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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filled with beguiling sequences such as Ivanovic scampering through the Pantheon, the WTA’s “Looking for a Hero” commercial promoted the 2008 edition of the opulent but often maligned year-end championships.  Ironically, though, the advertising campaign underscored the Tour’s most glaring weakness, the power vacuum atop its rankings that has produced seven different #1s in the last two and a half years.  As 2010 lurches to a conclusion, the search for a hero continues…

Maroon Group:

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Wozniacki:  Having won four of her last five tournaments and 23 of her last 24 matches, the world #1 enters Doha with maximum momentum.  But will fatigue settle into her game as it did when she last attempted to win three consecutive titles, at the US Open?  Wozniacki finds herself in the more comfortable section and theoretically should defeat all of her round-robin opponents, thus assuring herself the year-end #1 ranking.  Not until the semifinals can she encounter Clijsters, Jankovic, or Zvonareva, the three players here with relatively recent success against her at key events.  In last year’s edition, Wozniacki outlasted Azarenka in an epic duel and heroically battled through leg cramps to defeat Zvonareva before retiring in the semifinals against Serena.  Unless she faces Clijsters in that round this year, she’ll probably improve upon her 2009 performance.

Schiavone:  A member of the “elite eight” for the first time in her career, the Roland Garros champion certainly can threaten away from clay.  She defeated all of her round-robin opponents en route to that improbable major title, but she hasn’t defeated any of them anywhere else and has lost to both Wozniacki and Dementieva during the second half.  On the other hand, Schiavone enters Doha healthier than many of her rivals, while she rises to the occasion more confidently than the Aussie and the Russian in her group.  Moreover, she avoids the two players here who have completely baffled her in the past, Clijsters (0-11) and Zvonareva (0-10).  A key intangible in her situation, the Fed Cup final looms just a week after this event concludes.  At the core of that inspired Italian team, Schiavone may let her thoughts drift towards a competition that means more to her than it does to most WTA stars.  Yet she remains one of the most opportunistic players on the Tour, and opportunity knocks loudly in this group.

Stosur:  During the first half, the Aussie looked likely to establish herself in the top 5 with a serve-forehand combination among the best in the WTA.  After losing a Roland Garros final that she probably should have won, though, diffident play and a mysterious arm injury undermined her second half.  Although she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open with a tense, thrilling victory over group-mate Dementieva, one wonders how she will respond to meeting Schiavone for the first time since Paris.  Despite that US Open achievement, Stosur exited prematurely from all of her Asian tournaments and has not reached a semifinal since Stanford.  Unless the Aussie rediscovers the confidence that recently has eluded her, it’s hard to see her snapping that streak in her debut appearance at the singles event here.  After collecting herself during the offseason, Stosur should return with renewed purpose in 2011.

Dementieva:  Since the WTA instituted the eight-player draw in 2003, the star-crossed Russian has reached the semifinals just once in six appearances, compiling a 3-12 record in round-robin play.  Somewhat understandably, Dementieva hasn’t voiced much enthusiasm lately for the event, and she withdrew from last week’s tournament in Luxembourg with a foot inflammation.  But her balanced groundstroke game should suit the medium-speed hard courts in Doha; in fact, she defeated 2008 champion and 2009 finalist Venus there last year.  In 2010, Dementieva has engaged in tightly contested encounters with everyone in this group, suggesting that she will have a chance to win each of her round-robin battles.  Less promising for the Russian’s fans is her recent trend of falling painfully short in those encounters, including losses in third-set tiebreaks to both Wozniacki and Stosur.  Nevertheless, she defeated Schiavone in both of their hard-court meetings this year and has enjoyed a far stronger fall than Stosur, including an outstanding run to the Tokyo final.

Semifinalists:  Wozniacki, Dementieva

White Group:

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Zvonareva: The blue-eyed, ever-brooding #2 achieved the improbable feat of reaching two finals in Doha during the same year (2008), which witnessed the last edition of the regular-season event and the first edition of the year-end championships.  Vera being Vera, she lost both of those finals in angst-ridden fashion, a trend that has dogged her in 2010.  During last year’s edition of this event, moreover, Zvonareva watched with a mixture of shock and pity as Wozniacki hobbled helplessly around the court…and still managed to overcome the Russian.  Having won the first nine sets that she played against Azarenka, she surrendered the momentum in that mini-rivalry at the Australian Open but may have recaptured it at the Rogers Cup.  Most significantly, Zvonareva remains the only player to defeat Clijsters on a hard court since March and demonstrated at Wimbledon that she could conquer the Belgian on the grandest stage of all, as long as it isn’t a final.  But will the possibility of becoming the year-end #1 weigh heavily on her shoulders?

Clijsters:  The only hard-court Slam champion in Doha, Clijsters has lost just one match on this surface since Indian Wells.  Seemingly recovered from her own foot troubles, she entered no tournaments during the post-US Open season and thus arrives at the year-end championships fresh albeit perhaps a bit rusty.  The round-robin format will allow Kim to rid herself of rust without dire consequences, although she finds herself in the distinctly thornier group.  Dominant against Zvonareva before her comeback, she has dropped two of three meetings this year with the world #2, while she split her two clashes with Azarenka.  After winning the season finale in 2003, Clijsters performed reasonably well but not brilliantly in her last two appearances there.  Outside the US Open, her level at top tournaments has veered from the fantastic (Miami, Cincinnati) to the feckless (Australian Open, Indian Wells).  Will the absence of her family affect the Belgian, who appeared to draw emotional support from their presence at previous tournaments?

Jankovic: An apparent clay pigeon in a section with three avid sharpshooters, the Serb has won just eight matches since the clay season.  Jankovic owes her appearance here to sterling performances in Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, but she has struggled with a characteristic concatenation of injuries and illnesses during the second half.  While she can be most dangerous when most discounted, JJ has vanquished just two top-10 players this year (Kuznetsova, Wozniacki) and probably will need to double that total within three matches in order to advance.  In her last two appearances at the year-end championships, Jankovic did reach the semifinals before falling to Venus on both occasions.  Note that the Serb lost to Zvonareva here in 2008 and Azarenka here in 2009, however.

Azarenka: Having captured her second title of 2010 on Sunday, Vika seeks to finish an sporadically dazzling but generally disappointing season.  When she has gained momentum in recent months, Azarenka has almost invariably fallen flat on her face in the next tournament (sometimes literally).  In 2009, she edged within a few games of a semifinal berth after dismantling Jankovic and dominating the first half of her match against Wozniacki, but she let the opportunity slip away and then retired against Radwanska a match later.  Faced with a more daunting challenge this time, Azarenka must defeat one of the top three players in the world in order to emerge from her group.  Yet it’s not an impossible mission for a swaggering competitor who has conquered every Slam champion that she has played except Venus and seems perpetually poised for a breakthrough.

Semifinalists:  Zvonareva, Clijsters

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Eight aspiring empresses, one set of imperial robes.  Can anyone wear them as regally as Ana?

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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

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After a three-hour semifinal that featured 17 service breaks, Wozniacki staggered into a Tour-leading sixth final of 2010. Having won her last four championship matches, the top seed will be favored to overcome Dementieva, whom she narrowly edged in the New Haven semifinal days before the US Open.  If the Dane does capture this Tokyo title, she will find herself firmly positioned to capture the #1 ranking with a modest quarterfinal showing in Beijing.  (A glance at the draw there reveals no obstacle more formidable than Pavlyuchenkova, whom Wozniacki expertly dismantled in Tokyo.)  And, although Premier Five events don’t substitute for majors, another elite title might dull the knives that skeptics already are sharpening should the 20-year-old become the third Slam-less #1 since 2008.

