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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

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Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

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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

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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.

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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?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates 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.

Caro(usel) at the top: After the briefest of interregnums, Wozniacki marched into Dubai and terminated Clijsters’ one-week reign atop the rankings.  Although she nearly dropped sets to both Chakvetadze and Jankovic, the Dane ended her week in emphatic fashion by outclassing Kuznetsova in her seventh win across an eight-final span.  Wozniacki struck a blow for the WTA’s Generation Next against its aging aristocracy this week, but Clijsters may well regain the top ranking when she defends only third-round points at Indian Wells.  Tethered to finals points in the California desert, Caro perhaps could snatch the top spot back a fortnight later when the Belgian defends her Miami title.  Similarly unspectacular during last year’s clay and grass seasons, the prodigy and the veteran could trade the #1 ranking back and forth as spring turns to summer.  We don’t know where this rollercoaster will stop, but we expect to enjoy the ride—and the photo shoots that ensue each time that Wozniacki reclaims the top spot. 

Sleeping giants stir:  Ascending from year-long obscurity, two towers of power delivered warning salvoes to their peers.  A week after upsetting Melzer in Rotterdam, Cilic unexpectedly reached his first final since Munich last May.  On the indoor hard surface where he has reached four of his nine career finals, the Croat swept past the seventh-ranked Berdych  and then battled past Youzhny before snatching the first set from a scorching Soderling in the final.  While Cilic’s technique still looks laborious and unwieldy at times, he can generate explosive power from both groundstrokes when he times his elongated swings effectively.   Before the battlefields change to clay, he will hope to buttress this recent awakening upon a few imposing wins in North America, although his lowered ranking could pit him against a top seed as early as the third round.  Seemingly both physically and psychologically sturdy, Cilic might rejoin the circle of contenders more swiftly than the other comeback artist of the past two weeks.

Sidelined and demoralized by a wrist injury, Del Potro showed flashes of his familiar self during a semifinal run in Memphis that included a comfortable victory over Isner and built upon his semifinal in San Jose a week before.  Thoroughly outgunned by Roddick as he was by Verdasco, the 2009 US Open champion still lacks a critical fraction of confidence in the groundstrokes that once jerked Federer around Arthur Ashe like a puppet on a string.  Once he regains that extra bit of sting in his forehand, though, the other elements of his game look ready to slip into their appointed places.  Also in Memphis, Querrey finally snapped an embarrassing six-match losing streak by rallying from within two points of defeat against Istomin.  Quarterfinal conqueror Fish labeled the lanky Californian “the future of American tennis,” but American fans should hope that this future lies well beyond the horizon.

What a difference a week makes:  Weary from their last week’s accomplishments, none of the players who excelled at those smaller tournaments could translate their momentum to the Persian Gulf.  Days after title runs in Paris and Pattaya City, Hantuchova and Kvitova dropped their Dubai openers to Chakvetadze and qualifier Ayumi Morita, respectively.  Less notably, Pattaya City finalist Errani pried one game away from Stosur, a player whom she previously had threatened.  Perhaps exacerbating their struggles was the contrast between humid Thailand, climate-controlled Paris, and the windswept desert in Dubai.  Not forced to make such adjustments, the four semifinalists at this Premier Five event participated in neither Paris nor Pattaya City, although Kuznetsova and Pennetta did play Fed Cup.  In the WTA’s geographically sprawling schedule this month, choosing battles became a crucial step towards winning them. 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

What a difference a week doesn’t make:  Thrown into relief by the whiplash effect in the WTA, an exceptional degree of continuity prevailed in the ATP.  An ocean apart, Soderling and Almagro battered through their draws for the second consecutive week and overcame a resilient pair of opponents in their three-set finals.  Both the Swede and the Spaniard profited from the relatively benign draws in these 250 events, so one should not overstate their surges when the leading contenders reconvene at Indian Wells.  In Soderling’s case, though, the extra rankings points will further insulate his #4 position should Murray improve upon his meager 2010 results at the spring Masters events.

But the highest honors go to a player who fell just short of his second straight title after a riveting albeit stylistically one-dimensional final in Memphis.  Hammering 130 aces across five three-setters, Raonic demonstrated a fortitude remarkable in a player who just turned 20 in December.  More durable than one might expect for such a massive frame, the Canadian suffered many more dips in form than he did in San Jose, yet he rebounded sturdily from that adversity.  Unusually edgy in the first-set tiebreak against Roddick, he did not buckle in the second set but instead swatted away three match points in the 24-point second-set tiebreak.  Few would have faulted Raonic had he surrendered at 1-4, 30-40 in the final set, when he somehow clawed back onto even terms and saved another match point before the breathtaking denouement.  In the end, only the most spectacular shot of the season so far could subdue the Canadian.

The Russian bear growls:  While Davydenko, Sharapova, and Zvonareva all may have sagged recently, an implausible group of reinforcements arrived to bolster their nation’s pride.  Capitalizing upon her victory over Henin at the Australian Open and her ensuing Fed Cup exploits, Kuznetsova not only avenged her Melbourne loss to Schiavone but reached her most notable final since Beijing 2009.  Wedged into the top 20 after an eye-opening quarterfinal run, Kleybanova overcame compatriots Pavlyuchenkova and Zvonareva in imperious fashion before falling to recurrent nemesis Pennetta. Perhaps less surprising was the Marseille charge of Youzhny, who overcame not only a fiery Tsonga but a crackling French crowd to reach his first semifinal of the season.  Joining him in that round, however, was the forgotten Tursunov, fallen from the top 100 after nagging injuries but able to recapture just enough of his vintage firepower to record his first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2008.  As of this writing, however, all four Russians lost their openers this week in Dubai and Doha, so their caution seems advisable in projecting from the feats of last week.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Towering above the competition at the ATP 500 tournament in Dubai, Federer and Djokovic look destined to reprise their Australian Open semifinal collision.  Without Nadal, Soderling, or Murray to derail them, can anyone prevent a marquee final next Sunday?  We present a different sort of draw preview that discusses their potential obstacles individually.

