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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.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

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

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

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

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

Although Djokovic may have dominated the ATP throughout 2011, several other players recorded noteworthy achievements.  Beyond the world #1, who achieved the most in 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain, blue shirt) beats Roger Federer (Switzerland, red shirt) in 4 sets, 7/5, 7/6, 5/7, 6/1, in the final to win the French Open 2011. Nadal:  Rarely has one player’s season been so inextricably intertwined with another player’s season.  Had Djokovic not transformed his career this year, Nadal likely would have won three major titles for the second straight year, ripped through the clay season undefeated for the second straight year, completed the Indian Wells-Miami double, and positioned himself to overtake Federer as the true GOAT in the near future.  Instead, the towering expectations upon the Spaniard combined with the Serb’s brilliance left many observers—and seemingly Nadal himself—disappointed with 2011.  When they gain perspective, they should recognize accomplishments such as seizing a record-tying sixth Roland Garros crown and reaching the final of three Slams on three different surfaces, an underrated feat.  While the Dodigs and Mayers of the world scored an occasional ambush in the second half, Nadal lost only one match between the Australian Open and Wimbledon to an opponent other than Djokovic.  Masked by his lack of a non-clay title this year, that near-impenetrability illustrates how little ground he actually has surrendered.  Unaffected by his struggles against Djokovic was his mastery over his other leading rivals, Federer and Murray (7-1 combined, 5-0 in the first half).  In 2009, a Davis Cup title launched Nadal towards the strongest season of his career in 2010, and he earned a similar momentum boost in 2011.  If the Serb flickers at all in 2012, the bull held at bay this year should charge.

Murray:  While time continues to trickle away in his pursuit of his first major, the Scot reached the semifinals or better of every Slam for the first time.  As the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “almost means nothing.”  But Murray’s ability to weather the early rounds more consistently than he had in previous seasons will bring him more opportunities to conquer the elite, and mere probability suggests that fortune will smile on him sooner or later.  After a woeful beginning to his Masters 1000 season with opening-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, the world #4 showed unexpected courage in extending both Nadal and Djokovic to three sets on clay, his least hospitable surface.  Especially notable was his epic Rome semifinal against the Serb, who had crushed the Scot in Melbourne.  Demolished in a merciless first set, Murray rallied valiantly to within two points of victory.  His sweep through the Asian season probably looked more impressive on paper than in reality, considering the absences of Federer and Djokovic, although an emphatic victory over Nadal in the Tokyo final demonstrated the manifold challenges that he can pose when at his most confident.  Now he needs to translate that level of conviction to the majors, where his self-defeating fatalism surfaces most often.

Federer:  Through the US Open, the Swiss legend had looked relatively mortal with just one minor title in Doha and two two-set leads squandered at Slams.  All the same, Federer showcased his vintage form in the Roland Garros semifinals, when he halted Djokovic’s winning streak with timely serving and immaculate point construction.  After that triumph, his stumble against Tsonga one major later seemed especially unexpected and indicative of this champion’s depleted desire.  Even more surprisingly, Federer’s nerve betrayed him late in the fifth set of his US Open semifinal against Djokovic, a match that he often had dominated.  Responding to that bitter disappointment much as he had in 2010, he once again surged through the fall season when his younger rivals faltered.  His record-setting sixth title at year-end championships should have soothed  the sting of those setbacks against Tsonga and Djokovic, while his title at the Paris Indoors left him the only active ATP player to reach the final of every Slam and Masters tournament in his career.  Unable to preserve his momentum during the 2010-11 offseason, Federer hopes to handle a similar task in 2011-12.

Ferrer:  To no surprise was his continued excellence on clay, which included consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as a three-setter against Djokovic in Madrid.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s accomplishments on hard courts in 2011 did raise an eyebrow or two, especially his Australian Open semifinal appearance in which he severely tested Murray.  Whereas most clay specialists fade in the fall, Ferrer scuttled along the baseline with intensity undimmed and found himself rewarded with a second Masters 1000 final in Shanghai.  En route to that match, the diminutive Spaniard rallied from saving match point in the third round and fearlessly protected his modest serve through consecutive three-setters against Roddick and Lopez, much more impressive from the service notch.  It felt fitting, then, that Ferrer’s tenacity earned him a semifinal berth at the World Tour Finals, a tournament where he had failed to win a match just a year before.  In an era of glamorous superstars with nearly supernatural shot-making skills, his arduous brand of tennis has entrenched him in the top 5 and serves as a reminder of how far effort and attitude can substitute for innate ability.