At stake for Dementieva is no such grand prize, but the 2005 champion could gain crucial self-belief after a season that started promisingly with two early titles but that has been blighted with untimely injuries.  Now in the twilight stage of her career, the Russian surely realizes that her window of opportunity is shrinking swiftly.  Reasserting her relevance at key tournaments, an uplifting conclusion to her 2010 campaign could lay the foundation for a resurgent 2011.  Even without a compelling incentive, though, Dementieva competes rigorously on all stages and has maintained an exemplary work ethic.  Advancing to the final without dropping a set, she has already dispatched two higher-ranked opponents here (Zvonareva and Schiavone).

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From that labyrinthine collision with Azarenka spring causes for concern that might imperil Wozniacki a day later.  A commanding first set complete, the top seed suffered an uncharacteristic lapse in her consistency; even her trusty backhand deserted her and capriciously darted outside the doubles alley.  Justifiably perplexed by the situation, Wozniacki waged a largely futile battle with herself for most of the second set, which wouldn’t have reached a tiebreak had Azarenka not wobbled just as severely.  The stark momentum shift that occurred early in the third set then testified to the Dane’s capacity for rebounding from adversity and exercising what we have termed “the art of amnesia.”  Steady and poised once again, she marched into a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead…and then nearly let this three-break advantage evaporate.  When the top seed finally served out the match on her third attempt, she profited significantly from hasty errors donated by her friend.   Thus, while Wozniacki again demonstrated her admirable survivor skills, she also revealed periods of frailty similar to those that she endured against Zvonareva at the US Open.  An experienced veteran like Dementieva will pounce upon such opportunities more efficiently and judiciously than did the still-raw Azarenka.

Rewinding to her New Haven meeting with the Olympic gold medalist, the Dane’s supporters should feel more sanguine about her chances.  A more reliable server than Dementieva (admittedly no great distinction), Wozniacki generally held more comfortably when the match became close.  After a dismal first set that recalled her second set against Azarenka, she regrouped just as she did in the third set of her semifinal here.  Meanwhile, the Russian proved unable to summon her crispest tennis deep in the final set of their New Haven clash, failing to serve out the match and surrendering an early lead in the deciding tiebreak.  Mentally much sturdier than the veteran, the 20-year-old more easily casts aside her more egregious miscues.  When she squandered multiple match points before the tiebreak arrived in New Haven, she never slumped into defeatist resignation.  On a more technical level, Dementieva often found herself mired in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, which clearly favor Wozniacki.  Stepping around her backhand to unleash her more potent forehand, the Russian risked surrendering crucial court positioning; this factor might resurface on Tokyo’s fast courts.

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Crafting parallel styles, Wozniacki and Dementieva have built their reputations upon rhythmic, high-percentage baseline ball-striking, buttressed by crisp movement and alert anticipation.  Both players often recoil from taking the initiative, so the conventional wisdom that the more offensive player will prevail may not apply here.  In New Haven, Dementieva resolutely forced the issue and decided the majority of the points, yet she fell excruciatingly short.  Several months earlier in the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki sought to seize command of the rallies against fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, a strategy that appeared to cloud her mind and stifle her instincts.  The Tokyo title may be won not by the bolder shot-maker, therefore, but by the player who lures her opponent from her comfort zone and exposes her limitations more effectively.  In such an encounter, minimizing weaknesses could be as crucial as maximizing strengths.

What are those strengths and weaknesses?  We outline a shot-by-shot breakdown of who has the edge:

Serve:  Wozniacki

Return:  Dementieva

Forehand:  Dementieva

Backhand:  Wozniacki

Volleys:  Neither

Movement:  Both

Mental:  Wozniacki

***

While the final chapter of Tokyo remains unwritten, the first pages of Beijing are about to be penned.  We march into the Chinese capital with a quarter-by-quarter preview tomorrow.

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With all due respect to the veterans featured in the second semifinal, the first semifinal bears far more intriguing implications that range beyond this Premier Five title.  Rising to prominence almost simultaneously, Wozniacki and Azarenka have elevated themselves above their peers as the leading contenders of their generation.  Close friends outside the arena, they have honed divergent playing styles and crystallized into distinct personalities, thus providing the key ingredients for a scintillating rivalry.  The gentle, understated Dane patiently maneuvers her opponents into awkward positions, whereas the fierce, flamboyant Belarussian bristles with competitive vigor as she cracks her groundstrokes amid Sharapova-esque shrieks.  After the Williamses and the Belgians drift away, Wozniacki and Azarenka will find themselves at the reins of the WTA, so their semifinal collision in Tokyo presages future collisions in championship matches around the world.

Split at 2-2, their current head-to-head record traces the contrasts between their respective pathways towards the top.  Polished into a complete player earlier than Azarenka, Wozniacki comfortably eased through their initial clash at the 2008 US Open, but the Belarussian’s outstanding 2009 witnessed a pair of lopsided victories over the Dane.  Almost a year ago, they collaborated on one of the most memorable matches at the year-end championships.  Fully in control for a set and a half, a merciless Azarenka looked poised to deal a third consecutive blow to her friend’s self-belief.  Clawing back into contention with one grinding rally at a time, however, Wozniacki eroded Vika’s patience and unlocked her notorious temper.  Eventually, the Belarussian’s brittle façade of ruthlessness crumbled into a rubble heap of smashed rackets, code violations, and tears of rage.

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Whereas the placid Wozniacki has steadily climbed upward in the rankings, the volatile Azarenka has surged as dramatically as she has sagged.  Since the end of May, Vika has lost in the first round of Roland Garros, reached the Eastbourne final, lost in the third round of Wimbledon, won the Stanford title, lost in the first round of Cincinnati, reached the Rogers Cup semifinal, and quite literally knocked herself out of the US Open.  Considering these oscillations between peaks and valleys, one shouldn’t be surprised that she has arrived in the semifinal one event after that US Open disaster.  Meanwhile, the Dane gradually accumulated momentum after a tepid start to 2010.  Building upon her home title in Copenhagen, she captured the Premier Five crown at the Rogers Cup, reached the US Open semifinal, and now threatens Serena’s grasp upon the top ranking.  While her tempestuous friend has ridden an elevator up and down the rankings, moreover, the second seed has firmly entrenched herself within the top 5.  Yet many observers believe (rightly, we think) that Azarenka’s explosive offense will garner more majors than Wozniacki’s indefatigable but relatively power-drained counterpunching.  Although Vika often will fall lower than Caro, she also can soar higher once she matures.

