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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

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National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

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South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

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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.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia holds alloft the Fed Cup trophy on day two of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 14, 2008 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Svetlana Kuznetsova

Dominant in the team competition of women’s tennis over the past several years, Russia hosts a challenger worthy of its steel in a Czech battalion spearheaded by the world #2.  If Kvitova aims to crack the Russian stranglehold, she may need to overcome Fed Cup stalwart Kuznetsova in the first meeting between these similarly named shot-makers.  We offer five keys to the Fed Cup final.

1)     Will Kvitova have a hangover?

After she catapulted into fame with the Wimbledon title, the leading Czech woman wandered through a fruitless summer of seemingly disinterred performances.  In the aftermath of her triumph at the year-end championships, anyone not from her nation could forgive Kvitova for suffering from a sense of anticlimax.  More marginalized in the women’s game than Davis Cup in the men’s game, a Fed Cup title would not rank among the most memorable accomplishments of a year during which she raced to the #2 ranking.  The single most valuable player on either squad cannot afford to slip into this mentality against a Russian team that already has ambushed one opponent this year (see below).  For inspiration, perhaps Kvitova could note the steady semifinal march of Djokovic in Basel, a tournament no more than a tiny footnote in the Serb’s season.

2)     Can Kuznetsova continue her Fed Cup heroics?

The flagship of the Russian squad following Zvonareva’s injury, Sveta spent most of the season mired in a malaise of brittle focus and uncertain motivation.  But she did rise to the occasion on two notable stages, reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinal and nearly upsetting Wozniacki in the fourth round of the US Open.  Fiercely proud of her national heritage, she also has distinguished herself in fiercely contested Fed Cup rubbers, such as a three-set tilt with Schiavone during the 2007 final.  Kuznetsova sparked Russia’s unprecedented rally from a 0-2 deficit against France earlier this season and has won two of three meetings from Safaraova, which bodes well for a Saturday rubber that her team must claim.  Moreover, she never has faced Kvitova, so canny captain Shamil Tarpischev may expect the element of surprise to rattle the Czech star when combined with the hostile, unfamiliar setting.

3)     Does Tarpischev have something up his sleeve?

Rarely does the grandmaster of Davis and Fed Cup approach an evenly matched tie without a specific plan, and virtually never does he approach an uphill battle without some stratagem calculated to level the odds.  Despite home-court advantage, Russia appears the underdog when comparing the two teams but only because of Kvitova.  While the Czechs will lean upon her brilliance, Tarpischev may rely upon the superior depth available to him, including Roland Garros and US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova.  Relatively untested in Fed Cup, she has won her previous meetings against both Kvitova and Safarova.  If one of her countrywomen stumbles, Tarpischev may seriously consider a substitution.  On the other hand, Kirilenko has enjoyed notable success against Safarova, and the Russian captain typically places great confidence in head-to-head records.  No matter whether he embraces or eschews risk, Tarpischev will consider his options carefully at every stage of the weekend.   And, no matter the outcome, he will shoulder a larger share of the responsibility than do most captains.

4)     Who does the surface actually favor?

At first glance, Russia’s choice of a relatively fast indoor hard court strikes one as odd (the fast part, not the indoor part).  While mightiest first-strike weapons on either team belong to Kvitova, the sturdiest consistency on either team belongs to Kirilenko.  The choice of surface thus would seem more favorable to the visitors than to the home squad, which includes the 2009 Roland Garros champion and might have exploited the erratic stretches of both Kvitova and Safarova more effectively on indoor clay.  But the world #2 has won titles on every surface this year, including the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Russia’s #1 has proved much less than a model of consistency herself this season, so she might not relish the thought of hitting several extra shots to win points.  As Radwanska has demonstrated on grass and fast hard courts, counterpunchers like Kirilenko sometimes benefit from the extra jolt of pace added by the surface to their strokes.  The surface probably will prove a neutral factor, refreshing in a sense when one thinks of the numerous Davis and Fed Cup ties decided not by players but by the ground beneath their feet.