Llodra (first round vs. Djokovic):  At his home Masters 1000 event last fall, the serve-and-volleying Frenchman halted the Serb’s title defense.  Can he perform the same feat as Djokovic defends another title?  Perhaps demoralized by his loss in the Davis Cup final, Llodra has not extended his impressive fall into 2011, and the wind-stroked desert differs dramatically from the laboratory-like conditions at the Paris Indoors.  On the other hand, Djokovic may start rusty and complacent in his first match since the Melbourne final.

Gulbis (quarterfinal vs. Federer):  After reaching the semifinal in Sydney, the world #24 has lost three straight matches, including a straight-sets loss to Benjamin Becker at the Australian Open.  During last year’s clay season, he appeared to have emerged from a protracted slump with a victory over Federer and near-victory over Nadal, but he reverted to his former self when he returned from a Roland Garros leg injury.  Seemingly destined to squander his potential, Gulbis won a set from Federer in Doha’s desert conditions last year and has the groundstroke firepower with which Del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych have unsettled the Swiss.  Nevertheless, he may not even reach their projected quarterfinal, since the dangerous Stakhovsky looms in the second round.

Baghdatis (quarterfinal vs. Djokovic):  Another player who flatters to deceive, the engaging Cypriot has reached a pair of quarterfinals this season after streamlining his physique during the winter.  Before retiring from the Australian Open for the second straight year, he ousted Del Potro and held the upper hand against Melzer until suffering an injury.  Back in the top 20, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at hard-court Masters 1000 events last season, where he demonstrated an unexpected degree of focus by prevailing in a pair of tense three-setters.  He has won at least one set from the Serb in each of their non-clay meetings, including a suspenseful semifinal at this tournament last year.  Then struggling for confidence after his notorious retirement in Melbourne, Djokovic overcame a one-set deficit with smarter shot selection and superior serving.  Not lacking for confidence this year, the two-time defending champion should extend his undefeated record against Baghdatis.

Youzhny (semifinal vs. Federer):  A two-time finalist at this Persian Gulf oasis, the 2010 US Open semifinalist owns one of the ATP’s finer one-handed backhands.  Able to project as much offense with that shot  as can Federer, Youzhny atoned for a disappointing exit in Melbourne with creditable performances in Rotterdam and Marseille.  At the latter event, his versatile, understated game blunted Tsonga’s unbridled power before the Russian wasted a match point in a semifinal loss to Cilic.  Recent history aside, his record against Federer stands at an inauspicious 0-10, and the Swiss has won their last 16 sets in a streak dating back to Halle in 2003.  Yet other long-time victims of Federer, such as Davydenko and Soderling, ultimately broke through after years of futility, so one should not discount a player with inspiring memories of his previous trips to the desert.  Last year, Youzhny came within a few key points of the Dubai title after outplaying Djokovic for a set and a half.

Simon (semifinal vs. Federer):  The architect of two accidents against the Swiss grandmaster, Simon nearly added to his disconcerting success in the second round of the Australian Open.  Few players have erased a two-set deficit against the 16-time major champion, but the Frenchman displayed his characteristic grit by grinding down Federer one rally at a time.  Derailed by injuries early last season, Simon reaffirmed his relevance with a title in Sydney and a victory over the vanishing Davydenko in Rotterdam.  Although he fell to Baghdatis in his Dubai opener last year, he reached the semifinal at this event’s 2009 edition and dragged eventual champion Djokovic deep into a sweat-soaked third set.  Before he can face Federer, however, Simon must solve the conundrum posed by first-round opponent Youzhny, who has won all seven of their previous encounters.

Ljubicic (semifinal vs. Federer):  With Indian Wells just over the horizon, can the ATP’s smoothest pate rekindle the magic of that spring surge?  Deep in the autumn of his career, Ljubicic became Tursunov’s first notable victim in Marseille but conquered Baghdatis in a third-set tiebreak a week earlier.  Similar to Youzhny, he has lost ten consecutive meetings to Federer and has not won a set from him since 2005.  Although the Swiss often has played an unfocused, inconsistent brand of tennis in their recent meetings, that level has proved sufficient to dispatch the Croat in straight sets.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Berdych (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Probably the most plausible ambush artist in the draw, the world #7 has begun to recover from his second-half swoon to build upon his summer accomplishments.  The occasional odd losses can still recur, though, as illustrated by a lopsided defeat against Wawrinka in the Chennai semifinal.  Impressively sturdy in the first week of the Australian Open, Berdych dropped just a single set through four rounds before colliding with Djokovic, who dismantled him with disdainful ease.  (The second-set tiebreak seemed more the consequence of the Serb’s boredom than the Czech’s brilliance.)  A contrasting narrative unfolded three majors ago at Wimbledon, where the underdog upset the favorite almost as authoritatively.  Perhaps ruffled by the odd desert conditions, though, he has won just one match in each of his four Dubai appearances.

