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Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open Previews

Overcome by Makarova in her first Melbourne match last year, Ivanovic strides towards a less formidable obstacle in the diminutive Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino.  Never have they met before, but the Serb possesses far superior weapons on every stroke and should pummel her opponent’s weak serve with aggressive returning.  Rather than reaching for her more nuanced, stylish gambits, she should stick to straightforward first-strike tennis for an efficient victory.  The first round invariably triggers nerves in even the most prominent contenders, so this match might provide a glimpse into how steady Ivanovic’s serve stays when her mind grows tense.  Nevertheless, Day 2 offers many more intriguing and suspenseful matches, of which we now preview our favorites.

Dushevina vs. Kvitova:   Falling in the first round of the US Open, Kvitova lost six of nine matches on outdoor hard courts during the spring and summer of 2011.  The favorite for the title notwithstanding, she faces a potentially tricky encounter against a woman who has an uncanny knack for threatening far superior players from both Williams sisters to Sharapova and Ivanovic.  At first glance, one struggles to discern what in Dushevina’s game can pose such difficulty.  But her lack of a clear strength or weakness, as well as her marked fluctuations in form, can confuse and frustrate opponents as they seek to develop a strategy.  If Kvitova strikes her shots with relentless authority, she should overpower the Russian in a match scarcely more competitive than Azarenka’s first-round victory.  If she succumbs to complacency and underestimates her opponent, on the other hand, the second seed might not advance as comfortably as she should.

Paszek vs. Serena:  A surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Paszek reinvigorated a career that had disappointed over the previous few years following injuries and sporadic play.  Australian fans might recall her as the player who nearly upset Jankovic in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, while others might remember the pronouncements of Henin and others who identified her as a key talent of the next generation.  Unlikely to fulfill those prophecies at this stage, Paszek projects little power from her serve and does not quite fit into the mold of either attacker or counterpuncher.  All the same, she does deliver penetrating groundstrokes from both wings and will approach Serena with more optimism than many first-round opponents.  The American has accumulated an immaculate record in the first round of majors but often doesn’t bring her finest tennis to the very beginning of a tournament.  Watch her attempts to change direction along the baseline to see whether the ankle injury incurred in Brisbane affects her mobility.

Kirilenko vs. Gajdosova: After she absorbed a humiliating double bagel against Bartoli in Hopman Cup, Gajdosova fell well short of defending her Hobart title.  The second-ranked Australian woman thus hopes to salvage her January with a creditable performance in Melbourne.  Reaching the quarterfinals here two years ago, Kirilenko may find this medium-speed surface more suited to her style than will her uncompromisingly aggressive foe.  The Russian should aim to exploit Gajdosova’s impatience by pinning her behind the baseline without offering her the pace that she relishes.  Skilled in doubles as well as in singles, Kirilenko acquits herself impressively from everywhere on the court.  Whereas the Aussie stays at the baseline except to dispatch point-ending swing volleys, the Russian can venture towards the net with confidence.  That tactic should work effectively to rush the slow-footed Gajdosova.

Sharapova vs. Dulko:  Recovering from an ankle injury sustained at Tokyo last fall, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since the US Open and none at all in 2012.  Understandably in those circumstances, she looked sporadically brilliant and sporadically hapless during a practice match with Vesnina a few days ago.  Memories of her first-round exit from the 2010 Australian Open flicker into one’s mind, considering her rustiness and the steadiness of her opponent.  Although she has distinguished herself more in doubles than in singles, most recently with Pennetta, Dulko has slain many a notable champion at a prestigious tournament.  Among her victims were Henin at Indian Wells and Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, but the willowy Argentine also toppled defending finalist Stosur at Roland Garros last year.  Quite literally overshadowed by the three-time major champion, she can unleash surprising power with her forehand and will bring valuable experience to their encounter.  When she upset Sharapova before, Dulko unsettled the Russian’s wayward serve with bold returning.  Her own serve offers a vulnerable target for the WTA’s leading returner, however, so expect a match onf uneven quality littered with breaks.

