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Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Within minutes of Djokovic’s final forehand, viewers around the world began to wonder whether the epic that we had witnessed had become the new “greatest match ever,” thrusting aside the Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon in 2008.  We view each match through eight separate lenses to consider whether the older match retains its crown.  Take note, though, that not all carry equal weight.

Time:  The most obvious measure of comparison, time represents the least significant when one considers the numerous five-set exercises in boredom that populate the early rounds of majors.  And few would argue that Isner-Mahut, despite its gluttonous excess, ranks as the best match of all time.  All the same, the 65 additional minutes of the Melbourne final impressed not in themselves but in the ability of both players to continue displaying their fearless, physical brand of tennis long after anyone had thought possible.  The less brutal points played for a shorter time at Wimbledon four years ago never tested the endurance of both adversaries to that extent, while two rain delays offered a welcome respite in that roofless arena.  Advantage, Rafole

Place:  Unique in the reverent hush of its pristine lawn, the Centre Court at Wimbledon towers above all of the world’s other tennis venues, no matter how much larger or newer.  When one watches a final there, the specter of history hovers portentously and sometimes oppressively above the players.  Termed the Happy Slam by Federer, who won it four times, the Australian Open does not summon the same majestic aura.  Even when filled to capacity under the lights, it remains a tournament rather than a temple.  Advantage, Fedal

Magnitude:  Just two majors away from equaling Sampras, Federer also strode onto Centre Court in 2008 one victory from a record-setting sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.  Across the net, Nadal sought to cast aside the label of clay-court specialist by conquering a major other than Roland Garros for the first time.  Not since Manolo Santana had one of his countrymen won Wimbledon, and members of the Spanish royal family watched their champion.  By contrast, Djokovic’s fifth major title represented no historic moment in itself but merely the next chapter in his mounting dominance.  An eleventh major title would have tied Nadal with Rod Laver on the all-time list but have improved his status as potential GOAT contender only incrementally.  Advantage, Fedal

Context:  Framed within their rivalry, the conclusion of the Wimbledon trilogy between Federer and Nadal marked a crossroads in their rivalry.  On one hand, Roger had left Rafa in tears a year before when he won another classic five-setter in Part II of the trilogy.  On the other hand, Nadal had routed the Swiss superstar barely a month earlier in the Roland Garros final, losing just four games and triggering murmurs that he had eclipsed Federer for good.  (He had, as it turned out, but we wouldn’t know until they met in Melbourne two majors later.)  As Djokovic and Nadal braced for their thirtieth meeting, no sense of a crossroads loomed.  Having won their last six meetings, including consecutive major finals, the Serb stood higher in the rankings and enjoyed the surface advantage.  On the eve of the final, Nadal’s only edge seemed to come from Djokovic’s depleted fitness after a five-set semifinal, a tenuous thread on which to hang one’s hopes.  Advantage, Fedal

Complexity:  After a grinding, 80-minute first set tilted in Nadal’s favor, Djokovic seemed in serious trouble.  Then, he charged to an early lead in the second set and generally held that momentum until midway through the fourth set.  Almost with an air of inevitability approached the finish line as the second seed served at triple break point in the eighth game of the fourth set, defeat lurking five points away.  With several impressive serves, Nadal appeared to save himself—until he fell behind 5-3 in the tiebreak.  Dodging that bullet as well, he seized all of the momentum from his rival and never looked back until he led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set.  Six points from defeat himself now, Djokovic exploited an uncharacteristic backhand error to reverse the narrative one more time.  Much more straightforward was the narrative of the Wimbledon final, which divided neatly into halves.  Nadal won the first two sets rather routinely and held triple break in the seventh game of the third set, at which point Federer mounted a comeback that brought him within five points of the title before Rafa narrowly survived the deluge of serves and forehands.  To be sure, the Swiss did save a match point on Nadal’s serve in the fourth-set tiebreak, but the broader narrative remained relatively simple.  Advantage, Rafole

Drama:  Falling just short of completion, Federer’s accelerating comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit captured the imagination as an aging lion mustering one last effort to defend his territory from a younger rival.  Moreover, each of the last three sets reached 6-6 and hinged upon a handful of points; few situations can trump the drama of an advantage set to decide a major final.  Without that clash of generations or unified narrative, the Melbourne final still posed the question of whether Nadal could solve the man who had harried him around the globe last year.  The last two sets ended by the narrowest of margins, like the Wimbledon final, and the player who won the fourth-set tiebreak similarly rallied from a 5-3 deficit.  Moreover, the fifth set compensated for its fewer games with the internal plot twist provided by the exchange of breaks near its midpoint.  Deuce

Entertainment:  For sheer visual pleasure, little could trump the spectacle of the top two players in the world hurling 100-mph thunderbolts at each other from behind the baseline.  Nor was the Melbourne final oriented entirely around such savage groundstrokes, for both men covered the court expertly to collaborate on repeated rallies of 20 shots or more.  By those breathtaking standards, the Wimbledon final looks austere and restrained in retrospect.  The older match featured clinical precision in its serves, approach shots, and passing shots, but it showcased many fewer lung-burning exchanges and blinding blasts flung towards corners with spine-tingling courage.  Advantage, Rafole

Climax:  In this department, the Melbourne final clearly surpassed its predecessor.  After losing his serve at 7-7 in the fifth set with a forehand unforced error, Federer tapped another forehand meekly into the net to end the Wimbledon epic with abrupt anticlimax.  While a feeble netted backhand by Nadal handed Djokovic the decisive break, the final game offered scintillating drama.  Trailing 30-0, Rafa later reached break point with a penetrating backhand, only to see the Serb erase it with an explosive two-hander of his own.  After doing all that he could to invoke divine aid, Djokovic then delivered an outstanding first serve on championship point, followed by a decisive inside-out forehand winner.  That authoritative point ended this match in a manner worthy of its magnificence.  Advantage, Rafole

Verdict:  A thrilling epic in its own right, Rafole remained almost entirely a story of two players on one court during one, seemingly endless night.  On the other hand, Fedal sprawled beyond those confines to assert its place in the sport’s history even as we watched, which earns it a stature still unsurpassed.