Troicki (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  As we explored in an earlier article, the second Serb has challenged his compatriot on occasions such as their second-round encounter here last year.  A few months later at the US Open, he extended the eventual runner-up to five sets and thus should believe that he can break through against Djokovic as he rises in the rankings.  The world #18 fell twice to opening-round opponent Kohlschreiber in 2010 and fell meekly to potential quarterfinal opponent Berdych in Miami.  Yet he enjoyed a pair of sturdy weeks in Sydney and Rotterdam, where he bookended a retirement in Australian with a final and a semifinal.  The Serb has lost only to the eventual champion in all four tournaments that he has played in 2011, and three of his four losses have come against top-five foes.

Davydenko (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Languishing in the lower echelon of the top 50, the 29-year-old Russian has struggled to string together consecutive matches since injuring his wrist at Indian Wells.  Although he has threated the Serb repeatedly in the past, Davydenko has lost four consecutive matches since reaching the final in Doha with a victory over an ailing Nadal.  He did defeat potential second-round opponent Berdych last fall, but the confidence that has played a vital role in his success must surely lie at a low ebb.

***

We return shortly to untangle some of the intriguing storylines that developed last week and then detour to Doha for the WTA Premier tournament.

In the four tournaments that unfolded this week, each top seed advanced to the final.  Can the favorites quell their last challengers to claim their crowns?  Entrusting Buenos Aires to other pens, we preview the championship tilts in Dubai, Memphis, and Marseille.

Caroline Wozniacki - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Five

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Just as she did last fall in Beijing, the gentle but determined Dane seeks to consolidate her #1 ranking with a title.  Although semifinal victim Jankovic has sagged in recent months, Wozniacki will have gained additional momentum from securing her first career victory over the Serb after four losses.  Such skids do not end easily notwithstanding the quality of the opponent, and the top seed saved four set points before outlasting her fellow counterpuncher.  Illustrating her resilient character, Wozniacki has recovered impressively from her deflating semifinal loss at the Australian Open.  If she can notch a third consecutive Premier Five crown, she would travel to the crucial North American hard-court events with impetus for duplicating or perhaps surpassing her sterling performances there last year.

In just her second appearance at this event, Wozniacki faces an opponent who has contested two previous finals and two other semifinals in the Persian Gulf oasis.  Defeating three successive higher-ranked opponents, Kuznetsova has catapulted herself within range of the top 10 after meandering outside the top 20 before this tournament.  Her game conforms smoothly to the Dubai courts, fast enough to reward her forehand blows but not so fast that she cannot run around her backhand.  Once farcically feckless in finals, the Russian now has won her last three championship matches, including Roland Garros and the prestigious Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.  Conceding her two previous Dubai finals in three sets, Kuznetsova can hope that the third time proves lucky against a foe with whom she has split their four hard-court meetings.

Yet the momentum in this mini-rivalry lies with Wozniacki, who succumbed to Kuznetsova at Indian Wells and Miami before she ascended to the top 10.  Since arriving in that elite group, the Dane has won both of her collisions with the Russian, including a 2009 US Open rollercoaster that careened wildly between the ridiculous and sublime until it climaxed in a third-set tiebreak.  Less athletically gifted than Sveta, Caro demonstrated her firmer focus and steadier desire when she captured their rain-addled semifinal in Montreal last year.  While her weapons do not rival those of her opponent, Wozniacki’s court coverage will test Kuznetsova’s ability to finish points.  Despite a high first-serve percentage in her semifinal against Pennetta, the Russian struggled to hold serve and cannot rely upon many free points from her delivery.  Her forehand does possess the raw power necessary to hit through Wozniacki from the baseline, so her success will depend upon striking as many of those strokes as possible without conceding too much court territory.  If the Dane can pin Sveta behind the baseline and organize rallies around their backhands, though, her superior consistency will prevail.  Although less experienced and (so far) less accomplished, she brings greater confidence to their encounter than Kuznetsova, still in the process of rediscovering a game that had deserted her until a few weeks ago.

Andy Roddick - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Roddick vs. Raonic:  Having hurled 97 aces at his first four opponents, the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian might club as many aces this week as did Isner at Wimbledon last year.  Beyond that magnificent statistic, however, lurks a concerning corollary.  Amidst his serving barrage, Raonic has played two third-set tiebreaks and four total three-setters over the past four days.  Somewhat less brilliant than during his exhilarating title surge in San Jose, this untested wildcard has dropped sets to the fading Stepanek and the irrelevant Kendrick.  He may enter the final physically and emotionally jaded from the events of the past fortnight, which have propelled him to a renown that he could not have imagined when the season began.  A few parallels emerge between his week in Memphis and the series of epic wins that the then-unheralded Isner scored en route to the Washington final a few years ago.  Then, Roddick subdued his challenger with relative ease.

On the other hand, Raonic ranks among the few players in the ATP who can cruise through service games as swiftly as the American.  Accustomed to playing much longer games on return than on serve, Roddick may find his fortitude tested by an opponent with a mightier forehand and superior forecourt skills.  Free from pressure against Verdasco in San Jose, Raonic delivered perhaps the most composed, bulletproof performance of his torrid streak.  Unruffled by the Spaniard’s ability to hold serve without drama, he should not flinch when Roddick does the same.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits this week, moreover, the top seed has not held serve as comfortably as one might expect on an indoor hard court.  But his competitive resilience enabled him to reverse the tide against Berankis and Hewitt.

