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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

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Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

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

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

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

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

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



Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

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

Kvitova vs. Clijsters

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

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Hantuchova vs. Dementieva

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

Peer vs. Pennetta

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

Simon vs. Kohlschreiber

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

***

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

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Dominant on serve during a comprehensive first-round win over Makarova, Ivanovic has earned an opportunity to consolidate her revival by exacting revenge from one of the architects of her decline.  Fresh from the 2008 Roland Garros title, the Serb entered Wimbledon as a buoyant top seed, only to be deflated by the tenacious Chinese star.  In addition to outstanding movement and consistency, Zheng has troubled Ana with low, deep groundstrokes that force her statuesque opponent below her comfortable striking point.  Among the key advantages that Ivanovic holds over the petite 21st seed, however, is her recently reinvigorated serve and sparkling second-serve return.  Those first-strike weapons should shine on the Open’s fast courts, capturing short points without allowing Zheng to settle into rallies.  While first-serve percentage will prove vital for Ana, this statistic also will be essential for the Chinese star, who can’t afford to expose her benign second delivery on crucial points.  Both Ana and Jie typically rely upon baseline might to dictate exchanges, but the Serb and the doubles specialist have ventured into the forecourt with panache during recent weeks.  As the match evolves, note the duration of the points to determine who holds the edge at any stage; short points augur well for Ivanovic, while longer rallies favor Zheng.

We proceed to preview several of the other intriguing events on Day 3:

Tipsarevic vs. Roddick:

A day after three Serbs showcased their talents on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the bespectacled Tipsarevic takes aim at the leading American hope.  Two years ago at Wimbledon, Janko stunned the three-time Wimbledon finalist by capitalizing on almost every opportunity that he gained on Roddick’s serve while profiting from his adversary’s untimely miscues.  Recovering from a summer hampered by mono, Andy briskly dispatched Stephane Robert in his opener and displayed more impressive all-court coverage than one generally associates with him.  If fitness doesn’t become an issue, the home-court crowd and slick surface should lift Roddick over Tipsarevic, but the Serb has developed a habit of rising to the occasion against elite opponents on the grandest stages.  His five-set epic with Federer at the Australian Open two years ago ranks among the most thrilling first-week Slam encounters of the last few years, and he won’t feel intimidated by the hostile crowd.  Once reliant upon his tiebreak prowess, Roddick has struggled notably in those situations since Wimbledon, so watch closely if the match arrives at that stage.  Unless Tipsarevic can set up backhand-to-backhand exchanges that test Andy’s fitness or patience, however, he won’t be able to win three sets from the American.

Dulko vs. Azarenka:

Does Vika fancy a bit of vengeance?  At this year’s Roland Garros, the delicate Argentine inflicted one of the most lopsided losses of the Belarussian’s career in majors.  Nevertheless, Dulko profited from Azarenka’s hamstring injury in addition to a succession of shanked forehands, and don’t forget that she (unlike Vika) reached the second week here last year.  Healthy and refocused, the tenth seed enjoyed a stellar US Open Series that included a Stanford title and Rogers Cup semifinal appearance.  Beyond her Paris embarrassment at the Argentine’s hands, she may be hoping to atone for her painful demise in New York last year, courtesy of the indefatigable Schiavone.  Tantrums, meltdowns, and odd injuries still play a role in Azarenka’s evolution, and she displayed familiar frailty in the second set of her opener against the crafty but underpowered Niculescu.  As she prepares for a tantalizing collision with Pavlyuchenkova, however, Vika will hope to dismiss this opponent with maximum efficiency.

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Llodra vs. Berdych:

At the core of France’s Davis Cup upset over defending champion Spain stood the quirky lefty Michael Llodra, who named Mauresmo his coach, discusses his wine collection during press conferences, and once celebrated a Wimbledon doubles title by prancing around the court in his underwear.  More importantly, the Frenchman captured the Eastbourne title this summer, sternly tested Roddick at Wimbledon, and even held a brief lead over Federer at the Rogers Cup.  Having reached a semifinal and a final at his last two majors, Berdych should be filled with confidence and relaxed in his new role as one of the ATP’s premier contenders.  On the other hand, he showed a disquieting glimpse of his former, flustered self by failing to finish Federer in Toronto, and a leg injury hobbled him during a Cincinnati loss to the now-absent Baghdatis.  One would expect the Czech’s thunderous game to flourish in Flushing just as did Del Potro’s monstrous groundstrokes a year ago, yet his mind remains the most vulnerable element of his game.  If Llodra can rattle the easily rattled Czech with relentless forays to the net and deftly angled volleys, a scintillating rollercoaster could develop.