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In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

And so they meet again, the two best players in the world, on yet another grand stage.  After a fortnight of largely predictable tennis in the men’s draw arrives a match that nearly everyone had expected, at least outside Switzerland and Great Britain.  Those who followed the 2011 season in detail might consider this final battle just as foreseeable as everything that has preceded it this fortnight.  Nevertheless, every season offers an opportunity to turn a page on the past and create a new narrative.

Doubtless hoping desperately to dull the memories of six painful defeats by Djokovic, Nadal should have gained some optimism from his victories over Berdych and Federer.  Although he lost the first set to each of those opponents, the world #2 played progressively more inspired tennis through the rest of those matches, scrambling implausibly on defense to produce vintage retrievals while stepping inside the court on backhands as well as forehands.  In contrast, Djokovic sagged through significant stretches of arduous victories over Ferrer and Murray after unexpectedly conceding a set to Hewitt.  Struggling with his breathing during his last two matches, the world #1 needed every ounce of energy to escape a Scot far more determined than in last year’s final.  In a thrillingly physical match that stretched just ten minutes short of five hours, Murray forced the Serb to grind through rally after rally that probed the contours of the court, often leaving one or both men gasping for air.  After such exertions of mind and body, surely Djokovic will enter the final too drained to outlast Rafa in a best-of-five format?

And yet…

When Murray extended Djokovic to a final-set tiebreak in Rome, most observers made much the same comment as they looked forward to his championship tilt against Nadal.  Less than 24 hours later, the Serb had registered his most resounding victory of the season against his most notable victim, repeatedly triumphing in the endlessly prolonged rallies that the Spaniard has used to chip away at the minds and bodies of his opponents.  In the US Open final, moreover, the world #1 trumped the man ranked immediately below him despite having survived a psychologically exhausting five-setter against Federer in the previous round, and despite nursing a shoulder injury throughout the fortnight.  When Djokovic has looked his most beleaguered in New York and here, he has become oddly more dangerous by adding additional urgency to his shots and somehow finding the lines even more precisely.  At the US Open, he rampaged through his most dominant set of the day after limping through a tiebreak and requesting the trainer.  Having defeated Federer in the 2009 final after winning a similarly nerve-jangling semifinal with Verdasco, Nadal knows well not to underestimate the recovery potential of the only player in the ATP who can equal his own fitness.

All the same, the 2009 champion took measures to enhance his serve over the offseason in order to avoid the dismal effectiveness of that shot against Djokovic at the US Open. Broken a career-high eleven times in that match, Rafa repeatedly lost his serve after breaking his opponent and thus rarely could consolidate a momentum shift.  In two of the match’s longest games, his inability to collect free points from his delivery represented key turning points.  Addressing this problem with determination and some imagination, Nadal added three grams of weight to the top of his racket in the expectation that the pace of his serve would increase.  Through his first several matches, he indeed has appeared to crack higher velocities with that shot more often.  Cleverly varying its placement against Federer, the Spaniard did earn a greater percentage of free points than usual.  Surely such a key improvement to his arsenal will play a critical role in the Melbourne title match?

And yet…

Long a better returner than Federer or Berdych, Djokovic possesses better reflexes than the former and greater agility than the latter.  Despite the amplified pace on his serve, Nadal has not always held serve in key games with as much ease as one might expect.  Broken when he served for the second set against Berdych, he later let a mini-break slip away in the ensuing tiebreak.  Extended through three deuces in the final game of his semifinal, Rafa struggled mightily to finish the match as his first serve misfired.  Meanwhile, Djokovic’s clear mental edge in his rivalry with the Spaniard may undermine Nadal’s confidence and indirectly dull a shot that relies upon confidence as much as any technical prowess.

Sooner or later, of course, the 2009 champion will halt his streak of futility against the title holder in 2008 and 2011.  Following an offseason during which he likely reviewed their matches in detail, Nadal may have developed new strategies to combat a rival who frustrated him so relentlessly.  Beyond the additional pace on his serve, for example, he may have realized that he must hit through his backhand more forcefully in cross-court rallies against the Djokovic forehand.  Able to survive exchanges from his own two-hander to the Nadal forehand, the Serb has enjoyed his most notable success by targeting the Spaniard’s backhand until he receives a more tentative reply that he can redirect down the line to his opponent’s forehand corner.  If that tactic proves less effective on Sunday, Djokovic may struggle to find new patterns that unsettle his opponent without earning time of his own to formulate a response.

