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US Players

Readers familiar with this blog will know that we do not beat the tribal drum to proclaim the wonders of American tennis when few such wonders exist.  By contrast, we save praise of our compatriots for the moments that genuinely matter, a category that definitely includes this weekend’s victory over a heavily favored Swiss squad.  From the outset, virtually every imaginable card seemed stacked against the Americans, mired in the hostile clay without the services of their most prolific singles star (Andy Roddick) and half of their legendary doubles team (Mike Bryan) as they confronted the greatest player ever (need you ask?) and a very capable clay threat (Stanislas Wawrinka).  Only heightening the odds were the unimpressive Australian performances of both Fish and Isner, gone before the second week.

In one of the most stunning upsets during the last decade of Davis Cup, however, the Americans registered victories for every member of their team as they shut out their hosts.  Most stunning was Isner’s four-set victory over Federer that grew more emphatic as it progressed, but his teammate Fish deserves equal honors.  With the GOAT looming in the second rubber, the top-ranked American knew that he needed to secure the first rubber against Wawrinka for his team to harbor legitimate hopes of surviving the tie.  Trailing by two sets to one, Fish must have struggled to dispel memories of his demoralizing Davis Cup losses to Spain last year, when he spent eight hours on court with nothing to show for it.  Finishing the nail-biting fifth set with a burst of confident, assertive play, he set an optimistic tone crucial to his team’s success that weekend.  After Isner lost the first set to Federer, his comeback mirrored the spirited effort of his compatriot, unwilling to concede a grain of dirt to a Swiss team far superior in talent but far inferior in resolve.

Tennis sprawled well beyond Switzerland last week, though, so we discuss the rest of the best and worst from Davis Cup and two small WTA events.

Ad-in:

Team Argentina:  Another visiting team to sweep their hosts, Argentina arrived in Germany without their best player in Del Potro and yet still ravaged their higher-ranked foes with merciless efficiency.  As he has so often, Nalbandian seized center stage by winning both of his live rubbers, including a demolition of German #1 Florian Mayer.  The Argentines impressed even more because they had sustained a potentially devastating loss to Spain in yet another Davis Cup final last fall, so the psychological burden of starting their quest anew must have loomed large.  Somewhat lightening that burden, to be sure, was Germany’s uninspired decision to host this tie on clay, an unexpected courtesy to South American dirt devils like Monaco.  In the April quarterfinals, the Argentines should show less courtesy when they lay as slow a court as possible to frustrate one particular Croat.

Ivo Karlovic:  Defending his flag far from home, the tallest man in the ATP almost single-handedly thrust aside Japan by winning three rubbers for Croatia.  Like Germany, Japan may rue their choice of surface in retrospect, but Karlovic has proven himself dangerous even on slower courts.  Sweeping aside Nishikori in straight sets on Friday, he never lost his serve in either of his singles matches, including a decisive fifth rubber during which he seemed to feel neither pressure from the situation nor fatigue from his previous matches.  Perhaps most notable from the weekend was Karlovic’s ability to break serve; he needed only one tiebreak in six singles sets and won two sets by double-break margins.  Inside the top 50 as he prepares to turn 33, the Croat has grown more rather than less consistent with age.

Angelique Kerber:  While more often than not the player makes the results, sometimes the results make the player.  After bouncing around the second and third tiers of the WTA for years, Kerber astonished virtually everyone by racing within a set of the US Open final last fall.  That glimpse of what she could accomplish catalyzed her motivation and encouraged her to improve her fitness during the off-season.  Dismissed initially as an accident all too common in the parity of women’s tennis, she has begun to prove otherwise by compiling a 14-3 record in early 2012.  The German lefty reached semifinals in Auckland and Hobart before breaking through to claim her first career title in Paris with victories over two top-eight opponents.  Despite her lack of experience in finals, Kerber held her ground against multiple comebacks from Bartoli and continued creating opportunities to deliver the coup de grace.  When she did, one wondered whether the German trio of Petkovic, Lisicki, and Goerges might have become a quartet.

Pattaya City finalists:  Among players outside the top 20 when the year began, Hantuchova has surpassed all but Kerber in her achievements.  In addition to spearheading Slovakia’s victory over France in Fed Cup, she reached the Brisbane final and knocked off Schiavone in Sydney. Although she defeated no prominent name in the Thai beach city, her first career title defense represents a significant accomplishment for a player considered unreliable and emotionally frail.  Further undercutting that reputation, Hantuchova has rallied from losing the first set in seven of her fourteen victories this year, showing greater capacity for endurance than she has for most of her career.

Despite its insignificant position near the base of the WTA’s tournament hierarchy, Pattaya City featured a final filled with drama and entertainment throughout its 194 minutes.  No less responsible than Hantuchova for its quality was runner-up Kirilenko, who battled through game after game with unexpected tenacity.

Sorana Cirstea / Mona Barthel:  Flavors of the month in January, they started February with promise.  After she upset Stosur in the first round of the Australian Open, the former prodigy Cirstea reached the semifinals in Pattaya City, where she extended Kirilenko to three sets.  Even more notable was the continued surge of Hobart champion Barthel, who has amassed 16 victories already this year.  The last five of those came when she qualified for the main draw and then reached the quarterfinals at the Paris Indoors.  If her progress continues, the Germans could boast five players in the top 30 by midsummer, more than any other nation except Russia.

