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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

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Daniela Hantuchova - 2012 Brisbane International: Day 1

Overshadowed by far more famous figures at their respective tournaments were the women’s finalists in Brisbane and the men’s finalists in Doha.  But, on the first weekend of 2012, these four players have come from shadow into light.

Hantuchova vs. Kanepi:  After the dust settled on a draw with five Slam champions and four #1s, two unseeded entrants will contest the Brisbane final.  Predictably unpredictable considering recent events in the WTA was Hantuchova’s march through an upper half that contained Serena, Clijsters, Stosur, and Ivanovic.  To be sure, injuries played a central role in her recent progress, which included a walkover from Serena (ankle) and a retirement from Clijsters (hip) after the Belgian had won the first set.  Nevertheless, Hantuchova competed with often uncharacteristic fortitude through much of her semifinal despite an 0-9 record against Clijsters.  As game upon game stretched to deuce upon deuce, one would have expected the more accomplished player to prevail, but instead the Slovak won a five-deuce game on her opponent’s serve and an eight-deuce game on her own serve.  Imaginatively exploiting the geometry of the court, Hantuchova served and returned impressively for extended spans.  Those areas play an especially significant role for a player whose indifferent movement prevents her from losing the initiative early in points.  But her opponent also does not display great agility, so she can finish points more efficiently than she did against Clijsters, without stringing together so many audacious groundstrokes.

Almost impenetrable on serve during her last three matches, Kanepi has conceded just one service game and faced four total break points against three top-20 opponents in Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone.  Relying less on angles than on raw power, her weapons have penetrated this medium-speed hard court with ease, while her ability to hold serve so comfortably has allowed her to take more chances in return games.  The Estonian can expect to secure more comfortable holds if she uses her wide serve to open up the court for her first groundstroke, which Clijsters did too sporadically in the semifinal.  Graced with the longest pair of legs in the WTA, Hantuchova struggles to reverse direction and arrange her feet when rushed out of her rhythm.  Among her main advantages over Kanepi is her deftness in volleys and drop shots, key reasons for her three-match winning streak against the Estonian.  Since neither player has accumulated much success in finals (or much experience, for that matter), nerves from the unexpected circumstances may well surface.  Having lost a fiercely contested Moscow final to Cibulkova in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi surely will bring heightened motivation to avoid a similar fate in her first tournament of 2012.

Monfils vs. Tsonga:  Only three times has this pair of rollicking Frenchmen intersected, twice on indoor courts and all three during the fall season.  The recipient of a walkover from Federer, Tsonga began the week in unremarkable fashion before brushing aside an anonymous Spaniard in the quarterfinals more efficiently.  Tasked with a much less anonymous Spaniard in his own semifinal, Monfils delivered a surprisingly complete display against Nadal with only a few flashes of his familiar whimsicality.  Earlier in the tournament, though, the world #16 narrowly survived Benjamin Becker in the sort of erratic, puzzling display for which he long has gained notoriety.  When he faces his compatriot, he must aim for the former rather than the latter level of performance while clinging closely to the baseline.  Tsonga’s net-rushing tactics and constant aggression should reap rewards if Monfils slips into passive counterpunching, offering the world #6 ample time to construct his combinations.  Just 4-11 in finals, Gael will attempt to become the first player outside the top 5 to win a final from Tsonga, who has distinguished himself on such occasions even in defeat.

Like Kanepi, Tsonga ended 2011 by losing a tense three-set final, albeit on a stage of far greater significance than the Kremlin Cup’s sterile chamber.  Also like Kanepi, he will hope to start 2012 by holding the larger trophy this time.  Possibly satisfied by his upset over Nadal, Monfils may slide into a psychological lull for his next match just as he did after his previous victory over Nadal here in 2009.  Or Tsonga also may find his concentration dulled by the entertaining exhibition that replaced his semifinal.  While their match might not offer the drama or tension that one would wish in a major semifinal or final, it should offer a sprightly coda to this minor tournament on the Persian Gulf.  Despite their fame for fierce forehands and bludgeoned serves, both Frenchmen enjoy a talent—and taste—for finesse that can produce unexpected moments of inspiration.  While the player who adheres to his more straightforward strengths should prevail, his opponent might win the contest of aesthetics.  And, for many French players, that contest seems just as significant as the contest captured by the scoreboard.

