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Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 China Open - Day 7

Djokovic vs. Tsonga:  Throughout the most spectacular season in the modern era of tennis, the world #1 shed the reputation of physical frailty that had dogged him during his formative years and beyond.  When Basel marked his third retirement in four tournaments, commentators no longer sniffed at his propensity for injuries but instead questioned why he had played at all.  Sensitive to issues surrounding his fitness, Djokovic may have felt the need to prove his durability as evidence of his maturity.  Few expected him to enter Paris, an event that could add little luster to his 2011 accomplishments despite its Masters 1000 status.  Yet the world #1 overcame a concerning shoulder injury to register victories over Dodig and Troicki, rallying from a one-set deficit against the latter opponent.  Having won his last 17 quarterfinals, Djokovic seeks to extend that streak at the expense of a foe whom he has toppled twice this year.  At both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, the Serb soared past Tsonga in relatively uneventful fashion; so thoroughly did he dominate him in Montreal that some suspected the Frenchman of a dubious retirement.  Before this year, though, Djokovic had struggled to contain Tsonga’s first-strike power, especially indoors, and his shoulder injury may prevent him from swinging with abandon as he must in order to avoid playing an entirely defensive match.  Although this surface has slowed, few players can defeat elite attackers by playing pure defense on an indoor hard court.  If Tsonga stays optimistic and focused, the last Frenchman remaining in the draw should have an excellent opportunity to rekindle the electricity of his title run here three years ago.

Ferrer vs. Isner:  A tale of twelve inches, the height disparity between the Spaniard and the American represents a weapon as vital as any in this stark contrast of styles.  Long one of the ATP’s most efficient returners, Ferrer has blunted pace with intimidating ease.  Beyond the reflexes and coordination necessary to develop that talent, his tenacious attitude has enabled him to withstand the demoralizing sensation of watching one’s opponent hold serve with minimal effort.  More than any quarterfinalist except Monaco, the highest-ranked Spaniard in the draw will have appreciated the tournament’s decision to reduce its surface speed this year.  Not known for his fall prowess, Ferrer has excelled in his unassuming way since the US Open with a semifinal appearance in Tokyo, a charge to the Shanghai final, and another semifinal in Valencia.  Despite his grinding style, he has remained in prime physical condition as the long calendar winds to its conclusion.  Across the net, Isner has served his way past the more balanced Wawrinka and the lefty net-rushing of Lopez.  Available only to players of his heights are the acute angles and leaping bounces that swing balls away from returners with short wingspans like Ferrer.  Only in three sets did the Spaniard overcome Lopez on the slow court of Shanghai, but he protected his serve doggedly during that encounter and should edge through here if he can repeat that performance.  Neither player generally enjoys venturing towards the net, but both should seek to unleash that dimension of their games in order to take time away from their opponent.

Federer vs. Monaco:  In search of his 800th career victory, the world #4 usually has not enjoyed his visits to the City of Light, whether in the springtime or in the fall.  But this year Federer delivered his strongest Slam run at Roland Garros, while his draw has lain invitingly open at the only Masters 1000 tournament where he never has reached the final.  A week after he claimed a fifth Basel crown, he will recognize the opportunity to accumulate more momentum before he attempts to defend his title at the World Tour Finals.  The slower surface may expose Federer’s sporadic inconsistency in a potential semifinal encounter with Murray, who has learned how to draw the Swiss superstar out of his comfort zone.  Against the unheralded Monaco, though, even the occasional lull should not cost him much more than it did at the US Open.  Under the lights of Arthur Ashe, Federer sparkled throughout an emphatically terse rout of the Argentine clay specialist, who looked overwhelmed by the occasion.  Like most veteran journeymen of his generation, Monaco still appears too awed by the Swiss legend to mount a convincing challenge.  And little in Federer’s first two victories here will have fueled his confidence, for he looked even crisper there than in his home tournament.  After a lopsided first set on Thursday, Monaco reversed the momentum of his match against Fish with impressively steady self-belief.  On Friday, however, his opponent will not offer him a chance to regroup.