Deuce:

Team Kazakhstan:  One might wonder how a team can take positives away from losing a second straight Davis Cup tie 5-0, but Kazakhstan’s 10 straight losses mask a brighter story.  Faced with the task of playing a much superior Spanish team on clay, many more talented squads would have crumbled before the first ball even without the presence of Nadal and Ferrer.  In a 2011 quarterfinal, moreover, the Kazakhs had mustered only minimal resistance to Argentina in a clay tie under similar circumstances.  This year, they improved considerably by winning two sets from Ferrero and a set from Almagro in a weekend when victory lay inevitably beyond their grasp.  Still a fledgling Davis Cup power, they may have started to feel as though they belong.

Team Japan:  Literally overshadowed by their Croatian guests, Nishikori and Go Soeda nevertheless left their compatriots little reason for regret.  Although one expected a somewhat more competitive match between the Japanese #1 and Karlovic in Friday, he redeemed himself with an equally imposing triumph over Dodig on Sunday when the tie hung in the balance.  Unable to threaten Karlovic for more than a set in the decisive match, Soeda galvanized the crowd in the Bourbon Beans Dome by erasing a two-set deficit in the opening rubber.  On the heels of Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, this scintillating Davis Cup tie might enhance the prominence of tennis still further in Japan.

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

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Federer:  Winning two total sets in two rubbers, the Swiss #1 lost little time in finding not one but two scapegoats for his embarrassment:  the poorly laid surface (fair) and his teammate Wawrinka (unfair).  So heavily did Federer criticize the latter, someone who didn’t watch the tie might have thought that Wawrinka had slumped to a four-set defeat against Isner while Federer had extended Fish deep into a fifth set.  Despite his surprising listlessness, this defeat will occupy scant space in any survey of the 16-time major champion’s career, but his reaction built upon earlier suggestions (cf. Wimbledon 2010, Roland Garros 2011) that Federer’s sportsmanship correlates directly to his success.

Sharapova:  Spraying more than 30 unforced errors in 20 games, she fell well short of justifying her status as the top seed in a draw of players who almost never had defeated her.  A reminder that no conclusions are foregone, Sharapova’s loss paralleled Federer’s setback in the lack of intensity or purpose shown by their protagonists.  Although Kerber’s ensuing march to the title mitigated the disappointment in retrospect, it still surprised considering her dominance of that opponent in Melbourne.  Perhaps February simply offers a necessary lull for these two champions between the demanding months of January and March.

WTA health:  Just one month and one significant tournament into the season, the casualty list has started to mount.  A few days after Li retired from Paris, Zvonareva retired from Pattaya City.  Before Paris even began, both Lisicki and Jankovic excused themselves with lingering injuries that had nagged them during Fed Cup.  Even with the Premier Five tournament in Doha on the horizon, world #3 Kvitova decided to save her ammunition for grander stages.  To some extent, these injuries stem from the habit (and ability) of the top women to set their own schedules, a trend that no Roadmap can cure.  But it still raises concern to see so many injuries to important figures so early in the season.

Alex Bogomolov:  Having stirred the cauldron of controversy by playing Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States, Bogomolov did nothing to reward the trust of Tarpischev in his first World Group tie.  This most improbable Russian #1 won one total set in two singles rubbers, including an ignominious thrashing by Melzer in the tie-clincher during which he lost only seven games.  Just as embarrassing, though, was a four-set loss on Friday to the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer that essentially sealed Russia’s fate.  If Tarpischev has any other weapons at his disposal, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian should watch the next tie’s live rubbers from the safety of the bench.

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Although we normally approximate the order of play in our daily previews, we diverge from it today to start with the match that many eagerly awaited since the draws appeared.  (Scroll further down for the Battles of the Blondes, equally delicious in our opinion.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

When one glances back across the tapestry woven together by the two great rivals of their generation, one cannot fail to see the central role of clay and grass in this narrative.  Only once have they met at a hard-court major in a memorable but not quite classic five-set final, more notable for the tears of the loser than the triumph of the victor.  During the three long years since then, much has happened to both of our protagonists, each of whom completed a career Grand Slam and one of whom established himself firmly as the greatest of all time.  Despite those accomplishments, their collisions have waned inexorably with time.  Perhaps one should not regret the attenuation of this rivalry, however, for the imperfections of the present cannot cast too long a shadow upon the glories of the past.

Not since Wimbledon five years ago has Federer defeated Nadal at a major, and not since Madrid in 2009 has he defeated the Spaniard at a tournament other than Rafa’s bête noire, the year-end championships.  To be sure, he will gain confidence from a resounding victory in their clash there last year, but a similarly emphatic triumph at the 2007 year-end championships preceded the turning point in their rivalry:  consecutive victories by Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals.  When they met on the Miami hard courts last spring, Federer looked passive and resigned almost as soon as the match began, notwithstanding his perceived superiority on this surface.  Rarely threatening Rafa on his serve, Roger struggled with his serve and approach shots throughout a match that felt even more lopsided than its scoreline.  Curiously, Federer acquitted himself much more creditably in two clay losses to Nadal at Madrid and Roland Garros, both times winning a set and finding ways to unsettle his nemesis for extended stretches.  At this stage in their careers, each man can hide few secrets from the other as their games have hardened into crystals that will resist significant alteration.  The second seed’s amplified serve might trigger concern in Federer fans, but that shot has not dazzled at pivotal moments throughout this fortnight, such as when Nadal served for the second set against Berdych.  On the contrary, Roger-Rafa XXVII should hinge once again upon the mental dimension, which the Spaniard gradually wrested away from the Swiss star as their rivalry unfolded.

