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US Players

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

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

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

Ad-in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

Ad-out:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

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

Rafael Nadal - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Nadal vs. Tsonga:  Besieged by nagging ailments, the world #2 looked a step sluggish in his movement and not always crisp in his footwork during a terse loss to his archrival on Tuesday.  That match continued a concerning trend in which Nadal has lost his last three matches against top-five opponents in emphatic fashion, from a fourth-set breadstick against Djokovic in New York to a final-set bagel against Murray in Tokyo and now a second-set bagel against Federer here.  Of greater significance for this tournament, though, is the pressure to which Fish and Federer subjected the Spaniard on his serve.  Although he escaped many tightly contested games, the energy expended in holding serve can drain even a competitor like Nadal who does not rely heavily upon that shot.  On a brighter note, he managed to blunt Fish’s serve efficiently throughout his opening victory despite a surface friendlier to the American’s style than to his own.  A similar challenge will loom when Rafa faces a Frenchman who has scored some of his greatest triumphs during the fall season.

Twice a champion since the US Open, Tsonga exploited an accommodating draw to reach his second final at the Paris Indoors.  Carrying that momentum into this week, he regrouped from yet another slow start against Federer to threaten the clear favorite for the title and then dispatch Fish more comfortably than in their US Open meeting.  As he seeks his first career semifinal at the year-end championships, Tsonga might learn from the example of Federer and one of the keys to his stunningly emphatic victory.  Stretching Nadal to his backhand with wide serves into the deuce court, the Swiss master almost invariably opened the court for a penetrating first groundstroke that in turn allowed him to finish the point in the forecourt (if it hadn’t ended before then).  Considering the Spaniard’s slightly diminished movement, Tsonga might consider a similar tactic despite his general preference for serving down the center on important points.  Any way to shorten points and take time away from a depleted Nadal would enhance his opponent’s chances of repeating his monumental upset at the 2008 Australian Open.  For his part, Rafa will sharpen his returns and passing shots in order to deter his opponent from venturing towards the net.  Against Fish, those shots dipped low over the net and veered towards the sideline at improbable angles, forcing the net-rusher into awkward positions.

Largely unfamiliar to most spectators, Tsonga ambushed the heavily favored Nadal in straight sets on that Melbourne evening with a ferocious barrage of serve-forehand combinations mingled with uncannily delicate volleys.  That breakthrough still ranks among the most impressive performances of his career, followed closely by his comeback over Federer at Wimbledon this summer.  Since that nearly flawless display, however, the world #6 has fallen short in all four of his hard-court collisions with the world #2, including two on the indoor courts that would seem to showcase his style.  Even when Nadal struggled with physical and personal turmoil in 2009, he still registered a generally convincing victory over the Frenchman at the Paris Indoors.  For us, the most emblematic match of their rivalry remains a 2008 meeting at Indian Wells, which Tsonga controlled for most of the first two and a half sets.  Offered a chance to deliver the coup de grace in the second-set tiebreak and when he served for the match in the third set, his focus deserted him as Nadal’s determination reached its summit.  Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Tsonga showed both why he could challenge the most accomplished players in the ATP and why he probably would not rival their brilliance.

Still oscillating in fascinating fashion between the magnificent and the maddening, the Frenchman has established himself as one of the most entertaining players of his generation.  “Entertaining” probably does not describe Nadal’s rigorous, almost obsessive pursuit not of greatness (like Federer) but of surviving to fight another day.  If Tsonga bombards him with staccato bursts of serves and forehands, the Spaniard will have a full week to prepare for the Davis Cup final.  If Nadal can stay within range and retain his optimism, he can dig into trenches where the Frenchman might not follow him.

Federer vs. Fish:  Already having clinched victory in Group B, Federer can look forward to a Saturday semifinal against the Group A runner-up no matter what happens in his final round-robin match.  Therefore, the five-time champion of this event should approach this event with an attitude approximating an exhibition or a Davis Cup dead rubber.  Struggling with injuries over the last few months, Fish has acquitted himself creditably in two losses but has nothing meaningful to gain either with a victory.  Expect short points and frequent forays to the net from both players as they try to complete this match without undue exertion.  Unlikely to race across the baseline tracking down each other’s groundstrokes, they should produce a match high in winners and low in defense.  Previous such encounters at previous editions of the year-end championships have resulted in interminable three-setters between two players, neither of whom especially wants to win.  On this occasion, however, Federer should maintain his unblemished record after a pair of routine sets.  Creating the only suspense is the question of whether Federer will demonstrate his legendary between-the-legs stab again.  Or will Thursday witness the debut of something equally spectacular and unexpected?