5)     What happens if it comes down to doubles?

Outside Peschke on the Czech side, neither team owns a double specialist if the tie reaches that decisive phase.  Both captains would need to decide between a singles player with greater talent and a singles player with more rest.  While the length of the singles rubbers might play a role in that evaluation, Tarpischev has favored momentum more often than not and trusted the top performer of the weekend to deliver one more time.  Considering that many players compete in singles and doubles on the same day in a best-of-three format, this philosophy seems sensible in most cases but probably will not apply to the opposition.  Since Kvitova and Safarova lack extensive doubles experience, captain Petr Pala should turn as advertised to Lucie Hradecka to partner Pesche, who just appeared with regular partner Srebotnik in the Istanbul final.  In that case, the visitors would prepare to rely upon superior doubles expertise against the superior overall talent of the Russian duo.

But the tie probably won’t reach the fifth rubber with the outcome uncertain.  In a surprising end to an often surprising season, the Czechs should topple the last decade’s Fed Cup leviathan 3-1.

 

Rafael Nadal - Rafael Nadal Wins the Monte Carlo Masters Title

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Spain:  For the second straight year, Nadal snapped a three-final losing streak in the principality on the Mediterranean promontory by conquering a compatriot in the title match.  Not at his classic best throughout the week, Rafa battled through a three-hour exercise in trench warfare against Murray in the semifinals and then charted a far from routine path to victory against Ferrer a day later.  Ironically, though, his ability to win without his finest clay form should infuse him with confidence while reminding his rivals how far below his pinnacle they normally fall.  Without Djokovic in the draw, Monte Carlo proved the ideal venue for the world #1 to reassert his supremacy on the surface from which he sprang like Minerva from Jupiter’s head.  Should his recent nemesis collide with him again in Madrid or Rome, Rafa will approach that meeting with the memories from North America muted if not expunged.

Told that a Spaniard would reach the Monte Carlo final without dropping a set, almost nobody would have identified Ferrer as the lucky fellow.  Rekindling his clay momentum from an Acapulco title, the world #6 lost six or fewer games in each of his four matches before succumbing to Nadal on Sunday.  At his best when the serve matters least, Ferrer eroded the willpower of his opponents by rarely allowing them to glide through a comfortable service game.  Moreover, he tested his compatriot deep into both sets during a second Masters 1000 final appearance.  Although he probably cannot dethrone the king of clay, Ferrer should consolidate his elevated ranking over the next several weeks and perhaps score a key upset or two over a member of the top five.

The principal architect of Spain’s Fed Cup victory over France, Martinez Sanchez reminded us why she is both so inconsistent and so dangerous.  Violating the basic rules taught to any novice, she serves and volleys on clay, attempts drop shots from well behind the baseline, and runs around her forehand to hit backhands.  Yet this iconoclastic style repeatedly reaped rewards for her against flummoxed Frenchwomen Razzano and Rezai, who never could anticipate what gambit would next flutter into the Spaniard’s inspired mind.  Alternately jaw-dropping and head-scratching, Martinez Sanchez relies on tactics extremely hard to execute consistently but nearly unanswerable on this surface when she does.

Monte Carlo semifinalists:  Winless since January, Murray halted his slide much earlier than the similar malaise that descended upon him last year.  Few are the players who can extend Nadal to three hours on clay, and one would not have included the Scot in their number considering his past struggles on the surface.  The longer points favored by the European dirt may have assisted him in regaining his rhythm, while an accommodating draw allowed him to recapture the sensation of winning without suffering undue pressure.  Joining him in the penultimate round was new world #8 Melzer, who earned his career-best ranking with a first victory over Federer.  Having scored 2010 wins over Djokovic and Nadal, the aging lefty summoned just enough self-belief to strike down a player who had defeated him resoundingly three times last year.  Both Murray and Melzer struggled with injuries during their breakthrough weeks, though, so question marks hover above the rest of their clay campaigns.