While one might think that recapturing that advantage would lie beyond the powers of a 30-year-old legend, perhaps one should not jump to conclusions prematurely.  In his quiet, methodical way, Federer has compiled a perfect record since the US Open and has looked the more poised player throughout this fortnight.  Beset by nagging knees, festering concerns over the schedule, and the looming specter of Djokovic, Nadal has displayed less competitive appetite and relentless focus than one has grown accustomed to observing from him.  All the same, his four-set quarterfinal victory over Berdych rekindled that familiar spark at the most auspicious moment.  Uninspired for much of the first two sets, Nadal erupted into his fiercely physical, fiery self during the last two sets as he swung with more predatory purpose than he had shown in any of his previous matches.  If that determination replaces his diffident edginess from the first week, Federer will find himself under pressure once again.  As he attempts to summon his own positive energy, he should reflect back upon his virtuoso performance against Del Potro, during which he struck nearly every shot with conviction from his forehand drop shots to his down-the-line backhands.  That latter shot must penetrate the court to prevent Nadal from targeting it and waiting patiently for a mid-court reply to hammer with an inside-in or inside-out forehand.  Since each man knows how to probe the weaknesses of the other, expect a chess match in each point and game from these two masters of their craft.  While they will not scorch rockets like a Djokovic or a Soderling, Roger and Rafa complement each other’s styles and personalities more symmetrically than any other pair of gladiators.

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  From their head-to-head spring few memorable matches and fewer lessons, other than the Belgian’s superiority in three-setters.  Winning both of her final stanzas against Azarenka, Clijsters benefited from her opponent’s emotional immaturity in their early meetings.  The two women rarely have displayed their finest tennis against each other at the same time, a pity considering their evenly matched talents.  Having reached her second semifinal just two majors after her first, Azarenka has evolved into a more poised competitor over the past year who now believes more deeply in her right to play on the grand stage.  To be sure, she still can veer off course without warning at inopportune moments, but Vika now recovers more courageously from those lapses to reverse the momentum.  An eloquent example of this trend, her quarterfinal against Radwanska witnessed a disastrous tiebreak bagel in the first set, which previously would have unlocked the frantic, feckless Azarenka of years past.   Instead, she held her ground during two close games early in the second set and abruptly stopped a tenacious opponent in her tracks.  After four victories over thoroughly outclassed opponents, her comeback should inspire confidence in her should this semifinal prove as tight as expected.

A round after she launched a comeback of her own, the defending champion squelched a putative comeback from Wozniacki in a match that she dominated until the threshold of victory.  Like Azarenka, who has struggled to finish matches this week, Clijsters grew increasingly tense as she thrust the world #1 towards the brink of the precipice.  With a third set on the horizon, though, she collected herself impressively to deliver some of her best shot-making and most imposing serves of the encounter.  During the second-set tiebreak, Clijsters did not miss a single first serve or lose a point on her serve, finding the same lines that she had missed as her lead had evaporated.  Probably the two best players in the WTA at transitioning from defense to offense, these semifinalists often will force each other to restart rallies and hit multiple shots to finish points.  Although she does not sprawl across the court in flamboyant splits like the Belgian, Azarenka possesses keen instincts and anticipation that allow her to return offensive shots with depth.  Gifted with especially crisp backhands, both women can lose their timing on their powerful but less reliable forehands for games at a time, so watch that wing for symptoms of pressure.  The Melbourne crowd, firmly in the Belgian’s corner so far, may ruffle Azarenka as a similar pro-Clijsters crowd did in Miami, but she has grown somewhat more skillful at turning hostility into renewed willpower rather than self-defeating frustration.

In her final Australian Open, the defending champion surely will not depart without a valiant struggle.  Nevertheless, Azarenka may bring greater ambition and intensity to a match that means far more to her career than it does to the waning Belgian.  Having won one set in her first Slam semifinal last year, an impressive effort for a debutante at that level, she should fancy her chances to double that total on her second visit to the penultimate round.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Through the minds of both statuesque blondes will wander the memories of their meeting on the most prestigious stage in the sport last year.  Whereas one woman will seek continuity, the other will focus on plotting her revenge.  Not expected to reach the semifinals when the tournament began, Sharapova has demonstrated once more that she can stride into a tournament with minimal preparation and immediately plow deep into the draw.  Abetted by a gentle draw during the early stages, she nevertheless has impressed while losing only a handful of games in each round with the exception of a three-set comeback against Lisicki.  Well below her best form in the quarterfinals, Sharapova surrendered just five games to a dangerous dark horse while missing swarms of routine shots and sometimes hesitating when presented with an open court.  Refusing to retreat, the 2008 champion seemed to strike the ball even harder and even closer to the lines after every error.  After three backhand errors cost the Russian her first three match points, a backhand bullet scorched a sideline to convert her fourth. Throughout the uneven but courageous display, though, her serve and return rarely abandoned her.  Those key shots proved the difference in the Wimbledon final and offer her the greatest hope of reversing its outcome here.