Berdych vs. Murray:  Tormented repeatedly by Tipsarevic, the top-ranked Czech finally earned a measure of revenge by halting the London hopes of his nemesis.  After a 2010 campaign that brought him into the edge of the ATP elite, Berdych regressed from those accomplishments to his familiarly unreliable self in 2011.  Despite snapping an interminable title drought in Beijing, he defeated no opponent more notable than Verdasco at a major.  Nevertheless, he has remained firmly entrenched in the top 10 and clinched a second straight berth at the year-end championships, no small feat.  Barring his route to the semifinals is a player whom he has played only once since 2006, dominating a straight-sets meeting at Roland Garros a year ago.  Never have Berdych and Murray intersected on an indoor hard court, which would seem to tilt towards the world #7’s superior offensive firepower.  With a comprehensive triumph over Roddick on Thursday, though, the Scot found the slower surface an accommodating canvas for his fluid court coverage and efficient counterpunching.  Unbeaten since the US Open, he likely shares Federer’s determination to end 2011 with a formidable statement.  In a season controlled by Djokovic and Nadal, Murray quietly has compiled an impressive foundation for 2012.  A player who rarely fails to capitalize upon opportunities, he did not let the Cincinnati or Shanghai titles escape him against overmatched opponents.  The absence of the top two should inspire him to redouble his energies here.

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Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day One

In the last match of individual competition that he played before his Basel opener on Monday, Federer marched within a point of the US Open final before Djokovic snatched that pearl out of the Swiss lion’s jaws.  Now, the Serb ventures into the den of the lion itself in an attempt to deny his vanquished rival even this modest prize, as he did in 2009 but could not do in 2010.  But plentiful intrigue awaits in Basel beyond the tantalizing thought of a Federer-Djokovic rematch.  We discuss the exceptional draw at this ATP 500 tournament.

First quarter:  Assigned to tackle the leviathan astride the ATP is the aging Belgian Xavier Malisse, who still can serve impressively at times while striking penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.  Considering Djokovic’s rust from an injury absence, one could imagine this match proving closer than their relative rankings would suggest.  In the second round, doubles specialist Lukasz Kubot shares many of Malisse’s strengths and has demonstrated the ability to score minor upsets, although he never has threatened an opponent of the Serb’s quality.  Ousting the eighth-seeded Troicki on Monday after saving match point, Baghdatis might pose the sternest pre-semifinal test for a Djokovic who probably will arrive slightly out of tune.  The former Australian  Open finalist has lost all five of his meetings with the two-time Australian Open champion, but he has won at least one set in each of the last four.  With his flat groundstrokes and a tendency to accelerate the tempo of a match, Baghdatis might deny the top seed the rhythm that he needs.  Also lurking in Djokovic’s quarter is the mercurial Youzhny, who has won all three of the indoor meetings (twice in Rotterdam and once in Marseille).  For most of this season, though, Youzhny has not reached the same level that he displayed in those victories but instead has undermined his own cause with untimely double faults and ill-advised shot selection.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the US Open, many observers expected Mardy Fish to fade in a fall far from the North American scene of his greatest successes.  While an early exit to Tomic in Shanghai seemed to confirm those thoughts, Fish can clinch his first career berth at the year-end championships with a solid autumn campaign and thus should bring plenty of motivation to these tournaments.  Moreover, the indoor environment should suit his precise style as the relatively faster courts maximize his serve.  Fish has struggled against Americans throughout his career, however, and he faces a potentially perilous opener against Blake, who flickered into life with a Stockholm semifinal appearance.  These courts should suit that veteran’s breathless, instinctive style as well, and the lefty serve of Gilles Muller may prove especially devastating here.  Aligned to meet Berdych in the second round, the pride of Luxembourg should not dismiss the possibility of facing Kei Nishikori instead.  Although he seems overmatched by Berdych’s power on serve and forehand, the highest-ranked man in the history of Japanese tennis won their only previous meeting and arrives fresh from a Shanghai semifinal.  Can Nishikori build upon that breakthrough, his greatest accomplishment so far, to march higher in the rankings before 2012 begins?