Jankovic:  Allegedly ill at the start of the weekend, she left Slovakia feeling ill by the end of it.  The Serbian workhorse spent six hours on court during Sunday’s epic battles, which culminated with a 197-minute doubles rubber during which Jankovic and her partner saved two match points.  Once leading by a set and 5-1 in that match, the Slovak duo served for the match three times but could not wrest it away from a Serb who surely relished every moment of the escalating drama.  Although Jankovic clearly improved her results over the previous two months, she entered this weekend lacking a bit of her trademark spark.  That spark may have returned just in time for her most profitable time of year.

Ukraine:  Bringing nobody in the top 100 to Melbourne, the Ukrainian team looked certain cannon fodder against Slovak-turned-Aussie Groth and Russian-turned-Aussie Rodionova.  While Tsurenko and Savchuk detained the former for only 48 minutes apiece, they recorded mini-upsets over the latter that included a two-tiebreak fourth rubber in which Rodionova served for both sets.  The momentum then swung violently against them with a first-set bagel in the decisive doubles, but, like Serbia, Ukraine gallantly saved match points in the second set en route to assuring an implausible berth in the 2012 World Group.  Let the vodka flow in Kiev.

Deuce:

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Ivanovic:  On Saturday, Serbia’s merry maiden glowed with happiness as a convincing win over Hantuchova ignited a promising clay campaign.  Casting a pall over that success was the recurrence of a stomach injury that forced her to retire against Cibulkova a day later.  Nevertheless, Ivanovic showed this weekend that she had overcome the scars of her loss against Clijsters more successfully than the scars in her abdominal muscle.  When she returns to practice later this week, she will have a more positive memory on which to reflect as a busy month of May approaches.

American women’s tennis:  Banished from the World Group for the first time in the competition’s history, the US Fed Cup squad faces a potential future relegated to the periphery of the sport.  Without any clear savior on the horizon, the team might well fall into zonal play within a year or two.  In an event completely unrelated to Fed Cup, though, Serena finally returned to the practice courts after a nine-month absence.  Can she race to recovery and create an opportunity to defend her Wimbledon title?  As she has demonstrated before, a lack of match preparation means nothing for her ability to contend.

Hantuchova:  After seven and a half hours of tennis this weekend, the leggy Slovak came away with nothing except three losses and the deflating sensation of having almost single-handedly lost the tie for her country.  Such reflections would not do Hantuchova justice, though, for the former Fed Cup heroine competed valiantly through consecutive three-setters on Sunday even as the anticipation of impending disaster must have gradually crept over her.  Often disparaged for her frailty under pressure, she at least did not capitulate meekly this time.

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Roger Federer - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Six

Federer:  Possibly disinclined to serve as Nadal’s Monte Carlo foil for a fourth time, the second seed showed little appetite for the battle during a quarterfinal loss to Melzer.  Recalling his struggles on break points against a more famous lefty, he failed to convert all seven of his opportunities against a foe whom he recently had dominated.  On more than one of those break points, tame second-serve returns settled into the net or drifted lazily over the baseline.  Federer may not have settled into the lethargy of tennis old age, but the glow of his World Tour Finals in London last fall has faded.

Verdasco:  Confident that his fortunes would change once he returned to clay, the third-ranked Spaniard discovered otherwise with an opening-round loss to Robredo.  Now outside the top 10, Verdasco has not made an impact at any important tournament since last year’s clay season and has lost his first match in five of eight tournaments this season, eight of thirteen since the US Open.  Perhaps the home crowd in Madrid will provide the necessary tonic to lift his spirits.

Rybarikova:  Facing match point at 7-8 in the final set of the decisive doubles rubber, she struck a well-placed serve that drew an aimlessly floating return.  At this point, the Slovak journeywoman had a choice:  A) spike the ball somewhere (virtually anywhere) and watch the Serbs scramble desperately, B) watch the ball fly past and assume that it will land inside the baseline.  Like a host of more familiar colleagues from Federer to Tsonga, Rybarikova chose the latter option on a crucial point and discovered the danger of false assumptions.

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.