When this pair clashed in the grassy confines of the All England Club, untimely double faults and wayward service returns cost her at crucial moments, while Kvitova unleashed a nearly flawless display of first-strike tennis that kept her opponent pinned helplessly behind the baseline.  Through her first five matches, the world #2 has continued to win as many points with sheer depth as with ruthless angles, challenging her foes to absorb her pace.  Like Sharapova, though, she has not advanced without occasional glimpses of frailty, sharing the Russian’s tendency towards second-set lapses.  Also like Sharapova, Kvitova rarely settles into lengthy cross-court exchanges but instead redirects the ball whenever possible to stretch the contours of the court.  Since neither woman moves especially well and will struggle to recover from a defensive position, this semifinal will contrast with its counterpart in the length of its points.  Although the surface at the Australian Open plays more slowly than does Centre Court at Wimbledon, the power of each woman’s weapons and the deficiencies of their defense should combine to produce a match of relatively short, explosive points.  Curiously, though, the most overlooked or underestimated element in an arsenal often proves the very weapon that secures a crucial victory.  One semifinalist’s desperate retrieval might well take the other by surprise at a turning point in the match.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue to their encounter is the succession struggle over the world #1 ranking among Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova.  If Clijsters wins the first semifinal, Kvitova would earn a ticket to the penthouse with a victory.  Otherwise, the winner of this semifinal would play Azarenka for both the title and the #1 ranking.  Don’t look too far ahead too soon, though, for the duel of these two Wimbledon champions promises a scintillating smorgasbord of shot-making that any admirer of offensively oriented tennis should relish.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 7

We preview the first day of quarterfinals at the Australian Open:

Azarenka vs. Radwanska:  Offering a greater contrast in styles than the evening encounter, this match opposes two players who have combined to win just one of nine quarterfinals at majors.  Throughout her career, Radwanska has experienced the frustration of navigating her way through early-round matches with her cunning and clean ball-striking, only to crash into the impenetrable obstacle of a far more powerful offensive player.  Azarenka lacks the overwhelming force of a Serena or a Sharapova, although her twelve games lost in four matches suggests a display of unrelenting dominance.  While Vika has won six of their nine previous meetings and four of the last five, she has found Radwanska a worthy opponent on almost every occasion.  Unable to hammer balls past the Pole from the start of the rally, she must construct points more carefully in a test of her patience, long one of the flaws that has retarded her progress.  When they met in a Sydney semifinal this month, Radwanska’s defense and precise shot placement drove Azarenka to distraction for more than a set before she found the composure necessary to outlast her tormentor.  Once she finds her range with her groundstrokes and strings together several penetrating balls, she leaves the eighth seed helplessly searching for answers.

For both women, the key to success lies in a shot not commonly considered one of their greatest assets:  the serve.  In Radwanska’s case, she must maximize her first-serve percentage to minimize the opportunities that Azarenka earns to wreak havoc on her second serve with her scintillating return.  If she aims to outmaneuver Vika, she cannot afford to start the point scrambling in whatever direction her opponent dictates.  The serve could help Azarenka’s cause in a different way by setting up more free points if she trades some percentage for power.  At key moments late in her victories over Barthel and Benesova, when the rest of her game grew shaky, the serve did not desert her.  That trend augurs well for her fortunes in this match and beyond.

Wozniacki vs. Clijsters:  With her place in the penthouse at stake in every Melbourne match, the world #1 has played with increasing conviction during each round, although she has not yet encountered an opponent equipped to seriously challenge her throughout the course of an entire match.  All the same, Wozniacki seemed to take the ball a little earlier when she has had the opportunity during her first four matches and curl cross-court groundstrokes at somewhat sharper angles.  Her collision with Jankovic again showcased her familiar strengths of endurance and groundstroke depth, at least on the few occasions when the Serb didn’t spray shots into the middle of the net, between the tramlines, or beyond the baseline.  While her resounding victory against that former #1 should have inspired confidence in Wozniacki’s fans, although her failure to sustain a double-break lead in the second set causes some concern and illustrated her inability to win free points on serve.

Widespread among the women here, that struggle to finish matches may hamper her against a woman who rallied from the brink of defeat to overcome Li Na a round ago.  Wozniacki has lost to Clijsters in arguably the two most important matches of her career, the finals of the 2009 US Open and 2010 year-end championships, so the pressure rests on her sturdy shoulders to reverse those outcomes, assuming that the defending champion can recover from her ankle injury.  Much as Wozniacki could do everything that Jankovic could and more, Clijsters can do everything that Wozniacki can and more, covering the court just as effectively, producing just as much depth, and transitioning more smoothly from defense to offense.   Kim continues to suffer the occasional mid-match lull, an endemic syndrome of aging champions that the Dane exploited when they played for the last title of 2010.  In her final Australian Open, though, she seems unlikely to succumb without a struggle, and sometimes a narrow escape can catalyze motivation while sharpening focus.  To keep her position in the penthouse for another day, Wozniacki may need to play one of her most complete matches in many months.  Beyond her familiar retrieving, she should redirect the ball more often, return more assertively, and stretch Kim along the baseline, tactics that brought Li within a point of victory but that will force the world #1 to leave her comfort zone.  Generally unsuccessful against the WTA veterans, the Dane should grasp a valuable chance to prove herself.