Fish vs. Tsonga:  Only once have they met in their long careers, a five-setter at this year’s US Open that oscillated restlessly between them.  Through most of the first four sets, Fish matched Tsonga serve for serve and forecourt charge for forecourt charge.  But the American flinched when victory loomed, signaling his uncertainty with untimely unforced errors and setting the stage for an emphatic final set.  A similar fate befell Fish in his first round-robin match against Nadal.  Thoroughly outplayed in the first set, he nevertheless stayed alert and capitalized upon a dip in the Spaniard’s form to win the second set and establish a lead in the third.  At that stage, though, the first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals looked intimidated by the occasion as he lost his serve with poor tactics and worse execution.  Although he displayed courage in saving two match points on his serve, Fish missed all but one of his returns during the decisive tiebreak and ended in the match with a badly bungled smash.  Having played himself to the brink of an unexpected victory, he could not quell his nerves but allowed the pressure to envelop him.

Far from nervous on any occasion, Tsonga falls victim to complacency rather than from a lack of self-belief.  Whereas few fail to notice Fish’s intense desire to win, many have questioned the Frenchman’s competitive steel.  More of a showman than a strategist, he swings for lines and corners with the first forehand that he sees more often than organizing a point.  So dangerous a shot-maker is Tsonga, though, that his rudimentary shot selection skills have not hindered him against most players outside the elite.  Moving surprisingly well against Nadal, Fish will need to cover the court just as assiduously on Tuesday and will want to extend rallies whenever possible.  Gifted with an excellent two-hander himself, the eighth seed gained repeated success at the US Open when he stretched Tsonga into his backhand corner and invited him to run around that weaker shot to hit forehands.  But Fish will want to maintain better depth than he did against Nadal, whose style did not punish him for numerous medium-pace, mid-court groundstrokes.  If he feeds Tsonga a steady diet of balls like those, the Frenchman will not hesitate to pummel them and charge towards the net for an acrobatic volley.

Among the keys to this match is the first-serve percentage of both players, neither of whom aims to win a war of attrition and both of whom rely on their delivery to gain free points.  Through most of his career, Tsonga has earned renown for balancing pace and accuracy with consistency in his first serve, while Fish’s delivery has hovered in a more typical range.  Against Nadal, though, his kick serve proved especially effective in moving the Spaniard off the court from the outset.  Another key to watch lies in the court positioning of both players, who will want to cling closely to the baseline in order to exploit any opportunities to move forwards.  Inclined to passivity when not at their best, Tsonga and Fish should seek to exploit the indifferent passing shots of both opponents by forcing the issue as often and as soon as possible.

The loser of this match almost certainly faces elimination at the round-robin stage, while the winner will live to fight another day but will need to defeat either Nadal or Federer to advance.

Federer vs. Nadal:  Arriving at the same destination, the two former poles of the tennis universe took the divergent routes that have characterized their rivalry.  Littered with service winners, rapid holds, and brisk sallies into the forecourt, Federer’s three-set victory lasted just 88 minutes.  In just a few minutes short of three hours, by contrast, Nadal eked out a series of deuce games, salvaged strings of break points, and battled through rally after rally of a dozen strokes or more.  As with their previous 25 encounters, therefore, the player who imposes his tone and tempo upon the match should seize the initiative.  Winning all three of their meetings this year and nine of eleven since the start of 2008, Nadal has forced Federer into the prolonged groundstroke duels that he favors more and more over the years.  In the sets that the Swiss master has won from him recently, such as the third set of the Roland Garros final this spring, only the most ruthless aggression and pinpoint accuracy could frustrate the Spaniard.  Observers have wondered whether any player, even one of Federer’s spine-tingling genius, could maintain that level throughout an entire match.  And routs unworthy of their rivalry now can develop when the aging legend’s artillery misfires, such as in their Miami semifinal and the fourth set of their Roland Garros final.