1) 1812 Overture: Like Napoleon’s Grande Armée two centuries ago, French invaders temporarily occupied Moscow before valiant Russian resistance forced them to retreat.  Cast in the role of Marshal Kutuzov was the equally wily Shamil Tarpischev, who combined patience with inspiration as a disastrous Saturday turned into a dazzling Sunday.  Initially controlling the opening rubber, Kuznetsova drifted into complacency just as her opponent Alize Cornet began to believe that she actually could win a match for her country.  Tenuously committed to Fed Cup at best, Russian flagship Sharapova then subjected her compatriots to an avalanche of 46 unforced errors that secured her Olympic eligibility in addition to a commanding lead for France.  Staggering from this Battle of Borodino, Tarpischev then replaced the three-time major champion with the plucky yet untested Pavlyuchenkova.  The WTA’s highest-ranked teenager breathed life into a moribund Russian squad by grinding her way past Cornet, who looked the heroine of the tie a set into the third rubber.   Atoning for the sins of Saturday, Kuznetsova firmly subdued Razzano and then returned with undiluted energy for the decisive doubles.  After a nervy first set, Sveta and Nastia savaged Coin and a more familiar version of Cornet during a second set in which the home squad dropped just four total points.   A nation of limitless resources and legendary pugnacity, Russia should have surprised nobody in producing the first team to erase a 0-2 deficit since Fed Cup shifted to the five-rubber format.

2) Tension in Tasmania: Behind an unremarkable 4-1 scoreline smoldered the most scintillating Fed Cup tie of the weekend, which opened with three fiercely contested three-setters.  In the tranquil surroundings of Hobart, the defending champions needed all of Pennetta’s poise and Schiavone’s swagger to escape a confident home squad.  Tiebreaks and deuce service games proliferated from the outset as Groth and Stosur pitted their power against Italian versatility.  Losing two epic encounters in a 24-hour span, the Australian #1 will wonder how the weekend might have unfolded had she capitalized upon the momentum of Groth’s opening upset over Schiavone by serving out the first set against Pennetta.  Unbroken by that disappointment, however, she competed valiantly through the second set before her flagging self-belief betrayed her in the third.  Stosur then starred in an eerily similar script on Sunday, which featured a rematch of the 2010 Roland Garros final that trumped the original in drama if not in quality.  Despite a ghastly first-set tiebreak, Sam regrouped to deliver a dominant second set and looked superior early in the decider.  Narrowly surviving that sequence, Schiavone then turned the tide almost imperceptibly as her service games grew smoother and the Australian’s games more turbulent.  Battling even more doggedly than on the previous day, the Australian erased four match points in a resilient effort from which she could (and should) take pride although not a victory.  We sympathize with her while applauding Pennetta’s 10-match Fed Cup winning streak and Schiavone’s indefatigable willpower.

3) Ivan the Terrible: In the second round of the Australian Open, a virtually unknown Croat named Ivan Dodig extended Djokovic to four sets in the only blemish on the eventual champion’s otherwise flawless fortnight.  Although the Serb promptly punished him for that affront, this implausible home hero kept the Zagreb title in local hands for the third consecutive year with victories over four seeded players during which he dropped just one total set.  Filling the void left by a perplexing Cilic, the 26-year-old Dodig ousted Granollers, Ljubicic, and Garcia-Lopez before mastering his first career final with aplomb.  Well below the towering height of his most notable compatriots, he has contested just 29 singles matches in ATP main draws during a career mostly spent trudging between challengers and qualifying rounds.  Although figures like Dodig will not leave an impact upon the sport, this week reminded us that seemingly trivial tournaments like Zagreb enable opportunistic underdogs to shine.  Fellow journeymen who noticed his feat should pursue their mission with belief rekindled.

