspiring her to play with greater urgency.  Pick:  Safina, 65-35.

Pennetta (15) vs. Wozniacki (2):  As reliable as anyone in the WTA until an ankle injury in Charleston, Wozniacki has failed to recapture her consistency on clay, on grass, and so far on hard courts, where her Copenhagen title was outweighed by a lackluster Cincinnati loss to Bartoli.   A few months ago, the Pole-Dane seemed far closer to fame than her friend Azarenka, but now it’s the Belarussian who has recaptured the edge in their race to the top.  Clashes with opponents such as the experienced but not overwhelming Pennetta are matches that Wozniacki must win in order to regain her momentum.  Against someone with few weapons to pound her off the court outright, her movement-based style and competitive fortitude should prevail on a medium-speed hard court.  Even on her worst surface and Pennetta’s best, she overcame the Italian at Roland Garros this year.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 70-30.

***

We return tomorrow for quarterfinal previews in both cities while beginning to organize our thoughts for a three-part US Open preview early next week!

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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