And yet…

In a similar position to Djokovic now, Nadal gradually overtook Federer largely by means of hooking his lefty forehand into the Swiss master’s one-handed backhand, a shot exquisitely graceful but relatively lacking in resilience.  While Rafa simply adhered to this reliable strategy, his rival experimented with one potential parry after another but never quite found the response that would undo this straightforward balance of power.  To some extent, then, the narrative of the Federer-Nadal rivalry ultimately developed into the older man’s quest to overcome an inherent limitation in a game that had seemed bulletproof until the arrival of his nemesis.  Perhaps one should not assume that the Spaniard will find answers to similar inherent shortcomings more easily than the man whom he supplanted at the summit of the sport.  At this stage of his career, Nadal likely will not change his style any more dramatically than Federer has as he ages.

***

In both of their two previous major finals, Djokovic seized a commanding early lead before Rafa snatched away the third set.  Just when Nadal threatened to launch a courageous comeback, however, the Serb stamped out resistance with an imposing fourth set.  During the early stages of this final, therefore, the second seed should attempt to assert himself against the world #1 more forcefully than he did against Berdych and Federer.  Edgy to start those matches, Nadal positioned himself too far behind the baseline and only gradually crept closer as his confidence rose.  If he lets Djokovic seize the early initiative, however, the psychological obstacle posed by the events of 2011 will tower ever higher in his mind.  On the other hand, a firm statement of purpose in the first set would signal to a possibly weary Serb that he must prepare for a challenge even more formidable than their US Open encounter.  Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

 

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray - Best Of Day 14 - 2011 Australian Open

One day after Melbourne hosted the greatest rivalry in this generation of the ATP, it will host the latest installment of something that could have become a rivalry but hasn’t quite so far.  Despite entrenching themselves in the top 5 for the last few years, Djokovic and Murray have met only once at a major and rarely have played their best tennis at the same time in their matches.  (To some extent, one can blame the lack of Slam encounters on the oddly consistent pairings in recent draws, which regularly have pitted the Scot against a certain Spaniard.)  In contrast to the divergent playing styles of Federer and Nadal, this pair of combatants shares similar strengths in their returns and backhands.  Moreover, their meetings have not unfolded according to the internal logic of Rafa’s steady advance upon each of Rogers’s citadels.  After Djokovic dominated Murray through their early meetings, the Scot then rebounded to claim three straight victories, at which time they arrived in last year’s final here.

Anticipated by many to mark the start of a genuine rivalry between them, the 2011 Australian Open final merely signaled the ascendancy of the Serb to a pinnacle never even approached by his counterpart.  Surrendering just nine games to a baffled Murray, Djokovic demonstrated the gulf between them in both physical firepower and mental fortitude.  With the sting of that ignominious defeat surely festering in his mind, the fourth seed should approach the encore with redoubled motivation.  The early stages of his partnership with Ivan Lendl already seem to have invigorated Murray, who has displayed much more positive energy (or perhaps less negative energy) as well as a more aggressive cross-court forehand during his first five matches.

Outside a first-round clash with Ryan Harrison, however, the fourth seed could not have designed a more comfortable draw for himself.  Avoiding the ATP’s explosive shot-makers, the 2011 finalist has needed to do little beyond simply outlast opponents like Kukushkin and Nishikori, who could not subject him to any sustained pressure.  All the same, Murray has used these non-competitive matches to refine areas of his game that might reap rewards against Djokovic, most notably his first serve and his net play.  Those two categories offer the most plausible route to avenging last year’s result, for his groundstrokes cannot match those of the world #1 blow for blow, and Murray should have learned by now that defense does not win championships.

Fitness does play a role in winning championships, though, and Djokovic has not looked his indefatigable, impenetrable best in his last two matches against Hewitt and Ferrer.  Sometimes resembling his pre-2011 self, he slogged through rallies with more weariness than conviction.  On the other hand, he still defeated a top-five opponent in straight sets and showcased his sharpest form towards the end of the match.  Having passed the tests posed by this pair of tenacious competitors, he may arrive in the semifinal better prepared for the challenge ahead than Murray, which could counterbalance any advantage that the latter holds in energy.

But Djokovic shoulders a mental burden of his own, as much as he may deny it and try to suppress his awareness of it.  Following a 2011 campaign as brilliant as any season recorded by Federer or Nadal, the Serb must realize that expectations of a similar sequel probably defy plausibility.  As he braces himself for the towering task of defending as much of his conquered territory as he can, Djokovic must feel as though even as meaningful an accomplishment as winning this semifinal comprises only a tiny increment in a citadel that he must build again from its foundations.  When he first defended a major title, at the 2009 Australian Open, the pressure fused with the heat to produce a desultory performance.  Although the heat will not derail him this time, a gritty adversary like Murray may discourage Djokovic if the match extends longer than the 2011 final.

No less laden with intrigue than the more eagerly anticipated semifinal before it, this match will hinge more upon execution than upon the effectiveness of a certain style, considering the similarities between these adversaries.  After their previous meeting here featured ten breaks of serve during a single sixteen-game span, one should expect a similar demonstration of sparkling returns although perhaps a more capable serving display as well.  Both men cover the court exceptionally well, forcing the opponent to construct rallies meticulously and create unexpected angles.  We envision longer rallies than in the Federer-Nadal duel and quite possibly a more suspenseful match.  At any rate, one certainly should anticipate a sequel to last year’s final that trumps its predecessor in quality if not in magnitude.  For Murray, who has played his worst when the stakes run highest, that dynamic may allow him to believe that he can vanquish the invincible.  And belief comprises the larger half in the equation of victory.