Following those stumbles, Roddick found his rhythm midway through his quarterfinal and rarely relinquished it in a dominant victory against Del Potro.  Like Wozniacki, Roddick will have accumulated momentum from defeating a player who had tormented him in their most notable previous meetings.  Also like Wozniacki, Roddick will want to erase the disappointing conclusion to his Melbourne campaign with a title that would buttress his confidence before defending his 2010 achievements at Indian Wells and Miami.  In order to reclaim his elite stature, the top seed must recapture his mastery over tiebreaks.  Roddick’s record in thirteenth games sagged precipitously during the second half of 2010, but he did win an 18-point nail-biter against former nemesis Tipsarevic that lifted him to 3-0 in 2011 tiebreaks.  Considering the mighty serves on display in Memphis today, his 50th career final may offer him an opportunity to burnish that record.

Robin Soderling - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2

Soderling vs. Cilic:  Contrary to our expectations, the scowling Swede needed no time at all to transition from savior Magnus Norman to new guide Claudio Pistolesi.  Undefeated at non-majors this year, Soderling has rampaged to his fourth final in his last six tournaments while dropping his serve only once this week.  The trio of Mahut, Llodra, and Tursunov exerted scant pressure upon an opponent who relishes indoor hard courts as much as the outdoor clay on which he has reached two Slam finals and defeated the two greatest players of his era.  A 2004 finalist in Marseille, the Swede also has developed a curious affinity for the nation of brioches and Bardot; three of his eight titles have come on French soil, including his sole Masters 1000 crown thus far.  But his opponent also has reaped rewards on this surface, where he has won two titles and reached a third final.

Enduring an annus miserabilis that extended with little respite from Indian Wells last year to Zagreb this year, Cilic finally flickered into life with a victory over the 11th-ranked Melzer in Rotterdam last week.  (The glow faded a bit from that victory, to be sure, when the 129th-ranked Tursunov toppled the Austrian on Friday.)  In contrast to Soderling, the unseeded Cilic has battled to the final past a pair of top-10 players in Berdych and Youzhny, whom he conquered in contrasting manners.  Comprehensively commanding against the Czech, the Croat saved a match point in a vigorously contested semifinal against the Russian.  Such a triumph could calm his nerves when he confronts the heavily favored Soderling, for the world #28 will count himself fortunate to have escaped Youzhny and earned this berth in the final.  Nobody would identify with that situation more keenly than the Swede, who himself won Rotterdam last week after saving a match point against Kohlschreiber.

Mustering little resistance to Soderling at Roland Garros last year, Cilic never has faced him on the hard court that he prefers.  Gifted with symmetrical groundstrokes, both players can terminate points as emphatically with their two-handers as with their fearsome forehands and serves.   We expect short, sharp exchanges low on point construction and high on first-strike firepower, the ideal brand of tennis for indoor conditions.  Can Cilic rise to the occasion and test the world #4?  Even if he contents himself with a runner-up trophy, which seems likely, a competitive performance would position him promisingly for the mini-majors ahead in California and Florida.

***

We return soon to preview the men’s draw in Dubai, which will offer a first post-Melbourne glimpse of the Australian Open champion and his semifinal victim.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Caroline Wozniacki Jelena Jankovic (L) of Serbia is congratulated at the net by Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the final of the BNP Paribas Open on March 21, 2010 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless in four career meetings against the Serb, the Dane failed to muster compelling resistance in their most notable collision.  On a windy Sunday afternoon last spring, Jankovic brushed aside her inexperienced opponent to collect the Indian Wells title.  Colliding with her nemesis in another desert, Wozniacki will aim to prove that she has progressed beyond that uncharacteristically error-strewn performance.  While the once and future #1 has not yet acquired a Slam trophy, her self-belief on grand stages will have risen after a torrid second half of 2010 led to two Premier Five titles, a Premier Mandatory title in Beijing, and a finals appearance at the year-end championships.  More secure in her position among the WTA elite, Wozniacki still must solve the tactical conundrum posed by a player whose counterpunching style so closely resembles her own.  Such a situation either will spur the Dane to depart from her comfort zone and embrace a higher degree of risk or will encourage her to await mistakes from Jankovic’s racket.  At Indian Wells last year, Wozniacki wavered diffidently between those options, usually favoring the former but retreating into the latter whenever risk did not reward.  This time, she must commit to either one tactic or the other from the outset.

Admiringly dubbed a “cockroach” by one imaginative observer, Jankovic has showcased her fabled survival instincts by extricating herself from peril twice already this week.  A round after preventing Kanepi from serving out their match, she saved seven of eight break points on her serve in the third set against Stosur, who watched a 4-1 lead evaporate.  Like Wozniacki, Jankovic has displayed a steeliness under pressure that belies her glittering smile.  Although she remains far from vintage form despite her three victories here, she typically has played herself into tournaments after barely escaping early-round losses.  One recalls the 2008 Australian Open, when Jelena saved match points against Paszek in the first round before ultimately defeating Serena in the quarterfinals.  Since neither Wozniacki nor Jankovic relies upon their serve for much more than starting a rally, they will engage in baseline battles that will exhibit two of the WTA’s finest backhands.  Or will they?  As cross-court exchanges develop, each player must decide whether to exploit a strength that she shares with her rival (backhand) or target a weakness that she also shares with her rival (forehand).  After two grueling matches under the Dubai lights, the Serb may not bring much energy to an afternoon semifinal against an opponent who will test her fitness.  On the other hand, cockroaches thrive in warm conditions.