Perhaps the quietest month of the tennis season, February hovers uneasily between the Australian Open and the two mini-Slams of Indian Wells and Miami.  As the contenders converge upon North America, we reflect upon the four events that unfolded during this month’s final week.  Who holds a game point, who rests in equilibrium at deuce, and who faces break point?

Vera Zvonareva - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Four

Ad-in:

Zvonareva: After an uncertain start to 2011, the world #3 snapped a five-final losing streak in emphatic fashion against a player who had captured two finals from her in 2010.  Rarely threatened by Wozniacki in Doha, Zvonareva won her first title since Pattaya City last year and will bring considerable momentum to the California desert, where she collected the most notable trophy of her career thus far.  Two rounds before her victory over the world #1, moreover, the Russian displayed physical and psychological resilience by outlasting Hantuchova after tottering within two points of defeat in an epic three-setter.

The single most impressive moment of her week, however, may have come in the penultimate game of her semifinal with Jankovic.  After splitting a pair of lopsided sets, the Russian and the Serb traded hold for hold through eight games of the final set without facing a break point.  In the ninth game, Zvonareva opened with two egregious errors and a double fault to hand Jankovic triple break point, at which stage a meltdown looked imminent.  But then came three unreturnable serves and later an ace to punctuate this crucial hold.  A staggered Serb conceded the match-ending break a game later, undone by the unexpected poise under pressure from an opponent famous for her fragility.  Although she had not yet claimed the title, Zvonareva responded to that adversity with the composure of a champion.

Djokovic: Like Zvonareva, he looked much less bulletproof throughout the week than the player whom he ultimately defeated in the final.  Unlike Zvonareva two weeks before, the Serb captured a tournament for the third successive year, a feat unprecedented in his career.  Saving his best for last, Djokovic delivered his finest tennis of the week against Federer in the final as he surpassed the Swiss star in both of the latter’s greatest strengths, the serve and the forehand.  The Australian Open champion cruised through service games more efficiently than Federer, finding first serves at crucial moments and targeting all four corners of the service boxes.  (In fact, Djokovic dropped only one total service game during his two victories over top-10 opponents Berdych and Federer.)  Somewhat less surprisingly, the Serb generally fired the decisive salvo in their forehand-to-forehand exchanges, often freezing Federer with scorching cross-court angles.  Juxtaposing his undefeated record in 2011 with his previous triumphs in Indian Wells and Miami, we christen him the slight favorite at both North American events.

Del Potro: Not content with a third consecutive semifinal appearance, the gentle giant marched to his first title since the 2009 US Open.  From one week to the next, Del Potro’s confidence has mounted as his movement has grown more natural, his anticipation keener, and his forehands more fluid.  The Argentine also struck his backhands with greater authority, unafraid to attempt winners from his crisp two-hander as well as his more intimidating wing.  Still fallible is the serve that contributed untimely double faults to Fish in the semifinal and offered eleven break points to Tipsarevic in the final, of which the Serb courteously spurned ten.  Nevertheless, Del Potro will join Raonic among the most dangerous dark horses in Indian Wells and Miami, especially the latter event with its vociferous Latin American fans.

Jankovic: Five points from her first final since last year’s clay season, the former #1 bolstered her Dubai revival with a second straight semifinal.  Jankovic has rediscovered the range on her scintillating backhands and served above her normal level against Zvonareva, allowing her to expend less effort on each point.  While she reverses direction less smoothly than she once did, her lateral movement continues to frustrate opponents who rely upon winning points from the baseline.  Although the Serb seems unlikely to defend her Indian Wells crown, she might lose fewer points there than we initially expected.  And she might well have won her match with Zvonareva had they played on clay, where she should distinguish herself once again.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Deuce:

Federer: For elite contenders like the Swiss, tournaments like Dubai principally provide preparation for more pivotal events on the calendar.  Thus, Federer accomplished his central goal this week by playing five matches before traveling to the North American hard courts.  On the other hand, he followed four routine victories over unimposing foes with a lackluster performance against Djokovic.  Often missing backhands by feet rather than inches, the top seed donated far too many unforced errors to exert pressure upon the Serb, and he struggled to absorb Djokovic’s pace at both the baseline and the net.  Although Federer remains #2 in the rankings, few would consider him currently the second-best player in the world.