Nevertheless, three of Federer’s eight victories over his nemesis have occurred at the calendar’s final tournament.  Although fast indoor courts have played a role, his dominance over Nadal here stems less from the surface from the season.  While Federer has flourished in the fall with 19 career post-US Open titles, Rafa has collected just three such crowns (one since 2005) as he normally limps towards the end of an exhausting season.  This year has proved no exception but rather has accentuated the trend, with the Swiss sweeping through a Basel/Paris double and the Spaniard skidding to a Florian Mayer loss in Shanghai before withdrawing from Paris.  Within the broader narrative of Nadal’s dominance in their rivalry, therefore, lies this oasis of relative safety for Federer—so far.  In last year’s final, his title defense grew perilous when Nadal extended him to a final set, but then fatigue from a protracted semifinal contributed to the emphatic restoration of the ancien regime.

Especially notable from that match, though, was the unexpected boldness of Federer’s backhand, which so often betrayed him against Rafa.  Delivering for him on key points, that elegant shot crackled with a venom that seemed to surprise the Spaniard and made the Swiss forehand even more lethal.  If he can recapture that confidence in his weaker groundstroke, Federer likely will prevail once more on a surface that blunts the notorious Nadal topspin.  Still, he lapsed into an erratic passage after opening his first round-robin match with authority, although timely serving allowed him to recover.  More likely to capitalize upon a momentum shift than Tsonga, Nadal withstood steady pressure on his serve throughout the second half of his more arduous victory.  His level of execution may have suffered from a lack of tournament preparation, but his shot selection remained keen and his backhand fiercer than for much of the second half.  Unless Federer enjoys a spectacular serving performance, not a totally implausible prospect, their 26th meeting should hinge upon which backhand buckles sooner under the pressure of the opponent’s forehand.  A key question to ask:  which player will run around their backhand to hit forehands more often, a dangerous strategy on this fast surface?  And will Nadal gain more comfort from his dominance over Federer than he loses from his lack of dominance on this type of surface at this time of year?

 

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

Nadal vs. Fish:  At first glance, the Spaniard’s overwhelming supremacy in their head-to-head record suggests that his London campaign will open uneventfully.  Even on the fast courts of Wimbledon and the US Open, Nadal ruthlessly exploited Fish’s inconsistency from the baseline and any ebbs in his first-serve percentage.  An ambitious but erratic returner, the eighth seed has struggled to crack the second seed’s serve and never even earned a break point when they collided in Tokyo two months ago.  Confirming this impression from their head-to-head are other factors, such as the injuries that have afflicted the American this fall and his inexperience at the year-end championships.  (On the other hand, Del Potro reached the final in his debut there two years ago.)  Before the question turns from whether Fish can win to whether he can stay competitive, though, one should note that Nadal nearly lost to a similar opponent in the round-robin stage last year.  Against the mighty serve of Roddick, he trailed by a set and a break before escaping a second-set tiebreak with a pair of opportunistic second-serve returns.  Much more skilled at the net than his compatriot, Fish should embrace the serve-volley style frequently both to minimize the impact of his lingering injuries and to take time away from Nadal.  Having played only sparsely—and largely unimpressively—since the US Open, the Spaniard often needs a round or two to settle into a tournament.  If Fish denies him the opportunity to settle, Nadal may not respond with the stabbing returns and pinpoint passing shots that have bedeviled net-rushers before.  Deployed by Dodig, the net-rushing, point-shortening style troubled Nadal in his first match after the Wimbledon final and a similarly long hiatus.  In order to entertain even a faint hope of an upset, though, Fish must strike at least two of every three first serves and vary the placement of that shot.  Even if he does, his hopes remain faint.