4) Standing tall (for now): Another first-time titlist from a home nation, Kevin Anderson emulated Dodig’s feat while standing eight inches taller than Croat on brittle-looking legs.  Equally precarious is the status of the Johannesburg tournament that Anderson won, which may become a victim of a 2012 calendar truncated for the Olympics.  One would not wish to see the ATP shrink an already tentative footprint on the African continent, but few spectators watch tournaments in hopes of seeing Izak van der Merwe, Somdeev Devvarman, and Adrian Mannarino, the three players who accompanied Anderson to the semifinals.  Unlike the once-embattled WTA Birmingham event, the South African tournament lacks a superstar commitment to shelter it.  As the case of Hamburg demonstrated, tournaments have scant recourse against the authority of the ATP, which often rules its dominions by arbitrary fiat.  On the other hand, perhaps Johannesburg can exploit the current uncertainty to escape its undesirable position on the calendar, for the week immediately following a Slam never will host a tournament of relevance.

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.

 

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

***

Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

***

After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

After an eventful week of tennis, we pause to review the action that unfolded at four events on three different continents.

Transmission reference: BALI101

1)      The Ascent of Ana continues:

Charging to her second title of the fall, Ivanovic won matches in every way possible:  a rout, a nail-biter, and a hybrid that hovered between the two extremes.  Relentless in her 57-minute quarterfinal, the Serb surrendered just a single game to world #20 Pavlyuchenkova behind a barrage of thunderous serves.  Although she adjusted swiftly to a surface faster than she prefers, Ivanovic struggled to adapt to the distinctive style of Kimiko Date Krumm.  The age-defying Japanese legend baffled Ana for most of the first set with deceptive angles and low groundstrokes that barely skimmed across the net before darting through the court.  Facing double set point on her serve, however, Ivanovic collected herself just in time to reel off six consecutive games and seemingly seize control.  Unwilling to yield so easily, Date Krumm battled back into this memorable semifinal by rallying from a 3-5 deficit in the second set, saving a match point, and climbing out of a 2-4 hole in the second set tiebreak.  Yet this comeback remarkably failed to fluster the Serb; armed with her revived confidence, Ana broke the Japanese veteran immediately in the third set and cruised behind her own serve thereafter.

Despite her sterling record in finals, Ivanovic began the title match against Kleybanova rather tentatively and only relaxed after she broke the Russian midway through the first set.  At that stage, she reeled off 14 consecutive points to establish command.  Too resilient a competitor to let the trophy slip away, Kleybanova halted the Serb’s momentum early in the second set, while nerves caused Ivanovic’s ball toss to wander unpredictably.  Down double break point at 5-5 in the second set, though, Ana relied on her improved movement to track down a penetrating Kleybanova approach and lash an implausible passing-shot winner.  She rode this momentum surge into the tiebreak, where her opponent conceded a costly double fault for the only mini-break.  A stunning cross-court forehand and an ace later, Ivanovic had scored her tenth victory in eleven matches and vaulted back into the top 20 at #17.  Having been ranked outside the top 60 after Wimbledon, Ana improbably ends her 2010 campaign ahead of fellow Slam champions Sharapova and Kuznetsova.  As she acknowledged afterwards, this second taste of success will inject her with additional motivation during the offseason.

2)     Home-court advantage reigns (mostly):

Robbed of his home title by a bold Serb last year, Federer thrilled his compatriots by avenging that defeat in 2010.  Enjoying a tranquil route to the final, he inflicted yet another dent upon Roddick’s armor in a semifinal performance that showcased his still-crisp reflexes and instincts.  As the Swiss master braced himself for an encore of last year’s Basel final, he probably drew confidence from his title run in Stockholm last week as well as his victory over the Serb in Shanghai.  Ominously, the first two sets of the final recalled their US Open meeting, where Federer had secured a tight first set before suffering a mental lapse in the second.  Reversing that trajectory with an emphatic final set, though, the world #2 confirmed his Shanghai success and extended his momentum in this key rivalry.  Before he departed to share lunch with the ballboys, Federer claimed that this triumph evoked similar emotions in him to winning his elusive Roland Garros title.  Even allowing for post-championship hyperbole, that statement revealed a more human, even endearing dimension to the lofty GOAT.