Wozniacki: Like Federer, the women’s #1 swept comfortably to the final and then lost rather comfortably when she arrived there.  Through her first three matches, Wozniacki demolished three estimable opponents with heightened aggression that some analysts attributed to a lingering illness.  Against Petrova, Bartoli, and Peer, she attempted uncharacteristically bold forehands and even ventured into the forecourt at times for swinging volleys.  But she retreated from that aggression when the competition stiffened in the final against Zvonareva, who combined superior power with sufficient consistency to stifle the counterpunching Dane.   While Wozniacki will continue to win the vast majority of matches with her trademark, high-percentage style, she will not take the next step forward until she gains the confidence to seize the initiative more often against marquee opponents.  Nevertheless, the relatively slow surfaces at Indian Wells and Miami should showcase her strengths as they did last season.

Acapulco: A jarring sight in February, the Mexican red clay hosted many of the week’s most compelling matches.  Accelerating prodigy Alexander Dolgopolov scored a notable victory over Wawrinka before taking a set from Ferrer, one of the finest clay-courters of his generation.  Meanwhile, Almagro extended his scalding recent form into a three-set final against his fellow Spaniard, who defended his title only after 161 minutes of grinding rallies, flowing one-handed backhands (Almagro), ruthless inside-out forehands (Ferrer), and imaginative shot selection (both players).  Yet this magnificent entertainment seems virtually irrelevant to the impending hard-court Masters tournaments.  The Latin American clay-court strongholds must decide whether to risk abandoning their traditional clay-court niche and shift to hard courts, where they would fit more logically into a February wedged between key hard-court events in Melbourne and Indian Wells.

Ad-out:

Li Na: After winning her first eleven matches of 2011, the Australian Open finalist will bring a three-match losing streak to Indian Wells.  A week after wasting four consecutive match points against Wickmayer, Li managed just three games against Klara Zakopalova.  Continuing a career-long pattern of peaks and valleys, the Chinese star has grown more dangerous but perhaps no more consistent.

Kuznetsova: Perhaps weary from the previous week’s exertions, this similarly mercurial competitor could not capitalize upon her Dubai momentum and sagged in her Doha opener against Peer.  One should not discount Kuznetsova on the ultra-slow hard courts in the California desert, however, where she has reached two previous finals.

Verdasco: Defeated twice by Raonic in less than a week, he expressed churlish contempt for the hard courts (and his opponent) as he stalked spitefully off to Acapulco.  But karma descended to smite Verdasco with a first-round loss to Bellucci, which perhaps reminded him that his struggles stem from more than the surface.  Ironically, the Spaniard has accomplished at least as much on hard courts as on clay, so he should not squeeze himself too eagerly into the role of one-dimensional dirt devil.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Maneuvering around obstacles of varying obduracy, the top two seeds have arrived in the semifinals at both events on the Persian Gulf.  Will they progress one step further to their appointed destinations, or does an unforeseen patch of quicksand lie ahead?  We examine each of their situations before the penultimate rounds of Dubai and Doha.

Federer:  In a recent ad for Credit Suisse, the 16-time major champion reclines on his bed in peaceful repose.  Only somewhat less somnolent here, Federer has meandered in leisurely majesty through a draw of thoroughly outclassed opponents.  Against the unimposing Stakhovsky, however, the Swiss legend found himself forced to save nine break points on his serve as his loose-limbed nonchalance verged on carelessness.  Since he must overcome either Djokovic or Berdych in the final, the world #2 will need to heighten his intensity at that stage if he plans to caress a fifth Dubai trophy with his elegant fingers.  But, at this stage, a garden-variety GOAT  may prove more than sufficient to overcome Gasquet, a surprise semifinalist who spared Federer the trouble of defusing Simon.

Just 5-4 in 2011 before this week, the Frenchman has not defeated the Swiss since their thrilling duel in Monte Carlo six long years ago.  Uneasily wearing the appellation of “baby Federer,” Gasquet has dropped his last seven encounters with his pseudo-parent, including a nondescript meeting at the Paris Indoors last fall.  A player of fits and starts, flashes and jolts, Richard has snatched a few small titles but has fallen far short of the consistency or the fitness necessary to capitalize upon his uncanny talents.  Tracing the boundary between effortless and casual, his rococo shot-making rarely finds its targets throughout an entire match, much less an entire tournament.  On Thursday, though, the Frenchman rebounded impressively from a limp first set against Simon to reassert his mastery over his compatriot with timely serving and deft finesse in the forecourt.  But Federer enjoys a far more penetrating groundstroke arsenal than Simon, so Gasquet will find fewer opportunities to sally forward unless he maintains a high first-serve percentage.  Battered by multiple forms of adversity throughout his career, the Frenchman has settled steadily (and not unhappily, we suspect) into the role of best supporting actor.  Artistry and grace cannot compensate for competitive complacency, as Federer himself has discovered during his decline.