Murray vs. Harrison:  Before one feels sorry for Ryan Harrison’s unfortunate luck in drawing Murray for his first-round opponent, one should remember that Harrison probably doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  Never bereft of confidence against leading opponents, the brash American youngster stretched Federer to a first-set tiebreak at Indian Wells a year ago before winning two sets from Ferrer at Wimbledon.  To be sure, Ferrer on grass poses a much less daunting challenge than Murray on a hard court, especially the hard court where he has defeated Nadal and reached two major finals.  But Harrison should enjoy the experience of playing this grand stage, albeit Hisense rather than Rod Laver Arena, and opponents who have assaulted the Scot with abandon have reaped rewards from that strategy before.  Across the best-of-five format, Murray’s far superior versatility and depth should suffocate Harrison and expose his mediocre backhand.  American fans should not expect a sequel to Tomic’s accomplishment, then, but they reasonably can expect a strong competitive effort from their nation’s leading man when these two temperamental perfectionists collide.

Haase vs. Roddick:  Dominant through two sets against Murray at the US Open, the lanky Dutchman somehow lost the script and ultimately the match.  This pattern defined much of Haase’s 2011 campaign, which featured no fewer than twelve defeats in which he had won the first set.  Early in that series, he won the first set from Roddick at this tournament a year ago, came within a tiebreak of winning the second set, and then faded thereafter as an apparent ankle injury overtook him.  Can Haase finish what he started this time?  As Roddick’s career has waned, he has won fewer and fewer free points with his serve, leaving him more susceptible to shot-makers like Haase.  Consistency and experience represent his greatest weapons, though, and both of those should serve him well against an opponent who has much to prove regarding his competitive resilience.

Dokic vs. Chakvetadze:  When they met three Australian Opens ago, one of these women still held a prominent position in the WTA, and the other sought to mount a comeback from obscurity.  Now, both Dokic and Chakvetadze seek to revive their careers from potentially terminal setbacks on both physical and mental levels.  In addition to their experience in adversity, they share similarities in the strengths and flaws of their games, such as a tendency towards double faults and a talent for redirecting their groundstrokes, which skim low over the net.  During a promising week in Hobart, Chakvetadze defeated Pironkova and won a set from Peer before retiring ominously.  During an odd week in Sydney, Dokic served a double bagel to her first opponent and then nearly ate another from Bartoli.  All of this evidence suggests that we should expect the unexpected in a meeting of two personalities strung more tightly than their rackets.

Zvonareva vs. Dulgheru:  Strung tightly herself throughout a lopsided Sydney loss to Kuznetsova, Zvonareva looks ripe for an upset as she attempts to defend semifinal points.  Dulgheru overcame Kvitova in the first round of the US Open, battled Sharapova to a third-set tiebreak in Miami, and extended Kvitova to a third set in Sydney last week.  Although the Romanian rarely has progressed deep into tournaments, she mounts a credible threat on all surfaces with her excellent court coverage and clean backhand.  Those strengths shouldn’t suffice to defeat a top-10 opponent, of course, but Zvonareva rarely has played like a woman in the top 10 over the last several months.  Far in the distant past now, seemingly, are her consecutive major finals in 2010.  After those twin peaks to her career, she has slid backwards steadily.

Mahut vs. Stepanek:  Lilting around the court with a panache undimmed by age, these serve-volley artists probably would prefer a faster surface, like grass or an indoor hard court.  Vestiges of a nearly vanished area, Mahut and Stepanek will engage in truncated points that display a mixture of power and touch.  Neither can muster the consistency to survive extended rallies, so the audience should focus on the precision with which they place their serves and their approach shots, a demonstration more intellectual than aesthetically pleasing but still intriguing for its rarity.

Keys vs. Zheng:  After Christina McHale overcame Safarova, another young American woman aims to continue her nation’s momentum.  The Auckland titlist, Zheng peppers the baseline with flat, low groundstrokes that bedevil tall players.  Her opponent remains a work in progress, still raw and far from mature while filled with potential that merited a wildcard into the main draw.  With a serve that regularly reaches triple digits already, she can target Zheng’s much weaker delivery with her returns to capitalize upon this advantage to the fullest.  In this clash of two players with such different styles, Keys should view this opportunity as another step on her long evolutionary journey.

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Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

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

 

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 13

While the women converge on Tokyo, dual squadrons of men descend on Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.  We focus upon the most intriguing figures in those minor tournaments, discussing what to expect from each of them in a week without the ominous shadows cast by the top three.