Errani vs. Kleybanova:

Opposing an Italian with an intelligent all-court game but limited first-strike potential is a Russian with prodigious groundstroke power but underwhelming recent results.  In San Diego, Errani came within a handful of points of upsetting eventual champion Kuznetsova; a few weeks later in New Haven, she held multiple match points against the admittedly ailing Stosur.  On both of those occasions, the diminutive doubles specialist rallied from one-set deficits in displays of a Schiavone-like tenacity that nearly toppled opponents of far greater shot-making talent and athletic ability.  An imaginative shotmaker herself, Kleybanova fell twice to Errani’s compatrio­t Pennetta this summer and suffered a perplexing loss to Hantuchova in San Diego, after she had thoroughly controlled their encounter.  The Russian’s deceptively effective movement and relentless depth on both groundstroke wings should hit through the Italian on this fast surface, one would think, but the Italian frustrated her on the Miami hard court earlier this year.  Look for an intriguing contrast of styles and cleverly constructed points that probe unexpected angles on both sides of the court.

***

It’s time to revert to the ajdes as we prepare for Episode II of the Adventures of Ana!  Maybe we should close our eyes and hope for the best…

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Among the most compelling reasons to watch Novak Djokovic is the Serb’s unpredictability, which echoes the pleasantly surprising narratives that emerge from this unpredictable sport.  Expecting an engaging Day 5 after perusing the order of play, however, we were unpleasantly surprised by the dreary day that developed from what had seemed fascinating encounters.  On the women’s side, not only were there no three-setters, but only one of the sixteen sets even reached 5-5.  On the men’s side, most of the matches that weren’t routine ended anticlimactically, including a fifth-set retirement and a Roddick-Kohlschreiber collision that grew less rather than more dramatic as it progressed.  Settling into the monochrome mood, even Federer returned to routine efficiency after the tension-soaked rollercoasters that had characterized his first two rounds.  Relatively unpromising compared to its predecessor, the Day 6 order of play perhaps will startle us in the opposite sense by unfolding a thriller or two.  Here are the most likely candidates for that role:

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Soderling (6) vs. Bellucci (25) (Court 1, 1st match):  Opting for rest rather than a grass preparatory event, Soderling has vindicated that decision by smothering his first two opponents with withering serves.  Across the net stands one of the ATP’s most upwardly mobile newcomers, a Brazilian lefty who shines most notably on clay but possesses sufficient power to challenge on all surfaces.  Steadily rising through the rankings, Bellucci has relied upon similar serve-groundstroke combinations to the Swede, so their matchup should be littered with unreturned serves, short points, and ultra-aggressive, sometimes impatient shotmaking.  Soderling should consider using his cross-court forehand to expose his opponent’s weaker backhand side, while the Brazilian should test the sixth seed with wide serves into both the deuce and the ad courts; the Swede proves least comfortable when extended laterally early in rallies.  As formidable as anyone in the first two rounds, Soderling should march onwards towards another meeting with Nadal; shot for shot, there’s no arena in which his adversary holds the edge.  Yet one expects Bellucci’s sliced serve to dart elusively across the grass and allow him to hold with adequate regularity to stay within range for at least one or two sets.

Malisse vs. Querrey (18) (Court 1, 3rd match):  The future of American’s tennis attempts to translate his Queens Club success to Wimbledon by exploiting a relatively open draw.  More than once on the brink of a fifth set against the unheralded Ivan Dodig in the second round, Querrey still struggles occasionally to efficiently close out matches without allowing his opponent renewed hope.  Nevertheless, his victory in the marathon fourth-set tiebreak (well, not “marathon” in the Isner-Mahut sense) testified to his recently enhanced focus, suggesting that some long-awaited maturity may have finally arrived for this lanky Californian.  Among his Queens Club victims was the enigmatic Malisse, plagued by injuries and inconsistency but dangerous when fit.  The Belgian demonstrated his fitness in a five-set opening victory over last year’s quarterfinalist Ferrero, which extended his momentum from an upset over Djokovic in the preparatory event.  If Querrey enters the contest a trifle complacent or unwary, as he might considering his recent victory at Queen Club, the veteran will have a real opportunity to accomplish a minor upset.  On grass, Malisse won’t need to hit as many shots in order to finish a point; the surface rewards his style of low-percentage shotmaking more often than punishing it.  On the other hand, he’ll find that breaking Querrey on this surface is a tall order indeed.