Djokovic:  Less emphatic than the top seed, the reigning Australian Open champion sagged into lethargy during prolonged passages of his victories over Lopez and Mayer.  Wrapping his knee as he did against Murray, Djokovic frequently lacked the explosive movement that frustrated Federer in Melbourne.  One also wonders whether he approaches this relatively minor event with a vigor diluted by his heroics at the Australian Open.  Surely still bathed in that glory, Djokovic enters Dubai with nothing to prove; in stark contrast, his two championship runs here followed embarrassing quarterfinal exits at his most successful major.  On the other hand, the moderately paced Dubai surface favors his balanced all-court style, as he demonstrated with consecutive title runs in 2009-10.

After a whiplash-inducing 2010, Berdych has found a measure of stability early in 2011.  While less brilliant than he suggested at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, he has risen out of his ignominious second-half slump to remind rivals of his relevance.  The Czech ball-bruiser has reached at least the quarterfinals in all five of his events this season, although he has not yet progressed to a final.  At the Australian Open, he fell prey to an inspired Djokovic in a straight-setter that exposed his labored movement and questionable shot selection.  Rather than a steady diet of baseline lasers, the Serb showcased less familiar elements in his multifaceted game against a befuddled Berdych, who struggled to bend for backhand slices and reverse the direction of his unwieldy frame for wrong-footing shots.  In order to produce that intelligent brand of tennis, however, Djokovic must sharpen his focus from the previous rounds.  On this occasion, will he target Berdych’s weaknesses or exploit his own strengths?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with the trophy after beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Wozniacki:  Seemingly sturdier with every tournament that she plays this season, the world #1 surely will finish the year with a major title if she continues this upward trajectory.  As her fortnight in the Persian Gulf has progressed, she has stepped inside the baseline with increasing frequency and authority.  Against opponents such as Kuznetsova and Petrova, Wozniacki ventured out of her cross-court comfort zone and began to redirect her groundstrokes down the line with greater confidence.  Her whippy, aesthetically unattractive forehand also started to penetrate the court more effectively as she struck it earlier and flattened her swing.

Previously flirting with heightened aggression at times, Wozniacki has retreated to her counter-punching comfort zone when she confronts a more imposing opponent.   Yet the attributes outlined above will prove essential for winning Slam titles, so the 20-year-old must adhere to such tactics as tenaciously as she patrols the baseline during rallies.  Undone by Bartoli in Cincinnati last year, Wozniacki has lost her last two clashes with a Frenchwoman who has returned from a Melbourne injury in torrid form.  Conceding only seven games in her last five sets against Kleybanova, Peer, and Peng, Bartoli could trouble the rhythm-oriented Dane with her darting, double-fisted lasers.  If the Frenchwoman pins Wozniacki behind the baseline, she can plant herself in the center of the court and dictate rallies by creating the angles unique to her eccentric style.  But, if the top seed refuses to retreat, she could keep the offense-only Bartoli scrambling reactively without the time required to measure her targets.  Nearly equaling her opponent’s recent brilliance, Wozniacki lost just seven total games to Petrova and Pennetta, while she can draw confidence from the memory of her finals appearance on this court last fall.  Moreover, a relatively insignificant tournament like this ordinary Premier event offers her an opportunity to hone her aggression in preparation for grander stages.

Zvonareva: Reaching three previous finals in Doha, the top-ranked Russian collaborated with Hantuchova on a match that towered above this otherwise lackluster tournament like a minaret in the desert.  Zvonareva deserves full credit for surviving their 189-minute epic in better condition than the manicures of many viewers, and Hantuchova deserves sympathy for losing her second marathon match of the season after dropping a 219-minute battle at the Australian Open.  Undeterred by Hantuchova’s third-set resilience on serve, the second seed battled through equally arduous games on her own serve and stayed within range to exploit the predictable opportunity when it arrived.  Emotionally elated by avenging her Pattaya City defeat, Vera also will enter the semifinals physically weary—not an ideal condition in which to confront the grinding Jankovic.