Semifinalist:  Fish

Third quarter:  Here roars the local lion, whose cubs may attend the tournament as they did last year.  In arguably the softest section of the draw, Federer allowed the unremarkable Potito Starace to stay within range longer than expected before notching his first victory of the week.  Either a youthful lefty or a veteran lefty will meet him in the second round, following a match that pits Bellucci’s power against the experience of Stockholm finalist Nieminen.  Then looms the prospect of a vintage meeting with Roddick, reprising the classic 2009 Wimbledon final in which the American served as the reluctant platform for Federer’s conquest of immortality.  Yet Roddick may not even reach that stage, for his form has oscillated unpredictably throughout a season that appears to mark the onset of an inexorable decline.  He must overcome a familiar nemesis in Tommy Haas to start the tournament and the lilting, maddening mosquito Radek Stepanek.  On the other hand, none of these curious encounters will pique interest in Federer, who long has dominated all of his potential quarterfinal opponents.  The elder statesman of the ATP should appreciate and capitalize upon the opportunity to reach a strenuous weekend with his energy mostly intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title after sweeping the ATP Asian season, Murray has lost only one match at a non-major since the clay season.  When he met first-round opponent Robin Haase at the US Open, though, the Scot found himself forced to escape from a two-set deficit.  This time, he won’t have the luxury of time on a surface that tilts towards the lanky Dutchman’s strengths.   Elsewhere in this section loom Nadal-killers Ivan Dodig and Florian Mayer, the former near Murray and the latter adjacent to the sixth-seeded Tipsarevic.  After winning his first career title this fall and reaching another final, the Serbian #2 has every right to feel giddy (or perhaps Tipsy) with success.  One wonders how much motivation he will carry into a potentially dangerous draw with not only Mayer but Llodra and Ljubicic, imposing servers with a history of excelling in the fall.  Less likely to succumb to a dark horse is the second seed, who conceded sets here and there throughout his dazzling recent surge without ever coming close to defeat.  All the same, Wawrinka will benefit from the Swiss crowd and has defeated Murray before, so the Scot will need to elevate his level early in the week.  If he survives that test, he would arrive in the semifinals strengthened for his encounter with another Swiss foe.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Fish, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Federer d. Djokovic

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  A tiebreak from defeat in the previous round, the flamboyant Italian has grown accustomed to suspenseful three-setters during a year filled with epic encounters.  Among her more memorable triumphs was her quarterfinal duel with Pavlyuchenkova at Roland Garros, during which she lost 10 of the first 12 games.  In that whiplash-inducing rollercoaster, Schiavone then squandered a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to capture the two games that she needed.  At last year’s US Open, the Italian prevailed much less dramatically over a teenager who slumped through a second half of injuries and double faults.  Tested by rising Croat Petra Martic in the second round, Pavlyuchenkova enjoyed a more tranquil passage against 2008 finalist Jankovic, troubled by a back injury.

In a battle of youthful vigor against veteran cunning, the Russian will aim to take time away from Schiavone with penetrating cross-court groundstrokes into the corners that set up mild mid-court replies.  Not especially comfortable at the net, “Nastia” possesses the firepower to end points from the baseline or with a routine drive volley.  Unlike most practitioners of first-strike tennis, however, she has not honed an overwhelming serve or an especially explosive return.  Those shortcomings have forestalled Pavlyuchenkova from mounting higher in the rankings, but they may not hamper her against an opponent unremarkable in those categories herself.  An all-court artist who excels at tying her opponents in knots, Schiavone darted and dodged to consecutive Roland Garros finals by improvising unexpected gambits.  If she can parry Pavlyuchenkova’s initial assault, she might unsettle the relatively one-dimensional novice for the third time in five Slams.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Ivanovic vs. Serena:  Thrilled to reach the second week of the US Open for the third time, Ivanovic relished the experience of playing under the lights of Arthur Ashe as her thunderous forehand crackled through the sport’s largest arena.  From her victory over American hope Sloane Stephens emerged flashes of her vintage form, especially her ability to dictate play from her stronger groundstroke while shielding her weaker wing.  On this fast surface, this challenging task will grow ever more demanding when the smiling Serb confronts the greatest player in this era of women’s tennis.  Superior to Ivanovic in virtually all departments of the game, Serena sharpened her weapons with a victory over world #4 Azarenka that began as a rout and would have ended in that fashion had not one of her backhands landed an inch or two wide.  Drama then ensued, but the 13-time Slam champion enjoys nothing more than drama and once again demonstrated her superiority to the WTA’s next generation.