Murray (Bangkok):  Outside the copious sum of appearance money that likely spurred his participation, the world #4 has little more to gain than Nadal did in Bangkok last year.  If he considers the 500-level tournament in Dubai a practice event, Murray surely will saunter through his matches here as well.  Despite his distinct superiority to everyone else in the draw, a result other than a title wouldn’t shock us. R ecently, though, the Scot wished that he could play more tournaments where he “didn’t need to kill [him]self in every match” or play elite opponents, and his wish has come true here.

Monfils (Bangkok):  Withdrawing from Davis Cup with a recurrent knee injury, Monfils demonstrated his tendency towards drama with a US Open first-week classic—that he lost to a much lower-ranked albeit more experienced opponent.  A two-time finalist at the Paris Indoors, he has played his best tennis before European and especially French audiences, so one wonders whether the banal Bangkok arena will stimulate his competitive and creative vitality.  The indoor tournament should force him into more aggressive tactics, a shift from which his game in general would benefit.

Simon (Bangkok):  Two years after he won Bangkok for his first and so far only Asian title, the understated counterpuncher returns as the third seed.  In theory, the indoor surface should not suit his reactive style.  Yet surprisingly Simon not only has won three of his nine titles under a roof but also recorded his best Masters 1000 result in the last edition of the Madrid hard-court tournament.  During a stage of the season when more talented foes often waver in motivation, Simon represents the type of industrious, alert opportunist who will not hesitate to capitalize if others lose focus.

Tipsarevic (Kuala Lumpur):  With his first Slam quarterfinal, Djokovic’s understudy displayed talent long obscured by his eccentric personality.  Confident that he can reach the top 10, he faces a reasonably challenging pre-semifinal draw by the standards of these tournaments (probably Tomic and the Harrison-Davydenko winner).  Tipsarevic has shown that he can win matches that he should lose, considering his place in the ATP hierarchy; now he must prove that he can consistently win the matches that he should win.

Troicki (Kuala Lumpur):  If being the second-best player from a small country sounds like an unlucky fate, what about being the third-best player from that small country?  Having ceded his Serbian #2 status to Tipsarevic, Troicki’s sagging summer extended into the Davis Cup semifinal, where he dropped a winnable and potentially crucial rubber to Nalbandian.  But Viktor excelled during the fall last year, holding a match point against Nadal in Tokyo and winning his first career title in Moscow.

Almagro (Kuala Lumpur):  Among the top 5 in ATP matches won this year, this Spaniard gorged on the South American clay tournaments that resemble this week’s competitions in their meager significance.  The “ESP” by his name notwithstanding, Almagro can threaten at least as much on a hard court as on clay.  His serve and shot-making panache can illuminate an indoor surface, providing him with greater first-strike power than anyone whom he could face before the final.  Will fatigue hamper him after such an overloaded schedule in the first half, however?

Garcia-Lopez (Bangkok):  Not even among the top tier of players from his own country, he recorded the finest accomplishment of his career with a three-set comeback victory over Nadal on this court a year ago.  Erasing break point after break point on that occasion, Garcia-Lopez displayed a tenacity against his legendary compatriot that he has shown too sporadically to become a consistent threat.  One wonders whether the quest to defend finalist points will inspire or weigh heavily upon him.

Gulbis (Bangkok):  Every few months, the Latvian reminds viewers why he looked certain a few years ago to vault into the top 10 and contend for all of the non-clay majors.  His latest resurrection occurred in Los Angeles, where he knocked off Del Potro and Fish under the gaze of new coach Guillermo Canas.   Since that week, Gulbis has accomplished nothing of note.  A haven for head-scratchers and underachievers, the fall seems an ideal platform for him to make another of his sporadic statements, although he has struggled against potential quarterfinal opponent Murray (0-5).

Dimitrov (Bangkok):  Compared alternately to Federer and Gulbis, the Bulgarian possesses the backhand of the former and the mystifying streakiness of the latter.  This summer, he lost consecutive matches to players outside the top 100, bookending commendable efforts against Tsonga and Ferrer, before failing to win a set from Monfils in New York.  While the streakiness certainly causes concern for his future, the one-handed backhand also may leave him behind his peers as the stroke becomes an anachronism.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of the competition and the tournament, so his upset over fifth-seeded Dodig in the first round represented encouraging progress.

Donald Young (Bangkok):  A tournament after his second-week appearance at the US Open, the enigmatic, controversial Young returns to the Tour’s daily, less inspiring routine.  Unable to exploit any positive momentum earlier in his career of violent oscillations, he can’t afford to let many more such chances slip past.  Probably the victim of inflated expectations when young, Young still could carve out a respectable tenure in the top 50 if he has learned from both his successes and failures during this dramatic season for him.