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Will streaky conquer steady in Tokyo?  On the relatively fast hard court, the Belarussian’s formidable weaponry might penetrate the Dane’s defenses more effectively than in Doha.  Often practicing together, the semifinalists will enter their encounter familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Curious to contemplate is the choice that they will face between exploiting their sturdier groundstroke or targeting their opponent’s more vulnerable wing, for Wozniacki and Azarenka both prefer their backhand to their forehand.  Not among the game’s leading servers, the two friends have bolstered that shot in recent months but still will win many more points from the baseline than from the service notch.  More adept in the forecourt than the Dane, the Belarussian will hope to exploit her skill at the net in order to abbreviate rallies and exploit the opportunities created by her probing cross-court strokes.  When focused and poised, Vika showcases just as much intelligence with her shot selection and point construction as her friend and rival.  But if an extended match unfolds, as seems plausible, Azarenka must steel herself against succumbing to emotional fatigue again.  Don’t be deceived by Caro’s unassuming visage; her willpower runs as deep as Vika’s more overtly expressed determination.

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Perhaps the single most significant victory of Wozniacki’s career, her performance against Sharapova at the US Open might suggest that she should defuse a player popularly labeled as Sharapova’s descendant.  Yet the often overstated comparison between the Russian and the Belarussian provides only a limited tool with which to sketch the contours of the incipient rivalry between the Belarussian and the Dane.  Less willing than Sharapova to embrace risk at all costs, Azarenka strikes her groundstrokes slightly higher above the net and perceptibly further inside the lines.  Not quite as spectacular a shotmaker as the Russian, she moves much more fluidly and displays greater consistency in protracted baseline exchanges.  These qualities allow Azarenka to create openings gradually rather than pulling the trigger as early as did Sharapova in New York; in this case, Wozniacki can’t rely upon simply surviving the first few blows.  On a mental level, however, Vika hasn’t quite matched the unblinking intensity with which the three-time Slam champion assaulted every point and every shot when at her best.  Just as Wozniacki’s offense remains a work in progress, so is Azarenka’s mind.

Rather than recapitulating a familiar formula, therefore, the Wozniacki-Azarenka rivalry offers a distinctive spectacle with which tennis fans should acquaint themselves.  All signs suggest that we will witness many more such duels on stages grander than Tokyo.

***

Confronting Schiavone for the twelfth time, Dementieva targets revenge for their tense yet truncated Roland Garros semifinal.  On her favorite surface and restored to health, the Russian looks likely to reverse that outcome against an Italian probably weary from an epic victory over Kanepi.  Dominating three quality opponents in Shvedova, Pennetta, and Zvonareva, Elena has displayed some of her smoothest tennis in 2010.  On the other hand, Schiavone might undermine the steady, rhythmic ball-striking of Dementieva by refusing to give her the same stroke and spin throughout a rally.  While the Russian prefers to wage a lateral war of attrition from the backcourt, the Italian hopes that her sparkling forecourt skills can lure her adversary out of her baseline citadel.  Since both players have struggled on serve throughout their careers, we should see swarms of break points, enticing second serves, and a match in which no lead is safe.  Whatever the outcome, the Tokyo final will feature a tantalizing encounter between a seasoned veteran and a youthful upstart, charting a narrative that never fails to intrigue.  We explore that narrative tomorrow.

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Abdicating her Premier Five crown rather meekly, Sharapova strolls towards Beijing in the company of Stosur, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic.  Presented with the opportunity to succeed the Russian as a Tokyo champion, however, are a sprawling array of ladies-in-waiting with divergent playing styles and personalities.  We scan the ranks of these would-be Cinderellas and arrange them according to their chances of sliding into Maria’s vast slipper.

Azarenka:  Almost certainly a future Slam champion, the Belarussian regrouped sturdily from the concussion that prematurely ended her US Open.  After such an experience, one might expect hesitancy and awkwardness in a player’s next appearance, but Azarenka cruised past Safarova before benefiting from Bartoli’s retirement.  Vika has won two-thirds of her return games in the Japanese capital while saving 13 of 15 break points.  Similar to Sharapova in many respects, her playing style should suit the fast courts, and she might feel especially motivated to end the season impressively after a largely desultory 2010 campaign.  On the other hand, Azarenka has found herself threatened in numerous service games and may not be able to sustain this pressure when she confronts high-quality adversaries like Wozniacki.  Against Coco, she must seek to avoid the complacency that can arise from facing an unheralded foe.  Moreover, the Belarussian must restrain her volcanic temper when the American connects with unreturnable serves on key points.  If she accomplishes those two tasks, a semifinal spot beckons.  If her emotions don’t betray her through three more rounds, in fact, the slipper should fit her better than anyone else here.

Wozniacki: Historically, the fall season witnesses few achievements from the relentless warriors who have ground through tournament after tournament on every continent throughout the season (see N for Nadal).  But Wozniacki defied that trend a year ago by reaching the semifinals in Doha despite a debilitating injury, although she may have performed better with the injury than she would have without it—more on that thought when we reach this year’s Doha.  Clinching her spot in the year-end championships, the Pole-Dane eyes an excellent opportunity to seize the top ranking without overcoming a Williams sister or a Belgian.  She surrendered just seven games in the four sets that she has played here so far, expending little more energy against Pavlyuchenkova than she expended against Miss Bye in the first round.  Unless her consistency evaporates as notably as it did in the US Open semifinal, one doesn’t expect her to be troubled by Radwanska’s paper-cut tactics.  In a semifinal against Azarenka, though, she will confront an opponent with greater power but only slightly less fluid movement and consistency; the matchup thus recalls her ill-fated meeting with Zvonareva at the US Open.  If Wozniacki’s tenacity can destabilize her friend’s precarious psychological equilibrium, however, she should capture her fifth title of the year.

Dementieva:  Swiftly overcoming her New York disappointment, the Olympic gold medalist looked as suffocating as ever when she demolished talented upstart Shvedova.  (Here’s your punishment for turning Kazakh, Yaroslava!)  While struggling to hold serve against Pennetta, Dementieva fought her way through the crucial games, found first serves when she most needed them, and never allowed the Italian to consolidate momentum.  Not a prototypical power hitter, the Russian relies upon her explosive movement and crisp footwork to control rallies on these fast surfaces; also, she anticipates her opponent’s gambits as well as anyone.  Yet a ghastly cascade of double faults always lurks around the corner, and the ensuing toll upon her self-belief has hampered her late in tournaments.  A win over Zvonareva might quell her inner doubts for the next few days, however, and provide her with the impetus required to score two more victories over credible but not intimidating opposition.  In the absence of top contenders, Dementieva has capitalized upon her opportunities more adroitly than many of the WTA’s rather maladroit opportunists.

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Zvonareva:  Encountering a pair of unprepossessing Italians, the two-time Slam finalist turned her first two matches into more complicated affairs than necessary by struggling to close out her service games.  As a result, what should have been a soporific cruise past Errani became an unsightly lurch from one break point to another.  In the second set against Vinci, Zvonareva finally translated “efficiency” into Russian with a satisfying bagel.  Unlike Jankovic, Vera doesn’t actively court drama, yet it seems to follow the lure of her piercingly blue eyes anyway.  Her all-Russian quarterfinal with Dementieva should feature plenty of drama, both visual and auditory.  Not sufficiently powerful to batter through her compatriot’s relentless defense, Zvonareva probably will fall a little short in an entertaining match littered with endless baseline exchanges and countless service breaks.  If she does navigate past Dementieva, however, she should reach the final, at which point anything can happen.  (It usually doesn’t for Vera, though, who is 1-4 in finals this year.)