Likely to experience less suspense in this round, Serena will thrive whenever she directs her backhand into Ivanovic’s two-hander, a neutral shot at best and often a liability against elite competition.  Although the American has lost serve only once in the tournament, Ana still should swing freely on her returns in the effort to seize the initiative immediately in rallies.  Should she not deliver that first strike, Serena’s more natural athleticism will offer her few opportunities to assert herself thereafter, and the Serb will not win many points from her defensive abilities.  In her three fourth-round appearances at the fourth jewel in the sport’s crown, Ivanovic has drawn the daunting trio of Clijsters and the Williams sisters.  Giggling with disarming charm when the media discussed her next opponent, the clear-eyed Serb knows the magnitude of the task ahead and likely lacks the confidence to convince herself that she can conquer it.

Tsonga vs. Fish:  Heavy are the expectations that rest upon the top-ranked American man, especially in a tournament where many of his compatriots have surpassed their projected results.  Joined in the second week by Roddick, isner, and Donald Young, Fish continues to generate the most anticipation following a summer of two small titles, a Masters 1000 final, and a first career victory over Nadal.  Yet his performances to this stage have not inspired great confidence, littered with routine unforced errors and missed first serves.  In the previous round against Kevin Anderson, Fish needed four set points to seal the first set and five more to seal the second.  Hitting consecutive double faults at 5-4, 40-15 in the first set, he conceded consecutive backhand unforced errors at 5-4, 40-15 in the second set before losing his serve with another wayward groundstroke.  Unable to finish the match more emphatically, Fish instead came within a few points of losing the third set as well.

Not known for his competitive steeliness, Tsonga has advanced more confidently against arguably more imposing competition, including an authoritative straight-sets victory over former nemesis Verdasco.  Perhaps still buoyed by his Wimbledon semifinal, the Frenchman has struck even his less imposing backhand with conviction.  Nevertheless, Fish should hope to arrange rallies from backhand to backhand rather than forehand to forehand, for his two-hander should break down Tsonga’s stroke under sustained pressure.  As one ponders the seismic serves on both sides of the net, one wonders how many rallies in fact will develop.  Both players typically establish unrelenting control over a point from the first ball, while neither transitions impressively from defense to offense.  Still without a Slam semifinal, Fish has yet to prove that he can translate his ascendancy from best-of-three tournaments to majors.

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  In a fourth-round night match two US Opens ago, this pair of pleasant personalities waged a gripping war of attrition that culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The 2004 champion showcased her natural athleticism in extended exchanges during which she steadily outmaneuvered the Dane from the baseline during the first set and a half.  As many of Wozniacki’s more recent opponents have discovered, the precision required to execute that strategy throughout an entire match eventually eluded Kuznetsova, fallible as always when the pressure peaked.  Since that crossroads, their careers have diverged in opposite directions with the Dane soaring to the top ranking and the Russian lurching to perplexing loss after perplexing loss.  Reflecting their relative fortunes are their last two meetings, during which Sveta won nine total games from a steady opponent who needed no more than patience and consistency to outlast her.

Despite losing to anonymous foes like Begu, Arn, and Halep at non-majors, Kuznetsova has saved some of her best tennis in 2011 for the most important tournaments on the calendar.  Reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, she dispatched Henin into retirement at the Australian Open and then collaborated with Schiavone on the WTA match of the year.  The glittering lights of Arthur Ashe might spur her to unleash something memorable against an opponent in a state of flux.  Although she survived the first week with minimal difficulty, Wozniacki pursues her first major under constantly increasing scrutiny and with correspondingly increasing uncertainty over the best means to that end.  Only by staying within herself can she earn more opportunities to justify her ascendancy.