Davydenko / Baghdatis (Kuala Lumpur):  Masters of flat, scorching groundstrokes from both wings, these veterans have struggled with injuries in recent years that have undermined their consistency.  Both also have failed to overcome key flaws in their game:  the serve for the Russian and fitness for the Cypriot.  The more brilliant player when at his best, Davydenko has suffered the more precipitous fall but won Shanghai two years with consecutive victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  More than five years removed from his breakthrough at the Australian Open final, Baghdatis has slipped less inexorably into obsolescence and seems the more likely of the two to regroup.

Harrison / Tomic (Kuala Lumpur):  After impressive Wimbledons, including a quarterfinal appearance for the Australian, they regressed with straight-sets defeats to Cilic at the US Open.  Probably the most promising talent among ATP teenagers, Tomic demonstrated his maturity in defeating Wawrinka and recurrently troubling Federer on grass in Davis Cup.  The fall season and especially tournaments like these offer them opportunities to consume relatively cheap rankings points that would position them more auspiciously for the more noteworthy events.  Unfortunately for them, they landed in the same quarter as each other and Davydenko, Harrison’s first-round opponent.

Robin Haase (Bangkok):  Just one place below his career-high ranking, the flying Dutchman has won nine of his last eleven matches in a streak that started with his first career title (Kitzbuhel).  Leading Murray by two sets at the US Open, he faded physically late in the match as his physical condition continues to undermine him.  A lanky, brittle player who looks taller than his height, Haase will appreciate the affinity of indoor courts for short points that will not test his questionable movement or footwork.  He could earn a seed at the Australian Open with a successful fall campaign.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 3

Sharapova vs. Pennetta:  In each of their three matches, a similar script has witnessed a player win the first set, sag in losing the second set, and then rebound to capture the third.  Not only undefeated when she wins the first set this year, Sharapova has compiled a stunning 12-0 record in three-setters, including eight comebacks from one-set deficits.  One thus would favor her should she engage in another epic with Pennetta, an emotional competitor with few clear weaknesses but few overpowering weapons.  Rarely does the Italian undermine herself, instead compelling opponents to sustain a solid if not spectacular level in order to conquer her.  Despite a poor first half, the 29-year-old veteran has shown flickers of improvement on the summer hard courts with triumphs over Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova.  Seeking her eighth straight victory, meanwhile, Sharapova surged forward from a shaky three-setter in her opener here to a commanding double-breadstick win under the Arthur Ashe lights.  The daytime breezes may trouble the 2006 champion’s ball toss and serve as they have in previous US Opens, while Pennetta’s high-percentage style should suffer less from the elements.  Toppled in the third round at two of her last three US Opens, Sharapova expects considerably more from herself this year and finally has the confidence to achieve it.  All the same, Pennetta probably will force her to hit an additional shot or two to finish points, a challenge to which the Russian has risen courageously in recent months.

McHale vs. Kirilenko:  As the year’s final major approached, hopes for American players focused mostly around surging men’s players like Harrison and Bogomolov, but the home nation’s women have stolen the spotlight from them.  Triggering memories of the US Open two years ago, Christina McHale aims to become the Oudin of the 2011 tournament after defeating eighth-seeded Bartoli in the second round.  Like her compatriot, this rising American thrives more when she can exploit the pace or placement of her opponent than when she must generate her own offense.  A smart counterpuncher with more power than Oudin, McHale benefited from the intimate confines of the Grandstand in her upset two days ago, for the home crowd clustered around that stadium to exhort her.  In the more intimidating atmosphere of Arthur Ashe, she must hold together her nerves better than she did two years ago in a night session here against Sharapova.   Moreover, the consistent but not powerful Kirilenko will force McHale to take the initiative in creating opportunities to take control of rallies.  Just as Oudin failed to solve the steady defense of Wozniacki two years ago, her successor may struggle to strike a balance between aggression and judicious shot selection—a skill that comes with experience.