With any luck, tonight might witness the start of a genuine rivalry.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Not without adversity did Sharapova reach her first quarterfinal at a hard-court major since 2008, withstanding Lisicki’s percussive serve and maintaining her bulletproof resilience in three-setters.  As had happened in her previous matches, the former champion bolted into an early lead before her opponent settled into the match.  When Lisicki weathered that initial assault and unleashed a major momentum surge of her own, Sharapova found herself forced into a fierce battle for the first time in 2012.  Erasing all seven break points on her serve in the last two sets, including five in one game, she dug into the trenches with characteristic determination.  That brush with danger should heighten the Russian’s intensity as she approaches the round where the draw had seemed likely to pit her against Serena.  Surely satisfied to avoid that obstacle, she nevertheless should not discount the draw’s most lethal dark horse, who has compiled victories over Kanepi, Zvonareva, and Serena.

Completely undismayed by the sight of a 13-time major champion across the net, Makarova has not lost a set since the first round and has frustrated her seeded victims with explosive down-the-line lasers  that showcase her ability to redirect the ball from behind the baseline.  The pace of these courts suit her game especially well, and few would dispute that her ranking of #56 does not accurately reflect her abilities.  If she continues to connect on those groundstrokes so precisely, she will test the improved movement of her fellow Russian.  Both of their previous meetings have unfolded on clay, the surface least suited to them, and Sharapova has fed her compatriot three straight breadsticks after losing a set in the first of those clashes.  Nevertheless, clay muted the wickedly slicing lefty serve of Makarova, which won her the Eastbourne title from another prestigious field.  By maintaining a high percentage of first serves and cracking second-serve returns as fiercely as she did against Serena, the underdog could deliver a message of intent to the favorite.  Usually quick to respond to such messages with a barrage of her own, however, Sharapova astonishingly won nearly half of the points on Lisicki’s serve, considered among the most formidable in the WTA.  Undefeated in ten major quarterfinals outside Roland Garros, the 2008 champion devoured Petkovic and Cibulkova in this round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.  Only a relentlessly opportunistic effort by Makarova will save her from that fate.

Errani vs. Kvitova:  A thoroughly unexpected presence in a major quarterfinal, the Italian’s route resembles a genealogy of this section’s more notable upsets.  Defeating only one seeded opponent in four matches, the unseeded Errani dispatched Bartoli’s conqueror in Zheng a round after she defeated Stosur’s nemesis in Cirstea.  At this stage, mere opportunism alone will not suffice as the moment of truth arrives for this doubles specialist who has reached the quarterfinals in that event as well.  In no area of the game, except perhaps her net play, does Errani surpass the world #2 and Wimbledon champion.  And reaching the net will prove especially difficult against an opponent who habitually lasers returns of serve and pockmarks the baseline with her penetrating groundstrokes.  Even if Errani plays an exceptionally clean, error-free match, she lacks the stylistic eccentricities or variety with which some of her compatriots might upset Kvitova’s rhythm.

As has proven the case at this tournament so far, the second seed perhaps has most to fear from herself.  She has established comfortable leads in all four of her matches, conceding no more than two games in any of her first sets.  But two of her second sets witnessed concerning wobbles that led to a fiercely contested three-setter on the former occasion and a second-set tiebreak on the latter.  En route to the Wimbledon title, Kvitova suffered similar mid-match lapses during two of her victories and candidly admitted that her focus deserted her.  When her mind wanders, she often starts to misfire and then loses control of her weapons with unnerving speed.  Essentially an offensive player only, Kvitova has no options in those situations other than to keep aiming for the lines and hope that she hammers a path out of her own doldrums.  To be sure, this match looks boring at first glance, but the Czech lefty has developed a habit of making the boring become interesting.  In a major quarterfinal, moreover, one cannot afford to take an opponent too lightly.

Murray vs. Nishikori:  To some extent, this match reminds us of the Wozniacki-Clijsters quarterfinal in its pairing of two counterpunchers, one of whom does everything just as well as the other and several things better.  For example, Murray can expect to win many more free points with his serve than can Nishikori, burdened by the pressure of more difficult service games.  Chipping away at Tsonga with a grittiness worthy of Ferrer, the top-ranked Japanese man has developed a game with very few flaws but not many weapons.  As his victory over Djokovic in Basel last fall demonstrated, he certainly can exploit a mediocre performance on mental or physical levels by a greater talent.  As his routine defeat to Murray in Asia last fall demonstrated, Nishikori struggles to solve an elite opponent on a day when that opponent delivers his finest tennis.  Having not played on Rod Laver Arena, he may start the first major quarterfinal of his career with uncertainty, although the experience of facing Nadal on a Wimbledon show court may allow him to settle his nerves.