Kuznetsova vs. Pennetta:   In an odd parallel with the other semifinal, the Italian has dropped all four of her meetings against an opponent who finally may have shed the malaise that plagued her throughout 2010.  To be sure, Kuznetsova did not completely quell her frailties during a straight-sets victory over Radwanska in the quarterfinals.  Sveta twice failed to serve out the 66-minute first set and botched an inviting mid-court forehand on one of her match points.  As this week has progressed, though, the two-time Dubai finalist has grown more assertive with all of her groundstrokes, thumping her less renowned two-hander with as much authority as her forehand.  Although she can strike off-balance forehands with surprisingly effective results, Kuznetsova has looked technically and strategically crisper this week than she has throughout most of her slump.  Combined with her 39 winners against Radwanska were 28 net approaches, a bold ploy against a foe with such precise passing shots.  Crucially, the Russian’s occasional reverses in the forecourt did not deter her from scuttling forward when another opportunity beckoned.  Rarely noted for discretion, she nevertheless displayed a trace of patience by maneuvering Radwanska out of position early in rallies rather than blasting a forehand and a prayer at the nearest line.

Snatching a single set from Kuznetsova in their earlier encounters, Pennetta has endured a series of embarrassments at the hands of the two-time major champion.  In the eight sets that she has lost to the Russian, she has won just twelve total games while suffering no fewer than three bagels and two breadsticks.  Watching them contest a San Diego semifinal last summer, it became painfully apparent that Pennetta could find little shelter from Kuznetsova’s merciless forehands, which pinned her too far behind the baseline to unleash her more subtle weapons.  When the Russian struggles to find her range, as in the first set of that match, the Italian can exacerbate her opponent’s uncertainties by varying the pace and spin on both her serve and her groundstrokes.  But little in Pennetta’s game can unsettle Kuznetsova on days when she unleashes the full scope of her shot-making prowess.   Likely to face Flavia again when Russia hosts Italy in a Fed Cup semifinal, Sveta should continue her mastery over this non-rivalry if she can ride the surging wave of self-belief on which her successes this week have carried her.

***

We return tomorrow with previews of the finals in Dubai, Memphis, and Marseille.  As always, feel free to comment on, concur with, or challenge what you read here.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a point during her Round 1 match against Patty Schnyder of Switzerland during day two of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 15, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Caroline Wozniacki - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Four

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Seeking her 13th consecutive victory at a Premier Five tournament, the top seed hopes to avenge her defeat to the Israeli at this Persian Gulf event in 2010.  Spurred to unexpected feats by the controversy swirling around her, Peer swept to the semifinals a year ago with victories over three top-20 players.  That burst of resolute defiance ignited her resurgence last season, during which she reached a career-high ranking and two Premier Mandatory semifinals.  On the latter of those two occasions, though, Peer fell to Wozniacki a round after the Dane had claimed the #1 ranking for the first time.  Unlikely to supply an obliging doormat for a second coronation, the Israeli competed courageously throughout the first set of a Beijing encounter riddled with service breaks.  As set point after set point slid past, Wozniacki grew increasingly frustrated against an opponent whose focus matched her own.  But, once a few rash groundstrokes decided the first set, the Israeli faded sharply.

Although Peer has forced herself to hit through her groundstrokes with greater conviction, she still lacks the baseline firepower to puncture her opponent’s Viking-worthy shield.  Nearly forced to a third set by Chakvetadze in her opener, Wozniacki pulverized Kvitova’s nemesis Morita a round later and should adapt to the medium-speed surface as smoothly as Peer.  The Dane comfortably shouldered the pressure of gaining the #1 ranking for the first time last fall, so nerves should not derail her from slipping back into shoes that have fitted her better than some had expected.

Stosur vs. Jankovic:  Soon to turn 26, Jankovic appeared a spent force throughout the second half of 2010, when she defeated no seeded opponents and mustered only a single pair of consecutive victories.  While 2011 began only slightly more auspiciously, the Serb should have accumulated confidence from a victory over recurrent hard-court nemesis Kanepi, who conquered her here a year ago.  Despite donating a disastrous first set, the sixth seed persevered and gradually settled into a rhythm rather than descending into petulance.  One suspected that she might crumble when she lost consecutive multiple-deuce games deep in the third set that featured multiple break points and game points.  To the contrary, Jankovic collected herself immediately to reel off the next four games, triggering memories of her prime when no deficit daunted her.

Justifiably weary from an Indian Wells title run, the Serb succumbed to Stosur in Miami during a match blighted by wind and questionable line calls (the latter a frequent feature in JJ extravaganzas).  Far less excusable was Jankovic’s listless performance against the Australian at Roland Garros, when she collected just three games on the surface most suitable to her style.  Early in 2011, the 2010 French Open finalist has displayed only slightly sharper form than the three-time French Open semifinalist.  On the other hand, she has progressed more smoothly this week and should hold serve much more easily than Jankovic, constantly under pressure from the Estonian on Thursday.  Curbing her defensive instincts, the Serb should hope to keep Stosur off balance by hitting behind her in rallies, a tactic that confounded the equally slow-footed Kanepi.  The Australian possesses both the strongest groundstroke of either player (her lethal forehand) and the weakest groundstroke of either player (her backhand); which shot will play a greater role?