When the Serb stood atop an anarchic WTA in late 2008, she won three consecutive hard-court collisions with Zvonareva before falling to her on this court in the year-end championsips.  As her star waned and the Russian’s waxed, the trajectory of their scintillating rivalry reversed itself with three victories last year.  While Zvonareva has faltered at times in early 2011, Jankovic has taken tentative steps towards revitalizing herself, so another twist might lie ahead.  This compelling semifinal will test the Serb’s surge in self-belief and perhaps inspire her to unexpected feats on the North American hard courts where she has prospered before.  Will the 2009 Indian Wells champion or the 2010 Indian Wells champion bring greater momentum from one desert to another?

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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Vying for the vast pot of gold on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Wozniacki and Clijsters reprise their collision in the 2009 US Open final.  That match produced a scoreline less intriguing than its events would suggest, for the Dane came within a few points of winning the first set and tested the Belgian in a series of elongated rallies.  Slightly more poised when the US Open title hung in the balance, Clijsters hopes to reproduce that performance in Doha, but she faces a more mature and determined edition of Wozniacki this time.

Why Clijsters might win:  Entering only seven previous hard-court tournaments this year, the Belgian nevertheless won four titles on her favorite surface.  En route to the winner’s podium in Brisbane, Miami, Cincinnati, and New York, she overcame such luminaries as Henin (twice), Venus (twice), and Sharapova. In 2010, Clijsters has won not only all four of her finals but all nine of her meetings with opponents who have held the #1 ranking.     Intriguingly, each of Kim’s hard-court losses this year came against Russians (Petrova, Kleybanova, Zvonareva), so perhaps Wozniacki should consider changing her passport. Moreover, the Belgian seems unruffled by any potential off-court distractions, whether the absence of her family or the car accident just before her semifinal.  Playing just well enough to win for much of the week, the world #3 probably recognizes that little lies at stake for her here; a second title at the season-ending event adds little of consequence to the resume of a three-time Slam champion.  Rather than sapping her motivation, this circumstance should allow Clijsters to find the relaxed, flowing brand of tennis that she displays when at her best.  Not a devotee of drama like Serena and Sharapova or an acolyte of artistry like Henin, Kim functions most effectively when she keeps her emotions at bay.  Like most of Wozniacki’s opponents, she must balance patient point construction with aggressively stepping inside the baseline at opportune moments.  Unlike most of Wozniacki’s opponents, however, Clijsters possesses the ideal set of tools to solve this riddle, especially the lithe and explosive moment that alloss her to transition so swiftly from defense to offense.

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Why Wozniacki might win:  In contrast to her opponent, the world #1 can augment her reputation as much as her bank account with a title at the most important non-major on the calendar.  Although she can’t silence her critics until she captures a Slam, the Dane would deliver a compelling statement of intent by conquering the reigning US Open champion.  Having won six consecutive finals, Wozniacki has accumulated much more experience in championship matches—and consequently greater self-belief—than she had when she met Clijsters at the US Open a year ago.  Extended to three sets in her last two title tilts, she responds more resolutely to adversity than she did in that match, when she faltered slightly after the disappointment of losing the first set.  Somewhat fortunate to escape the first set of her semifinal against Zvonareva, Wozniacki has distributed four breadsticks and a bagel this week against three top-10 opponents.  While Clijsters has unleashed her share of aces in Doha, she won’t serve the Dane off the court as did Stosur.  The 20-year-old #1 can settle into baseline rallies and establish a groundstroke rhythm, aware that this match should feature plentiful service breaks.  Since their 2009 US Open clash, moreover, the Dane has elevated her own delivery into a more imposing weapon instead of simply a point-starting shot.  Her backhand has evolved into the equal of her opponent’s renowned two-hander, and she has forced herself against her instincts to strike some forehands with less spin and more conviction.   If she can generate aggression from that wing as well as from her backhand, she can mentally outlast Clijsters in a war of attrition.

***

Previews will proliferate on the blog next week (Bali, Fed Cup final, Paris Indoors), but first we rewind the most memorable moments of the 2008 Olympic gold medalist.

 

 

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Whether thundering or tiptoeing past the pitfalls distinct to the round-robin format, the top three women in the world join a plucky Australian in the Doha semifinals.  Who will edge one step closer to claiming the largest single paycheck in the sport?