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Rarely do two players face each other in consecutive matches, and even more rarely do two top-10 players face each other in consecutive matches.  Yet such is the situation when the Paris Indoors champion meets the Paris Indoors runner-up in the opening encounter of the 2011 World Tour Finals.  Having lost twice to Tsonga this year, Federer may bring greater confidence into this most recent encounter than he would have without last weekend’s triumph, although he had won their next-most-recent meeting at the US Open.  Memories of the defeat might not trouble the Frenchman, however, for he appears to approach not only each match but each game and even each point with the same carefree attitude.  While that insouciance has undermined his efforts to sustain leads and seal victories, it conversely enhances his danger to an opponent who feels secure in a lead of his own.  At the Rogers Cup two years ago and at Wimbledon this year, Federer learned that lesson in ignominious fashion as he squandered a 5-1 stranglehold in a final set and a two-set lead, both for the first time in the Swiss legend’s career.  Notwithstanding his comeback potential, Tsonga should strive to avoid the lackluster start that he suffered in Paris and that has characterized five of his six meetings with Federer this year.  The lopsided first set last weekend in fact featured an early opportunity for the Frenchman to seize an advantage, but his failure to capitalize set the tone for what followed.  Spurning a chance to reverse the momentum midway through the second set as well, Tsonga must realize that he can ill afford to offer Federer second lives.

Roger Federer - Federer Wins BNP Parabis Masters

Long after the year’s final major, 2011 concludes with the second premier tournament hosted by London.  As the city on the Thames sinks into winter, which of the year’s eight leading stars will rise to the occasion?

Group A:

Djokovic:  Tied closely to the world #1’s last three tournament exits were the injuries that have emerged to sting him in the second half.  While he retired against Del Potro and issued a walkover to Tsonga, Djokovic surely would not have suffered a third-set bagel by Nishikori if he had contested their Basel semifinal at full strength.  But he has limped into London rather than choosing discretion over valor and extending his offseason.  Like Sharapova in Istanbul, Djokovic might suffer an uncharacteristic defeat or two unless his battered back and shoulder somehow have recovered since Paris.  When he last began the year with a flourish by winning the Australian Open, though, the Serb secured the season-ending event as well.  More importantly, he possesses a 12-1 record on hard courts against Berdych and Ferrer, although his only loss came to the Spaniard at the 2007 edition of this tournament.  If he can extend that impressive statistic, Djokovic would accumulate the two wins likely sufficient to earn a semifinal berth.  Still, he enters this tournament with a fall campaign less accomplished than any of his three rivals.  Clearly the player of 2011 no matter who wins London, the year-end #1 probably will lack the willpower that he displayed when overcoming an injury at the US Open.  A title here would offer him nothing that he doesn’t have already.

Murray:  Sweeping through three Asian tournaments without a loss, the Scot fulfilled his goal of surpassing Federer for the #3 ranking.  When he reached Paris, Murray looked weary after a peripatetic autumn as his sporadic struggles against Berdych continued.  After a dreary debut at the O2 Arena in 2009, he battled to the brink of the 2010 final in a duel with Nadal that remained one of the season’s most memorable matches.  Frustrated by the Spaniard at major after major this year, Murray would not meet him until the weekend here.  The new #3 has stifled Ferrer away from the clay, including a pair of straight-sets victories following the US Open, and he likely seethes to avenge his recent loss to Berdych.  One even would fancy his chances against a depleted Djokovic, against whom Murray could patiently chip away as he did in the Cincinnati final.  Fortunately and unfortunately for him, the London crowd will raise the stakes of each match that he plays.  At Wimbledon, their intensity has inspired especially fierce performances from Murray but also has appeared to weigh upon him in marquee matches.  As he attempts to end the season on an auspicious note for 2012, he must beware of expending too much emotional energy in each match.

Berdych:  In his debut at the World Tour Finals last year, the then-Wimbledon finalist admitted to nerves that hampered his performance, despite generally competitive efforts against Nadal and Djokovic.  That debut dizziness behind him, he should approach this second appearance with a stronger mind, typically not one of his salient traits.  Having played Ferrer only once in the last four years, Berdych enters that contest with a poor record against the Spaniard but a game far superior on this surface.  The Czech has defeated Murray on three different surfaces, including at the 2010 French Open and Paris barely a week ago, where his bold commitment to finishing points in the forecourt reaped dividends.  On the other hand, the court’s low bounce may trouble the sometimes wooden Berdych, who prefers a relatively high contact point.  A similarly low bounce at Wimbledon did not prevent him from notching his only career win over Djokovic, however, while his post-US Open campaign represented his best tennis of 2011.  Relishing the indoor conditions, Berdych won the most important title of his career under a roof six years ago in Paris.  He probably acquired momentum from snapping a 28-month title drought in Beijing, and his indifferent season ironically may have left him fresher for London than most contenders.