Tsonga:  Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year, the world #6 scarcely distinguished himself through May but then finished 2011 in sparkling style.  Within a single month, Tsonga scored comeback victories over both Nadal and Federer, holding his serve against the latter throughout the last four sets of their Wimbledon quarterfinal.  The charismatic Frenchman fused the past with the present during that classic encounter, interweaving vintage serve-volley tactics with ferocious forehands from behind the baseline.  Emboldened by that achievement, Tsonga repeated it at the Rogers Cup but could not at the US Open after an entertaining victory over Fish that extended his curious effectiveness in five-setters.  Two small titles in Metz and Vienna behind him, he surged into the last two tournaments of the year before losing to Federer three times in fifteen days.  That odd fact should not obscure a signature victory over a battered but determined Nadal in London, which vaulted Tsonga into the semifinals at the Spaniard’s expense.  Nor should it obscure his second appearance in the Paris Indoors final, where the expectations of his compatriots did not burden him but rather lifted his spirits.

Berdych:  Despite accomplishing little of note at the majors, he remained in the top eight after a steady second half that ended the longest title drought of any player in the ATP or WTA top 10.  Relatively bland in personality and playing style, Berdych recorded few memorable moments in 2011 but also generally avoided unsightly disasters, outside a loss to Stephane Robert at Roland Garros.  On only one other occasion did he lose his first match at a tournament (to Nishikori in Basel), while he registered sixteen quarterfinals or better.  At the year-end championships, Berdych might well have finished the round-robin stage undefeated had not his weapons deserted him in a third-set tiebreak against Djokovic.  He registered few other wins over top-10 opponents bud did overpower Federer in Cincinnati, and his lone title in Beijing followed a three-set victory over Tsonga.  When every element of Berdych’s unwieldy game fits together, he can conquer virtually any foe through his sheer ball-striking power. Yet his dearth of titles and meager success against the elite illustrates the rarity with which he can string together such matches, and his 2011 campaign fell well short of his 2010 breakthrough.

Fish:  Scanning the ATP rankings, it seems strange to see an American ranked higher than long-time flag bearer Roddick.  A first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals, Fish thoroughly deserved that distinction after an excellent campaign at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.  Buoyed by the American fans, he defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinals, while another semifinal appearance in Cincinnati featured his first career victory over Nadal.  Just as impressive was his performance the previous week in Canada, when he outplayed Djokovic for extended stretches of the Rogers Cup final before the Serb’s more balanced style prevailed.  Gifted with outstanding net-attacking skills, Fish poses his greatest threat when he seizes the initiative rather than rallying behind the baseline, as this relaxed competitor sometimes prefers.  Although he reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal, he did not distinguish himself at the hard-court majors in uneven losses to Robredo and Tsonga.  Leading the reeling Frenchman by two sets to one at his home major, Fish allowed one poor service game to derail his hopes for a second straight Slam quarterfinal.  Still, he represents American tennis with a poise and dignity absent from the man whom he supplanted as his nation’s #1.  Despite an injury, Fish competed with resolve during his three losses at the World Tour Finals, displaying a commendable professionalism in defeat.

Tipsarevic:  Cast into Djokovic’s shadow for most of his career, the second-ranked (and sometimes third-ranked) Serb had not won a tournament until this year despite scoring several notable upsets and near-upsets.   When his compatriot reached #1, though, Tipsarevic found the inspiration necessary to reach the top 10 for the first time while winning his first two titles and reaching five total finals.  Not aesthetically pleasing to watch, his functional style can produce a power belied by his compact physique on both his serve and his groundstrokes.  In contrast to Wawrinka and Troicki, moreover, his respect for the top-ranked player from his nation did not snuff out his competitive spark.  Before an injury halted him, Tipsarevic waged a fierce battle with Djokovic in a US Open quarterfinal and ended the world #1’s season in London.  His quirky personality will continue to fuel controversy, but it adds further texture to an already diverse top 10.

Nishikori:  Ranked well below the other players at a modest #25, Nishikori appears on the list as a result of becoming the highest-ranked man in Japanese history, a goal that he set for himself when his career began.  Moreover, he reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Shanghai, where he defeated Tsonga, and recorded his first victory over a reigning #1 in Basel.  Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert, Nishikori already has progressed further than many might have expected, and he finally has recovered from a series of injuries.  A counterpuncher in the mold of Ferrer, he now can set new ambitions for himself.