Often subject to nerves himself at this stage of a major, Murray has kept his inner demons at bay so far with the assistance of the perennially calm Ivan Lendl.  When he lost his first set of the fortnight, usually a signal for a self-targeted harangue, the fourth seed regrouped relatively calmly to outlast the threat posed by Ryan Harrison.  Since then, no meaningful challenge has confronted the Scot, who received a retirement in the previous round and thus should bring greater energy to the match than Nishikori, perhaps depleted by his five-set duel with Tsonga.  It seems likely that Murray can win this match without venturing outside his natural, patient playing style, which bodes well for his success here but perhaps not for a probable semifinal with Djokovic.  When the competition spikes upward dramatically, can he adjust overnight?  No answers will come until Thursday in a rematch of last year’s final that should prove a worthy sequel to the Federer-Nadal collision a night before.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  In an odd quirk of tennis fate, the defending champion met Hewitt in the fourth round and Ferrer in the quarterfinals of his march to the 2008 title.  Defeating both of them in straight sets that year, he set a less encouraging precedent by needing four sets to foil the feisty challenge of the Australian champion.  Like Sharapova, however, the experience of playing his first competitive match of the tournament after a farcically dominant first week may assist Djokovic prepare mentally for the top-five opposition likely to confront him henceforth.  First among them is a Spaniard who shares Hewitt’s appetite for competition and has enjoyed recent success in Melbourne.  Although he benefited from an injury to Nadal, Ferrer performed valiantly in his semifinal appearance last year as he extended Murray—a much superior player on the surface—to a fourth-set tiebreak.  This year, Ferrer did not impress in an first-week epic against Ryan Sweeting, but he has played himself into the tournament with a commanding victory over Gasquet in which he effectively translated his brand of clay-court tennis to these medium-speed hard courts.

Through their previous meetings of these quarterfinalist winds a clear pattern of clay dominance for the Spaniard and hard-court dominance for the Serb, with the exception f two clashes at the year-end championship in which fatigue played a pivotal role.  Together with Murray, these men have honed the best returns in the ATP and should threaten each other’s serves repeatedly.  The prospect of losing serve does not intimidate Djokovic, who converted more break points than anyone on the Tour last year.  Despite improvements over the last few months, Ferrer’s serve remains the weakest element of his game and a key target for the world #1 to attack if he wishes to avoid a prolonged war of attrition, although he will feel grateful to play this match at night.  His fitness has improved dramatically since the start of last season, admittedly, but Djokovic will not want to exhaust himself on the eve of consecutive battles with Murray and the winner of the Federer-Nadal semifinal.  By redirecting the ball throughout rallies and taking time away from Ferrer with timely forays into the forecourt, he can neutralize the Spaniard’s principal virtues of consistency and stamina.  But Djokovic must strike just the right blend of control and aggression.


Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

Thrilled to reach the second week at the Australian Open for the first time since 2008, Ivanovic overcame a spirited challenge from Vania King as well as a lingering virus to arrange a rendezvous with a—perhaps “the”—tournament favorite.  Announcing that she had accomplished her goal for the fortnight, she cheerfully cast herself in the role of an underdog against a player who has not defeated her in three meetings.  During much of her post-2008 woes, Ivanovic continued to perceive herself as a leading contender at virtually every event that she entered.  Her recent definition of herself as someone who can “play a great match” or “upset a top player” (essentially, a dark horse) represented a welcome recognition of reality that likely will help her rebuild her game and confidence.

In the same round of  the US Open last fall, the former #1 faced a similar sort of obstacle in Serena but competed valiantly despite absorbing the loss.  Ivanovic hammered more winners than the 13-time Slam champion during that match, stepped inside the court whenever she could, and even swung freely at her opponent’s justly feared serve.  Now, she must deploy those tactics again.  Practically oozing a Serena-like power, Kvitova launches massive first strikes on her serve and return as well as her other groundstrokes.  Unable to track down balls with the alacrity of a Suarez Navarro, a player of Ivanovic’s type simply must aim to pull the trigger and decide the point before the Czech can.  After an unforeseen second-round wobble against the aforementioned Spaniard, Kvitova settled back into her groove against Kirilenko and should relish the steady rhythm of a fellow heavy hitter like Ivanovic.  Expect plenty of explosive shot-making from both sides of the net before the former #1 gracefully demurs to the future #1.

Murray vs. Kukushkin:  In one of the tournament’s most disorderly matches, Kukushkin blew a two-set lead against an oddly disinterested Monfils before weathering a comeback from the Frenchman, his own fatigue, and a curious disruption in the final game to preserve his perfect record in five-setters.  Also overcome by this opportunistic anonymity in a fifth set was Troicki, not an outstanding competitor on major stages but still much more talented than his nemesis.  Suffice it to say, therefore, that Murray will not want to tempt fate by letting his unseeded foe linger into a final stanza.  After losing the first set to Kukushkin in his first match of 2012, their only meeting so far, an irritable Scot recovered to control the encounter thenceforth. Under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl, the world #4 survived a four-set opening battle with Ryan Harrison that may have steeled him for the challenges ahead.  In his last two rounds, Murray looked scarcely more troubled than Djokovic as he subjected his opponents to the tennis version of death by a thousand cuts.  Although he occasionally has struck his forehand with more authority and has hinted at a greater willingness to approach the net, he has not needed to leave his counterpunching comfort zone thus far.  Murray should not need to exert himself or attempt anything extraordinary to reach a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, where the resistance might stiffen suddenly.