Schiavone:  At a youthful 30, the top Italian continues to remind the tennis world that nothing is impossible.  Far in distance and time from her favored clay, she demonstrated her hard-court while halting the sentimental run of home hope Date.  Schiavone possesses both stronger mental resilience and a weaker set of offensive weapons than the other players in her half.  According to standard WTA logic, her week should end soon against someone with the capacity to outhit her from the baseline.  On the other hand, Schiavone has constructed a career out of defying such standards and expectations.  Her artful placement and uncanny knack for transitioning from defense to offense can unsettle players with more balanced, technically solid games.  Most importantly, she rises to the occasion rather than shrinking from it, a trait that distinguishes her from many of her rivals.  Although these factors usually aren’t enough to overcome her limitations, most notably an unimposing serve, they can spark unexpected moments of brilliance.  It’s unwise to count on her and equally unwise to count her out.

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Radwanska:  Last fall, the Asian hard-court season witnessed the crafty Pole’s surge to the Premier Mandatory final in Beijing.  Deceptively challenging on a fast surface, she strikes her groundstrokes early and revels in absorbing and redirecting the pace of her rivals. The fast surface also maximizes her improved but still underwhelming serve, allowing her to hold with greater regularity.  In order to progress deep into tournaments, however, the fleet-footed Radwanska usually relies upon clever counterpunching to extract untimely errors from her opponents.  While the Pole can frustrate impetuous shot-makers like Petkovic, she has yet to seize a significant title.  During the course of a six-round tournament, one of her more powerful foes almost always finds just enough consistency to overpower her from the baseline at key moments.  Against Wozniacki, Radwanska must find a way to outmaneuver the top seed, bring her to the net in uncomfortable situations, and outlast her in baseline exchanges.  Considering the relentless consistency of the world #2, it’s less than plausible that she can execute these tactics throughout an entire match.

Kanepi: Arguably the greatest surprise of the WTA season, the Estonian has become much more than just the best player from her nation.  Having reached consecutive Slam quarterfinals, Kanepi reprised her US Open ambush of 2009 finalist Jankovic in the third round after subduing Peer a day earlier.  Those two victories over capable counterpunchers confirmed her evolution from a mighty but wildly erratic ball-bruiser into a relatively complete player with reliable weapons on serve, return, and both groundstrokes.  Yet her patience will be thoroughly tested in a quarterfinal with Schiavone, who will be sure to drag Kanepi into uncomfortable positions on the court and force her to strike balls lower than the high contact point that she prefers.  Nevertheless, the Estonian’s style perhaps suits the surface better than the Italian, and her superior serve will allow her to win more free points.  Seeking her first Premier Five semifinal, Kanepi probably isn’t ready to overcome a series of experienced, versatile opponents.  At this stage, she remains a draw-detonating dark horse rather than a contender for prestigious titles.

Vandeweghe:  Perhaps Melanie Oudin isn’t the future of American women’s tennis after all.  Unremarkable since that stunning US Open charge, the Georgian has ceded the spotlight to a brash Californian with a percussive serve and forehand.  Riding those strengths to an upset over Zvonareva in San Diego, Vandeweghe hasn’t yet learned how to harness her weapons consistently.  Nevertheless, she qualified for the tournament and then slashed past Seoul finalist Zakopalova as well as the sagging Rezai.  Friendly to mighty serves, the surface rewards her preference for abbreviated, arrhythmic rallies.  But the American remains a raw albeit promising competitor when juxtaposed with the smooth, textured, and balanced style that Azarenka has crafted.  Vandeweghe has never won a WTA title of any level, so a breakthrough here would be shocking.

***

Whether you’re getting up early or staying up late, enjoy the quarterfinals from Tokyo!

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Although the Slam season has ended, plenty of captivating action remains in the tennis calendar.  As the battlefields shift to Asia, the Tokyo event promises to reward the sport’s faithful followers.  We examine the promisingly balanced draw at the year’s final Premier Five event.

First quarter: Tantalizingly close to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki should enjoy a placid route to the quarterfinals after a bye, a qualifier, and probably Pavlyuchenkova.  After a dismal loss to Date in Seoul, the Russian teenager outlasted Cibulkova in the first round here but continues to struggle with her serve; moreover, she has lost all eight sets that she has played against the Pole-Dane, including six this year.  In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki most likely will face the enigmatic Kuznetsova, who will be favored to overcome Radwanska for the third time in five tournaments.  Before that potential third-round encounter, though, Sveta probably will need to navigate past the recently resurgent Szavay, previously a stern test for the Russian.  A 2008 finalist in Tokyo, Kuznetsova should relish the fast courts if she encounters Wozniacki, still centered around counterpunching despite a slightly enhanced offense.  On the other hand, the world #2 conquered the two-time major champion with ease at the Rogers Cup and edged her a year ago on another fast court—the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter: Stacked with fascinating first-round matchups, this section features two former #1s, three Roland Garros finalists, and no fewer than five 2010 titlists.  Of Bartoli, Wickmayer, Kleybanova, and Ivanovic, only one can reach a third-round collision with Azarenka, who must be eager to erase memories of her bizarre New York demise.  A near-ideal blend of power and movement, the Belarussian should prosper on Tokyo’s speedy surface, although she has lost both of her meetings with the Serb this year.  Injected with minor momentum after two quality wins in Seoul, 2008 champion Safina stares at a second-round meeting with Stosur.  The Aussie performed much more impressively than expected in New York, considering her historic aversion to fast hard courts and a mysterious arm injury.  Despite the Russian’s more balanced groundstroke game, Stosur should advance to a highly winnable clash with the weary Rezai.  Scheduled to meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Sam has never won a set from Vika in four meetings and has won just six games in the four sets that they have played this year.  Unless she serves exceptionally well, the Belarussian’s dominance should continue.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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Third quarter: Defending a title for the first time in her comeback, Sharapova finds herself in probably the weakest quarter of the draw.  If she stays alert to evade the ageless Date, Maria should ease past the ever-glamorous, ever-fragile Hantuchova to set up an intriguing encounter with Schiavone.  One of Sharapova’s six Tokyo victims last year, the Italian came closer than anyone to derailing that title run; she led by a set and 4-2 in the first round before fading sharply.  Fresh from an invigorating quarterfinal run at the US Open, she will seek to derail the Russian’s rhythm with artful placement, dogged defense, and a competitive intensity that almost (but not quite) matches Maria’s fabled ferocity.  A potential rematch of the 2009 final could lurk in the quarterfinals, yet Jankovic floundered ignominiously on the summer hard courts.  Before that round, in fact, she likely will need to defuse New York nemesis Kanepi, who seems determined to capitalize upon consecutive Slam quarterfinal appearances.  Despite a slightly disappointing US Open, Sharapova enters the tournament in distinctly superior form to the Serb, while the Estonian’s lack of subtlety would play directly into Maria’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter: Much ink has been spilled upon the perceived demise of the WTA’s Russian empire, but all three remaining seeds in this section are Russian, two of them hold Olympic medals, and one of them could gain the top ranking after Beijing.  In order to achieve that implausible objective, Vera must at least reach the final here.  After her Wimbledon heroics, she departed prematurely from her next two tournaments, so we won’t be surprised to see an early exit after another major final appearance at the US Open.  Rather than seriously targeting #1, Zvonareva probably will rest content with her unexpectedly stellar Slam campaign and drift quietly into Doha following an indifferent fall season.  She eyes a third-round encounter with Petrova, who reached the Seoul semifinals last week with three resounding victories…but then retired with an illness, not for the first time this year.  Removing a formidable dark horse threat, the withdrawal of Li Na eased the path of Dementieva, who suffered gallant losses against top-6 opponents in both New Haven and New York.  Familiar with the most excruciating forms of adversity, the resilient Russian should face the recently disappointing Shvedova and then Pennetta.  Probably more motivated than her compatriot to record a solid fall season, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist should trump the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist for the fifth time in seven meetings if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