Roddick vs. Sock:  Seemingly more and more defensive as he ages, the 2003 champion failed to catch fire from the spark of playing under the Arthur Ashe lights in the first round.  Still recovering from an abdominal injury this summer, Roddick has not recaptured the sting on his serve and has double-faulted with increasing frequency.  A combination of solid groundstrokes and occasional net forays sufficed to edge him past the unremarkable Russell in four sets, but one couldn’t escape the thought that this match would have ended much more emphatically a few years ago.  Likely to suffice against the untested Sock is a similarly solid performance from the veteran.  A fellow Nebraskan, Sock won his first career match at a major two days ago against Marc Gicquel, demonstrating explosive serve-forehand combinations.  The teenager can extract valuable lessons from his Arthur Ashe debut, and this match should become more competitive than their rankings would suggest.  While it seems implausible to expect him to win three sets from Roddick, Sock could capitalize upon the lulls in the older American’s fading game.  Known for a volatile temper, he should learn from his opponent’s example and curb his emotions in tense moments.

Haase vs. Murray:  Three years ago, the Dutchman defeated Murray at the former’s home tournament in Rotterdam.  Now elevated to #41 in the rankings, Haase has won 10 of his last 11 matches while capturing his first career title in Kitzbuhel and reaching the semifinals in Winston-Salem.  Defeating Verdasco at Wimbledon, he came within a few points of a two-set lead against Roddick in Melbourne this year before succumbing to injury.  This 24-year-old possesses effortless power with his serve and forehand but can lose the rhythm on both shots as a result of fluctuating technique.  More streamlined in his strokes and more versatile in his options, Murray sometimes can out-think himself against relatively straightforward opponents like Haase.  Yet the Scot, who also collected a (much more prestigious) title this summer, struck his much-maligned forehand with authority in an opening-round victory that grew more convincing as it progressed.  Efforts to flatten out that groundstroke has produced mixed results for Murray in recent months, so his refusal to retreat from that tactic illustrates a positive product of his trademark stubbornness.  Like the women’s #1, the men’s #4 can use such strategies to progress more smoothly through early rounds, conserving energy for the second week.

Peng vs. Goerges:  Steady meets streaky in this match between two top-20 stars who have recorded the finest seasons of their careers to date.  Whereas Peng has built her breakthrough upon reaching semifinal after semifinal, Goerges soared into instant notoriety by twice conquering Wozniacki on clay and winning the moderately notable Stuttgart title.  Congruent with those results are their personalities and playing styles, for the Chinese double-fister generally plays percentages and competes relentlessly throughout the match while the German can veer in and out of focus as she impetuously targets lines and corners early in rallies.  In their first career encounter, Peng will attempt to pepper the center of the baseline with penetrating groundstrokes that prevent Goerges from creating angles without too much risk.  The German owns far more firepower with both her groundstrokes and her serve, although the Chinese star has improved the latter stroke this year.  Hoping to take time away from her agile opponent, Goerges seeks to dictate points from inside the baseline and cannot recover easily from a defensive position.  Court positioning thus should offer a key to who holds the edge in this evenly matched encounter.

James Blake - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ferrer vs. Blake:  In the twilight of his career, the battered American shot-maker clings to the tenuous hope of leaving one last glowing memory behind him.  Such an accomplishment seems relatively plausible against Ferrer, whom Blake has defeated in both of their previous meetings and whose underpowered serve would seem to play into the hands of his crackling return.  A contrast to the Spaniard’s methodical style, the American’s breakneck pace could rush the fifth seed out of his comfort zone as it has with Nadal.  Nevertheless, Ferrer demonstrated his prowess even on these fast hard courts by reaching the 2007 semifinal, a feat that Blake at his best never could achieve.  Repeatedly raising the hopes of his fans only to disappoint them, this serial Slam quarterfinalist has gained most acclaim for gallant defeats such as his 2005 quarterfinal epic against Agassi.  Blake’s career may have suffered from the omnipresence of the more accomplished Roddick, a predicament with which Ferrer could empathize in the Nadal era of Spanish tennis.  When the two understudies collide, their returns of serve will mirror their conflicting perceptions of the game.  A personification of first-strike tennis, Blake takes massive swings at second serves and even first serves, whereas grinder par excellence Ferrer forces his opponent to play every point rather than attempt an outright winner.