Del Potro vs. Federer:  Look beyond the 7-2 record, tilted towards the Swiss by the twelve consecutive sets that he won when their rivalry began.  Just a few months after he won three games from Federer in a quarterfinal at this tournament, Del Potro extended the 16-time major champion to five sets at Roland Garros.  A few more months afterwards came one of the more memorable ATP major finals of the last decade, in which the Tower of Tandil toppled Federer in five sets at the US Open.  Ending the year with another victory over the Swiss master at the year-end championships, Del Potro looked likely to become one of the thorns in Roger’s side for the foreseeable future.  Derailed by an untimely wrist injury, though, he scarcely resembled his former self in a desultory loss to Federer at Cincinnati last year, during which he consistently struggled with his serve and rarely subjected his opponent to any pressure on his own delivery.

Dogged by a back injury during his preparation for Melbourne, Federer has brushed any rumors of fallibility aside by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Especially impressive was his mastery over Australian home hope Tomic, who entered that match with momentum, vociferous crowd support, and confidence from having challenged Federer in their first encounter last fall.  But the four-time champion here dismissed the teenager with wave after wave of all-court brilliance, highlighted by pinpoint backhands.  When that less reliable shot follows Federer’s commands so faithfully, the rest of his game rises to vintage heights.   Across the net, Del Potro’s cross-court forehand offers the best guide to his confidence, which has must have risen after a series of progressively more emphatic victories.  When that explosive groundstroke crackles through the court rather than functioning as a rally shot, he can thrust opponents well behind the baseline and find short angles at his leisure.  One round before a projected semifinal with Nadal, Federer should benefit from such a test.

Berdych vs. Nadal:  Central to this quarterfinal are two statistics involving the Czech:  his six-tiebreak winning streak this tournament and his nine-match losing streak against the world #2.  Winning three successive tiebreaks to erase a one-set deficit against Almagro, Berdych will feel confident in his serve whenever a set reaches its climax.  On the other hand, Nadal may feel more confident in his serve than he often does, considering that he has used a heavier racket to add pace to the shot that cost him dearly during the US Open final last year.  But the more compelling statistic is the Spaniard’s uncanny dominance over a rivalry that initially rested on rather even terms.  Betrayed by his one-dimensional game and ungainly footwork, Berdych rarely has even threatened Rafa in matches on every surface, most notably a straight-sets defeat in the 2010 Wimbledon final.  During that tournament, the seventh seed had delivered the best tennis of his career with consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic, and yet Nadal dissected him with ease in a match thoroughly bereft of suspense.

In addition  to the suffocating and not entirely explicable mastery of the Spaniard over the Czech, the spotlight of majors often has unnerved the easily flustered Berdych with the exception of those two surges at Roland Garros and Wimbledon two years ago.  As though the seventh seed did not have so many cards stacked against him already, his dubious behavior at the end of his victory over Almagro in the previous round likely will have turned the Rod Laver crowd against him before the match begins.  Ever the epitome of sportsmanship himself, Nadal may gain additional motivation from Berdych’s slight to one of his countrymen.  Moreover, he surely will spare no energy in avoiding a third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals of what has proven his least productive major to date.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

In a WTA rife with comebacks, injuries, and opportunists, the middle weekend often offers tennis as scintillating as the tournament’s climax.  That theme may continue with a fourth-round rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final, which will feature two of the three most impressive performers in this half of the draw.  Dropping just seven games in her last five sets, Clijsters has played herself into the fortnight and has survived the early meltdowns that have ambushed her at occasional Slams during her second career.  In a commanding victory over Hantuchova, who had troubled her in Brisbane this month, the defending champion retrieved and redirected balls with her familiar aplomb while showing no sign of her recent hip injury.  When healthy, Clijsters can transition from defense to offense more effectively than any woman in the WTA, except perhaps her opponent on Sunday.  Two victories from a third straight semifinal in Melbourne, Li has looked crisp as she once again has extended her momentum from a fine week in Sydney.  The Roland Garros champion owns the single most explosive weapon in this match with her forehand, although her two-hander has not failed to impress.  Overlooked amidst their excellent groundstrokes and movement are the serves of both women, which have functioned effectively this week.  Both Clijsters and Li possess very complete games and clean technique but can misfire for extended stretches, either through the presence of nerves or the absence of focus.  Unless they find their rhythms at the same time, a rollercoaster encounter could result, decided by who can finish points more effectively once they seize the initiative.

We preview each of the other singles matches as the second week begins.