***

We will revisit Tokyo by the quarterfinals, if not sooner.  Before then, however, we will discuss key events from last week’s four small tournaments that might outline trends for the fall.  Another edition of (TW)2 lies ahead…

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A:

Clijsters:  Rewinding from the listless women’s final, the key to her tournament lay in her third-set performances against Stosur and Venus.  Seemingly in control of her quarterfinal with the Australian midway through the second set, Clijsters suddenly dropped serve five times in a row as both women struggled to find their rhythm amidst blustery conditions.  When the break-a-thon reached 3-3 in the decider, however, she summoned the fortitude and determination to eke out those last three precious games.  Similarly threatened after she squandered  a 4-2 third-set lead against Venus a round later, Clijsters again reined in her mind and her shots to deliver her best tennis in the semifinal’s climactic stages.  A trait only occasionally witnessed during her comeback, this resilience under pressure enabled the Belgian to defend a major title for the first time in her career.  Even if she doesn’t win a Slam outside New York, the last twelve months have allowed Clijsters to finally emerge from Henin’s shadow as a formidable competitor and champion.

Zvonareva:  Almost as surprising as her Wimbledon run was its counterpart here, in which Vera didn’t drop a set until the final.  While her draw may have looked less than fearsome, she adapted even more expertly to the adverse conditions than she did in the Indian Wells final a year ago.  Despite this offense-friendly surface, she fused sound tactics with steady execution in intelligently crafted victories over several players with significantly greater first-strike potential than her.  Difficult to thrust off balance, the Russian showcased her skills with virtually every shot and every area of the court, even the forecourt where many of her rivals struggle.  Through six rounds, she overcame a full spectrum of playing styles and established herself as the leading Russian, a status that she clearly values.  While the old, tempestuous Vera returned in the final, she should depart from New York filled with confidence for her 2011 campaign as well as the rewarding sensation of having fulfilled her vast potential.

A-:

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Federer:  On the eve of Super Saturday, he had matched and perhaps surpassed Nadal in the ruthless efficiency of his progress through the draw, which culminated with an emphatic victory over his Roland Garros conqueror.  In the quarterfinal against Soderling, the five-time US Open champion ascended close to the pinnacle of his former glory with pinpoint serving, feathery volleys, and forehand winners of every variety.  Two days later, hubris turned to nemesis when he succumbed to Djokovic for the first time in four US Open meetings.  Mentally absent for much of the second and fourth sets, Federer then became flustered when historically he has been poised; deep in the fifth set, he donated three egregious forehand errors to drop serve and two more on the last two points of the match.  The moral of his puzzling 2010 Slam campaign?  Don’t count him out at majors, but don’t count on him either.

Youzhny:   Over the course of the fortnight, New York fans unexpectedly discovered that the Russian can create a scintillating spectacle when he deploys his racket in the manner for which it was designed.  To be sure, Youzhny didn’t face either of the top two seeds in his section (see below), and his modest albeit graceful game will almost always fall short against the ATP’s current elite.  That said, he seized the opportunity of a benign draw with both hands, a task more demanding than it seems.  Slowly defusing the mighty serves of Isner in an entertaining four-setter, Youzhny displayed impressive resourcefulness as he relentlessly outmaneuvered the American.  In the quarterfinals, his fitness and tenacity shone brightly in a five-set epic against Wawrinka, during which he twice rallied from deficits.  A strong performer in the 2009 fall season, he’ll be a notable dark horse again this year.

Wozniacki:  During her breakthrough performance against Sharapova, the ugly, “pushing” duckling from the land of Hans Christian Andersen turned into a swan on the largest arena in the sport.  There, the world #2 resolutely shouldered the burden associated with her top seeding to record arguably the most impressive single victory of her career.  When the Russian launched an inevitable late charge, her 20-year-old conqueror firmly refused to be intimidated by the occasion or the opponent.  Two rounds later, the swan turned back into an ugly duckling with a ghastly, wind-addled loss to Zvonareva, whom she had dominated just weeks before in the Montreal final.  Before winning a maiden major, Wozniacki still must add just a few more ounces of baseline aggression, but coveted Slam glory now lies within her reach.

Venus:  A tiebreak away from her first US Open final since 2002, the elder Williams imploded in spectacular fashion and played from behind for the rest of the semifinal.  Before that fateful tiebreak, however, Venus served stunningly and found just enough lines with her forehand to suffocate the defending champion.  A round earlier against Schiavone, moreover, she refused to let the WTA’s craftiest artisan derail her high-precision, high-risk groundstrokes at key moments.  Perhaps psychologically aided by the absence of her sister, Venus exceeded expectations considering that she entered the tournament with no hard-court practice at all. Her dress, on the other hand,…

French Open women’s finalists:  First-round losers at Wimbledon, Stosur and Schiavone rediscovered themselves much earlier than most observers had anticipated.  Reaching the quarterfinals on a surface alien to her style, the Italian routed a series of credible opponents before sternly testing Venus in two extremely tight sets.  (She also receives additional points for replicating Federer’s between-the-legs trick shot.)  If Schiavone continues to perform at this level, the American Fed Cup team will need at least one of the Williams sisters in order to capture the title from Italy.  Rebounding from a mysterious shoulder issue, the Australian rallied from the brink of defeat in her opener to compile a confidence-boosting run headlined by the match of the women’s tournament, a nail-biting victory over Dementieva.  Since Stosur never had advanced past the second round in previous US Opens, her fortnight illustrated the immense strides that she has accomplished in the past year.  Can she handle the pressure of competing before an Australian fan base starved for a home champion?  We can’t wait to find out.

B+:

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Soderling:  Despite an opening-round wobble, the Swede reached his third consecutive Slam quarterfinal and second straight US Open quarterfinal.  Thrashing future star de Bakker before patiently chipping away at Montanes’ defense, he displayed consistency as well as focus and determination.  Much less impressive was his quarterfinal performance against Federer, during which Soderling never seriously challenged the second seed after squandering break points in the Swiss legend’s opening service game.  Irritated by linespeople and the gusts that swirled around Arthur Ashe, the Swede showed traces of the brittleness that undermined him against elite opponents before 2009.  Nevertheless, his fortnight dramatically improved upon his limp performances of the past few tournaments, restoring him to the conversation for the fall indoor season that he relishes.

Kanepi:  Unlike fellow Wimbledon surprises Kvitova and Pironkova, the Estonian continued her journey into relevance with another upset over Jankovic and an even more impressive win over the rising Wickmayer.  Fed a bagel in the first set of that encounter, Kanepi revealed noteworthy grittiness by battling back to win the second set in a tiebreak before coasting through the third set.  Fickle gusts and a smart, experienced opponent frustrated her in the quarterfinals, yet consider how far she has progressed since qualifying for Roland Garros.  While Kanepi’s game is not the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasurable to watch, she has vastly improved her footwork and shot selection, from which she now is reaping well-deserved rewards.