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Djokovic vs. Dolgopolov:  A classic example of the dark horse who can defeat almost anyone or lose to almost anyone at almost any time, Dolgopolov has recorded victories over Tsonga (twice), Soderling, Ferrer, and Wawrinka this year.  Yet he also has lost to Potito Starace, Jarkko Nieminen, Jose Acasuso, and Carlos Berlocq in 2011.  The last of those names should sound familiar, for it belongs to the opponent whom Djokovic mercilessly devoured in a second-round victory somewhere between exhibition and execution.  After reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and excelling in the South American clay tournaments, Dolgopolov faded throughout the spring and summer before reaching his nadir with a first-round Wimbledon loss to Gonzalez.  With nowhere to go but upwards, the Ukrainian then won Umag and ousted the similarly budding Dimitrov at Winston-Salem.  His second-week appearance here comes as little surprise, therefore, while his ability to physically and mentally survive the towering serve of Karlovic in the third round bodes well for his future.

A carefree character who plays an effortless brand of tennis, Dolgopolov should not flinch from the towering odds confronting him against a player who has lost only one match to a player outside the top 20 since Wimbledon last year.  So overwhelming is Djokovic’s dominance that his resounding win over Davydenko, a former top-5 talent, seemed imperfect as well as unremarkable.  The best mover in the ATP, the world #1 should track down the spectacular angles that Dolgopolov creates with his sprawling retrievals, ultimately driving his challenger into attempting the impossible.  Beforehand, though, a series of court-stretching rallies and scrambles to and from the forecourt should unfold.

 

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 4

Federer vs. Cilic:  Untroubled through his first six sets of the fortnight, Federer now faces an opponent with an equally unblemished record through two rounds.  Whereas the third seed cruised past unheralded foes, though, Cilic dealt heavy blows to the hopes of promising youngsters Harrison and Tomic, either of whom would have seemed a more plausible challenger to Federer at this stage.  But the Croat has struck his inside-out forehand with devastating effect this week, and that weapon will prove vital in chipping away at the Swiss legend’s one-handed backhand.  Unable to seriously threaten Federer in their two previous meetings, Cilic has found his imposing serve neutralized by the former’s blocked returns.  Loath to finish points in the forecourt, this firmly rooted baseliner will find the initiative gradually wrested away from him as the world #3 exploits his ungainly movement.  Nevertheless, Federer has a mixed record against ATP sluggers in recent months, dominating Del Potro while falling twice to Tsonga and once to Berdych.  While Cilic surely cannot outlast him in a best-of-five format, he should force the five-time champion to raise his focus a notch or two if he wants to advance in straight sets.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Dropping just three games in four sets so far, Serena has yet to encounter someone worthy of her steel.  In the most fascinating match of the middle weekend, Azarenka aims to prove her mettle as she did against the American in consecutive Australian Opens.  At both the 2009 and 2010 Melbourne tournament, the Belarussian pounded herself to a one-set lead by pinning Serena behind the baseline rather than allowing her to step inside the court.  On the latter of those occasions, Vika came within six points of a routine straight-sets victory before Serena roared back from the jaws of defeat.  Only once has Azarenka conquered the American, in fact, at a 2009 Miami final in which the latter’s injuries clearly undermined her.  Like Sharapova, the Belarussian has few options with which to solve Serena at her best, for no WTA contender possesses such raw athleticism that enables her to strike penetrating blows on the run and cover the court both vertically and laterally.  Solid if not spectacular when avenging her 2011 loss to Dulko, Azarenka must protect her weak second serve by seeking a high first-serve percentage.  When they met in Toronto this summer, Serena consistently targeted her opponent’s more reliable wing, the backhand—and still won in two relatively comfortable sets.  Even the best that the Belarussian could offer, therefore, still fell well short.  Not the sturdiest character on grand stages, the act of conquering a 13-time Slam champion on Arthur Ashe before a hostile crowd would represent her greatest achievement to date.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Stephens:  Enthusiastic about her first appearance in an Arthur Ashe night session, Ivanovic will need to improve upon her pedestrian opener in order to craft a happy ending.  Receiving a walkover from Cetkovska in the second round, the Serb has gained three crucial days of rest to refine her game and soothe her emotions.  A round after she battled through a hard-fought second set to upset Peer, Stephens may suffer from the same hangover that McHale seemed to experience against Kirilenko after she had overcome Bartoli.  The vocal crowd should stimulate the American, however, and the experience of playing on a similarly impressive stadium at Indian Wells once drew inspired tennis (albeit not a win) from her.  Still seeking to develop an explosive weapon, the home hope relied upon consistency and ball placement in her previous victory, as she did in her run to the San Diego quarterfinals.  A smooth mover with a talent for changing speeds, Stephens rattled the rhythm-oriented Peer by alternating lazy moonballs with flattened inside-out forehands.  Armed with far more formidable first-strike power, Ivanovic also relies upon a steady rhythm but possesses more options for ending points quickly than did Peer.  Although the Serb’s form ebbs and flows from one day to the next, she should decide her own fate in a match likely to produce statistical asymmetry in all categories.