Ferrer:  Regardless of his result this year, the world #5 could not fare worse than in his 0-3 London week last year, during which he failed to win a single set.  Ferrer’s third appearance here testifies to his prowess on slower surfaces and indirectly to the gradual reduction in speed of most tournament courts.  On the fast, skidding surface of the O2 Arena, his lack of offensive power and especially a commanding serve should lie bare once more.  In Tokyo and Shanghai, even the famously counterpunching Murray looked startlingly aggressive by contrast with the Spaniard’s understated blend of fitness and sturdy technique.  One could imagine Ferrer toppling a weary Djokovic after one grinding rally at a time, but an upset over the Scot seems remote considering his inability to either outhit or outlast that opponent.  The Spanish veteran twice has felled Berdych on hard courts, surely trusting in his superior versatility and focus.  Unless he strikes a serving streak like his run in Shanghai (eight straight sets without a break), though, Ferrer faces a daunting challenge.

Semifinalists:  Murray, Berdych

Group B:

Nadal:  Rarely resembling his intimidating best after the US Open, the world #2 came within a set of his first title at the most important tournament still absent from his sparkling resume.  Since his sixth straight loss to Djokovic, Nadal has played only one ATP tournament and lost uneventfully there to Florian Mayer.  As the Davis Cup final looms on the horizon, the flagship of the Spanish Armada may aim to conserve his energy as Djokovic did last year before his memorable weekend in Belgrade.  By withdrawing from Paris, a useful preparatory event, Nadal may have signaled his priorities for the end of a bittersweet season fulfilling and frustrating at once.  Outside his encounters with the man who has deposed him, however, Rafa’s competitive instincts have risen to the occasion whenever he faces his principal rivals.  No player has suffered from that trait more than Federer, who once again will face the challenge of overcoming his historic nemesis.  Likely to feast on the ailing Fish, Nadal also has won both of his indoor meetings with Tsonga, so none of his round-robin matches seems beyond his grasp.

Federer:  As the quest for a record sixth title at the year-end championships begins, Federer finds himself in his most scintillating form sine he captured last year’s title.  During a ten-match winning streak, he coupled an emotional victory at his home tournament in Basel with his first career title at the Paris Indoors.  In his last two matches under the Bercy roof, Federer demonstrated that he still can withstand the more muscular force projected by the thunderbolt-hurling Berdych and Tsonga.  When he meets the Frenchman again, the memory of that triumph surely will simmer in both of their minds, providing the Swiss star with a vital mental edge.  Less likely to provide such an advantage is his victory over Nadal in last year’s final, in part the product of the Spaniard’s fatigue following the Murray melodrama.  But Federer should collect a second round-robin win from Fish, so this episode in his rivalry with Rafa likely will prove immaterial.  Dwarfed by the top two this year, he can gain more from this tournament than perhaps anyone else.

Tsonga:  Always eager to enliven proceedings, the Paris runner-up should enjoy the billowing smoke, swirling lights, and other diversions that this tournament offers.  Appearing at the year-end championships for just the second time, Tsonga enjoyed perhaps the most consistent season of his career and has equaled his career-high ranking of #6.  A gulf in determination if not in talent still seems to separate him from the top four on most occasions, and he probably must solve two of them to reach the semifinals.  While he has lost 12 of 17 matches to Nadal and Federer, Tsonga has toppled both of them at majors and will pose a threat at any indoor tournament with an explosive serve complemented by pinpoint volleys.  Not for nothing have five of his seven titles come at tournaments that protect their courts from the elements.  Almost as notably, five of his seven titles (a different group of five) have come during the fall season, when those ranked above him often dwindle in competitive vigor.  Like Berdych, Tsonga remains an enigma who could win or lose any of his matches.

Fish:  Injured recurrently throughout the fall, the American poses little realistic threat.  In theory, his serve and prowess in the forecourt could rush a baseliner like Nadal out of his comfort zone, and Fish in fact did when they met in Cincinnati this summer.  The only first-timer in this year’s octet, he replaces the perennial American entrant Roddick and should focus on enjoying the aura of the exalted surroundings to which his hard-earned accomplishments have raised him.

Semifinalists:  Federer, Nadal

Semifinals:  Murray d. Nadal, Federer d. Berdych

Final:  Federer d. Murray

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