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Errani (32) vs. Radwanska (7) (Court 2, 1st match):  Although one typically associates grass with the mighty ball-striking of a Williams or a Sharapova, Radwanska has demonstrated the effectiveness of the opposite style.  Rather than greeting each ball with full-blooded swings (and shrieks), the Pole exploits the vagaries of the soft surface with feathery drop shots and dipping slices.  Her exceptional finesse has carried her into consecutive quarterfinals at the All England Club, at which stage she was ruthlessly outgunned by the sisters.  Also much more gifted at subtlety than power, Errani excels at opening up the court with unexpected angles and befuddling opponents with clever play at the net.  Don’t be surprised to see numerous service breaks and more extended exchanges than one has grown accustomed to expect on this surface.  During an era of Bolletieri-inspired baseline bombing, it can be diverting to watch these ingenious artisans display their craft before mightier warriors seize center stage (and Centre Court) later in the tournament.

Wozniacki (3) vs. Pavlyuchenkova (29) (Court 2, 2nd match):  According to recent history, this matchup should be less scintillating than one would suppose, since the third seed cleaned the Russian’s clock twice already this year.  Once the world’s foremost junior, Pavlyuchenkova has stalled a bit since last year and has been hampered with untimely injuries; like most Russians, she has become increasingly susceptible to clusters of double faults.  Injuries are far from unknown to her opponent, however, for Wozniacki (unwisely, we think) continues to play through a hamstring injury incurred at Charleston in April.  During the first two rounds, an average performance sufficed to dispatch a pair of unprepossessing foes, and something between decent and solid should prove adequate again.  Moderately powerful yet not overwhelming from the baseline, Pavlyuchenkova probably will donate quantities of unforced errors as the Pole-Dane’s counterpunching challenges her consistency.  On the other hand, Wozniacki has endured several post-injury losses to foes less formidable than the Russian, so one never quite knows how much support her ankle will give her on any given day.

Chardy vs. Ferrer (9) (Court 12, 1st match):  For the fourth time since the start of 2009, these two forehand-oriented games collide as the promising but mercurial Frenchman confronts one of the steadiest competitors in the ATP.  Splitting their two non-clay meetings in airtight three-setters, they’ve traded blows from the baseline while rarely venturing into the forecourt.  Having cultivated a much more imposing first serve, Chardy will be better able to seize control of points from the outset and showcase his potentially explosive brand of first-strike tennis.  Almost antithetical to classic grass-court tennis, Ferrer’s style relies upon relentless retrieving and meticulous point construction much more than upon line-clipping missiles.  At Slams, however, the mental component often plays a significant role, so the Spaniard will trust his superior experience to outlast his temperamental foe, still a little unripe at this stage in his development.

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Kvitova vs. Azarenka (14) (Court 18, 1st match):  Consider packing a suit of armor for this match, filled with more attitude and more explosive tempers than can reasonably be crammed into this cramped outer court, forever famous as the scene of Isner-Mahut.  Discomfited by quirky lefty servers in the past (see M for Martinez Sanchez), Azarenka has looked not only sharp but relatively self-possessed during her first two rounds.  The Minx from Minsk should find her penetrating, symmetrical baseline game amply rewarded on the grass, where she reached the quarterfinals a year ago.  As she battles the volatile Czech, however, her patience may be tested a bit more vigorously than against her previous overmatched opponents.  Springing an upset upon then-#1 Safina in a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open, Kvitova has both the weaponry and the self-belief to trouble the top players, but her idiosyncratic game generally breaks down under pressure.   Moreover, her loopy groundstrokes expose her to the vagaries of the surface more than would compact swings, although Azarenka also might want to shorten her forehand swing (and enhance her second serve) in order to maximize her future chances here. If the Belarussian can control her temper early in the match, she should exploit the Czech player’s inferior movement while punishing Kvitova for her often injudicious shot selection.

Briefly noted:  Without the Queen to daintily applaud his exertions, Murray continues his Wimbledon campaign against the recently injury-addled Simon, an outstanding competitor but manifestly ill-equipped for success on grass.  While the Scot should extend his fortnight without drama, the charismatic duo of Fognini and Benneteau  target an unexpected niche in the second week; deceptively careless in demeanor, the Italian possesses excellent fitness and movement as well as occasional forehand power, while the Frenchman serves more effectively and approaches the net more adroitly.  Therefore, a baseline-oriented contest with extended rallies favors Fognini, whereas a more traditional grass-court, net-rushing clash with short points would swing toward Benneteau.  Likewise gifted with a delicious opportunity for a second-week appearance are Dulgheru and Kanepi, two players who revitalized their games on the clay before capitalizing on that momentum here.  We expect a more competitive match than some of those involving more familiar names, one of whom contests her first third-round match at Wimbledon since a win over Ai Sugiyama in 2007.

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Maria seeks her first second-week appearance at a Slam since the 2009 French Open.

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