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In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

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We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

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 1)      Business as usual for Roger, Maria (more or less):  After Soderling snapped his Slam semifinal streak in Paris, Federer once again found that the grass was greener in Halle, where he reached the final for the sixth time in six attempts since 2002.  Meanwhile, Sharapova charged to the Birmingham semifinals for the seventh time in seven attempts and reached her fourth final at the posh-sounding Edgbaston Priory Club, a record unparalleled among all of her tournaments.  Cracking the fastest serve of her career at 121 mph, she recorded double-digit ace totals in two separate matches while delivering 33 aces against just 14 double faults during the entire week.  Although both marquee stars profited from mediocre opposition en route to the championship match, they found their grass-court games with aplomb, serving brilliantly and moving forward at the earliest opportunity.  Their serves let them down a bit in the finals against a pair of extremely gritty competitors in Hewitt and Li Na; Federer’s first serve faltered at key moments, while Sharapova donated nearly half of her meager tournament double-fault total in the first set of the final.  Fully content with their weeks despite these lapses, Roger and Maria gained a key injection of confidence before traveling to the All England Club. 

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2)      Business emphatically not as usual in London:  On the other hand, the downgraded ATP Queens Club event witnessed a WTA-worthy avalanche of upsets.  Who would have expected the Quirky Quintet of Lopez, Malisse, Fish, Sela, and Llodra to topple the not-very-Fab Five of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Roddick, and Cilic?  Never at his most comfortable on grass, Djokovic did secure some solace by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich, while Rafa perhaps overstretched himself by switching surfaces days after his fifth French Open title.  Of greater concern were the losses by the two Andys, commonly perceived as the primary challengers to Federer and Nadal on grass.  Petulant and passive during his loss to Fish, Murray continued to demonstrate his vulnerability to any ultra-aggressive player on any fast surface, which bodes ill for his Wimbledon fortnight should he collide with a bold shotmaker early in the draw.  Roddick had little excuse for not closing out the second-set tiebreak against the Israeli, considering his outstanding career tiebreak record and his far superior serve.  After the match, he sounded oddly complacent, not the appropriate attitude to adopt at this crucial stage of the season.

3)      ATP veterans keep winning:  Hold off on the pension plans for former Wimbledon semifinalist Rainer Schuettler, two-time former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, and the still rocket-serving Mardy Fish, all of whom accompanied Sam Querrey to the semifinals at Queens Club.  In Halle, moreover, the multiple-surgery survivor Hewitt halted a 15-match losing streak against Federer, doubtless inspiring other players who are struggling to return from assorted injuries.  Although youth eventually prevailed at Queens Club, we’re curious to see whether the surge of the senior citizens can extend into the more draining best-of-five format at Wimbledon.  As suggested in our Indian Wells tournament summary, Ljubicic’s title at Indian Wells seems to have signaled the revival of some names who looked destined to quietly fade away.  Now the youngsters must strive to follow Querrey’s example and ensure that the past doesn’t become the present.

 4)      Americans start winning:  Not so long ago, Querrey moped out of Paris in a noxious cloud of self-doubt.  This weekend, however, the London tournament finally found itself an oversize champion to match its absurdly oversize trophy.  Also delighted to see green rather than red was his opponent in the Queens Club final, the first-strike, serve-and-volley specialist Fish.  About a hundred miles northwest of that all-American final, the 185th-ranked Alison Riske earned a Wimbledon wildcard by pounding her way to the Birmingham semifinals past Wozniak, Chakvetadze, and the third-seeded Wickmayer.  Most impressive in her run was her ability to hold serve throughout the three-set victory over the Belgian, during which she rallied from a one-set deficit.  Against Sharapova, she showed sterling fortitude by rebounding from a lopsided first set to force a decider.  Keep an eye on her as well as the two men’s stars when looking for potential snakes in the grass at the All England Club.

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Enjoy Eastbourne and the UNICEF Open this week!  How will Henin and Clijsters adapt to grass in their first green tournaments since 2007?  Are grass standouts Bartoli and Radwanska ready to wreak havoc again?  Can a bandaged Ivanovic find her footing in a relatively comfortable draw?  Can Kuznetsova find her footing in a highly uncomfortable draw?  How many rackets will Azarenka obliterate?  How much tape will Wozniacki need for her ankle?  And what in the world are we to expect from our new French Open champion?

We return very shortly with the first of four articles in our Wimbledon preview.  Tuesday, the favorites.  Wednesday, the challengers.  Thursday, the dark horses.  Friday or Saturday, thoughts on the draws.  Happy reading!  🙂

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Hope that you relished reading our fortnight of French Open coverage as much as we relished writing it!  We thought that the clay season was a bit more eventful than usual this year, and we’re expecting just as many engaging narratives when the action shifts to grass.  Here are five (plus one, of course!) with which we seek to stoke your anticipation…

1)      Will momentum continue from clay, or rewind to Miami?  A dramatic contrast to the protracted wars of attrition waged on the red dirt of Roland Garros, the first-strike tennis played on grass typically favors those who excel on the hard courts.  Recently, however, the accelerating speed of the clay and the decelerating speed of the grass have diminished the gulf between them, aiding Nadal in his “Channel Slam” of 2008.  We imagine that powerful baseliners Stosur, Berdych, and Soderling will build upon their outstanding Roland Garros runs to wreak havoc at the All England Club, but they also shone on the North American hard courts.  Among those who might struggle to reproduce their recent achievements are clay aficionados such as Jankovic, Kirilenko, Ferrer, and Verdasco, while Radwanska, Bartoli, Roddick, and Ljubicic should rekindle their hard-court form after ineffectual clay campaigns.  A rare Spaniard who has preferred Wimbledon to Roland Garros is Feliciano Lopez, whose serve-and-volley style has led to several first-round losses in Paris but two quarterfinal appearances in London.  As the grass season unfolds, it’ll be intriguing to observe how (or whether) the clay season fits into the fast-court narrative that overshadows it.