Ljubicic vs. Nalbandian:  The history between these venerable bastions of the ATP extends back to 2004 across meetings at five different Masters tournaments, the year-end championships, and Davis Cup.  Never have they met at a major, however, where one would expect the injury struggles and fitness issues of the Argentine to hamper his performance.  Winning four of their last five meetings, the Croat possesses the superior serve and forecourt ability but less reliable groundstrokes.  Often at his best in the second half and especially the fall, Nalbandian still impresses sporadically with a two-handed backhand that creates shallow angles, drawing opponents far from the center of the court.  Although his timing has declined with age, the “grouchy gaucho” continues to challenge net-rushers like Ljubicic with pinpointed passing shots whenever his ailing legs permit.  Several years ago, they might have met in the quarterfinal or even semifinal of a major.  With physicality and raw power increasingly central to this sport, however, they meet in a second-round glimpse of how tennis might have developed in the absence of Federer and Nadal.   After a trip to the outer court, few will feel nostalgic for what might have been.

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Standing head and shoulders above their respective challengers (figuratively in Nadal’s case), the two #1s asserted their authority with emphatic victories in Wimbledon’s final weekend.  As the victors bask in the glow of their well-deserved triumphs, we present report cards for the principal contenders as well as those who surprised us, for better or for worse.  Brace yourselves for a lengthy but hopefully entertaining read.

A:

Nadal:  For the third consecutive year, the men’s tour witnessed a Channel Slam as the same player swept Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but this feat may become commonplace considering Nadal’s dominance at both venues.  Especially important to his legacy are his non-clay majors, which cement his reputation as a magnificent all-surface player and eventually will incorporate him in the GOAT debate if he remains healthy.  Also significant were his straight-sets triumphs over ball-bruising behemoths in the last two Slam finals, for the style of Soderling and Berdych will characterize most of the opponents whom he must vanquish in the later rounds of majors.  Finally, we saw Nadal outside the stifling context of his evaporating rivalry with Federer, the narrative of which often cast him as the foil to the Swiss legend’s majesty, an upstart who courageously sought to dethrone the king.  Now Rafa reigns supreme, fortified in the #1 ranking for the foreseeable future and ideally positioned to pursue the elusive career Slam at the US Open. 

Serena:  “Dependable” and “steady” might not be the first words that spring to mind when describing the flamboyant Serena, yet they accurately evoke the order and continuity that she has brought to the mercurial WTA.  While Belgians bomb, Russians reel, and a sister sinks, the world #1 fires ace after ace, makes top-50 players look like practice partners, and wins virtually at will.  During her seven victories here, she lost her serve just three times and faced ten total break points (none in the final); only once, against Sharapova, was the American in any real danger of losing so much as a set.  Having won five of the last six non-clay majors, Serena will enter the US Open as the clear favorite to record a 14th major.  We’ll be curious to see whether she ends her career with more Slams than Federer.

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Berdych:  Proving that Miami was no accident, the enigmatic Czech appears to have solved his own riddle and finally assembled his mighty game, which for so long was less than the sum of its parts.  At the core of his last two Slam performances was his vastly improved confidence, which carried him past the six-time champion in a quarterfinal that offered multiple opportunities to falter.  In future majors, he’ll want to take care of business more efficiently in the first week, during which he played a five-setter against Istomin and a four-setter against Brands.  But his achievements in the most pressure-laden environment of all demonstrated that he’s ready to breathe the rarefied air at the top of the game.  With few points to defend on the American hard courts, his ranking should keep rising.

Zvonareva:  She didn’t hold the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, but in a personal sense Zvonareva achieved even more than did Serena during this fortnight.  Whereas we’ve accustomed ourselves to the younger Williams sister delivering such performances, the rebirth of this volatile Russian as a mature competitor should have elated the WTA.  Armed with a complete arsenal of weapons and an excellent tennis IQ, Zvonareva should build upon this tournament as Berdych built upon his Miami breakthrough.  Even in the final, she competed courageously rather than folding as have so many of Serena’s craven foes, while her two previous matches featured n uncharacteristically sturdy comebacks  by a player formerly most famous for her meltdowns.   It’s a pleasure to see the prettiest pair of eyes in women’s tennis sparkling with joy rather than brimming with tears.

A-:

Murray:  Just as in Australia, the Scot was the best player of the men’s tournament until the semis, conceding one lone set en route to that stage.  During his first five matches, he looked nearly invincible as he defused the explosive offenses of Querrey and Tsonga after dismissing a trio of garden-variety foes.  Murray’s emergence from a prolonged post-Australian Open slump will have boosted his confidence at a timely moment before the shift to American hard courts, where he generally prospers.  And his post-defeat press conference was far more gracious than one would have expected from the often truculent Scot.  Nevertheless, he continues to fall just short at Slams and oddly seemed reluctant to carpe the diem against Rafa as he did so expertly in Melbourne.