Makarova vs. Serena:  Into the second week for the second straight Australian Open, the Russian lefty banished her countrywoman Zvonareva with a combination of well-placed serves and blistering down-the-line groundstrokes.  A round before, in fact, Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi with even greater ease despite a surface suited more to the Estonian’s style.  Only once has she met Serena, losing routinely in Beijing on a somewhat slower court.  Rarely tested by any of her first three opponents, the woman who has won more Australian Open titles than any player in history did not find herself forced to play her best tennis during the first week.  Serena looked bored at times in her third-round victory over Greta Arn, while her greatest concern so far surrounds the insects that visit Rod Laver in the evenings.  Although she has played with heavy wrapping on her legs and ankles, her movement has looked reasonably efficient on the few occasions when her thunderous weapons do not win her the point within three or four shots.  Mustering surprising resistance to eventual champion Clijsters in the same round a year ago, Makarova will bring more self-belief than Serena’s previous opponents.  The Russian’s lefty groundstrokes will stretch the American along the baseline and may offer her less time to prepare her shots.  But Serena loves to create angles with her returns and groundstrokes, exploiting her natural athleticism to hit her most dangerous lasers while racing along the baseline.  Despite staying competitive for much of the match, Makarova never will threaten to win it.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  In the third game of the second set in Sharapova’s second-round match, something remarkable happened:  her opponent held serve without facing a break point.  All of her other 22 return games resulted in at least one break point—and 20 of them in a break.  Ravaging her opponent’s delivery with impunity, the 2008 champion has protected her own serve more smoothly than she has for much of her comeback.  Early in the second set of each match, though, Sharapova suffered a lull in her serve and the rest of her game after a nearly flawless first set.  At that stage occurred her two lost service games of the tournament, in addition to the bulk of her unforced errors.  For a set and a few games of Lisicki’s meeting with Kuznetsova, one expected an all-Russian meeting in the fourth round.  To the German’s great credit, though, she rebounded from a woeful start to steadily assert her mastery behind a massive first serve.  She will need that weapon to fire more regularly than during her previous meetings with Sharapova, who mauled her much less fearsome second serve in victories at Miami and Wimbledon last year.  Even when the Russian suffered a poor serving day at the All England Club, she still defeated Lisicki comfortably.  Those precedents suggest that her second meeting with a German in the fourth round of the Australian Open will unfold more successfully than its predecessor.  All the same, we have not seen Sharapova respond to pressure during this tournament as she has sizzled through matches while losing no more than two games in a set.  Lisicki could place her opponent in the unfamiliar situation of a competitive match, testing her under pressure, if she can survive the initial bombardment.  But it’s easier said than done.

Djokovic vs. Hewitt:  Soaked with emotion was the Australian veteran’s triumph over mighty prodigy Raonic under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  After losing the first set for the second straight match, Hewitt weathered several miniature momentum shifts in the three sets that followed as he defused the Canadian’s power, exploiting his low first-serve percentage.  What reward does the home hope receive for his labors?  In order to stay competitive, he will need to play even better tennis than he did while winning his first three matches.  To win a set from Djokovic, Hewitt must find his first serve whenever he needs it, finish points at the net, and pepper the baseline with both of his groundstrokes.  At his age, such a complete display of offensive ability probably lies behind his grasp, even with the Australian crowd vigorously supporting him.  Throughout his career, Djokovic has played especially fine tennis when he has not one but thousands of opponents to conquer; among examples, one might reflect back to his victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open or his victory over Tsonga when he won in Melbourne for the first time.  If he senses especially fierce opposition on Sunday night, then, he merely will redouble his efforts to crush it.  Surrendering just ten games in nine sets so far, the world #1 has stayed relaxed without slipping into carelessness as he openly uses his matches to work on less impressive facets of his game.  Although Hewitt won a set in each of their Wimbledon encounters, Djokovic recorded a routine straight-sets victory when they met four years ago in the same round on the same court.  During the four years that have passed, the Serb has grown infinitely more dangerous, while Lleyton has faded nearly as sharply.  Neither of those trends bodes well for the survival of the last Australian remaining in either draw.

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Nishikori vs. Tsonga:  When they collided for the first time last fall, the top-ranked Japanese man stunned the top-ranked Frenchman in one of the latter’s few disappointments during the span from Wimbledon to the year-end championships.  Extending his momentum through the offseason, Tsonga collected the Doha title uneventfully and has won 13 straight matches against opponents other than Federer as he seeks his fourth consecutive final.  In the section of the draw that lacks a member of the Big Three, he must fancy his chances of reaching his third semifinal at the major where he has enjoyed the most success.  Celebrated much more for his athleticism than for his focus, Tsonga often wobbles at some stage during the first week against some unheralded foe.  This year, by contrast, he has rolled through three matches while losing only one set and growing more impressive with each round, much like Del Potro.  Dropping the first two sets to Matthew Ebden before mounting a comeback, Nishikori lost the first set to Benneteau and should have counted himself fortunate not tot trail by two sets to one.  That lesser Frenchman served for the third set no fewer than three times, at which moment the Bolletieri product demonstrated remarkable resilience by refusing to relinquish his toehold on it.  Breaking Benneteau’s resolve as well as his serve, Nishikori returned fearlessly even when in danger, a trait that should benefit him against Tsonga.  But his own delivery remains relatively benign by ATP standards, so he fares best in a match of breaks and long rallies.  The sixth seed enjoys neither of those events, preferring to dominate behind his serve and hurtle towards the net to finish points.  Despite the modest speed of these hard courts, Tsonga should impose himself upon the underdog once more.

Gasquet vs. Ferrer:  During a fine first half of 2011, the Frenchman surged towards the threshold of the top 10 and recorded victories over four top-10 opponents while reaching an Indian Wells quarterfinal, a Rome semifinal, and the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Much less productive in the second half, Gasquet slipped to the edges of the top 20.  Such ebbs and flows have characterized his career, whereas Ferrer has embedded himself in the top 10 with the same relentlessness that he has shown on the court in contesting each point.  To no surprise, then, the Spaniard has won five of their six meetings in a rivalry that has not featured a single final set or any encounter in which the winning player lost more than seven games.  In the best-of-five format at a major, where they have not played before, Ferrer’s tenacity and superior fitness would seem to place him at an even greater advantage.  Although the extended length allows Gasquet more time to strike one of his patented flawless streaks, it also allows the Spaniard more time to recover from it.  Forced to five sets by Ryan Sweeting, last year’s semifinalist did not dominate as resoundingly as one would expect in the first week.  By contrast, Gasquet has grown increasingly imposing with a sequence of victories that led to a straight-sets demolition of Tipsarevic, admittedly not at his best that day.  One need look no further than their respective backhands to understand their contrasting approaches to the game, Ferrer’s a compact model of efficiency and Gasquet’s an aesthetic wonder worthy of an artist.

