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

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

Tokyo:

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

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

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

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

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

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

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

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

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

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Preview

Devvarman vs. Murray:  Across the net from the Scot stands a diluted version of himself, a rising Indian star sometimes compared to Lleyton Hewitt.  Far less formidable than that former champion, Devvarman still should force Murray to unleash his upgraded offense in order to avoid an unnecessarily elongated war of attrition along the baseline.  Unwilling to play first-strike tennis even on fast surfaces, the fourth seed could profit from the opportunity to experiment with a more aggressive mentality here.  Although he clearly can outlast his overmatched opponent in a contest of counterpunchers, Murray should use this match to test tactics for sterner challenges ahead.  Critical in later rounds, his underestimated first serve should enable him to assert control should he maintain a solid percentage. For Devvarman, meanwhile, the experience of playing on the sport’s largest stadium against a top-5 opponent should prove both inspiring and educational.  Only by probing the limitations of his game can he return to this grand stage under more auspicious circumstances.

V. Williams vs. Lisicki:  Like Murray, Venus faces a foe who resembles a younger, less proven version of herself.  But Lisicki has achieved vastly more in her career than has Devvarman, winning two titles this summer in addition to reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  Both players exhibit an equally sharp contrast between her first and second serve, the latter of which projects only moderate power and remains vulnerable to double faults.  At Stanford, Lisicki appeared to crumble under the weight of Serena’s reputation, so one wonders whether she can rise to the occasion against Serena’s sister in Arthur Ashe.  Among the players who most often have troubled Venus before are not heavy hitters but agile movers like Suarez Navarro and Pironkova.  Nevertheless, the smiling German out-served Venus at Charleston two years ago, and she looked the more consistently impressive of the two ball-bruisers in the first round.  Determined to impose their authority from the first stroke, both women will take massive swings on returns and groundstrokes, especially their more explosive but less steady forehand wing.  More comfortable in the forecourt, Venus showcased her skills at both swinging and conventional volleys in her opener, whereas Lisicki frustrates her opponents with drop shots.  Ultimately, though, this extremely even match should turn towards the player who can uncork her first serve when she most needs it.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 1

Sharapova vs. Yakimova:  In the first Slam match of her comeback, Sharapova rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome her compatriot at Roland Garros 2009.  Two years later, a reinvigorated champion faces Yakimova again after enduring a three-set opener for a second straight US Open.  Not a budding star like Watson, this unheralded Russian should muster less dogged resistance.  The 2006 champion should strive to advance more efficiently this time as an accommodating section of the draw beckons.  A day removed from Serena’s stunning opening statement, Sharapova surely would want to answer her fellow superstar with a commanding victory of her own.  Unlikely to face serious pressure even if she struggles, the WTA’s leading returner should use this undemanding encounter to build rhythm and confidence before the competition stiffens.

Vandeweghe vs. Stosur:  Not a factor at the first three majors of 2011, Stosur still can salvage her season with a second-week charge in New York.  Less suited to her game than the clay of Roland Garros or the slower hard courts of Melbourne, the US Open’s faster surface has hampered her attempts to run around her backhand to hit forehands.  The Australian cloaked that weakness last year en route to a quarterfinal in which she had multiple chances to establish a stranglehold on eventual champion Clijsters.  A year removed from her breakthrough season, Stosur continues to dominate Zvonareva but has scored no other victories over genuine contenders.  On the other hand, she finds herself situated in a quarter without Serena or permanent nemesis Sharapova—and with a likely tense Zvonareva.  Stifled by Lisicki’s booming serve at Stanford, Stosur will confront a similar assault from Vandeweghe’s first delivery.  In contrast to the German, this occasionally dangerous American has struggled to consolidate the momentum from her successes.  Despite her athletic pedigree, she lumbers around the court with ungainly strides and loses the timing on her forehand too often.  With an ardent American crowd behind her, however, Vandeweghe might rattle the notoriously fragile Stosur’s nerves for a set or so.

Baghdatis vs. Isner:  Reprising their three-setter during the US Open Series, the charismatic Cypriot and the bland American embody their divergent playing styles.  An imaginative ball-striker with a flair for the unexpected, Baghdatis strikes groundstrokes that barely skim across the net when at their best.  A more ambitious fitness program during the offseason has produced only a mediocre 20-20 record in 2011, as those groundstrokes have sunk into the net more often than skimming across it lately.  Yet victories over Del Potro, Murray, Lopez, and others have reminded audiences that this dark horse once charged to the Australian Open final.  While few would say that Isner captures the imagination, his functional style and emotional composure have propelled him to an excellent summer bookended by  a final in Atlanta (when he held match points) and a title in the inaugural Winston-Salem tournament.  Observers might expect the flashier Baghdatis to outshine a more muted opponent at this Slam of spotlights and sparkle.  In a fifth-set-tiebreak triumph over Roddick two years ago, though, Isner proved that he could thrive at the major best aligned with his playing style.

Bartoli vs. McHale:  After Ryan Harrison’s Open ended almost before it began, the brightest talent among the home nation’s young women may gain additional attention. Extended to three sets in her opener by Wozniak, McHale displayed courage and maturity in rallying from the disappointment of a second-set tiebreak.  Wins over Wozniacki and Kuznetsova this summer may have heralded the rise of a counterpuncher with just enough power to seize the initiative in rallies when the opportunity presents itself.  Somewhat fallible in the first set of her opener, Bartoli hopes to regain the form of her last two Slams rather than the tepid performances of her losses in Toronto and New Haven.  Among her most potent weapons is her return, which will punish McHale for serves that fail to land deep or near the corners.  An enigmatic player who can oscillate sharply from one match to the next, Bartoli often has produced her finest tennis when least expected—and vice versa.  Can the young American compete as tenaciously as the Frenchwoman, who has emerged triumphant from many an epic battle?  The partisan crowd should not unnerve Bartoli but instead might even motivate her to swat those returns with redoubled vigor.