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2)      Can the Andys challenge Federer and Nadal?  Three times falling to Federer in the Wimbledon final, Roddick has demonstrated that he can defeat anyone outside the top two at the All England Club.  The final of the ATP London event this weekend might provide an early indication of whether he can challenge Nadal as resolutely as he did the six-time champion a year ago.  (If Roddick had converted a relatively straightforward backhand volley at set point in the second-set tiebreak, he likely would have won the title.)  Even in the latter stages of his career, the American’s massive serve still enables him to hold comfortably and quickly almost every time, forcing opponents into tense tiebreaks where he’ll always have a chance.  We doubt that he could topple both Federer and Nadal in the same Slam; nevertheless, he might well derail a fourth Roger-Rafa final.  Once again bearing the expectations of a nation, Murray recorded a career-best Wimbledon result in 2009, although he has distinctly underwhelmed since February.  The Scot visibly drew motivation from his crowd support during his semifinal run last year and has handled the intense scrutiny as adroitly as anyone could have expected.  Should he receive a reasonably tranquil draw, one suspects that Murray will edge tantalizingly close to history again…only to fall a wee bit short again.

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3)      Will Serena and Venus contest a third consecutive final?  Even before the draw, we know that they’ll be situated in opposite halves, so nothing will be left to chance at the tournament that has been Williams family property for most of this millennium.  The presciently named Venus Rosewater Dish has been claimed by one of the sisters eight times in the last ten Wimbledons (only exceptions:  Sharapova in 2004, Mauresmo in 2006).  Still the mightiest servers in the WTA by a perceptible margin, they’ll win more cheap points than any of their opponents.  Don’t draw too many conclusions from their indifferent Roland Garros results, which have characterized their visits to Paris for years without detrimental influences upon their next tournament; in fact, those who know Serena and Venus claim that their French underachievements motivate them for the grass season.  Of slight concern is the wildly erratic form that Venus displayed not just on clay but in her hard-court tournaments this year.  If she runs into a determined, talented adversary early in the draw, she’ll be more susceptible to an ambush than Serena.  On the other hand, the sisters continue to possess greater maturity and experience than most of their rivals, a key factor in their stranglehold over the most prestigious title in the sport. 

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4)      Will one of the ATP’s towering servers go deep?  The conventional belief that a huge delivery can single-handedly win a Wimbledon title has been disproven over the past several years since Ivanisevic performed precisely that feat en route to the 2001 title.  Nevertheless, notorious ace machines such as Ivo Karlovic can ambush more heralded players at any given moment, as the Croat demonstrated when he upset Tsonga and Verdasco last year before falling to Federer in the quarterfinals.  The 2010 serve to watch might be the surging John Isner, who actually possesses a legitimate forehand weapon to buttress his monumental delivery.  This American also displays the quiet confidence and poise necessary to succeed at the All England Club (see Serena and Venus comments above), so don’t be surprised to see him carve his way a little further than his seeding would suggest.  Firmly checked by Nadal at Indian Wells, though, Isner will not duplicate Ivanisevic’s miraculous accomplishment. 

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5)      What should we expect from the WTA’s comeback queens?  Something unexpected, to judge from their rollercoaster 2010 campaigns.  Crossing and recrossing the line that separates bold from reckless, Henin began the year with exclamation points in Australia, faltered miserably in Indian Wells, rebounded in Miami and Stuttgart, fell on her face in Madrid (including a third-set bagel), and suffered a somewhat disappointing Roland Garros partly as a result of a brutal draw.  Wisely understating her expectations at this stage in her return, Justine won’t secure the elusive Wimbledon crown until she refines her newfound ultra-aggression and finds a more reliable service rhythm.  Sandwiching titles in Brisbane and Miami around disasters in Melbourne and Indian Wells, Clijsters relies more upon consistency than the shot-making panache rewarded at Wimbledon.  We’ll watch her Eastbourne performance with curiosity, however, to see whether Kim takes more risks in an effort to adapt her style to the surface.  The only former champion in the field other than the Williams sisters, Sharapova played her best tennis thus far of 2010 on her least favorite surface during her Strasbourg title run and her highly honorable loss to Henin at Roland Garros.  The Siberian siren has reached just one Slam quarterfinal since winning the 2008 Australian Open, but she appears to have regained her health (for now, anyway) and might well reverse her recent struggles at the All England Club with a second-week appearance.  A title is asking too much, however, because she would almost certainly need to defeat at least one Williams in order to win her second Wimbledon.

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5+1)  Which women will play on Centre Court?  Ever eager to fan the flames of controversy, British tabloids spun story after story around the Wimbledon organizers’ habit of scheduling attractive female stars for the marquee courts while banishing top seeds to the provinces.  (Somehow, we doubt that the WTA objected to that maneuver.)  The tournament responded rather cleverly by claiming that the order of play revolves around which players the fans most wish to see, thereby shifting responsibility onto the faceless multitudes.  Consulted on the topic, various male spectators supported the beauty-over-backhands decision.  Will the trend continue during this Wimbledon, regardless of the attention that it would draw, or will the organizers seek to pre-empt potential controversy by adhering more strictly to ranking in their scheduling priorities?  If the choice were ours, we’d compromise (always a good idea) and schedule the glamorous fan favorites on the show courts during the early stages before reorganizing the order of play around ranking once the action accelerated in the later rounds. 

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Aussie readers, take note.  We’ll be back soon with a player profile on somebody of whom you should be very proud.  😉