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Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

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Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

***

Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!