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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

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Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

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National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

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South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

Stuffed with nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20, the WTA draw in Sydney features spectacular entertainment and fascinating collisions from the first round onwards.  As Ivanovic discovered in an opening-round loss to Safarova, a draw so small and so star-studded offers almost no place to hide.

Top half:  Like Kvitova in the bottom half, Wozniacki receives a bye into the second round that will allow her to regroup from a moderately encouraging week in Hopman Cup.  Defeated by Kvitova and tested by Pironkova there, the world #1 improved as that exhibition progressed and should bring confidence into a meeting with her conqueror in Sydney last year, Cibulkova.  Also in Wozniacki’s quarter, though, are two top-10 players in Petkovic and Radwanska.  The top-ranked German did not distinguish herself at Brisbane while struggling to hold serve, perhaps still rusty from a knee injury that hindered her late in 2011.  In the first round, Petkovic would meet her projected quarterfinal opponent in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova, who likewise looked unimpressive there.  With an Australian Open quarterfinal soon to defend, the world #10 surely would welcome an opportunity to gain more match practice.  Fortunate to draw a qualifier in her first match of 2012, Radwanska aspires to begin this season as brightly as she ended last fall, with consecutive titles at marquee Asian tournaments.  The intriguing Pole might reprise her Beijing final against Petkovic before once again meeting her friend Wozniacki, who has dominated her for most of their careers.

Like Radwanska, Azarenka lifts a racket with malice in her heart for the first time this year when she faces a qualifier in her opener.  Considering Jankovic’s entertaining battle with Schiavone last week, the best match of the Brisbane tournament, the Serbian former #1 might challenge the third seed if she can escape Julia Goerges.  Nevertheless, Azarenka ended last season on an especially encouraging note and may have accumulated too much momentum to succumb to an occasionally dangerous dark horse like Jankovic.  In her quarterfinal awaits the unpredictable Bartoli, who enjoys perhaps the most comfortable draw of all, starting with a qualifier and continuing with the long-faded Dokic.  Although she finished the Hopman Cup with a 1-2 record in singles, the double-fister nearly defeated a resurgent Li and severely tested Kvitova for a set while mercilessly double-bageling Gajdosova.  Of her nine matches against Azarenka, though, Bartoli has emerged victorious from only a retirement and a meaningless round-robin matches at the year-end championships.  On most surfaces except grass, the Belarussian’s balanced style will outlast her.

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Bottom half:  Whereas the top half seemed the stronger section in Brisbane, the lower half looks more imposing in Sydney.  Hoping to improve upon her early exit here last year, Zvonareva confronts the challenge of facing Kuznetsova just after the erstwhile two-time major champion reached the semifinals in Auckland.  The task of defeating a compatriot often has flustered Russian woman, and neither of these two has proved themselves exactly steely under ordinary circumstances.  But the route of the winner grows briefly smoother thereafter with the streaky Safarova blocking them from the quarterfinals.  By that stage, defending champion Li Na hopes to have consolidated a promising performance at the Hopman Cup, where she lost only one set in three singles matches.  With vast quantities of points soon to descend upon her shoulders, she can ill afford a slump as Melbourne looms.  Having lost four of her last five matches to Zvonareva, including the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, Li might bring extra determination to a clash with another player who must defend a significant result at the Australian Open.  If this battle of backhands should happen, it might provide insight concerning whether either or both of these women might become a genuine contender during the following fortnight.

Aligned to meet in the first round are two recent Slam champions in Stosur and Schiavone, both of whom first tasted greatness relatively late in their careers.  Although less notable, the meeting between Vinci and Hantuchova might offer comparable intrigue with the contrast in styles between the biting slices of the Italian and the smooth swings of the Slovak.  Can Schiavone rebound physically from her draining week in Brisbane, and can Hantuchova rebound mentally from her demolition in the final?  At the base of this section lies Kvitova, who could reach the top ranking with a title here.  While we would not expect the pressure of that possibility to unnerve her, we also would not expect it to infuse her with additional purpose.  After winning all four of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, Kvitova eyes an accommodating path to at least the quarterfinals with Lisicki’s withdrawal.  But week-to-week dominance has eluded her so far.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

Outside women of the year Li Na and Petra Kvitova, several other leading women have plenty of reason to celebrate over the Christmas holidays.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates match point after winning her third round match against Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic  on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 25, 2011 in London, England.