Djokovic vs. Davydenko:  In his first match as the world #1, the new king of the ATP hill nearly lost his first set as a #1 to a player who spent years in the top 5 as a trendy underdog and a fascinating player to watch.  Known for his relentlessly vicious, flat groundstrokes and bursts of whimsicality, Davydenko has faded from the scene this season but proved again in Montreal that his ball-striking skills can trouble the most prestigious opponents.  If Djokovic enters this match complacent or unfocused, as he did then, beware of a potentially protracted encounter until he finds his range and starts punishing the Russian’s fallible serve (seemingly a national flaw).  At the Rogers Cup, his sparkling return game broke Davydenko seven straight times, while his first two opponents manage to hold serve exactly once in five sets against the top seed.  Considering Kolya’s own brilliance on the return, we could witness a WTA-like match where breaks set the tone rather than holds and when the serve wins relatively few quick points.  The fast surface in New York should soften Davydenko’s post-surgery inconsistency, allowing him to end rallies without creating as many audacious angles.  In a five-set victory over Dodig, moreover, he demonstrated the physical and mental endurance that often had eluded him this year.  Like Serena, Djokovic will benefit from the opportunity to play an opponent of this quality, which will prepare him for the increasingly arduous tests ahead.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  Upon Djokovic’s ascent to #1, his compatriot proclaimed a belief that he could reach the top 10.  Perhaps in agreement with that assessment is the ninth seed, who has lost all three of their meetings and succumbed routinely to the Serb in Montreal this summer.  This head-to-head record puzzles in view of the superior weapons that Berdych possesses on virtually every shot, but Tipsarevic’s superior persistence has reaped rewards against the less determined Czech.  Often at his best against the best, the Serbian eccentric twice has defeated Roddick at majors (including last year’s Open) and came excruciatingly close to upsetting Federer at the 2008 Australian Open.  A semifinalist in Montreal, he confronts a Cincinnati semifinalist who has looked progressively more convincing since the clay season.  Before retiring against Djokovic in Cincinnati, Berdych delivered a comprehensive performance against Federer that stirred memories of his 2010 triumphs against the Swiss, Djokovic, and others.  In order to halt his slide down the rankings, though, he needs to more regularly win the matches that he should win:  matches like these.

Jankovic vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Ranked just four slots apart, the Serb and the Russian should engage in another tense encounter similar to their three-set final in Monterrey.  Illustrating a trend in her performances this year, Jankovic cruised through the first set in the encounter before sagging in the second and failing to recover.  Hampered by a back injury in the second round against Dokic, the former #1 has earned a reputation of courageously battling through such ailments to victory.  Jankovic sometimes becomes most dangerous when beleaguered by such drama-creating circumstances, so one wouldn’t discount the possibility of a quarterfinal appearance.  Turning 20 in July, Pavlyuchenkova played over 250 matches as a teenager and has encountered injuries with disquieting frequency herself.  As Zvonareva learned the hard way at Roland Garros, her groundstrokes can hammer through counterpunchers on any surface.  Less impressive is a serve that conceded more than 50 double faults during a three-match stretch in Baku.  Long fallible on serve herself, Jankovic will struggle even more with that stroke if her back continues to trouble her.  We anticipate swarms of service breaks and few trips to the net except for the occasional swinging volley.