Cibulkova:  Toppling 2004 champion and San Diego titlist Kuznetsova in the final sixteen, she was the only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals in either the men’s or the women’s draw.  A former Roland Garros semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak relied on her low center of gravity and seamless movement to unhinge the far more powerful Russian.  While Cibulkova’s inescapable physical limitations will prevent her from contending for major titles, she’s as ready as anyone to punish an erratic shotmaker.  Credit new coach Zeljko Krajan (of Safina fame/notoriety) for her welcome resurgence.

Wawrinka:  After falling meekly to Murray here two years ago, the Swiss #2 boldly attacked his occasional practice partner from the outset of their third-round encounter.  Aided by former Federer coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka then outlasted Querrey in a rollercoaster five-setter that demonstrated not only his enhanced baseline aggression but a newfound determination.  It can’t be easy to share both a profession and a passport with Federer, but New York fans could observe that Belgium isn’t the only tiny country with more than one tennis talent.

Verdasco:  Leading by a break seven games into his quarterfinal with Nadal, he crumbled in familiar fashion with a cascade of characteristic ineptitude, from consecutive double faults to an overhead that sailed several rows into the crowd.  Before that match, though, the flamboyant Spaniard obtained satisfying revenge over Wimbledon nemesis Fognini, stifled summer sensation Nalbandian, and rallied from a two-set deficit against indefatigable compatriot Ferrer.  Trailing 4-2 in the final set of that match and 4-2 in the final-set tiebreak, the eighth seed mustered an improbable burst of energy to win the last five points of their epic encounter.  Spectators won’t remember his 90 unforced errors as long as they remember the last winner that he hit:  an electrifying forehand passing shot that curled around a frozen Ferrer as Verdasco sprawled on the court in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.

B:

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Ivanovic:  Building upon her startling Cincinnati run, the stylish Serb comprehensively dominated three quality opponents, including past tormentor Zheng Jie.  Comprehensively dominated herself by Clijsters in the fourth round, Ivanovic left New York having moved another step forward in her winding road back to the top.  While her shot selection still puzzled at times, her backhand and return of serve looked crisper than they have since 2008, while her forays towards the net reaped regular rewards.

Sharapova:  For the second straight major, she fell to top seed in the fourth round in a valiant effort marred by untimely double faults.  If Sharapova seeks to add another Slam to her trio of titles, she must be able to rely on her serve as an asset rather than compensating for it as a weakness; at the moment, however, it’s uncertain whether this concern can be permanently resolved.  On the other hand, her competitive fearlessness remains undimmed, she adapted surprisingly well to the windy conditions, and her two-outfit ensemble dazzled as much as the explosive groundstroke winners that she still can crack at will from anywhere on the court.  Whether Sharapova wins or loses, her flair for the dramatic and the audacious provide greater entertainment value than many of her higher-ranked, less flamboyant colleagues.

Dementieva:  Having experienced nearly every flavor of heartbreak by now, Elena battled tooth and nail with Stosur in the most compelling women’s match of the tournament.  True to her familiar patterns, she ultimately snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but she deserves credit for continuing to compete with unflinching resolve despite her endless series of past disappointments.  If she ends her career as the best player of her generation never to win a major, it won’t be for lack of effort or desire.

Gasquet/Monfils:  Ever the consummate entertainers, these two Frenchmen delighted the New York crowd with inspired, often surreal shotmaking.  After a lengthy arid spell at majors, Gasquet returned to the second week with a resounding upset over Davydenko, which he consolidated with an authoritative win over quirky South African giant Kevin Anderson.  When the former prodigy fell to his compatriot in the final sixteen, however, Gael noted Richard’s preference for form over function and style over substance as well as his struggle to cope with pressure or adverse conditions.  Ironically, the same description fit Monfils himself perfectly in his loss to Djokovic a round later.  More concerned with the journey than the destination, these Frenchmen lack the motivation or concentration to contend for key titles, yet the first weeks of majors would be duller without them.

Nalbandian:  Entering the tournament, a trendy topic of discussion concerned not whether the enigmatic Argentine would reach a quarterfinal with Nadal but how severely he would test Rafa once he reached their rendezvous.  We never found out, as Nalbandian nearly crashed out to the anonymous Rik de Voest in his opener and mustered little resistance against a mortal-looking Verdasco in the third round.  In the twilight of his career, the best-of-five format clearly burdens his fragile body and mind with excessive pressure.

B-:

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Jankovic:  Nearly dragging Serena into the third set during their 2008 final here, the Serb has won just three total matches in her last two appearances at the US Open and has never been quite herself since the controversy surrounding her short-lived status as #1.  Once able to wear down all but the most relentless offenses on any surface, Jankovic now struggles against even standard-issue aggressors on surfaces other than clay or the slowest of hard courts.  Although she will continue to challenge at Roland Garros, her decline should serve as a cautionary tale to Wozniacki and other rising players with a similar affinity for counterpunching.

Kuznetsova:  While we didn’t consider Sveta  a serious title contender, we expected a modestly noteworthy from the San Diego champion and Montreal semifinalist, bolstered by a new coach.  Having led Cibulkova in both sets of their fourth-round encounter, she still found ways to lose to an opponent ranked barely inside the top 50 and whose game is far less suited to the fast courts in New York.  Perhaps she should consider the example of her compatriot Zvonareva, much less athletically talented but much more sturdy in the muscle that matters most.  (Hint:  it’s inside the skull.)

Davydenko:  After he sagged to a listless defeat against Gasquet, he said that he was discarding all of his rackets and equipment in order to have a completely fresh start.  It’s certainly needed after a summer that effectively erased his momentum from his heroics in late 2009 and early 2010, but regrettably the clock is ticking on this scintillating veteran.

American men:  Hobbled by an ankle injury, Isner nevertheless competed valiantly during his third-round loss to Youzhny, which is more than can be said of his compatriots.  Preoccupied with distinguishing his right foot from his left, Roddick ponderously plodded to a second-round exit against the sprightly Tipsarevic.  Despite the exhortations of thousands of his countrymen, Blake failed to recapture any shreds of his former New York magic during a routine loss to Djokovic; a round later, Fish showed little spark or backbone against the Serb, who looked vulnerable early in the tournament.  The last home hope, Querrey flirted tantalizingly with reaching a first career Slam quarterfinal before lethargically succumbing to the more versatile and—critically—more intense Wawrinka.

C:

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Murray:  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by mighty sluggers such as Soderling or Del Potro, one can understand.  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by the not-so-mighty Wawrinka, we have a problem.  Like Sharapova’s serve, this issue may not lie within the power (haha) of the Scot to resolve, but flattening his forehand and staying closer to the baseline would be essential steps towards winning the maiden major that once seemed inevitable.

Berdych:  When was the last time that an ATP player reached the Wimbledon final and exited the US Open without winning a set?  Just as it seemed that the Czech had conquered his inner demons and had crossed the threshold of realizing his potential, he Czeched out again against the admittedly surging Llodra (yet another of those entertaining, enigmatic Frenchmen).