Amidst a Valencia draw riddled with upsets, Ferrer played the local hero by conquering the fearsome Soderling for the second time this fall.  The Spaniard secured his second ATP 500 title of 2010 by overcoming compatriot Marcel Granollers in a final that few observers anticipated before the week began.  Probably best known for defeating Soderling at this year’s Australian Open, the understated, unseeded Granollers sprang unpleasant surprises upon Shanghai semifinalist Monaco as well as the rejuvenated Simon.  His charge to the final illustrated not only the advantages of playing at home but the depth of Spanish men’s tennis, seemingly unique in its ability to produce legions of champions and finalists on all surfaces.  (Kudos to the Frenchman, though, who adroitly defused the twin threats of Verdasco and Davydenko just weeks after seizing the title in Metz.  Davis Cup captain Guy Forget must seriously consider him for singles action in Belgrade).

Transmission reference: CAGB121

3)      Viva Flavia:

Nevertheless, home-court advantage couldn’t rescue the US Fed Cup team from their more talented Italian foes, spearheaded on this occasion not by Schiavone but by the tempestuous Pennetta.  Delivering two of her team’s three victories, Flavia atoned for an uninspired 2010 campaign and compensated for a puzzlingly erratic performance by the Roland Garros champion in the third rubber.  Two moments from Pennetta’s weekend especially impressed, for they represented the two potential turning points of what could have been a tightly contested tie.  Having watched a 5-1 lead slip away in the first set against Mattek-Sands, the Italian suddenly found herself staring at a set point in the set’s twelfth game.  With an invigorated American crowd exhorting her opponent, Pennetta mustered her nerve and fought her way into the tiebreak, where she played intelligently high-percentage tennis while the American imploded.  Had she let that set unravel, though, Mattek-Sands might not have relinquished the initiative; instead, Italy took a commanding, virtually terminal lead after Saturday.

Less obviously crucial was the second moment, which occurred just two games into Pennetta’s Sunday clash with the untested but mighty Coco Vandeweghe.  After cheering Oudin to an astonishing victory over Schiavone, the home crowd watched with delight as the teenager broke the Italian in the opening game and advanced to 40-0 on her own serve.  Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Pennetta swept aside game point after game point before converting a break point seven deuces later.  Having halted Vandeweghe’s impetus, she thoroughly dominated proceedings and trimmed the burly American down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes. A week after winning the doubles title in Doha, Pennetta proudly clinched the Fed Cup title for her nation just as she had in 2009.

***

We return to preview the Paris semifinals on Friday; until then, enjoy the tennis!

 

Team of Italy (left Corrado Barazzutti, Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci, Sara Errani,Flavia Pennetta) lift the trophy after the final match of the Fed Cup World Group between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 8, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Embedded in an intensely individual sport, Fed Cup and Davis Caup continue to reward competitors who can maintain unity and cohesion under pressure.  Neither team in San Diego this weekend contains a marquee superstar familiar to casual fans, with the arguable exception of Schiavone.  Instead, both Italy and the United States have built their recent success upon a core of loyal players dedicated to Fed Cup, most of whom value this team competition more than many of the tournaments that they enter.  While the Italians arrive as considerable favorites, Team USA ambushed a Russian squad spearheaded by Dementieva earlier and will hope to exploit their home-court advantage to reverse the outcome of the 2009 final, held on hostile clay.  Yet Schiavone and her supporting cast enjoy greater experience and possess a deeper reservoir of talent.  We break down each member of the teams and analyze her individual impact upon the weekend.  Which squad will prove greater than the sum of its parts?

USA:

Mattek-Sands:  A stronger server than the Italians, Mattek-Sands won the key rubber in the USA’s semifinal victory, a three-set rollercoaster over Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova.  The fast indoor court will shield her from the inconsistency that has hampered her in longer points, and she will find opportunities to showcase her forecourt talents.  When she faces Schiavone in Sunday’s singles, an engaging all-court contest could ensue.  Idle since reaching the final in Quebec City, Mattek-Sands responded to enthusiastic fan support at the US Open by reaching match point against the much more formidable Petkovic.  Likely to partner Huber in the doubles rubber, the quirky American probably holds the key to victory—or defeat—for the home team.