Anderson vs. Fish:  Gifted a pair of error-prone opponents in his first two matches, the top-ranked American man never needed to demonstrate the improvements in fitness, versatility, and court sense that have spurred his rise.  A towering South African who defeated Murray in Montreal, Anderson should earn sufficient free points with his serve to stay within range and subject Fish to pressure.  The US Open Series champion wobbled through several complicated service games this week, mostly when his first-serve percentage dipped or his mind wandered.  Still searching for the balance between caution and aggression, Fish can grow tentative in rallies even on these fast courts that suit his game.  In order to avoid an edgy encounter on Saturday, the world #8 will want to assert himself earlier in rallies while punishing his opponent’s second serve.  A respectable mover considering his height, Anderson falters when forced to reverse direction, so Fish could exploit his opponent’s awkward footwork.  Will either or both of them enliven their baseline style with an occasional serve-volley gambit?

Tsonga vs. Verdasco:  Only once have this flamboyant pair of shot-makers met, at the 2009 Australian Open when Verdasco recorded the most spectacular performance of his career.  Less flamboyant than frustrating in 2011, he has sunk to the fringes of the top 20 while losing six opening-round encounters.  In Cincinnati, however, Verdasco extended an ailing Nadal deep into a third-set tiebreak, an accomplishment that may have infused him with optimism.  On the other hand, his tennis rarely dazzled during a match notable largely for ineptitude, squandered opportunities, and mental frailty.  Far superior this summer, Tsonga blazed to consecutive semifinals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup behind memorable victories over Federer.  The Frenchman finally has enjoyed an extended span of health that has allowed him to consolidate his momentum, although a dubious retirement in Montreal  preceded a dismal loss in Cincinnati.  Whereas Verdasco suffers from a fatalistic streak that almost expects failure, Tsonga has embraced a carefree, optimistic attitude to a sport that he visibly relishes.  Both of these mentalities can lead their owners on circuitous routes to victory, and this collision should prove no exception.

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

First quarter:  On the top line of a Slam draw for the first time in his career, Djokovic should not test his ailing shoulder significantly against his first two opponents.  Not until the third round does the path become intriguing for the Serb, who then would face Nadal’s recent nemesis Ivan Dodig.  Of Djokovic’s seven victims in Australia, only Dodig claimed a set from him.  Also wedged into this section is former semifinalist Davydenko, a recurrent threat to Djokovic on hard courts although lately struggling to string together compelling performances.  As the second week begins, a pair of graceful, spectacular, and spectacularly erratic shot-makers in Dolgopolov and Gasquet will vie for the right to battle the top seed.  The towering serve of Karlovic and a revitalized Gonzalez might disrupt the Frenchman’s progress with styles perhaps better suited to the fast courts of New York.  But none of these competitors possesses the versatility, athleticism, and mental durability of the Djokovic who has burst to the pinnacle of the ATP in 2011.  Nor, most likely, do his most plausible quarterfinal opponents.  For the third consecutive North American tournament, Djokovic might meet Monfils in an entertaining quarterfinal.  When they collided her last year, however, the latter’s showmanship produced sporadic moments of brilliance rather than a competitive encounter.  His confidence boosted by a Cincinnati victory over Federer, Berdych could block Monfils in the fourth round.  Almost the opposite of the Frenchman in playing style and personality, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist could not challenge Djokovic in Australia and has dropped their last five meetings.  Among the dark horses in this section is Grigor Dimitrov, who delivered a promising effort against Tsonga at Wimbledon and could ambush a desultory Monfils in his opener.