Mother Nature:  Not content to co-star in a commercial with Serena, she felt compelled to interfere in match after match on Arthur Ashe by unleashing unexpected gusts from all directions.  The fickle wind played mischievously with the balls and the minds of the players, creating curious exercises in improvisation rather than meticulously constructed points.  Among its most prominent victims were Soderling and Wozniacki, but a host of players found themselves forced to eschew precise shot-making for the not-so-simple objective of keeping the ball in the court.  Nevertheless, the wind’s merry mayhem did lead to some attractive and atmospheric tableaux:

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***

Did anyone seem strangely absent from this article?  Tomorrow, we return with a more extensive look at the best of the best, the two players who received an A+ from their exploits at the final Slam of 2010.

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Seeking her first career quarterfinal at the US Open, Ivanovic confronts the US Open’s defending champion and one of the two or three favorites to seize this year’s title.  Despite a hip injury incurred at the Rogers Cup, Clijsters largely has returned during her first three rounds to the form that carried her to the Cincinnati title.  Nevertheless, Ana has inspired her legions of ardent fans with confidence after an impressive first week that included two bagels, thirteen total games lost, and satisfying revenge against 2008 nemesis Zheng.  At the core of her revival has been her reinvigorated serve, which delivered for her at crucial moments in a tight first set with third-round opponent Razzano.  Still a less potent weapon than her forehand, Ivanovic’s two-handed backhand also has crackled through the court with more force than usual during the past week.  Entering this encounter as a significant underdog, the Serb may prefer the quiet morning atmosphere of the match’s morning slot to the intense environment of a night session.  In order to conquer the two-time US Open champion, she must maintain a high first-serve percentage and brace herself for hitting a ball or two more than she normally would expect.  While we might have advised her to throw discretion to the winds earlier this summer, her fitness clearly has improved in recent months and will allow her to stay in longer exchanges, awaiting an ideal opportunity.  That said, Ivanovic’s superior first-strike potential represents her principal advantage, and she should take risks on both her serve and her second-serve return; throughout this comeback, Clijsters has faltered on her serve more often than in her “first career.”  Like her compatriot Henin, Kim can be easily disheartened when her delivery deserts her, or when opponents fearlessly punish it.  Despite the Belgian’s generally authoritative display in the first week, she has fallen prey to early lapses in her last two victories, so Ana must be alert to exploit early opportunities.  On the fast courts of New York, though, Clijsters’ symmetrical groundstroke game and seamless lateral movement will be favored to overcome the Serb’s less balanced style.  Unless Ana can serve with precision and variety, venture frequently into the forecourt, and unleash her forehand without surrendering too much court positioning, she will find the task before her imposing indeed.

Youzhny vs. Isner

A year ago on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Isner scored a stirring five-set victory over Roddick in the third round, which catapulted him into the awareness of champion-starved American fans.  During 2010, he has vied with occasional doubles partner Querrey for the title of this nation’s next hope, but strained ankle ligaments may forestall a deep run here.  ­­Extended to four sets against Federer’s compatriot Marco Chiudinelli, Isner struggled somewhat with his movement despite continuing to deliver his now-legendary serves.  Awaiting him under the lights is a versatile, stylish opponent who frustrated him during the Rogers Cup last year.  Fluid and crafty from anywhere on the court, Youzhny will seek to stretch Isner along the baseline with artfully angled groundstrokes.  Yet the immense disparity between their serves may create too much pressure for the easily pressurized Russian, once infamous for cracking his cranium with his own racket.  Isner likely will unleash some massive swings on his return, so Youzhny will want to maximize his first-serve percentage rather than exposing his second delivery.  Among other effective ploys would be his biting backhand slice, always useful against the ATP’s giants, and hitting behind the American to test his ligaments by forcing him to reverse direction.  If Isner can serve his way into tiebreaks, though, the vociferous New York crowd and his superior competitive mentality should (literally) serve him well.

Stosur vs. Dementieva

Veterans who have recently struggled with significant injuries, the Australian and the Russian suffered similarly bitter disappointments at Roland Garros this summer.  While Dementieva missed Wimbledon with a sore leg, Stosur battled a mysterious shoulder injury during the US Open Series; both of these injuries afflicted each woman’s respective strengths, movement and serve.  Historically more successful at the US Open, the Russian appears further along the road to recovery than the Australian after a semifinal appearance in New Haven and three sturdy victories here.  A tiebreak from defeat in her opener, Stosur has reached the second week here for the first time and successfully negotiated the sporadically formidable Errani.  Offering a dramatic contrast in styles, the Russian relies upon consistency, fitness, and movement to wear down opponents with a war of attrition, whereas the Australian relies heavily upon her serve and forehand to curtail rallies.  (Her brisk, businesslike personality likewise diverges from Elena’s fatalistic melancholy.)  In their four hard-court meetings, Dementieva has dropped just a single set, but two of those wins occurred well before Stosur’s unexpected renaissance.  Similar to their three-set Rogers Cup duel last year, a competitive encounter should develop with intelligently constructed rallies and crisply struck forehands.   Stosur should find her way to the forecourt as often as possible, and Dementieva should expose her opponent’s backhand with her much more penetrating two-hander.

Schiavone vs. Pavyluchenkova

After capturing the 2010 Roland Garros title, Schiavone effectively took a well-earned summer sabbatical that many observers (ourselves included) suspected might continue for the rest of her career.  Instead, the charismatic Italian sprang into the second week of the Open for the second straight year, dazzling New Yorkers with an expertly executed rendition of Federer’s between-the-legs stab.  Lean and lithe, Schiavone competes better than most of her younger colleagues but will find herself sternly tested by the former junior #1’s groundstroke arsenal.  A semifinalist in Cincinnati, Pavlyuchenkova has won sets from Sharapova and Kuznetsova over the past few weeks and thoroughly mauled the dangerous Dulko in the third round.  Despite her recent accomplishments, however, double faults chronically surface in her game at inopportune moments, a flaw that the Russian must address before fulfilling her potential.  No stranger to double faults herself, Schiavone succumbed to Pavlyuchenkova in Miami this year on a slower hard court and theoretically would be at an even greater disadvantage on the fast courts of the Open.  (Venus surely will be cheering silently for the Italian, against whom she is 7-0, rather than the Russian, who defeated her twice last fall.)

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Querrey vs. Almagro

The other American tower of power, Querrey has won more titles this year than anyone in the ATP except Nadal but continues to await a breakthrough at the Slams, where he has yet to reach a quarterfinal.  After a second-week run at Wimbledon, he seeks to consolidate that momentum with a noteworthy result in his home major.  Arguably more dangerous on hard courts than other surfaces, Almagro possesses one of the most electric one-handed backhands in the sport, albeit not one of the most consistent.  Sometimes more oriented around style than substance, the Spaniard can showcase sensational shot-making in equal measure with perplexing errors; this erratic tendency thus far has prevented him from capitalizing upon his impressive talents.  Far from flamboyant, the understated Querrey often attracts criticism for his lackadaisical attitude, yet his straightforward style has allowed him to outlast many flashier players.  In the fox-hedgehog analogy, Almagro is the fox who does many small things well, while Querrey is the hedgehog who does one or two big things well.  Fortunately for viewers, the fickle gods of tennis oscillate in their favors between both varieties of players.