Stosur vs. Clijsters:

Winless in four career meetings against Clijsters, the Australian fell to the Belgian during the latter’s title runs this year at Miami and the US Open.  Nevertheless, Stosur edged progressively closer to snapping the skid in New York, where she not only won a set from the defending champion but held multiple leads in the final set.  During the first two matches of her Doha debut, the Maroon Group winner recalled the explosive serve-forehand combinations that she regularly unleashed during the first half of the season.  Neither the quirky Schiavone nor the methodical Wozniacki could trouble Stosur on her serve after she recovered from an inauspicious opening to her first match.  Just as encouraging to her fans was the Aussie’s success in converting the few break points that she obtained on the world #1’s serve.  In a fraught clash with Dementieva, however, traces of frailty resurfaced as she failed to close out a straight-sets victory and staggered under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak.  At the US Open, Stosur’s serve (and, seemingly, her nerve) abandoned her when the Belgian’s mid-match ineptitude opened a pathway to a spectacular upset.   Suddenly unable to hold, the Aussie allowed Clijsters as many lives as a cat.  Yet their New York encounter occurred in the aftermath of a tepid summer for Stosur, whereas this clash will unfold at a moment when her self-belief should approach pre-Wimbledon heights.

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Idle since defending her US Open title, Clijsters settled somewhat tentatively into the week with a win over Jankovic that featured ten double faults.  The deceptively one-sided scoreline thus illustrated the Serb’s stutters as much as the Belgian’s brilliance.  In a three-set victory over the tempestuous Azarenka, moreover, the world #3 struggled to convert opportunities to finish the match in straight sets and profited from yet another third-set meltdown by the Belarussian.  While her loss to Zvonareva may have boosted the Russian’s confidence (see below), one suspects that Clijsters felt little urgency to win an essentially meaningless encounter.  But can she banish that complacency overnight?  Surely aware of her commanding head-to-head against Stosur, she should enter their semifinal confident that she can end the Aussie’s season.  If Clijsters rises to the level that she displayed late in the US Open, she should prevail as the more versatile, nuanced, and athletic player.  If she continues to wobble through adventurous service games, though, Stosur might connect with just enough timely returns to cement her breakthrough 2010 campaign with another head-turning triumph.

Zvonareva vs. Wozniacki:

The ultra-steady Dane faces the ultra-streaky Russian for the fifth time this year but for the first time during their respective tenures at #1 and #2.  Splitting her six previous collisions with Wozniacki, Zvonareva conquered her when they met in the US Open semifinal, a routine result that startled most observers.  Clearly fond of this tournament, the Russian reached the final of its 2008 edition without dropping a match and has lost just three of her last fifteen matches in the Persian Gulf state.  The most impressive performer of the round-robin stage, she efficiently dismantled the doomed Jankovic and delivered a poised performance to overcome a determined effort by Azarenka.  During the latter match, the Russian rallied from an early deficit before shrugging off an untimely double fault in the first-set tiebreak, the type of error that once would have ignited a match-turning tantrum from her.  Having not lost a set this week, Vera will have gained confidence from recapturing the momentum in her mini-rivalry with Clijsters after her crushing defeat in the US Open final.  Although she succumbed to Wozniacki in the Beijing final, Zvonareva extended that match to a third set with artful tactics that included targeting the Dane’s forehand corner.  Likely to craft a similarly thoughtful plan here, the Russian must adhere to it through adversity as she did in New York rather than retreating into passivity as she did in Beijing.

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Charting an oddly circuitous course to the semifinals, the world #1 initiated proceedings by overwhelming a listless Dementieva.  Nestled in the more placid group, Wozniacki seemed likely at that stage to reach the semifinals without much ado, but she looked fallible in failing to convert a single break point on Stosur’s serve.  Flustered in the first set against Schiavone, the 20-year-old suddenly found herself within a set of elimination before halting the Italian’s momentum in its tracks. Having escaped that ignominious fate, Wozniacki now stands within two victories of buttressing her controversial ranking upon the most significant title of her career.  Even at the end of an exhausting season, she should approach this weekend with ample motivation.  When Caro confronted Vera here last year, moreover, she overcame a melodramatic bout of cramping to battle past the Russian; on the other hand, Zvonareva comprises a much more imposing challenge now than she did then.  As a result of their Beijing meeting, the momentum in their blossoming rivalry rests squarely in Wozniacki’s corner.  Yet the momentum in this tournament lies just as firmly with Zvonareva.  Which context will prove more relevant on Saturday?

***

We return to preview the Doha final tomorrow while casting preliminary thoughts towards a Dementieva tribute to be published next week.

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

Maroon Group:

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

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

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

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

Semifinalists:  Wozniacki, Dementieva

White Group:

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

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

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

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

Semifinalists:  Zvonareva, Clijsters

***

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

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