Kei Nishikori - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Feliciano Lopez Davis Cup team captain Albert Costa (R), Feliciano Lopez (2nd R), Rafael Nadal (C), Fernando Verdasco (2nd L) and David Ferrer of Spain celebrate with the crowd after the last match during the third and final day of the semi final Davis Cup match between Spain and France at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas on September 18, 2011 in Cordoba, Spain.

As December descends, most of the competitors who toiled so tirelessly through the labyrinthine tennis season enjoy a well-deserved respite.  But not quite all of them do.  Proving that this sport’s calendar, unlike all others, lasts twelve months a year is the Davis Cup final in Seville this weekend.  On the (red and gritty) surface, Argentina’s visit to the land of Nadal looks even more fruitless than Spain’s trip to the indoor hard courts of Mar del Plata three years ago.  Nevertheless, the Davis Cup final three years ago took more than one unexpected twist, reminding viewers that the team competition does not always fulfill expectations.  What key questions should we ask of the last men standing this year?

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

Two years ago, the greatest clay player in tennis history had endured one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, including what remains his only loss in a five-set match on a favorite surface.  When Nadal slumped through a winless week in the World Tour Finals, many wondered whether his presence in Davis Cup would lift the fortunes of his team as significantly as he had in the past.  Assigned the task of facing Berdych on Friday, the Spanish #1 did in fact look uneasy through the first several games—before utterly demolishing the Czech once a set threated to slip away from him.  Although he earned only one victory in that tie, Nadal celebrated the title ecstatically with his team and compatriots.  This momentum-reversing triumph may have propelled him towards the most impressive season of his career so far in 2010, just as a Davis Cup title boosted Djokovic’s moral before his year to remember in 2011.  After another inconsistent second half and tepid performance in the World Tour Finals, a return to his homeland should raise Nadal’s spirits for the short term and could lift his game in the long term.

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

In what became known as the Massacre of Mar del Plata, a Nadal-less Spanish team tiptoed into the Argentine beach town to face an ebullient home squad on indoor hard courts, the surface least suited to Spanish strengths.  All went according to script during the first rubber, an emphatic victory for Nalbandian over Ferrer.  As Del Potro edged towards a two-set lead over Lopez in the second rubber, a first Cup title looked almost a foregone conclusion.  But then Argentina’s rising star played a poor tiebreak before fading physically, the Argentine doubles team wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of the next rubber before fading physically, and suddenly the battered veteran Jose Acasuso found himself handed a must-win assignment against Verdasco.  Following a hideous five-setter, the Spanish lefty finally clinched the Cup for the leading ATP nation of the last decade.  The humiliation for the still Cup-less Argentines, meanwhile, reached staggering heights as reports of friction between Nalbandian and Del Potro bubbled to the surface.  This time, the same duo will hope to avoid the dissension that made their talented squad less than the sum of its parts.  Far from their compatriots, the away location of this tie may relieve some of the pressure that Del Potro especially seemed to sense in Mar del Plata.

3)     Will we see the Del Potro of the first half or the Del Potro of the second half?

Through Wimbledon, the Tower of Tandil had progressed promisingly and more swiftly than one would have expected.  Winning two small titles in Delray Beach and Estoril, he had reached a semifinal at Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Miami, defeated Soderling twice, and won a set apiece from Djokovic and Nadal at majors.  Since he enjoyed an outstanding reputation on North American hard courts, the US Open Series offered the perfect platform to vault him towards what looked like an almost certain berth in the top 10.  But the summer did not unfold as one would have expected, combining losses to underachievers Gulbis and Cilic withan unsightly deluge of unforced errors in a first-week defeat to Simon at the US Open.  On the same court where he had dethroned Federer, Del Potro’s forehand suddenly lacked its characteristic explosiveness and his demeanor the quiet confidence that had intimidated his rivals.  Nor did the fall indoor season much improve his fortunes.  Looking much more like the tentative, brittle introvert of his pre-2009 self, he bookended a creditable loss to Tsonga in Vienna with unexpected stumbles against Blake and Granollers in Stockholm and Valencia.  A product of these early losses and a limited schedule, Del Potro’s second half has allowed him ample time to rest for Davis Cup, but rest may translate to rust.  In a must-win match against Ferrer on the first day, with Argentina almost certainly trailing 0-1, will the Spanish crowd unnerve a personality much less imposing than his physique?  Mentally inferior to Ferrer, Del Potro will need to rediscover his bullet serves and forehands for this tie to survive the first day in any meaningful fashion.