Radwanska vs. Kuznetsova:  Perhaps buoyed by her Fed Cup heroics, Kuznetsova washed away the stains of her gallant, demoralizing loss to Schiavone at the Australian Open by conquering the Italian in another suspenseful third set.  Yet another Dubai quarterfinalist who aims to rebound from a disappointing slump, the Russian signaled her renewed intent with a Melbourne victory over Henin in which she overcame her nerves as much as the Belgian.  Outside the majors, Sveta has won five of her six meetings with Radwanska but has battled through third sets in five of her eight overall victories over the Pole.  These encounters often follow a script familiar to the famously flighty Russian, who has looked poised to proceed without ado after a capable first set before drifting out of focus in the second set and then resuming control in the decider.

Watching the Pole’s exertions at the Australian Open, spectators soon forgot about her foot injury and marveled again at her breathtaking array of spins, slices, and cunning angles.  Eager to extend the impetus from that implausible quarterfinal run, Radwanska dispatched a pair of divergent opponents in the first two rounds.  Neither the pacelessness of Sevastova nor the double-fisted probes of Bartoli unsettled a player who specializes in unsettling her rivals.  In order to fluster Kuznetsova, she must avoid a ball-bruising battle from the baseline while maintaining a high first-serve percentage.  Across the net, the two-time major champion should aim to step inside the baseline in order to take time away from the Pole, whose scintillating mind operates less clearly when rushed.  Like Stosur in the match above, Kuznetsova probably will dictate her destiny for better or for worse.

Pennetta vs. Kleybanova:  Facing scant resistance from world #3 Zvonareva, the underestimated Kleybanova spearheads the next generation of Russian stars together with Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the first round after trailing by a set and 4-2.  Unusual among her compatriots, the 21-year-old complements her characteristically Russian groundstroke might and shot-making prowess with a serve not only imposing but generally reliable.  From her doubles experience emerge an imaginative court sense in addition to forecourt skills that somehow translate graceless technique into sparkling results.  None of these advantages have aided Kleybanova against the Italian veteran, however, who won all three of their 2010 hard-court meetings in straight sets.

Extended deep into the final set against the volatile Azarenka, the equally volatile Pennetta quelled Dokic’s first-round challenge with impressive ease considering the Australian’s Paris accomplishments.  At both Sydney and the Australian Open, her tendency to veer between emotional peaks and valleys emerged.  Following a nervy, break-strewn, yet still notable victory over Zvonareva in the second round of the former event, she stumbled haplessly through a one-sided loss to Bojana Jovanovski in the quarterfinals.  Two days after a majestic rally from the brink of defeat against Peer, her Melbourne campaign ended on an angst-ridden afternoon when she squandered a one-set lead and multiple second-set opportunities against Kvitova.  One never quite knows which Pennetta will appear on any given day, but the Italian’s better self seems in the ascendancy lately with two victories over a formidable Australian squad in Fed Cup.  Can she translate her momentum from her patriotic exploits to individual competition?

 

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2



First of all, thanks to my readers for your intriguing comments on my blog; it’s a pleasure to know what you’re thinking as you read these articles!  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on the subject of our third player profile, the mercurial Russian Mikhail Youzhny.  A sporadic threat to the game’s elite, “Misha” hasn’t quite established himself as a perennial contender but has developed a stylish, engaging game as well as a charmingly quirky victory salute (see above).  As with our previous profiles, we’ll begin by recalling five key achievements and five key disappointments in his career before outlining three strengths and three areas for improvement.  At the close, the profile will briefly discuss what to expect from Youzhny during the latter stages of what has been a rollercoaster career.

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2008 Australian Open:  Capitalizing on his title in China, Youzhny surged into the quarterfinals of the year’s first major on a medium-speed hard court that probably suits his game better than the surface at any other major.  Especially impressive was his dominant victory over Davydenko, since he never had defeated his higher-ranked compatriot and had long labored in the shadow of Safin as well as Kolya.  His loss to Tsonga in the quarters looked more than respectable in retrospect after the flamboyant Frenchman annihilated Nadal one round later.

4)  2009 Valencia:  After a season of erratic results and underachievement (see below), Youzhny enjoyed a stellar fall season that culminated in a finals appearance at this Mediterranean city.  En route to the Sunday title tilt with Murray, he demonstrated his stylistic versatility by ousting both Tsonga and Simon, two players with identical passports but almost antithetical games; few tools are lacking in an arsenal that can defuse the relentless aggression of one and the near-impenetrable defense of the other.  This torrid sequence of three finals in four tournaments vaulted him back into the top 20 and positioned him for a strong run early in 2010, momentum upon which he capitalized in Rotterdam and Dubai.