Surprise WTA semifinalists:  Nadal wasn’t the only lefty who shone on the lawns of the All England Club, nor was Berdych the only Czech.  En route to a surprisingly respectable loss to Serena, Kvitova overwhelmed both Azarenka and Wozniacki as well as 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie.  Presaged by a trip to the second week of last year’s US Open, the quirky shotmaker’s triumphs against these three diverse playing styles bodes well for her future as a dark horse in key tournaments.  Told that one player other than Serena would reach the semis without dropping a set, few spectators would have guessed Tsvetana Pironkova.  Despite a counterpunching, movement-based game seemingly antithetical to grass, the Bulgarian radiated calm poise throughout her upsets of Bartoli and Venus.  She doesn’t hit anyone off the court, but she makes those who do win points three times or more in order to oust her.

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Sharapova:  Why is a fourth-round loser in this prestigious category?  We grade on improvement (or “dis-improvement”—see below), and that ghastly first-round debacle in Melbourne has receded into distant memory after Maria’s sterling competitive efforts in the last two majors.  If she hadn’t netted a routine forehand on set point in the tiebreak against Serena, she might well have scored a stunning victory last Monday in what became the de facto final; afterwards, the Russian likely would have navigated to a second Wimbledon title.  Even more of a confidence player than Nadal, she proved a shade tentative on key moments in the Serena encounter but looked sharper at Wimbledon than she has since 2006.  When she translates those fearsome serve-groundstroke combinations to her best surface, the hard courts, Sharapova could prove Serena’s primary challenger again at the US Open.

Isner / Mahut / Mohammed Lahyani:  The longest match ever was far from the greatest match ever, yet its B-level tennis shouldn’t detract from the spectacular resilience of its participants.  Kudos to perhaps the most good-natured umpire of all for withstanding seven stiff hours on his lonely perch.  Greater kudos to Isner for defying exhaustion and finding the willpower to propel his massive frames through 118 games in a single day.  And greatest kudos of all to Mahut, who gallantly held serve to stay alive not once, not twice, not thrice, but 64 times.  Perhaps the French World Cup team should watch the spectacular feat of their compatriot, who offered a splendid lesson in how to lose with grace and glory.

B+:

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Djokovic:  He was excellent at times and solid at others, but he doesn’t quite seem like the second-best player in the world, as the rankings would suggest.  Escaping a potential first-round catastrophe against Miami nemesis Rochus, the Serb seemed to settle into the tournament with each successive match, of which the most impressive was his four-set win over the ever-tenacious Hewitt.  In the quarterfinals, Djokovic suffocated the sprightly challenge of Yen-Hsun Lu with arguably his strongest, steadiest single-match performance of 2010 thus far.  Two days later, his serve unraveled ignominiously against Berdych with a double fault to lose the second-set tiebreak and consecutive doubles to drop serve in the third set.  Still uneasy against confident, big-serving opponents, Djokovic stubbornly stuck to an unintelligent game plan in the semis despite possessing ample alternatives.  Most concerning, though, was his fitness; after two hours, he looked more drained than did Mahut after seven.  

Kanepi:  While reaching the quarterfinals was more than sufficient cause for celebration, consider that Kaia Kanepi accomplished that feat after qualifying and while playing doubles.  The indefatigable Estonian reminded us that a crunching serve and mountains of first-strike power often can compensate for an otherwise one-dimensional style on this surface.  Once in the top 20, Kanepi has played with conviction since defeating Henin in Fed Cup  this spring, and her momentum should extend onto the fast hard courts.

Querrey:  After collecting the Queens Club title, the lanky Californian reached the second week of a major for just the second time, an achievement especially remarkable considering his bizarre French fadeout.  In the third round against the ever-dangerous Malisse, he refused to buckle after squandering opportunities in the fourth and fifth sets, instead calmly continuing to hold serve until the Belgian blinked.  When he wasted an opportunity to build an early lead against Murray, however, the Scot swiftly punished him for his profligacy.