Azarenka vs. Benesova:  Perhaps catalyzed by her Brisbane upset of Stosur, the least famous of the three Czech lefties extended her success here by comfortably defeating Peng.  Benesova exploited an open section of the draw, vacated by Schiavone, by swinging her hook serve and forehand to jerk less powerful opponents around the court.   But now the competition jolts upward abruptly against the third seed, who has looked one of the leading three or four title contenders here despite a wobble in her previous match.  As match point after match point slipped away against Barthel, Azarenka’s carefully managed nerves started to fray visibly until she unleashed a concluding burst of petulance mixed with relief.  Maintaining outstanding depth on her groundstrokes throughout the first week, she should succeed against Benesova simply by staying steady in both playing style and emotions.  Perhaps the most balanced player of her generation, Azarenka treads a middle path between the dogged counterpunching of Wozniacki and the fearless, sometimes reckless assaults of Kvitova.  Her serve remains the weakest component of her game, but she has protected it well here and has not yet encountered an elite returner.  Against Benesova, her backhand down the line should prove especially lethal as Azarenka aims to reach her second Melbourne quarterfinal with minimal difficulty.

Lopez vs. Nadal:  As the tournament began, Nadal generated news related to the ATP schedule, his opinion of Federer, and another injury to his knee.  To the relief of  his fans, he generated little news related to his tennis during an uneventful first week of straight-sets victories.  Experimenting with a heavier racket, his serve has looked clearly more formidable although still not at its level when he won the US Open.  Outside an occasional sloppy service game against Haas and Lacko, Nadal has provided his critics with scant ground for complaint so far.  With the exception of a Queens Club upset, he has suffocated Lopez throughout their careers by relying upon his far superior baseline consistency to erode his fellow lefty.  The older Spaniard impressed by conquering Isner in a five-setter during which her broke the American’s towering serve six times while losing his own serve only once.  But he struggled with double faults throughout that match, committing four during one crucial game that exposed his nerves.  Always high in winners and high in unforced errors, Lopez must record an outstanding first-serve percentage to threaten his compatriot on a sticky surface that blunts serves and rewards baseliners.  Not until the semifinal, perhaps, will Nadal find an adversary worthy of his steel.

Tomic vs. Federer:  In all three of his first-week matches, the home hope lost the first set as Melbourne heart rates accelerated.  Buoyed by the fervent Rod Laver crowds, Tomic demonstrated stamina remarkable for a teenager as he outlasted both Verdasco and Dolgopolov in five sets.  All the same, he cannot afford to allow Federer an early lead as he settles into the match, for the Swiss legend has proven himself an outstanding front-runner against heavy underdogs throughout his career.  After playing 14 sets in three matches and running for four miles on Friday night, Tomic will need to recover quickly for a match that will require crisp footwork, keen instincts, and a clear mind.  When he faced Federer in a Davis Cup playoff last fall, the teenager won a set and competed valiantly in the others.  The difference in that collision, the contrast between their serves could play a crucial role again as the 16-time major champion holds much more comfortably, while Tomic expends more effort on each service game.  Severely tested for nearly two full sets by Karlovic’s serve, Federer should feel less inconvenienced by the veering slices and spins of the Australian’s distinctive style.  As his career wanes, muscular ball-bruisers like Soderling, Tsonga, and Berdych have unsettled him, but the crafty artists of the court have enjoyed little more success against him on hard courts than they ever have.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  After losing the first four meetings to her fellow counterpuncher and stylistic ancestor, the world #1 defeated Jankovic three times last year in a striking momentum shift.  Many are the similarities between these women, who rely upon their movement more than their serving and project greater power from their backhands than their forehands.  Outside a shaky second set in the second round, Wozniacki has acquitted herself creditably throughout the first week, showing few signs of crumbling under the pressure of her ranking.  In the Dane’s position three Australian Opens ago, Jankovic succumbed in the fourth round and would not capture the top spot again.  With the opportunity to strip it from her opponent, she may bring more motivation than she has shown for much of her steady decline.  Overwhelming a trio of young challengers, such as the promising Christina McHale, Jankovic displayed few traces of her vintage self but did maintain her focus consistently as she waited for the raw teenagers across the net to falter.  The Serb saved break point after break point against McHale in a match that looked extremely tight early before developing into a rout.  Considering their stylistic parallels, this encounter of current and former #1s should hinge mostly upon execution.  Jankovic would seem to hold the edge in power and experience, while Wozniacki enjoys the advantage in mobility, consistency, and (arguably) composure, but each could surpass the other in any of these dimensions on any given day.  Expect a lung-burning series of rallies along the baseline as both women aim to win points than invite the opponent to lose them.

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  One of two Germans to reach the second week at the Australian Open, Goerges enjoyed a promising first half to 2011 before fading dramatically—even evaporating—in the second half.  When she retired against Jankovic in Sydney, one harbored few hopes for her Melbourne campaign despite a resilient performance in a three-set loss to Sharapova last year.  Again showcasing her bold brand of tennis on these courts, she has recorded the strongest Slam effort of her still budding career and should not underestimate her chances to progress further.  Never more than a quarterfinalist at majors, Radwanska has demonstrated her ability to score a key upset here or there but has not produced a deep run, regularly undone by a player who overpowers her from the baseline and from the service notch.  During a stirring Asian fall, however, the Pole suggested that she might have enhanced her readiness to take risks, even if her puny serve may have no remedy.  She nearly stumbled against Mattek-Sands in her opening match but used her survival instincts to escape an opponent who cracked 80 winners.  Clearly superior to Radwanska on serve, Goerges will need to earn plentiful free points from that shot if she seeks to subdue her exceptionally nuanced, clever, and tenacious foe.  Once rallies begin, the eighth seed will hope to expose the German’s deficiencies in mobility and point construction, perhaps dragging her forwards at inconvenient moments.  To become a truly premier contender, Radwanska must overcome the second tier of ball-bruisers like Goerges more regularly.