Sharapova:  Boldly replacing coaches and equipment during the 2010-11 offseason, Sharapova signaled her determination to catalyze her sagging fortunes following a tepid 2010.  Not until Indian Wells and Miami did she reap rewards, but those tournaments sparked a magnificent spring and early summer for the three-time major champion.  A semifinalist in the California desert, she burst through to her third Miami final following consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits.  With a berth in the top 10 at stake in the quarterfinals, she overcame a pesky Alexandra Dulgheru, an ankle injury, and 17 double faults to eke out a victory in the longest match of her career.  And her momentum did not ebb when the clay season arrived, as one might have expected.  Capturing the most significant clay title of her career in Rome, Sharapova swept through her first five matches at Roland Garros until Li Na halted her.  That surge proved the overture to her memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  A champion at the All England Club seven years before, she erased her recent frustrations at her favorite tournament with a vintage performance of fearless ball-striking.  Legendary for her ferocity in three-setters, she ended 2011 with a 12-1 record in that category, one of the most remarkable statistics compiled by anyone in the WTA.

Azarenka:  Somewhat like Sharapova, Azarenka ended 2010 in a seemingly stagnant position after failing to build upon her 2009 achievements.  A fourth-round loss in Melbourne and  yet another retirement at Indian Wells did not prepare audiences for her superb display in Miami.  In her last three matches there, she demolished the imposing triumvirate of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova without dropping a set.  Demonstrating her proficiency on all surfaces, Azarenka concurrently cooed and battered her way to the final in Madrid, where she competed valiantly in one of three 2011 losses to player of the year Kvitova.  A somewhat modest Roland Garros preceded a breakthrough at Wimbledon to her first major semifinal, although the draw opened conveniently for her.  The draw did not accommodate her at the US Open, where her third-round loss to Serena Williams concealed a resilient effort in the second set that turned the match from a rout into a catfight.  Her second 2011 winning streak of seven matches or more combined a Luxembourg title with two round-robin victories at the year-end championships, where she advanced from her group for the first time.  Thwarted again by Kvitova, Azarenka nevertheless ended the season with a career-high ranking of #3.  If she can find a way to defeat the Czech in 2012, a compelling rivalry will develop.

Stosur:  After the first half of 2011, the bright-eyed Aussie looked destined for a very different type of list.  Reaching only one final, she won four total matches at the first three majors while losing to Dulko and Melinda Czink.  In Toronto appeared the first sign of a revival, when she overcame Li Na and Radwanska en route to the final before an implacable Serena intercepted her.  All the same, even Stosur’s most ardent admirers probably did not predict what happened at the US Open, a cauldron of pressure seemingly designed to unhinge her.  Down a break to Petrova in the third set of her third round, the Aussie rallied to rewrite the script and then retained her composure when match point after match point slipped away in an epic tiebreak against Kirilenko.  Fortunate to face Zvonareva in the quarterfinals, she mastered the role of the overwhelming favorite in a semifinal against Kerber, the type of match where she had nothing to gain and everything to lose.  Overnight, the situation reversed itself when she faced the heavily favored Serena in the final.  Few fans felt much enthusiasm for a match that seemed likely to feature little suspense.  And it did not.  Overpowering Serena with her serve and forehand, Stosur toppled the greatest player of her generation with astonishing courage and poise.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004 had a player so thoroughly dominated Serena in a Slam final and surpassed her at her own strengths.

Clijsters:  Effectively gone by Roland Garros, the battle-scarred Belgian bolstered her legacy by winning a major outside the US Open for the first time.  Opening with a double bagel, she rarely seemed challenged during her first six matches in Melbourne, where both the courts and the environment suited the player once fondly dubbed “Aussie Kim.”  Under unexpected fire from first-time Slam finalist Li Na, Clijsters looked ripe for an upset during the first set and a half.  As defeat drew nearer, though, she refused to crumble as she had in similar situations before.  Slowing the tempo of the match and constructing points more carefully, the four-time major champion found a way to survive on a night when she could not showcase her best tennis.  Together with Serena, she represents perhaps the most impressive 12-13 combination in the history of the WTA rankings.