3)  2009 Kremlin Cup:  Just a few weeks before Valencia, Misha scored an emotional triumph at his home tournament with a comeback three-set win over Janko Tipsarevic.  Although this title awakened little attention outside the tennis world, one was impressed by his ability to rise to the occasion and deliver a stirring performance under the gaze of his compatriots, who always expect spectacular feats from their athletes. The injection of confidence here probably spurred Youzhny towards his success at the more prominent event  in Valencia, rekindling his competitive spark at a stage when his career seemed endangered after a series of injuries and early losses.  Casting a glance back at the moment, one can see how much it meant to him:

2)  2002 Davis Cup Final:  Two years before Sharapova, Myskina, Kuznetsova, and Dementieva burst onto the WTA stage with the fabled Russian Revolution, Youzhny led Tarpischev’s squad to the first Davis Cup title in Russian history, a portent of his nation’s future ascendancy throughout the decade.  In a competition typically rife with suspense and plot twists, he remains the only player to have rallied from a two-set deficit in the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final.  Then just 20 years old, Misha demonstrated exceptional maturity and poise in completing this comeback against the admittedly fragile Paul-Henri Mathieu.  Since that moment, however, his poise has been a shade less than impeccable, as we explore below.

1)  2006 US Open:  His best performance at any major, this semifinal run included a straight-sets demolition of Robredo and a four-set quarterfinal triumph over Nadal, who has frequently struggled against the Russian.  After splitting the first two sets with Rafa, Youzhny edged the third set in a tiebreak before racing to the finish line in a lopsided fourth set.  Meanwhile, he defeated the then-top-ranked Bryan brothers in the doubles draw, so one can conclude that this US Open witnessed some of the most sparkling tennis of his career thus far.

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2010 Dubai:  Against a tentative, slovenly Djokovic, Youzhny had an exceptional opportunity to win a title more significant than any of his former triumphs.  Despite the Serb’s 12 double faults and swarms of unforced errors, however, the Russian failed to produce his best tennis at the most important moments late in the third set, including a pair of squandered break points.  This loss looked even more disappointing considering his win over Djokovic in the Rotterdam tournament just before, where he had once again proven his ability to disconcert the ATP elite.

4)  2009 Davis Cup:  Falling to Israel in the first round, the Russian team of Andreev and Youzhny did little to justify its formidable reputation. accumulated in part from the 2002 championship that Misha had helped secure.  His stunning loss to Dudi Sela in the first day of singles prompted the disconsolate remark that his “luck fell away” after a strong first set.  Throughout the first half of last year, his luck indeed seemed to be in short supply as what was once a crisp, tightly organized game unraveled and stagnated.

3)  2009 Australian Open:  Youzhny won just seven games from Austrian journeyman Stefan Koubek during an ignnominious first-round loss in a tournament where he had burst into the quarterfinals during the previous year.  The high-bouncing, slightly slower courts in Melbourne should have allowed him to produce a far more imposing performance, but an upset at the hands of the world #183 signaled the inconsistency that has increased rather than decreased as his career has progressed. 

2)  2007 Wimbledon: After seizing a two-set lead over Nadal on the greatest stage of all, Youzhny proved unable to close out the match as a result of an indifferent third set and later back spasms, which allowed the Spaniard to regain control.  Since he had just defeated Nadal at the previous US Open, this loss suggested that he might struggle to maintain his form against the top players.  Had he found a way to win one more set, the draw would have opened up and possibly allowed him to reach the semis or even the final.  Instead, he stumbled rather awkwardly on the grass:

1)  2008 Miami:  Probably the most (in)famous Youtube clip in tennis that season, Youzhny’s self-destructive racket smash over his own head earned him the wrong sort of publicity.  Lost in that masochistic moment, however, was the fact that he had allowed a lopsided match not only to become competitive but to (almost) slip out of his grasp.  Although he eventually won in a third-set tiebreak over an understandably disconcerted Almagro, this event telegraphed the crucial flaw of mental frailty under pressure, which had not surfaced earlier in his career.

Best of Three:  Strengths

1)  Backhand:  Rare among the forehand-centric ATP, Youzhny produces stronger, more confident tennis from his backhand, a shot that comes in as many flavors as Nadal’s forehand or Henin’s backhand.  There’s the flat down-the-line bomb, the crosscourt topspin looper, the low, biting slice, the chipped return-of-serve, and even the occasional drop shot, almost all of which are executed to perfection.  Whereas the forehand side remains vulnerable to unforced errors under pressure, the backhand stays steady throughout the match and offers him infinite ways to open up the court, keeping opponents off balance.  If coaching a player before a match against Youzhny, we would advise him to target the Russian’s forehand.  Such a major tactical adjustment from the conventional hit-to-backhand logic, however, complicates an opponent’s mindset and thus further aids Misha’s cause.  Here’s a look at the follow-through after the high-octane version of this unorthodox but lovely shot:

2) Net play:  An experienced doubles player, Youzhny expertly sallies forward when an opportunity opens for him and can dispatch even the most challenging volleys with ease.  Unlike many of this era’s baseline sluggers, he doesn’t need to hit a near-winner on an approach shot in order to finish a point at the net.  His deft hands, swift reflexes, and excellent footwork thwart all but the best-placed passing shots and force opponents out of the “two-pass” model often witnessed today.  The main idea of this tactic, performed most artfully by Murray, is to hit a dipping but relatively safe pass on the first opportunity, induce a clumsy volley that pops up and sits in the middle of the court, and then put away a routine winner past the frozen net player.  If you don’t pass Youzhny immediately, though, he likely will execute a volley difficult to retrieve that will set up a weak second pass and an easier second volley.  Opponents thus should use the one-pass model against him, yet it increases the risk of unforced errors.  In this glimpse of his textbook technique on the backhand volley, note his balanced body weight, well-planted feet, forward momentum, natural arm motion, and crisp focus:

3)  Point construction / shot selection:  Except when he’s under extreme pressure, Youzhny displays a superb tennis IQ and instinctively knows how best to discomfit his opponent at any given moment.  As demonstrated by his multifaceted backhand, the versatility and consistency of his game allows him to construct points in which he gradually probes his foe’s weaknesses, pushes them back, and opens up angles, rather than going immediately for a seismic blow.  Watching him develop a rally like a chess grandmaster, one sometimes feels that nothing is really happening because neither player seems to have clearly seized the upper hand.  Then, he’ll abruptly wrong-foot the opponent and clean a line with a pinpoint backhand, or creep slowly forward towards the net and catch his opponent unprepared to hit a pass.  This subtlety and nuance may wear him down physically more than stronger players (in fact, he has endured more than the average number of injuries), but it gives him more options when he’s not at his best.  Moreover, it’s easier to play oneself into a rhythm in this fluid style of play than in the “bang-bang, bye-bye” style of the most savage sluggers, so he should be more able to work his way out of rough patches during the course of a match.

Worst of Three:  Flaws

1)  Response to pressure:  Youzhny’s mental fragility emerged during the 2007 Davis Cup final against the American team, during which he played Blake in the second rubber.  After losing the first two sets, he rebounded to take the third set, force the fourth set to a tiebreak, and capture a mini-break lead there.  At that  stage, this viewer recalled his miraculous comeback from a two-set deficit in the 2002 Davis Cup final and sensed that history might repeat itself.  But the Russian then donated a rare unforced error on his backhand to surrender the mini-break, dumped a passive drop shot in the net, and meekly handed back the initiative to Blake, who closed out the tiebreak rather handily.   In the 2010 Dubai final against Djokovic, Youzhny crumbled at a critical point in the opposite fashion.  Rallying after losing the first set to force a decider, he held the upper hand for most of the third set until he earned two break points on Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game.  Instead of patiently constructing the rallies in his usual manner, he stepped out of his comfort zone by unleashing two reckless, errant forehands; the Serb capitalized on the reprieve to hold serve and soon closed out the final.  Juxtaposing these two performances, one realizes that Youzhny hasn’t discovered a balanced response to the pressure that he encounters in important matches.  Either the Russian’s overly conservative play allows his opponent to catch his breath and seize the initiative, or his premature aggression rushes himself out of the opportunity.  And then there are the Safin-esque histrionics, which only underscore his pscyhological insecurity:

2)  Holding serve:  Unlike most top players, Youzhny rarely yawns through comfortable service games, partly as a result of his relatively unimposing serve and partly because he lacks an overpowering weapon with which to instantly end a point as soon as he gains control of it.  Consequently, he’s among the easiest players to break in the top 20 and often must rely upon his sturdy return game to compensate.  Sometimes, however, it’s not quite enough, as was demonstrated by a straight-sets loss to Soderling in Miami this year that featured no fewer than nine breaks of serve in seventeen total games; impressively breaking the Swede three times in two sets, Youzhny should have been able to force a third set or at least a tiebreak.  On other occasions, his adventurous service games don’t cost him a match but do cost him significant physical and emotional energy.  During the final set of his first-round match against Gasquet at this year’s Australian Open, he repeatedly failed to consolidate a break advantage and traded breaks with the Frenchman all the way to a nerve-jangling conclusion.  If Gasquet hadn’t served second, it’s hard to know what might have happened; one of the ATP’s elite, by contrast, probably would have grabbed the momentum after the first break and closed out the match with minimal ado.  The method to Youzhny’s madness is more entertaining but also more exhausting.

3)  Winning matches that he should win:  How many players have scored multiple wins over Rafael Nadal and suffered multiple losses to Teimuraz Gabashvili?  Not many, we suspect.  The principal reason why we chose the title “Russian Roulette” for this article was because one never knows quite what to expect from Youzhny on any given day.  Over the last few years, he has not only defeated Nadal, Djokovic, Davydenko, and Soderling but has lost to Chiudinelli, Hernych, Zverev, Lapentti, Llodra, Benneteau, and Stakhovsky–not really a murderer’s row.  In order to establish himself as a consistent threat in the last few years of his career, he needs to avoid bizarre losses such as these in the early rounds of major events, which impede his efforts to consolidate momentum and build confidence.  One of the key differences between a good player and a great player is the ability to persevere and find a way to win over an unremarkable opponent even when they’re playing below their normal level and that opponent is playing above their normal level.  If he can address the first two points on this list, though, this issue might resolve itself naturally.

Recap and projection:

Already 27, Youzhny probably has most of his best tennis behind him, since his all-court game doesn’t age especially well in comparison with more serve-oriented (and more boring) styles.  He’ll probably reach the second week at Slams on a few more occasions, but another semifinal or a final probably are beyond his reach at this stage; we think that he’s better suited for a best-of-3 than a best-of-5 format.  At Masters events, we could see him reaching some quarters and semis if the draw proves accomodating, but he’ll probably never see a shield next to his name.  On the other hand, he’ll definitely be a contender at many of the slightly less intense 500-level events for the foreseeable future.  Moreover, Youzhny will pose a nuanced challenge to his higher-ranked peers on any occasion when his game reaches its scintillating best.  Even when he’s not playing a marquee name, however, it’s worth visiting the side courts to see one of the most explosive backhands and personalities in the ATP. 

***

Hope that you enjoyed this player profile!  🙂  We’ve already planned a highly entertaining topic for the fourth article in this series, which focuses on players who hover in the shadowy area between contender and pretender. 

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