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

At the 2005 year-end championships, the Argentine with the smooth two-hander and dubious fitness rallied from losing the first two sets to stun Federer in a final-set tiebreak.  Just a few months later at the 2006 Australian Open, he carelessly let a two-set lead slip away against Baghdatis when victory would have allowed him to play for his first major title.  In such an erratic fashion has his long, injury-plagued career veered between spectacular success and spectacular collapses.  His Slam ambitions have long since evaporated, if they ever existed, but Nalbandian long has harbored hopes for his nation’s first Davis Cup crown.  A controversial figure in his home country as elsewhere, he would become a hero forever by snapping Argentina’s futility in Cup competition.  If Nalbandian plays as he did against Ferrer in the first rubber of the 2008 final, the Spaniards will have reason to furrow their brows if he meets Ferrer again in the potentially decisive fifth rubber.  (Although Argentina currently has scheduled Monaco for that match, one expects to see the Grouchy Gaucho riding to the rescue should their title hopes hinge upon it.)  Well past his prime, he still has amassed a formidable 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers that demonstrates his tendency to shine under national colors.  For Argentina to have any chance at all, Nalbandian must spearhead their doubles charge while conserving adequate energy to fluster Ferrer on Sunday.  The task looms large, but so do the stakes and likely the motivation—the only factor that has prevented him from becoming one of his generation’s elite contenders.

5)     Why don’t we have more questions about Spain? 

Unlike Argentina, the hosts have assembled a squad beyond Nadal that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts, especially at home and on clay.  Whereas uncertainty swirls around the visitors, one can expect an unwaveringly professional effort from Ferrer, who would serve almost any other country well as their #1 singles player.  One need only recall his five-set comeback against the then-imposing Roddick in the 2009 semifinal, or his five-set comeback against Stepanek in the 2009 final, to realize the value of his tenacity in this context, on this surface, and under the eyes of his compatriots.  Somewhat less steady are Lopez and Verdasco, but this flamboyant duo has competed valiantly throughout many a Cup campaign.  More likely than not, Argentina must defeat Ferrer twice and the two lefties once in order to claim its first Davis Cup title. Unless complacency strikes Spain in 2011 as it did Argentina in 2009, the visitors lack the depth and resilience to accomplish that mission.

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

***

Outside exhibitions, this weekend witnesses the last matches of the 2011 season.  We return next week to start reviewing the greatest performances from a fascinating season in both the ATP and the WTA.

Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five

Federer vs. Ferrer:  The only undefeated player remaining in the tournament, its five-time champion looks poised to extend his perfect record into the final Sunday.  On hard court and clay, indoors and outdoors, Federer has throttled Ferrer in all eleven of their meetings, including an ignominious rout in the 2007 final of the year-end championships.  That match halted one of the finest weeks of the Spaniard’s career in emphatic fashion while marking the endpoint to one of the finest seasons not only the GOAT’s career but perhaps in tennis history.  During the four years that have passed since then, they have collided only three times.  Although Federer dismantled Ferrer once more in London last year, the diminutive counterpuncher extended him to a final set in their other two encounters.  As the Swiss master’s career wanes, his consistency has begun to ebb in occasional lulls that could play into his opponent’s hands.  After dominant first sets against Fish and Tsonga here, for example, Federer’s focus waned early in the second set and resulted in a victory less straightforward that it initially seemed.  But equally significant was his ability to regroup in the third set, especially on serve, and reaffirm his authority rather than letting the momentum turn against him for good.

With that ugly head-to-head record looming over his head, Ferrer shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that he can challenge the defending champion.  From the outset, most options lie closed to him.  Despite his improved serve, he cannot rely upon that shot to equal or surpass Federer’s deadly delivery.  Nor can he outhit the Swiss from the baseline in a battle of bruising forehands; the contest for court positioning inevitably will tilt in Federer’s direction, considering his far superior shot-making ability and heavier first strike.  If Ferrer scurries frantically behind the baseline, simply focused on retrieving everything that he can, he will allow Federer to close off angles and methodically finish off points at the net, an area in which he excels.  Instead, Ferrer must remain in the counterpunching mold (for he has little choice but to do so), but he must counterpunch intelligently with groundstrokes as deep as possible that keep his opponent moving and off balance.  For two and a half matches this week, the Spaniard executed those tactics to perfection by displaying uncanny anticipation and redirecting the ball down both sidelines with sparkling timing, albeit not pinpoint accuracy.  Meanwhile, his passing shots threaded needles that left Murray, Djokovic, and initially Berdych raising their eyebrows in grudging admiration.  His compact physique and efficient ball-striking can profit from the surface’s low bounce, a characteristic that Federer’s low contact point also exploits.