Serena:  Despite contesting only six tournaments this season, she returned to her familiar intimidating self with remarkable speed after a year-long absence.  Dazzling at Stanford and the Rogers Cup, Serena displayed a delight in winning those relatively insignificant tournaments that she might not have shown before her injury.  Under the spotlights of New York, she looked clearly the best player of the tournament for most of the fortnight as she carved through a thorny draw.  The 13-time major champion revealed late-match nerves on a few occasions but otherwise looked virtually impenetrable in dismissing Azarenka and Wozniacki.  In her highly anticipated semifinal with the Dane, Serena proved again that an elite offense generally trumps an elite defense in the WTA on non-clay surfaces.  Following that commanding performance, her debacle against Stosur must have stung her deeply.  Still, few players could have accomplished so much so soon after so long.

Radwanska:  Hampered by an injury when the season started, the Pole nevertheless edged past the dangerous Date-Krumm and Peng in Australian thrillers en route to an unexpected quarterfinal appearance.  That accomplishment testified to Radwanska’s resolve, a trait on display less often as the first half unfolded; struggling with confidence, she grew tense and tentative at turning points in narrow losses to Azarenka at Indian Wells, Sharapova at Roland Garros, and Kvitova in Eastbourne.  When the second half began, however, the longest title drought in the WTA top 15 ended with victories over Petkovic and Zvonareva in San Diego.  With that reassuring triumph behind her, Radwanska approached the fall with redoubled determination and enjoyed the best fortnight of her career by completing the Tokyo-Beijing double.  As she swept through Asia, the artful counterpuncher befuddled opponents by interweaving her familiar finesse with opportunistic aggression.  As with Murray’s fall, the absence of many elite contenders probably inflated Radwanska’s achievements, but her berth in the year-end championships seemed well deserved.

Schiavone:  When she returned to defend her improbable Roland Garros title, most expected little from the flamboyant but aging Italian.  Like a nuanced Italian wine, though, Schiavone relied upon her cunning and experience to defuse her first six opponents.  Especially compelling was her quarterfinal victory over Pavlyuchenkova, which witnessed massive comebacks from both players, and her fourth-round victory over Jankovic, during which game after game seemed like a miniature drama.  But both of those matches paled in comparison with the 284-minute epic at the Australian Open that she contested with Kuznetsova.  Saving five match points before tottering to victory, Schiavone thrilled international audiences with her shot-making imagination and her unrelenting competitive appetite.  The veteran best known for her accomplishments on clay then sparred convincingly with Wozniacki a round later in a hard-court Slam quarterfinal.  After such first-half heroics, one hardly could blame the fiery Fran for fading somewhat in the second half, although she fell just a 20-game final set short of reaching the second week at every major in 2011.

Bartoli:  Only two small titles did she win this year, yet the double-fister also defeated three of the season’s four Slam champions.  Boosted by a gentle draw when she reached the Indian Wells final, Bartoli enjoyed no such assistance when she reached the semifinals at her home major.  Generally considered a fast-court specialist, she overcame former champion Kuznetsova as well as clay specialist Dulko at Roland Garros, where the expectations of her compatriots did not unhinge her as they have so many French players.  Bartoli reawakened memories of her Wimbledon finals appearance in 2007 when she emerged triumphant from a strong Eastbourne finalist and then halted Serena’s title defense on Centre Court.  Rarely intimidated by any opponent, she attacked the defending champion’s serve with courage and snuffed out an inevitable eleventh-hour comeback with the fortitude of a much more accomplished player.  The Frenchwoman’s iconoclastic style causes purists to shudder in horror, but her much-maligned serve grew more effective this year and rarely abandoned her in key matches.