Berdych vs. Almagro:  The match most likely to feature a fifth set, this meeting of the world #7 and world #10 seems academic in a sense because the winner will have only a negligible chance of upsetting Nadal.  A quarterfinal appearance still would represent a significant accomplishment for Almagro, whose game aligns just as well with hard courts as with clay.  But he has not excelled at the most prestigious events, managing just two Roland Garros quarterfinal amidst a host of first-week exits to far less talented opponents.  In stark contrast to the functional two-handed backhand of Berdych, Almagro’s elegant one-hander exemplifies his elongated swings, which can cost him time on faster surface.  These medium-speed hard courts should allow him to set up his elaborate swings without slowing the Czech’s serve too significantly.  Winning all three of his tiebreaks this fortnight, Berdych has relied upon his most formidable shot to set up his inside-out and inside-in forehands.  To reach his second straight Australian Open quarterfinal, he should keep Almagro pinned well behind the baseline, where he will struggle to penetrate the court and may attempt low-percentage shots from frustrated impatience.  Since they lack the ability to transition smoothly from defense to offense, the player who can assert himself early in the point usually will emerge victorious.  In their only previous hard-court meeting, at Cincinnati last year, Berdych delivered the terminal blow earlier and more often, winning with ease.

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  In all four of their previous meetings, the US Open champion has emerged triumphant, but their two 2011 clashes hint at intrigue ahead.  Since an opening five-setter, Kohlschreiber has played only four and a half sets in two rounds, so he should bring plenty of energy to track down the Argentine’s lasers.  Following an indifferent beginning to the tournament, Del Potro has looked more authoritative with each match and almost each set that he has seized.  As he completed his demolition of a helpless Yen-Hsun Lu on Friday night, his forehands rocketed through the court with an ominous explosiveness.  Nevertheless, Kohlschreiber can trade baseline bombs with the Argentine on both groundstroke wings, relishing the opportunity to redirect balls down the line.  The product of a particularly fluid motion, his serve sets up points almost as well as does Del Potro’s mightier delivery.  Content to decide points from the baseline, the Tower of Tandil rarely ventures towards the net, whereas the German will test his opponent’s passing shots by approaching opportunistically.  That strategy could help Kohlschreiber destabilize Del Potro’s timing, uneven since his wrist surgery.  In a best-of-five format, though, the Argentine’s heavier weight of shot and suffocating court coverage should frustrate a thrilling shot-maker who plays with much less margin for error.

Roger Federer - 2012 Australian Open Previews

As bagels and breadsticks continue to fly out of the WTA bakery at a dizzying rate, Federer confronts a less appetizing challenge as the second week approaches.  We preview the four-time champion’s next obstacle among several other encounters on the first day of the third round.

Karlovic vs. Federer:  Resentful of the ATP’s serving leviathans, Federer deems their distinctive styles as something other than tennis, or the proper form of the sport in his view.  Although he has lost to Karlovic only once in his career, the Swiss master will know that his opponent’s nearly untouchable serve will force him into sets much closer than he would prefer in the first week—perhaps even a tiebreak or two.  Returning more competently than usual in his first two matches, the ATP’s tallest player will not threaten the Federer serve unless its owner slips into carelessness.   Still, the experience of playing Karlovic, for whom matches can hinge upon a few points, will sharpen Federer’s focus and reflexes, if not his endurance.  (After all, one doesn’t expend much energy watching barely visible bombs fly past.)  Less sharp in passing shots recently, the third seed will find ample opportunities to practice them as Karlovic regularly advances to the net.

Dolgopolov vs. Tomic:  A regular fixture in the night session now, Tomic resurrected his tournament in inspiring fashion and now seeks to reach the second week for the second time in three majors.  More imposing than it might seem is the challenge presented by last year’s quarterfinalist from Ukraine, a quirky personality more similar to Tomic in style than his two previous foes.  Defusing Verdasco and then Querrey, the teenager specializes in defusing one-dimensional opponents with a variation of speeds and spins.  How will he adapt against someone who shares those habits, relying upon timing and accuracy more than power?  Sometimes so effortless that he looks disinterested, Dolgopolov has seemed a somewhat enigmatic competitor who often plays to the level of his competition.  That habit, combined with the scintillating Rod Laver atmosphere, should produce an evenly matched contest filled with imagination

Azarenka vs. Barthel:  Conceding just two games in two matches, Vika has established herself among the leading contenders for the title.  Unflustered by the partisan crowd in a Rod Laver night session, she overwhelmed Casey Dellacqua in a nearly bulletproof effort.  The Sydney champion now faces the Hobart champion and owner of a ten-match winning streak as she seeks to reach the second week of the Australian Open for the fourth straight year.  No matter the quality of the opposition, a ten-match winning streak should give Barthel the confidence that  neither the brashness of youth nor the support of a nation could instill in her earlier victims.  On the surface most suited to her game of any major, Azarenka probably would benefit from a creditable test that will brace her for stiffer competition inevitably looming ahead.  This match should inform us about her near future this fortnight and about Barthel’s future as an aspiring threat to the top.