Rarely short of willpower, Ferrer proved this week that his game can succeed against elite if battered opponents on the surface least suited to it.  Few players would have rebounded from a disastrous 0-3 collapse in London, when he failed to win a single set, and marched within two service holds of a 3-0 record there a year later.  Nevertheless, he bitterly regretted letting Berdych slip away in a match when a victory would have allowed him to play Tsonga rather than his perennial nemesis.  Should he bring that fatalistic attitude to his semifinal, he will not seriously threaten Federer.  If Ferrer needs a timely injection of optimism, though, his coach could remind him of what happened to the Swiss star two years ago in a semifinal on this court.  Armed with a 12-0 record against Nikolay Davydenko, Federer stumbled to a shocking defeat that propelled his conqueror to the most significant title of his career.  Will another ambush await him against another of his long-trampled victims?

Berdych vs. Tsonga:  Down a set and twice down a break in the second set to the ATP roadrunner par excellence, Berdych certainly could have let his mind drift towards the offseason and 2012.  Then he Yet he swiftly broke back immediately after surrendering his serve both times and denied Ferrer any fresh hope in the third set.  After he had carelessly thrown away a tight second set to Nadal, Tsonga also could have wandered mentally when the tide seemed destined to flow against him decisively.  Yet he reeled off 11 of 12 points from a span that started in the second game of the third set and ultimately decided the match.  Not normally known for as much fortitude as each of their opponents, both the Czech and the French proved themselves unexpectedly durable in the efforts that earned them their first semifinal berths at this tournament.  Supplanting the ATP top two, who dominated most of the season, are two more mercurial but immensely talented figures who have approached this week with far more desire than either Nadal or Djokovic.  Their semifinal should compensate in substance for what it lacks in glamor.  Whereas a title here would add a relatively minor luster to Novak’s or Rafa’s resumes, it would represent the most significant achievement of Berdych’s or Tsonga’s career.

Only once have these sporadic ambush artists and sporadic underachievers collided on the court.  In a Beijing semifinal, they split two competitive sets before Berdych established control in the decider over Tsonga en route to his only title of the last two seasons.  Unlike the contrasting styles of Federer and Ferrer, the tactics of these two semifinalists distinctly resemble each other.  Both men will unleash explosive first serves that they complement with massive forehands.  Both men have built their accomplishments this week upon their ability to follow either a penetrating serve or forehand to the net, Tsonga more often than Berdych.  For significant stretches this week, both men have struggled with their timing on returns or their rhythm in rallies that lasted more than a few strokes, Berdych less often than Tsonga.  Neither possesses many alternatives if their serve falters or their fierce groundstrokes misfire, so each should hammer away with their trademark weapons regardless of results.

Among the factors that could separate them is the Frenchman’s vibrant imagination, which crafted exquisite drop shots that left Nadal helplessly marooned in the forecourt.  More straightforward in his approach, Berdych did display an acute sense of the court’s geometry with his volleys this week and during his semifinal run at the Paris Indoors.  Nevertheless, he lacks Tsonga’s ability to combine bone-crushing power with a feathery touch, a mixture probably absent from everyone else outside the top 5.  Berdych’s main advantage lies in his steadier focus, a factor separate from his (sometimes unsteady) nerve.  Although he can crack under pressure, the Czech generally does not let a lead escape him through the complacency that saw Tsonga donate three double faults as he served for the match against Nadal.  Deep into his third three-setter of the week, he delivered the coup de grace to a reeling Ferrer with minimal ado.  But will his accumulated fatigue haunt him as Tsonga stretches the court both laterally and vertically?  With players so evenly matched in strengths and weaknesses, the second semifinal should offer the superior suspense to justify its selection as the evening showpiece.

Novak Djokovic - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  Ambling aimlessly along the baseline, the world #1 looked as though he would have preferred to have spent his evening basking in his Monte Carlo home rather than toiling through an arduous battle against David Ferrer.  After the first few games of their encounter, Djokovic exuded few sparks of energy while retreating into the self-deprecating mannerisms familiar from his struggles in 2009-10.  Having branded his hegemony upon the ATP and devoured the majority of its elite titles, Djokovic now seems somewhat satiated with success.  Under the chilly blue lights of the O2 Arena, his movement often has looked labored, his shot selection perfunctory, his technique unsteady, and his emotions somewhere between negative and nonplussed.  As his match with Berdych edged towards its climax, he released none of the full-throated roars that accompanied similar suspense in his victories earlier this year.