Errani vs. Zheng:  Fortunate to reach the fourth round of a major, Errani marched through the section that once contained Stosur and would become a most improbable Slam quarterfinalist, even by recent WTA standards.  The Italian doubles specialist lacks any noteworthy weapons and instead wins matches through consistency as well as fine forecourt skills, which she has showcased for her nation in Fed Cup.  Also a greater presence in doubles than in singles, Zheng did reach the semifinals here and at Wimbledon behind her streamlined groundstrokes and alert anticipation.  Compensating for her tiny physique with crisp footwork, she uses the full weight of her body behind shots that penetrate the court more effectively than one would expect.  Nevertheless, neither of these players can compensate for serves that earn them virtually no free points, or for second serves that properly should have a bow tied around them.  A superior returner to Errani, Zheng might capitalize more skillfully upon this weakness that they share.  She also enjoys the advantage of momentum, accumulated through an eight-match winning streak that culminated with an upset over Bartoli.  Through her first three matches, Zheng has defeated opponents with a variety of experience and playing styles, ranging from the double-fisted strokes of the Frenchwoman to the biting backhand slices of Vinci and the straightforward power tactics of Madison Keys.  When she faces the relatively bland Errani, that experience should help her adjust to whatever the Italian will offer.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Looming less than a week ahead, the Australian Open arrives not a moment too soon for tennis fans awaiting the next episode in the ATP’s scintillating trivalry.  Will the dominance of the top three continue, or will one of their challenges steal the show?  We discuss the five title favorites in Melbourne.

Djokovic:  A clear but not overwhelming favorite, the world #1 seeks his third Melbourne crown and third consecutive major title, which would position him to claim a “Novak Slam” in Paris.  More than any of the other majors, the Australian Open suits Djokovic’s talent for transitioning from defense to offense with movement as explosive as any of his other weapons.  Although he chose not to play any preparatory ATP tournaments, he delivered a fierce opening statement by demolishing Federer and Ferrer in an Abu Dhabi exhibition.  Having won 10 of his last 11 meetings with his two leading rivals, Djokovic owns an especially keen psychological edge over Nadal and swept Federer in straight sets during their two most recent Australian encounters.  Less auspicious for a title defense is the heat of Melbourne, which undid him in 2009.  Meanwhile, the pressure of defending last year’s spectacular performance may weigh upon a player for whom perfection lately became commonplace.

Nadal:  At the last three majors, the Spaniard accumulated a 19-0 record against all opponents other than Djokovic, including four victories against the top five.  Having resolved to spare no effort in solving the riddle suddenly presented by the Serb, Nadal selected a heavier racket over the offseason to enhance his serve, unimpressive since the 2010 US Open.  But that critical change may need time to evolve, as the second seed mentioned when suggesting that he wanted to display his best tennis between Indian Wells and the Olympics.  A champion here in 2009 following a five-set victory over Federer, Nadal may wish to atone for his disappointing quarterfinal exits in his past two appearances.  Considering his perfect record against Federer and Murray through the US Open last year, nobody should bet against him if Djokovic falters before the final.

Federer:  Not since 2003 has Federer lost at the Australian Open to a player other than the eventual champion, winning four titles during that span.  The Swiss legend arrives in Melbourne with a 20-match winning streak that included yet another title at the year-end championships, but he has not won a major in two years and has lost to Djokovic in three straight hard-court Slam semifinals.  Still, Federer became the only player to overcome the Serb at a major during 2011, unleashing a nearly flawless display of shot-making at Roland Garros.  Falling just one point short of repeating the feat in New York, he showed remarkable resilience by rebounding during the fall.  Beyond a nagging back strain, Federer’s main challenge may surround his ability to deliver the coup de grace against talented opponents.  In both of his last two majors, his focus and game evaporated after he held a two-set lead.

Murray:  While he may prefer Wimbledon and the US Open, Murray has enjoyed his best results at the season’s first major, where he has reached two finals before losing in straight sets both times.  Following an encouraging fall season, the Scot astutely selected Ivan Lendl as the coach who could ignite the first the Slam title run of his career.  Healthier than Nadal and Federer at the moment, he competed courageously in his last two clashes with Djokovic.  Despite the lack of worthy opposition, a Brisbane title should have injected him with positivity on the eve of Melbourne.  As Murray edges into his mid-20s and towards the midpoint of his career, though, the expectations of his compatriots will grow ever more intense.  Can he handle them more confidently than in the past?  With his arduous playing style, consecutive collisions with two of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer would pose a supreme test of fitness.