Vandeweghe:  Choosing Coco over the more seasoned Oudin, captain Mary Joe Fernandez has assumed a calculated risk that seems likely to reward her.  Appearing in her Fed Cup debut, the volatile teenager from Southern California hopes to build upon her local success in the San Diego event this August.  There, Vandeweghe stunned Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva and severely tested Kuznetsova before succumbing to that tournament’s eventual champion.   With her massive serve-forehand combinations, she should secure numerous free points on the fast court and won’t find her questionable movement exposed by the shorter rallies there.  After an encouraging fall campaign, Coco should enter the weekend brimming with confidence, while the crowd support should inoculate her against the tension typically experienced by Fed Cup novices.

Oudin:  The toast of New York a year ago, the pugnacious Georgian staggered through most of 2010 with one notable exception:  Fed Cup.  Effective against a dysfunctional French team in the quarterfinals, the former US Open quarterfinalist scored a key victory for the US in their opening rubber against Russia.  She then extended Dementieva to three sets a day later, reminding audiences that she thrives upon the home crowd’s support.  But the fast indoor court should prove a little too fast for the diminutive American, who relies on counterpunching rather than first-strike shotmaking.  Barring a Coco catastrophe on Saturday, she probably won’t see any action in a meaningful match over the weekend.

Huber:  Despite playing only one rubber for the USA, the former doubles #1 brings valuable experience and leadership qualities to the team.  After separating from longtime partner Cara Black, Huber has continued to score victories at WTA events with various partners; moreover, she has won all of the deciding doubles rubbers in which she has participated for the Americans.  Accustomed to receiving little attention in doubles, she has embraced the heightened intensity of Fed Cup and regularly exhorts her teammates from the bench.

Italy v USA - Fed Cup World Group Final Day Two

Italy:

Schiavone:   Seeking to conclude the strongest season of her career with a third Fed Cup title, the crafty veteran may arrive in San Diego fatigued from her exertions in Doha.  During that week, Schiavone often looked weary at key moments against Stosur and Wozniacki, but perhaps she merely conserved her energy for an event with greater personal significance for her.  A proud Italian who has personified the spirit of Fed Cup, the Roland Garros champion demonstrated her hard-court prowess throughout the second half of 2010, even on the fast surface at the US Open.  Relishing the atmosphere of battle, Schiavone will not crumble in the hostile surroundings of San Diego.  On the other hand, she has compiled just a 4-9 Fed Cup singles record on hard courts and a 7-8 Fed Cup singles record indoors.

Pennetta:  Overshadowed this season by her flamboyant compatriot, Flavia has delivered much more impressive Fed Cup performances on hard courts (6-2) and indoors (8-3).  Somewhat more powerful than Schiavone, Pennetta possesses a more reliable serve that led her to a semifinal in San Diego and a quarterfinal in Cincinnati this summer.  The second-ranked doubles player in the world, the Italian collected momentum from Doha by winning the doubles title there with Dulko.  Pennetta sagged perceptibly over the last few months, however, and brings a three-match losing streak to the weekend in San Diego.  Notorious for an explosive temper, the Calabrian will need to restrain her emotions under the pressure of the American crowd.  If she stays positive with the assistance of captain Corrado Barazzuti, however, Pennetta likely will play the heroine for Italy by winning both of her singles matches.

Errani/Vinci:  On most occasions, Team USA would fancy its chances in a doubles rubber involving Huber.  But Luxembourg champion Vinci remains a perfect 15-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition, with seven indoor victories.  Her partner Errani has lost just once in seven Fed Cup doubles rubbers and never on a hard court, so the Americans should not rely upon simply splitting the four singles matches to preserve their hopes for the doubles.  If this weekend does reach the final rubber, it could produce a thrilling climax that would showcase the highest quality of this overlooked division of the sport.

***

We return over the weekend to preview the Rafa-less Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, but first we extend our birthday wishes to the smiling Serb in Bali!

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