And yet Djokovic remains in contention for a fourth consecutive semifinal berth at the year-end championships, in part because of Murray’s withdrawal.  Fortunate to have escaped with a win against Berdych, who outplayed him for much of their encounter, he would consider himself unfortunate not to secure a vital second win against an accommodating compatriot.  Never has Tipsarevic defeated Djokovic, although never have they met as a pair of top-10 opponents.  As proud of his countryman’s rise as any other Serb, the veteran may have accumulated too much respect to thwart his chances of advancing from the group.  Unable to advance himself after his loss to Berdych, Tipsarevic may content himself with serving as the platform for his nation’s greater good.

On the other hand, history suggests that the older Serb can challenge the younger Serb despite the marked gulf in talent between them.  In all three of their meetings, Tipsarevic has won at least one set, and he traded blow for blow with Djokovic on even terms for two sets at the US Open this summer before an injury led to his retirement.  Undaunted by his exalted surroundings, the tattooed eccentric marched to a match point against Berdych on Wednesday with the bravado that has accumulated throughout his breakthrough season.  Once again, however, he fell just short of victory in a theme that has plagued him throughout his career, most notably in a five-set loss to Verdasco at this year’s Australian Open.  Down a match point to Berdych, Djokovic displayed a keener survival instinct by trimming his unforced errors and elevating his focus as he tottered on the edge of defeat.  Despite his depleted condition, the willpower of a champion briefly flickered from him.  Moribund against Ferrer as the match slid hopelessly out of his grasp, he might have mustered more competitive muscle had not the Spaniard so resolutely denied him all hope.  His loyal friend should not prove so merciless.

Even if Djokovic does dispatch his compatriot and survive until the semifinals, though, his chances of challenging Federer or Tsonga look slim indeed.   In his last round-robin match, the world #1 should capitalize upon the chance to deliver a statement more worthy of his ranking before the opposition stiffens this weekend.  And maybe release a roar or two as well.

Ferrer vs. Berdych:  Asked to predict which player would not drop a set through two matches in London, few outside Ferrer’s native province would have named the Spaniard ahead of the usual suspects.  As Murray and Djokovic have faltered, though, the world #5 has burst into the lead of Group B with his familiar fortitude.  Renowned for one of the most consistent returns in the ATP, Ferrer displayed an improved serve this fall as he once cruised through eight sets without a break.  But more remarkable is his ability to play game after game, rally after rally without committing a single unforced error from the baseline.  The Spaniard’s seemingly inexhaustible patience reaped rewards repeatedly against the injured Murray and a disinterested Djokovic, whose frustration mounted with each penetrating reply to a groundstroke that would have hurtled past many an opponent.  By playing each point with the same intensity, Ferrer won the psychological battle over both of his higher-ranked opponents well before the match ended.  Unlike Tsonga against Nadal, moreover, he did not grow careless even when his lead looked insurmountable.

Those traits should bolster Ferrer’s cause on Friday much as they have in his previous encounters with Berdych, the type of more powerful and more mentally fallible foe whom the Spaniard delights in defusing.  After consecutive epics in his first two matches, the Czech may arrive emotionally if not physically weary from the experience of losing after holding match point and winning after saving match point.  A point more against Djokovic, and Berdych would have qualified by now.  A point less against Tipsarevic, and his chances of advancing would have expired.  To be sure, his fortunes do not look especially bright against an opponent who has won their last four meetings, including two on indoor hard courts, and five of seven overall.  Despite his capacity for ball-striking ferocity, Berdych generally will find that rallies tilt against him if Ferrer survives his first strike.  As he spars with the heavy-footed Czech, the Spaniard’s superb footwork and agility should enable him to outmaneuver his opponent in most rallies that last longer than five or six shots.  For that reason, the length of their exchanges should offer a guide to the outcome.  Central to Berdych’s semifinal appearance in Paris was his willingness to attempt volleys and exploit the angles of the court.  Will Ferrer’s court coverage negate that strength?

With his semifinal berth assured, the Spaniard may lack some of his trademark intensity.  Even if he loses in straight sets, he will advance to meet Federer on Saturday.  Still, a competitor of his caliber might not know how to reduce his energy level at will, so Berdych should not expect complacency across the net.