Quarterfinal:  Djokovic d. Berdych

Second quarter:  Having knocked off Ljubicic in the first round of last year’s Open, rising American star Ryan Harrison aims to repeat the feat against another Croat, 2009 quarterfinalist Cilic.  If Harrison should score the mini-upset, a battle between future ATP champions could unfold when he duels with leading Australian hope Bernard Tomic.  Turning heads with his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the Aussie shares the American’s competitive determination, which would serve either of them well against Federer.   Like Djokovic, the five-time champion should collide with no genuine threats in his first two matches and might well reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  No longer able to blaze through draws with sustained dominance, Federer could profit from the opportunity to gradually refine his shots as the tournament progresses.  In a similar situation with a comfortable Wimbledon draw, though, he lacked the necessary intensity to withstand Tsonga’s inspired charge when the competition suddenly spiked upward dramatically.  Aligned to meet Stepanek, Troicki, or perhaps Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, the Swiss legend would face a corresponding challenge at the US Open when he meets Tsonga or Fish a round later.  Lurking ominously near the top-ranked American is Thiemo De Bakker, a tall Dutchman with the overpowering serve-forehand combinations that could trouble even the elite on this fast surface.  As for Tsonga, the American’s projected fourth-round opponent, a host of neighboring qualifiers and the fading Verdasco.  The Spaniard did topple Federer’s recent conqueror during his sensational semifinal run at the 2009 Australian Open, but a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal looks likely.  Can Federer solve a foe who has lost serve just twice in their last eight sets?

Quarterfinal:  Tsonga d. Federer

Third quarter:  In his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Del Potro hopes to reclaim his scintillating spring form and move past the disappointing US Open Series.  Already having defeated Soderling twice this year, the 2009 champion should reprise that meeting early in the second week.  Before that stage, the indefatigable Simon will probe Del Potro’s consistency and fitness by extending the Argentine deep into rallies.  Of the three Americans situated between the Argentine and the Swede, Alex Bogomolov has earned the greatest attention by catapulting from a Miami upset of Murray to reach his highest ranking to date.  Likely unimpressed by this counterpunching upstart, Soderling has not played on hard courts this summer and may open the tournament a few notches below his impenetrable self.  In fact, the two-time Roland Garros finalist has spent much of 2011 located between stagnation and regression as increasing numbers of opponents have exposed his one-dimensionality.  On the day that Soderling meets Del Potro, Murray might seek revenge for his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s Open.  The Swiss #2 chronically displayed skills that shine on any surface, but the Cincinnati title should have boosted the Scot’s confidence before his (alleged) favorite major.  Late in the first week, he might once again test his mother’s loyalties when he faces Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, routinely dispatched by Murray at the All England Club.  Navigating past Del Potro in a four-set quarterfinal three years ago, the third seed typically struggles against the type of opponent who can terminate points without warning from either groundstroke wing.  Nevertheless, the 2009 champion has not yet toppled one of the ATP’s top four since returning from wrist surgery, still searching for the effortless explosiveness that won him this title.

Quarterfinal:  Murray d. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Slipping outside the top 20 for the first time in a decade, Roddick could not have asked for a kinder draw at his home major, which he departed in the second round last year.  Ample talent but scant willpower looms to threaten the 2003 champion in the form of Winston-Salem finalist Benneteau or new top-10 inhabitant Almagro.  Hampered since Wimbledon by assorted injuries, Roddick did play four matches last week in North Carolina although faltering again once he encountered determined resistance.  Here, that resistance should arrive in the fourth round, when he attempts to avoid a second 2011 defeat to Ferrer after falling to him in straight sets during the Davis Cup quarterfinal.  Undeterred by the American crowd, the world #5 rallied from multiple deficits in that match as he slowly gnawed away at Roddick mentally and physically.  Familiar with such a feeling against Ferrer here, world #2 Nadal yielded to his compatriot at this tournament four years ago. After dismal performances in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal could lift his spirits (and thus his game) significantly by recording a series of uneventful victories en route to that quarterfinal.  Projected to encounter him before that stage is another notable hard-court nemesis of the Spaniard, 2010 Indian Wells champion Ljubicic.  The second seed should quell that aging menace before reprising last year’s semifinal here against Youzhny.  Once winning two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon, Youzhny might fall prey to the reinvigorated Gulbis in his opener.  Should the Latvian string together three wins to reach Nadal, a compelling test of Rafa’s nerve might lie ahead.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal d. Ferrer

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Tsonga; Murray d. Nadal

Final:  Djokovic d. Murray

***

We return tomorrow with the companion article on the women’s draw.