Germans:  Only one player reached three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, a year of anarchy by even WTA standards.  After Venus retired from their third-round meeting in Melbourne, Petkovic capitalized upon the opportunity by stunning Sharapova in straight sets a round later.  Dormant until Miami, she recorded three-set victories over Wozniacki and Jankovic there, the former of which snapped a streak of five consecutive Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments won by the world #1.  Clay would have seemed a surface ill-suited to her flat groundstrokes and sometimes impatient shot selection, yet Petkovic collected a title in Strasbourg and four victories at Roland Garros.  Not known as a paragon of consistency, she compiled a surprisingly steady second-half record by reaching the quarterfinals or better at all five tournaments that she played before a knee injury curtailed her 2011 campaign.  Among those victories were two wins over Kvitova and another over Bartoli, opponents who had defeated her on hard courts during the first half.

But Petkovic did not stand alone in the spotlight, accompanied by her countrywoman Lisicki.  Multiple injuries and extended absences had blunted this formidable server until the grass season, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinal.  Facing double match point against Li in the second round, Lisicki erased both opportunities with massive serves unmatched by anyone in the WTA except Serena, Venus, and possibly Stosur.  A much less balanced player than Petkovic, she receded in the second half as physical issues resurfaced.  More similar to the German #1 in playing style is Julia Goerges, who ambushed Stosur and Wozniacki while winning her home tournament (and a Porsche) in Stuttgart.  Outside a second victory over Wozniacki in Madrid, Goerges also faded from relevance following that attention-seizing statement.  Nevertheless, the nation that produced Steffi Graf should harbor plenty of hope for a more sustained assault from its racket-wielding Cerberus in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Agnieszka Radwanska - 2011 China Open - Day 9

Invited to predict which woman stood in the best position to accomplish the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing, tennis analysts might have suggested Sharapova, Azarenka, Kvitova, or perhaps Wozniacki, who accomplished the same feat a year ago.  But we’d wager that few outside Poland expected Radwanska to claim the most significant title of her career one week before relegating it to second-most-significant status the next.  Only with an exceptional degree of focus, timing, and anticipation can a player impose her own style and vision of the game upon much more powerful foes.  Claiming her second straight title, Radwanska dulled the sting of her opponent’s shots and meticulously outmaneuvered them in rallies until they resembled cobras swaying harmlessly under the spell of a snake-charmer.  Skeptics will note that she faced neither Sharapova, Kvitova, nor Serena, whose high-octane offenses have shattered her spells before.  Nevertheless, the Pole befuddled two elite opponents in Azarenka and Zvonareva en route to the Tokyo title, while her gritty performance in outlasting Petkovic revealed resilience impressive for a player seeking the most significant victory of her career.  Moreover, she regularly found a deeper first serve or a riskier backhand when the moment demanded it, showing a capacity for modulation rare in the modern era.  The return of this deft, clever craftswoman to the top 10 travels some distance towards refuting the widespread criticism of the WTA as a leviathan comprised of fundamentally identical, interchangeable parts.   And, considering Radwanska’s success after distancing herself from her father, Wozniacki fans should feel reassured that their heroine made the correct decision this summer.  The Pole monopolized the hardware but not the headlines, though, and we cast our mind back to a few other storylines of the Asian double  as well.

Radwanska’s final victim in Tokyo, Zvonareva collected the runner-up trophy there following a commendable display of perseverance in the semifinals against Kvitova.  Rather than dissolve in frustration when the Czech started the match in scorching form, Vera dug into the trenches late in the first set, waited for a crack to emerge in her opponent’s self-belief, and then chipped away at that crack until Kvitova’s game crashed down around her.  In the final and against an inspired Ivanovic in Beijing, Zvonareva reverted to rubble herself under pressure.  Those debacles highlighted her career-long struggles in title matches and when defending huge quantities of points, critical flaws to be sure but not flaws that should diminish her overall improvements as a competitor.  Also impressive in a more modest way were the achievements of Kirilenko, who overcame a massive power differential to win two epics from Stosur and reach quarterfinals at both tournaments.  Doomed by her limited talents to remain in the second tier, she still has shown an opportunistic streak on several notable occasions, although the correlation of her elevated grunt with her elevated form may draw raised eyebrows from spectators (or rather listeners).  Most observers expected to hear a certain more famous shriek ricocheting through the air of Tokyo and Beijing, but an untimely ankle injury to Sharapova halted such hopes early in a Tokyo quarterfinal with Kvitova that already had become compelling.  On a brighter note, the new world #2 far surpassed the quality of her US Open performance in a fiercely contested two-tiebreak victory over Goerges that showcased her competitive ferocity.