Isner vs. Lopez:  As he reached 6-6 in the fifth set against Nalbandian, Isner must have wondered how long this latest trudge towards tennis infinity would last.  Fortunately for him, he played only six more games and finished his comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in style with an uncharacteristically subtle sequence at the net.  Not the fastest player to recover from a protracted battle, Isner may bring depleted energy to his next round and will feel relieved to realize that this match will not require much energy from him.  Much like the American, Lopez prefers to end points as quickly as possible with either point-ending serves or brisk assaults on the forecourt.  Neither players can survive for long in extended rallies, so the points should represent bursts of rapid activity amidst the calm that surrounds the time between them.  Experiencing a taste of his own medicine in the Spaniard’s vicious lefty serve, Isner must carefully protect his own delivery while waiting for the untimely lapse in his opponent’s game that has plagued Lopez in many of his most important matches.  On a surface less than fast, the more methodical player holds the advantage, and in this case the American can lay claim to that distinction.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova: Before their meeting two weeks ago, this match would have contained little intrigue.  Having lost one total set in their first nine meetings, Clijsters clearly had solved the conundrums posed by the Slovak’s audacious angles with her own court-stretching defense and transition game.  When they collided in a Brisbane semifinal, though, Hantuchova severely tested the Belgian’s movement with a surprisingly poised performance from the first ball onward.  One would have expected her flakiness to doom her in the many multiple-deuce games of the match, but in fact she prevailed more often than not in those situations.  And, although she lost the first-set tiebreak, her game did not collapse under pressure then as it so often has.  Rebounding to claim another lead early in the second set before Clijsters retired, Hantuchova displayed the type of resistance that would produce a scintillating third-round encounter here.  A semifinalist here in 2008, she should relish the pace and bounce of these courts as much as the defending champion, who improved significantly from her first match to her second.  With Li Na potentially just one round ahead, Clijsters will not want to display any signs of fragility.

McHale vs. Jankovic:  Amidst another encouraging Slam for young Americans, McHale reached the third round for the second straight major.  After knocking off Safarova in the first round with a display of nearly impeccable consistency (no unforced errors at all), she showed her mettle in adversity a match later.  Brought  by Erakovic to within a tiebreak, McHale found a way to turn the trajectory of their encounter in her favor and showed no sign of fading during the final set.  Her physical and mental stamina should aid her against Jankovic, who specializes in breaking down opponents one game at a time.  Following that pattern in her first two matches here, the former #1 played solid tennis to unravel the inexperienced Laura Robson and Kai-chen Chang.  While she may start by maintaining that strategy against yet another young challenger, Jankovic eventually may need to shift into offensive mode more often.  Since McHale can counterpunch comfortably from the baseline, the Serb should aim to exploit the greater pace and depth of her own groundstrokes.  She will find herself superior to her opponent in many areas and inferior in none, but the American has demonstrated her ability to score upsets and will not flinch when she meets a much more accomplished opponent.

Wawrinka vs. Almagro:  When we previewed both of their matches for the previous round, we somewhat favored their opponents to end their fortnights.  By dispatching Baghdatis and Dimitrov, these two Europeans of the second tier delivered a meaningful statement of intent that the rest of this weak section should not cast aside lightly.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Australian Open, Wawrinka has battled an apparent inferiority complex to prominent rivals for much of his career but broke through at the 2009 US Open with a victory over Murray that catalyzed his best tennis to date.  While he no longer works with coach Peter Lundgren and has rejoined his family, the Swiss #2 can continue to apply the lessons of his eccentric, aggressive mentor.  Three of his four previous matches with Almagro have reached a final set, and he has won their only previous five-setter (on clay) in a testament to his superior fitness.  But the superior serve and shot-making power belongs to the Spaniard, who faces the challenge of pulling the trigger at the right moment in rallies.  Expect plenty of tightly contested service games, more breaks than the ATP average, and a critical test of nerve at some stage that separates them.

Falla vs. Kohlschreiber:  Two years after an upset of Federer at Wimbledon eluded him, Falla refused to let world #8 Fish off the hook in straight sets.  That victory likely marks the most notable achievement of the Colombian’s career, accomplished by lulling the American into bland, neutral rallies where his inconsistent groundstrokes undermined him.  Extremely solid with all shots except his second serve, Falla rarely slashes winners past opponents but slowly maneuvers them into awkward positions.  An effective lateral mover, he retrieved even Fish’s more penetrating backhands with surprising depth.  When he meets another volatile, erratic shot-maker in Kohlschreiber, the same tactics should serve him effectively.  Springing a much less notable upset over Monaco in the first round, the German dazzled Rod Laver Arena during a 2008 night session when his flat, deceptively fast groundstrokes whizzed past a helpless Roddick in a five-set thriller.  When streaky meets steady, expect a complicated match in which both players will attempt to deliver their most impressive bullets from their backhands rather than their forehands, a rarity in the ATP.

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

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