Tsonga:  After the most consistently impressive season that he has recorded so far, the flamboyant Frenchman returns to the scene of his only previous Slam final, four years ago.  Sparked by a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, his momentum rarely slowed through the rest of the second half and would have carried him even further had he not lost four matches to Federer.  A Doha title consolidated his progress, which has brought him to the threshold of the top five.  On this medium-speed hard court, his relentlessly aggressive style leaves him more vulnerable to counterpunchers equipped with crisp passing shots, while his insouciant personality rarely stays in check for an entire fortnight.  Having constructed a less balanced game than the players ranked above him, Tsonga will need to serve exceptionally well and construct the vast majority of points around his forehand—not an easy effort to sustain on a medium-speed surface.

***

We return tomorrow with the next article in our preview series on the first major of 2012.

 

 

 

 

Novak Djokovic - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  Ambling aimlessly along the baseline, the world #1 looked as though he would have preferred to have spent his evening basking in his Monte Carlo home rather than toiling through an arduous battle against David Ferrer.  After the first few games of their encounter, Djokovic exuded few sparks of energy while retreating into the self-deprecating mannerisms familiar from his struggles in 2009-10.  Having branded his hegemony upon the ATP and devoured the majority of its elite titles, Djokovic now seems somewhat satiated with success.  Under the chilly blue lights of the O2 Arena, his movement often has looked labored, his shot selection perfunctory, his technique unsteady, and his emotions somewhere between negative and nonplussed.  As his match with Berdych edged towards its climax, he released none of the full-throated roars that accompanied similar suspense in his victories earlier this year.

And yet Djokovic remains in contention for a fourth consecutive semifinal berth at the year-end championships, in part because of Murray’s withdrawal.  Fortunate to have escaped with a win against Berdych, who outplayed him for much of their encounter, he would consider himself unfortunate not to secure a vital second win against an accommodating compatriot.  Never has Tipsarevic defeated Djokovic, although never have they met as a pair of top-10 opponents.  As proud of his countryman’s rise as any other Serb, the veteran may have accumulated too much respect to thwart his chances of advancing from the group.  Unable to advance himself after his loss to Berdych, Tipsarevic may content himself with serving as the platform for his nation’s greater good.

On the other hand, history suggests that the older Serb can challenge the younger Serb despite the marked gulf in talent between them.  In all three of their meetings, Tipsarevic has won at least one set, and he traded blow for blow with Djokovic on even terms for two sets at the US Open this summer before an injury led to his retirement.  Undaunted by his exalted surroundings, the tattooed eccentric marched to a match point against Berdych on Wednesday with the bravado that has accumulated throughout his breakthrough season.  Once again, however, he fell just short of victory in a theme that has plagued him throughout his career, most notably in a five-set loss to Verdasco at this year’s Australian Open.  Down a match point to Berdych, Djokovic displayed a keener survival instinct by trimming his unforced errors and elevating his focus as he tottered on the edge of defeat.  Despite his depleted condition, the willpower of a champion briefly flickered from him.  Moribund against Ferrer as the match slid hopelessly out of his grasp, he might have mustered more competitive muscle had not the Spaniard so resolutely denied him all hope.  His loyal friend should not prove so merciless.

Even if Djokovic does dispatch his compatriot and survive until the semifinals, though, his chances of challenging Federer or Tsonga look slim indeed.   In his last round-robin match, the world #1 should capitalize upon the chance to deliver a statement more worthy of his ranking before the opposition stiffens this weekend.  And maybe release a roar or two as well.

Ferrer vs. Berdych:  Asked to predict which player would not drop a set through two matches in London, few outside Ferrer’s native province would have named the Spaniard ahead of the usual suspects.  As Murray and Djokovic have faltered, though, the world #5 has burst into the lead of Group B with his familiar fortitude.  Renowned for one of the most consistent returns in the ATP, Ferrer displayed an improved serve this fall as he once cruised through eight sets without a break.  But more remarkable is his ability to play game after game, rally after rally without committing a single unforced error from the baseline.  The Spaniard’s seemingly inexhaustible patience reaped rewards repeatedly against the injured Murray and a disinterested Djokovic, whose frustration mounted with each penetrating reply to a groundstroke that would have hurtled past many an opponent.  By playing each point with the same intensity, Ferrer won the psychological battle over both of his higher-ranked opponents well before the match ended.  Unlike Tsonga against Nadal, moreover, he did not grow careless even when his lead looked insurmountable.

Those traits should bolster Ferrer’s cause on Friday much as they have in his previous encounters with Berdych, the type of more powerful and more mentally fallible foe whom the Spaniard delights in defusing.  After consecutive epics in his first two matches, the Czech may arrive emotionally if not physically weary from the experience of losing after holding match point and winning after saving match point.  A point more against Djokovic, and Berdych would have qualified by now.  A point less against Tipsarevic, and his chances of advancing would have expired.  To be sure, his fortunes do not look especially bright against an opponent who has won their last four meetings, including two on indoor hard courts, and five of seven overall.  Despite his capacity for ball-striking ferocity, Berdych generally will find that rallies tilt against him if Ferrer survives his first strike.  As he spars with the heavy-footed Czech, the Spaniard’s superb footwork and agility should enable him to outmaneuver his opponent in most rallies that last longer than five or six shots.  For that reason, the length of their exchanges should offer a guide to the outcome.  Central to Berdych’s semifinal appearance in Paris was his willingness to attempt volleys and exploit the angles of the court.  Will Ferrer’s court coverage negate that strength?

With his semifinal berth assured, the Spaniard may lack some of his trademark intensity.  Even if he loses in straight sets, he will advance to meet Federer on Saturday.  Still, a competitor of his caliber might not know how to reduce his energy level at will, so Berdych should not expect complacency across the net.

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