After a disastrous US Open Series, Goerges showed signs of snapping that skid when she won consecutive matches at Tokyo and severely tested Sharapova throughout their ruthless slugfest.  The erratic brunette achieved the odd distinction of losing three consecutive sets in tiebreaks, however, as she failed to solve Kirilenko in her Beijing opener.  As 2011 fades, one will continue to wonder whether the real Goerges lies closer to the Goerges of the first half or the Goerges of the second half.  No such questions surround her countrywoman Petkovic, who more than compensated for her absence from Tokyo with a superb run in Beijing that brought her within two games of victory.  Rallying from a set-and-break deficit against Bartoli, she played relentlessly focused, intelligent tennis against Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals and tournament upset artist Niculescu a round later.  Few players have matured more quickly than Petkovic in the last few years, and fewer still have matured on court while remaining their quirky, engaging selves without racket in hand.  In the most important match of her career so far, she thought nothing of either the occasion or her winless record against Radwanska but played without fear or reservation, especially when she recovered from an 84-minute first set to bagel the Pole in act two.  Although the curtain didn’t descend on this marvelous three-act drama as Petkovic had hoped, she danced during the trophy ceremony with charming abandon and a smile on her face.  Less able to flash her trademark smile was Lisicki, who withdrew yet again from a tournament as injuries continue to blight her young career.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a shot to Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 5, 2011 in Beijing, China.

The German found herself far from alone in succumbing to a foe other than an opponent, for Beijing witnessed such departures from Azarenka and Ivanovic.  In both cases, this most recent walkover and retirement extended a prevailing theme in a year littered with injuries for the two glamorous women.  For the raven-haired Serb, her injury ended the strongest week of her season so far, built upon the bones of fellow Slam champion Kuznetsova and top-5 opponent Zvonareva.  Not since winning Roland Garros in 2008 had Ivanovic scored consecutive victories over champions with the pedigrees of those two Russians, a feat that bolstered her confidence even as she admitted with artless honesty that it surprised her.  Probably regretting the opportunity to extend the momentum from her Tokyo semifinal, meanwhile, Azarenka likely surrendered any chance to overtake Wozniacki for the year-end #1 ranking at Istanbul.

Assigned strangely identical draws in both weeks, the current inhabitant of the WTA penthouse fell on her face once more.  Two of her three total wins came against the hard-hitting but one-dimensional Gajdosova, while three-set losses to Kanepi and Pennetta continued her summer embarrassments at the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory events that she had dominated in the second half of 2010.  Radiating much less confidence and poise than she did a year ago, Wozniacki failed to serve out the match in Beijing that she eventually lost—a lapse against a second-tier opponent inexcusable in a #1, notwithstanding the Italian’s gritty effort.  The Dane’s misery found plenty of notable company, however, amongst the season’s three first-time Slam champions.  Despite reaching the semifinals in Tokyo, courtesy of Sharapova’s retirement, Kvitova’s meltdown at that stage overshadowed her preceding victories over anonymous foes; moreover, it presaged her opening-round Beijing defeat to the equally anonymous Arvidsson.  Yet neither the Czech nor Stosur (one total win, two losses to Kirilenko) matched the catastrophe of Li Na, excruciatingly feckless before her home fans as she absorbed a first-round bagel against Niculescu.  As Istanbul approaches, observers will wonder whether any of these four players can challenge for the season’s last significant title, which promises a fascinating collection of veterans and novices.

That tournament still lies a few weeks in the future, though, and for now the spotlight returns to the ATP with previews of the later rounds in Shanghai.  A week from now, we will publish a similar article that reflects on the men’s passage through Asia.

 

 

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