 

Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

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We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

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Cows, put on your skates.  Maria Sharapova would be the first to admit her shortcomings on clay, once labeling herself a “cow on ice,” but she claimed the first red-clay title of her career at Strasbourg this weekend.  Although nobody would confuse it with Rome or Madrid, the tournament will have restored some vital confidence to a player whose high-stakes game revolves around it.  We were encouraged to observe how greatly she relished winning this insignificant title, moreover, proving that her renowned passion for competition remains undimmed despite demoralizing injuries.  If Maria can carry her momentum here into faster surfaces, the summer hard courts should see her well-positioned to wreak some havoc.  Better positioned than a cow on ice, anyway.

While Maria journeys to the French capital, we inaugurate our daily previews of the matches to watch at Roland Garros.  Sunday’s order of play disappointed us a bit, to be honest, so the selection is smaller than what you’ll see from us in the future.  Nevertheless, there’s a defending champion and a pair of potential future champions in action…

Kuznetsova (6) vs. Cirstea (Chatrier, 1st match):  Just 3-5 since the beginning of March, Kuznetsova has been struggling to win matches since her title in Beijing last fall.  If the defending champion doesn’t win this match, she’ll drop well outside the top 10 and perhaps outside the top 20.  Unfortunately for her, victory is far less assured than in most first rounds, for the draw has pitted her against a quarterfinalist here last year, who upset Jankovic in a marathon three-setter.  Like Kuznetsova, though, Cirstea has accomplished much less recently than her talents would suggest and has not recorded an impressive win since defeating Dementieva in Hopman Cup.  On the other hand, she recently harnessed the assistance of Azarenka’s former coach, Antonio Van Grichen, and showed promising signs by defeating Kirilenko in Andalusia as well as taking a set from Pennetta in Madrid.  Both players showcase bold shotmaking that can veer wildly from sizzling to Antarctic, which might produce an entertaining rollercoaster.  If the photogenic Romanian can stay focused and within range, she’ll have an opportunity to pull off the upset.

Dulko vs. Azarenka (10) (Lenglen, 2nd match):  One never would consider Azarenka the retiring type, but the extroverted Belorussian has retired three times since Miami with a hamstring injury.  Also a quarterfinalist here last year, her balanced game suits the clay better than many of her peers and may someday lift her to the title.  It won’t happen in 2010, however, for any sort of hampered movement will be ruthlessly exposed on this surface.  Dulko’s consistency might enable her to wear down Azarenka in long rallies; the Argentine certainly isn’t intimidated by marquee players, having defeated Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells during the past year.  Another factor here may be the unruly French crowd, since hostile audiences have rattled Azarenka in the past by mocking her Sharapova-esque shriek.  That said, she has many more ways to win points than does Dulko. 

Benneteau vs. Gulbis (23) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  On paper, this first round should be an utter mismatch, but we’re moderately curious to observe how Gulbis responds to what surely will be a partisan Paris crowd.  The Latvian defeated an Italian in Italy and a Spaniard in Spain during his last two events, seeming a trifle jaded against Volandri but completely unruffled against Lopez.  An accomplished doubles player, Benneteau doesn’t possess the consistency or defensive skills that would test Gulbis’ still-suspect consistency.  Among the key questions regarding his future Slam success would be his ability to remain focused deep into a best-of-five format, but that question probably won’t be answered for at least one or two more rounds.

Sprem vs. Kirilenko (30) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Steadily rising in the rankings, Kirilenko impressively followed up her opening upset of Sharapova by reaching the final eight in Melbourne.  The 30th seed also navigated into the Rome quarterfinals after defeating Kuznetsova in three sets.  Situated in Sveta’s section again here, she could accomplish another strong run here, although she just suffered an oddly lopsided loss in Madrid to Radwanska, no dirt devil herself.  Designed around grace and guile, her game sometimes falters against an imposing server like Croatia’s Sprem, perhaps best known for a controversial Wimbledon win over Venus.  The contrast between adroit point construction and first-strike tennis could produce some engaging rallies.

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Vesnina vs. Petkovic (Court 17, 1st match):  This match deserves much better than Court 17.  Separated by just three places in the rankings, the Russian and the German both possess well-rounded games as well as an imaginative sense of opening up the court with angled groundstrokes.  Although Petkovic prefers hard courts to clay, she has acquitted herself surprisingly well on the surface with wins over Rezai and Pennetta, in addition to taking a set from Serena in Rome.  Winless on red clay this year, Vesnina nevertheless scored her best performance of 2010 on green clay in the now-defunct Ponte Vedra Beach tournament, where she came within a few points of defeating eventual champion Wozniacki.  Mentally stronger than the Russian, Petkovic should prevail, but their encounter should be more tightly contested than most of Sunday’s clashes.

Briefly noted:  Most of the ATP matches look rather nondescript, but here are a few of minor interest.  A year after thrilling his compatriots by defeating Safin 10-8 in the fifth set, Josselin Ouanna attempts to recapture that magic against dangerous doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot.  Two years after nearly toppling Federer in another 10-8 fifth-set (at the Australian Open), the ever-eccentric, engaging Serb Janko Tipsarevic duels with Colombian clay specialist Alejandro Falla for the reward of a rematch with the world #1.  A tireless ball-retriever, Indian phenom Somdev Devvarman unsurprisingly clawed a path through qualifying to set up a winnable match against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  While Devvarman must refine his shot selection and develop an offensive weapon in order to break through, the clay should allow him to showcase his excellent defensive skills.  Keep his name on your radar for the long-distance future.