Tomas Berdych - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Two

Tipsarevic vs. Berdych:  Twice during his tense duel with Djokovic, Berdych edged to the verge of a victory that would have positioned him auspiciously for a semifinal appearance.  With the world #1 far from his suffocating self, the Czech stood within two points of triumph at 4-5 in the third set and within one point at 5-6.  Both times, unsightly unforced errors squandered the opportunities, most notably a wayward forehand on match point that wandered outside the line had it crossed the net—which it didn’t.  A sloppy tiebreak later, Berdych finds himself without margin for error and with a familiar nemesis across the net in another Serb.  Toppling the Czech in four of their five previous meetings, Tipsarevic replaced the injured Murray, ironically an opponent whom Berdych probably would have preferred despite his higher ranking.

A tribute to sport’s mental dimension, the second-ranked Serb’s dominance over the top-ranked Czech perplexes when one considers the latter’s superior firepower on serve and groundstrokes.  Shorter and more compact, Tipsarevic covers the court more efficiently than the lanky Berdych, but movement alone does not win matches on the slick surfaces where they have clashed.  Instead, the world #9 simply has exuded more competitive desire than the world #7, diffident too often in his underachieving career.  Inspired by the feats of his compatriot, Tipsarevic in fact has overachieved considering his limited talents by reaching the top 10.  As his Slam upsets over Roddick and near-upset over Federer attest, the Serb habitually rises to the occasion when the spotlight shines most brightly.  Although he never has appeared at the World Tour Finals, his mental fiber should not buckle in his unfamiliar surroundings.  Since he missed only one round-robin match, Tipsarevic still theoretically could advance

While Berdych favors a more straightforward, programmatic approach to the game, his quirky opponent often eschews the tennis textbook for spontaneity.  Only if his streaky serve stays steady, though, can Tipsarevic compensate for the Czech’s superior weight of shot from the baseline.  Against an opponent who can scramble with abandon, Berdych will want not only to stretch the court but to follow his forehands or even some serves to the net.  That strategy aided him in securing his first career victory over Tipsarevic in Paris.  Although it earned him less success against Djokovic on Monday, the Czech should remember that not all Serbs thread their passing shots so expertly.  Across the net, Tipsarevic should aim to redirect his groundstrokes, since Berdych becomes much less dangerous when he leans in the wrong direction or fails to set his feet properly.  In a match between two baseliners with generally similar styles, execution should prove more decisive than strategy.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  Moping and seemingly resigned for much of his first London match, the world #1 proved how far he towers above most of his competition by defeating a top-eight opponent with (for him) a mediocre performance.  Much less explosive and much more erratic than for most of 2011, Djokovic won mostly by staying alert to prey upon his opponent’s nerves when they arose at the climactic tiebreak.  Two or three years ago, he probably would have lost this match in straight sets or when Berdych surged forward by a break in the third, but comebacks have grown routine for him in a year that has ranged from the implausible to the surreal.  With his most difficult match of the round-robin phase behind him, Djokovic likely will score the crucial second win over an obliging Tipsarevic on Friday.  Before then, though, the Serb faces the unexpected leader of a group that also once included  the recently scorching Murray.

Only once has Djokovic lost to Ferrer in six hard-court meetings, relying upon his far superior serve and somewhat superior return to seize control of points immediately.  The most tenacious workhorse in the ATP, the fifth-ranked man normally requires greater effort to win rallies after starting many of them on neutral terms.  But observers such as ourselves envisioned Ferrer’s Monday meeting with Murray in parallel terms, anticipating an uneventful passage for the local favorite.  What unfolded instead was an uneventful passage for the Spaniard, or at least as uneventful a passage as his strenuous style of endless baseline exchanges permits.  In fine fettle since the US Open, Ferrer reached two semifinals and a final during a fall season that normally doesn’t welcome most players who have forged their reputations from the red clay of spring.  An indefatigable man for all seasons, he arrived in London seemingly untroubled by either fatigue or the specter of his disaster in the O2 Arena last year.

Eager to profit from Murray’s accumulating injuries, Ferrer could repeat that ambush against a physically and mentally weary Djokovic.  Observers might recall their meeting at the year-end championships four years ago, when the Spanish retriever sank his teeth into a staggering Serb during the first appearance at this tournament by both players.  As Murray discovered in the seemingly endless sequence of rallies, Ferrer can make even a fast court feel very slow indeed through his keen anticipation and instincts.  On the other hand, Djokovic can project more firepower on both groundstrokes than can the Scot, so a technically and tactically crisp effort would smother the Spaniard.  Even when they met during the Spring of the Serb this May, though, Ferrer managed to mire the future #1 in the grinding style that he prefers.