Nalbandian vs. Verdasco

After missing all three of the year’s previous majors, the Grouchy Gaucho nearly exited New York in his opener, when he trailed the anonymous Rik de Voest by a break in the fifth set.  Having escaped that predicament, Nalbandian stifled Serra in the second round with a groundstroke barrage that recalled his enlivening performances during the US Open Series.  Against the Washington champion stands another survivor of a five-set opener, a Spaniard as dangerous on hard courts as on clay and armed with one of the ATP’s fiercest forehands.  Although commentators long have criticized Nalbandian for his lack of fitness in the best-of-five format, Verdasco may not possess a significant edge in this area after his draining first-half schedule.  Whereas Nadal’s compatriot enjoys the superior serve, the Argentine possesses a far superior backhand and more symmetrical groundstrokes that should exploit the slick surface.  Curiously, Verdasco’s left-handedness sets up cross-court rallies between his forehand and Nalbandian’s two-hander, creating a strength-to-strength, weakness-to-weakness scenario.  In contrast to the sixth seed’s vertically oriented groundstrokes, the 31st seed favors audacious angle construction that lure opponents far from their comfort zone.  If Nalbandian can blunt Verdasco’s serve and elongate the rallies, he might well record a minor upset here.

***

As the year’s final major enters its second week with accelerating drama, we hope to witness a surprise happy ending in the next episode of Ana’s Adventures.  Ajde!

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In 56 sparkling minutes on Wednesday morning, Ivanovic not only avenged her previous losses to Zheng but demonstrated heightened confidence in all areas of her game.  Most notable was her belief in her backhand, a shot that had betrayed her during much of her slump and that had diminished into a benign slice when nerves overtook her.  Rather than striking tentative midcourt balls on her weaker wing, the Serb stepped into several two-handers with conviction and targeted the corners of the court.  While her fans will have been grateful for Bartoli’s premature demise, the other Frenchwoman whom Ana confronts in the third round has flustered her more than one might imagine.  Just two weeks before Ivanovic reached the 2008 Australian Open final, in fact, Razzano extended her into a third set at the Sydney tournament.  Granted a wildcard after a controversial injury hiatus, the Serb’s opponent shares Bartoli’s quirky service motion and arrhythmic groundstroke style; when we last saw her two years ago, her unimposing frame generated deceptive power, enhanced by above-average racket control.  While Ana certainly should feel heartened and enthusiastic about her progress, therefore, she can’t afford to relax against an experienced player who has defeated her in the past and conquered elite competitors such as Venus Williams.  A win for Ana would match the best performance of her career in New York and represent her first appearance in the second-week of a major since Wimbledon 2009, an uplifting conclusion to her Slam season and a foundation upon which to build her 2011 campaign.

Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Before Wimbledon this year, the flamboyant Czech lefty had accumulated a reputation as yet another outstanding shotmaker with vacant real estate above her neck.  Combining wins over Zheng, Azarenka, and Wozniacki with a surprisingly competitive semifinal against Serena, her fortnight at the All England Club hinted that Kvitova might capitalize upon her athletic potential after all.  Likewise encouraging was her victory over then-#1 and top seed in New York last year, which culminated in a nerve-jangling third-set tiebreak.  Although Kvitova has vanished from the radar since that stirring Wimbledon breakthrough, she might relish the opportunity of playing in the world’s largest tennis arena.  Quietly dismissing a pair of third-rate foes, meanwhile, Clijsters has displayed few traces of the hip injury that contributed to her premature exit from the Rogers Cup.  The turbulence projected to arrive in New York tomorrow should aid the defending champion against an adversary with less margin on her shots and less emotional tolerance for matters outside her control, such as the vagaries of weather.  Early in Clijsters’ second-round victory, however, she struggled with the timing on her serve and groundstrokes, so the Czech may glimpse some early opportunities.  If Kvitova can capitalize upon them, this match could become quite intriguing; if the Belgian finds the time to settle into her groove, her challenger could crumble.

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Hantuchova vs. Dementieva

Despite a heavily taped thigh, the Slovak relied on her improved fitness to outlast Vania King in the second round after an impressively routine victory over Safina in her opener.  The stylish Hantuchova relies more on placement and point construction than raw power, creating a slight variation from the WTA’s standard currency.  Steadily accumulating confidence and momentum after leg injuries interrupted her season, Dementieva has assembled a virtually bulletproof baseline game that has more than compensated for her limp serve…except at majors.  While one doesn’t expect the Russian to snap that career-long drought here, a second-week charge could provide consolation for her Roland Garros disappointment and propel her back into the conversation.  Having lost to Oudin in the second round here last year, Elena also could climb back towards the top 10 with an extended run in New York.  Much superior to Daniela in lateral movement, she can falter when brought out of her groundstroke comfort zone into the forecourt.  In addition to ambitious angles, therefore, Hantuchova should attempt to break the Russian’s metronomic regularity by integrating the variety and texture that she has accumulated from her doubles experience.

Peer vs. Pennetta

Early in 2010, both the tenacious Israeli and the inflammable Italian had receded to the periphery of the sport’s contenders, causing commentators to question whether they could return to their former level.  After a storybook semifinal run in Dubai, Peer consolidated that momentum with victories over Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Li Na, Bartoli, and Pennetta herself over the next few months.  Recently, however, her surge has stalled a bit as injuries have hobbled her.  Overshadowed (like everyone else) by her compatriot Schiavone during the clay season, Pennetta regrouped with aplomb on the summer hard courts, where she recorded triumphs over Zvonareva and Stosur while becoming the only player to win a set from Wozniacki at Montreal.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian enjoys a more potent serve than the Israeli but a less gritty mentality.  Largely committed to remaining at the baseline except in extremely advantageous circumstances, the Israeli and the Italian possess balanced groundstrokes and fluid movement without the overwhelming power of the WTA’s elite.  Despite the slick courts at the US Open, some scintillating rallies should unfold in which both players gradually maneuver around each other like boxers waiting for the ideal moment to strike.

Simon vs. Kohlschreiber

As you might have suspected from our preview of Davydenko-Gasquet, we especially enjoy watching excellent backhands of both the one-handed and two-handed varieties.  Another contrast of this sort awaits in this trans-Rhine contest between a mercurial shotmaker and a sturdy counterpuncher that plays against both national stereotypes.  Although both players unleash their most dazzling shots from what analysts often consider “the weaker wing,” Simon relies upon the crisp, compact two-hander favored by Davydenko, while Kohlschreiber parallels Gasquet with his traditional one-handed flick.  After the French one-hander trumped the Russian two-hander on Day 4, will the trend continue on Day 5? Unprepossessing in physique, neither the Frenchman nor the German buttress their games upon overwhelming serves, which offers  a refreshing change from the bomb-a-thons that so often develop at the year’s final major.  Less reliable than their backhands are their forehands, flatter shots that can penetrate the court but that can desert both players for extended stretches.  This match lies largely in Kohlschreiber’s hands, for Simon will be content to travel laterally behind the baseline and force his opponent to hit as many shots as possible in the hope that his high-risk style will suffer an untimely lull.  Outside an injury that forced him to withdraw from Cincinnati, however, the German has been the superior player over the past several weeks and will be eager to set up another meeting with Nadal.

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Also of note on Friday is Stosur’s collision with Errani, who held multiple match points against the Aussie in New Haven.  While American fans will look forward to discovering whether Ryan Harrison can continue his unexpected success this week against New Haven champion Stakhovsky, Nadal may need to shed his first-round rust in order to dispatch New Haven finalist Istomin without excessive ado.  Let’s hope that Episode III of Ana’s Adventures proves equally uneventful!

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