The initial stages of the match might prove critical in setting the tone.  If the world #5 claims an early lead, as Berdych did, he won’t let it disappear without a struggle for which his opponent may not have the appetite.  But he will lack an answer if Djokovic delivers a performance worthy of his stature.  Like a blank canvas, Ferrer allows opponents to paint an image of their choosing on his matches.

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Murray vs. Ferrer:  Straightforward to the point of pre-ordained are the eight meetings between the Scot and the Spaniard.  While Ferrer has won all of their clashes on clay, Murray has collected all of their encounters on hard courts.  This predictable trajectory extended through a Tokyo semifinal and Beijing final, during which Ferrer’s monochromatic retrieving emboldened the world #3 to swing more freely than against opponents whose offense can damage him. Safe in the awareness that the Spaniard possesses minimal first-strike power, Murray can relax as he maneuvers smoothly through points and waits for the ideal opportunity to finish them.  Only when he grows unfocused or passive can Ferrer threaten him.  More aptly, only in those situations can Ferrer enable Murray to undermine himself with purposeless unforced errors accompanied by mounting negativity.  For two sets of their Australian Open encounter, the Spaniard profited from an edgy Scot to creep within a point of a stranglehold over that semifinal.  Midway through their Shanghai final, moreover, he nearly reversed the momentum of the match simply by staying tenacious as Murray faltered.

Neither player likely would list this skidding, low-bouncing hard court among their preferred surfaces, but Murray’s much more formidable serve should profit more from it than will Ferrer’s underpowered delivery.  Like Djokovic and Berdych, this pair of competitors met in London a year ago, when the home hope routed the Spaniard for the loss of only four games.  A similar result seems plausible, unless Murray still struggles with the weariness that infected his lackluster loss to Berdych in Paris.  Winning the last tournament before Wimbledon and the last tournament before the US Open, he sometimes has peaked too soon during the preparatory phases for key events.  Feasting upon the fatigued, Ferrer rarely fails to force opponents to match his gritty effort.  Since Murray has a losing record against both Berdych and Djokovic, meanwhile, he should consider a victory virtually mandatory to advance from his round-robin group.  As long he stays mentally alert, avoids complacency, and masters his emotions, nothing should prevent him from winning this match in uneventful fashion.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Victorious in seven of their eight meetings, the world #1 has won 11 of the last 12 sets that he has contested against the Czech.  When they met in the O2 Arena a year ago, he eased past him without tension. Nevertheless, Berdych captured arguably their most significant meeting in a straight-sets semifinal domination at Wimbledon last year.  Marking the high tide of his career, that match preceded Djokovic’s revival in late 2010, heralded in part by a four-set comeback when the two collided in Davis Cup.  To judge from their recent form, though, Berdych should bring modest optimism into an encounter with the player of the year but certainly not the player of the fall.  Occasionally fallible in indoor tournaments, Djokovic has won his last twelve titles at outdoor venues and has not held a trophy under a roof since 2009.  Although he claims to have recovered from his injuries, he has played no matches against elite competition since the US Open.  By contrast, Berdych arrives fresh from a successful fall tour that culminated by defeating Murray in Paris.  During that extended match, the world #7 displayed a readiness to attack the net that should benefit him even more on this faster surface.  Having retired twice against Djokovic this year, Berdych has acquired a reputation of physical and mental fragility, but he stayed emotionally steady more often than not throughout the rollercoaster against Murray.

Designed to defuse the programmatic Czech’s massive first strike is his opponent’s return and explosive movement, which offer him many more options to win points.  If he can extend his heavy-footed rival laterally, Djokovic can expose Berdych’s modest court coverage and sometimes unwise shot selection.  Known for the depth of his groundstrokes, he should control the majority of the neutral rallies conducted from behind the baseline.  Outside the serve, in fact, Berdych holds an advantage over a fully fit world #1 in no department except perhaps his volleys.  His forehand can smother the Serb at times but not consistently, while his backhand does not rank in the same tier as Djokovic’s unsurpassed weapon, and his return generally lies closer to functional than fearsome.  But the top seed’s reflexes and instincts, central to his game, may hover a few notches below their best in his first match of the week and first match against a top-eight opponent since early September.

Since both players will fancy their chances against Ferrer on this court, a victory on Monday will position the winner on the brink of a semifinal berth.   By contrast, the loser most likely would need to defeat Murray in order to advance.

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