Li:  Capitalizing upon her Birmingham title just as Querrey capitalized upon his Queens Club triumph, Li scored a commanding win over two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska in the final 16.  She managed to keep pace with Serena before unaccountably letting a service game slip away late in the first set, after which she faded swiftly.  But the Chinese star has now reached the quarterfinals or better at three of the last four majors, summoning her best tennis for the grandest stages and finally accumulating the consistency that long has constituted her greatest flaw.

B:

Tsonga:  Despite an injury that endangered his participation here, the acrobatic Frenchman leaped and lunged through an eventful first week to reach the quarters.  Had he closed out the second-set tiebreak against Murray, a semifinal spot almost surely would have awaited.  An embarrassing  (but unfortunately not uncharacteristic) faux pas at 5-5 in that tiebreak cost him dearly, though; positioned to demolish a floating return, Tsonga motionlessly watched it sail past him in the expectation that it would land out.  It didn’t, and Murray took full advantage of the reprieve.

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Soderling:  The Swedish juggernaut still exposes the frailties in Nadal, who looked unduly anxious during much of their quarterfinal.  Yet the Spaniard has distinctly recaptured the edge in this mini-rivalry, while Soderling’s temper returned in an unnecessarily prolonged five-set win over Ferrer.  After he refused to drop serve throughout the entire first week, one expected a bit more confidence in the second week.  Nevertheless, a foot injury clearly undermined him against the eventual champion, so look for him to wield an impact again at the US Open.

Melzer:  Winning just eight games from a clearly less-than-flawless Federer in the round of 16:  C+.  Seizing the doubles title with Petzschner:  A-.  Those divergent performances average to a B for this maddeningly mercurial but fascinatingly distinctive veteran, who now has won consecutive third-round matches at Slams after dropping his previous eleven.

Hewitt:  Following his superlative performance in Halle, many observers (including ourselves) expected him to record an upset over Djokovic last Monday.  Although he proved unable to do so, his previous win over Monfils illustrated the dogged determination that he brings to every point of every match.  While that unflinching intensity alone would justify watching him, his superb court sense and point-construction skills scintillate on a more intellectual level.  Rarely does the Australian beat himself, which is a description that one can’t apply to several higher-ranked players.

Groth:  Like Melzer, she reached the second week for the second consecutive major, pounding last year’s sensation Melanie Oudin into submission en route.  Although her competitive fourth-round encounter with Venus looked less impressive two days later, she showed greater poise than she formerly had on such occasions…until she served for the second set, when her game predictably fell apart.  All the same, the Slovak-turned-Australian is steadily learning how to channel her prodigious power, ominous news for whoever draws her early in New York.

Clijsters:  Losing to a pair of mentally dubious Russians (Petrova, Zvonareva) at her last two Slams, the 2009 US Open champion will be hard-pressed to defend her title unless her level rises distinctly in Cincinnati and Canada.  Sluggish and seemingly disinterested for much of her quarterfinal here, Clijsters looked more like a mom who plays tennis than a tennis player who is a mom.  Yet perhaps she was mentally drained from yet another three-set triumph over Henin on the previous day, a match that reaffirmed her position as currently the Best in Belgium.  Kim won’t need to worry about such a hangover at the next major, where she’ll gain the psychological boost of flying her country’s flag alone.

Haase / Petzschner:  Unknown outside the inner circle of aficionados, these northern European sluggers both won two sets from Nadal.  Those five-set losses represent greater accomplishments than any of their prior victories and should inspire them to future exploits.

Wimbledon crowd:  A thunderous standing ovation for the six-time men’s champion as he trudged off Centre Court in defeat:  A.  Boos for the five-time women’s champion when she arrived ten minutes late on Court 2:  C.  Does that sixth title really garner so much additional respect?  Apparently not, since nobody dared to boo Sharapova when she appeared ten minutes late on the same court (and probably for the same, perfectly justifiable reason).

B-:

Federer:  After nearly finding himself on the wrong side of history in the first round, the defending champion seemed to be playing his way into the tournament when he crashed into Berdych and out of Wimbledon.  That Sampras record of total weeks at #1 may be safe after all unless the Swiss legend suddenly reinvigorates himself as he did in 2008.  Leading us to expect otherwise, however, are these consecutive pre-quarterfinal losses at majors to players whom Federer formerly had dominated, losses that he rationalized a little too glibly in his post-match interview.  His final unforced error of the day, that sour press conference revealed a much less gracious personality than we had identified with the former #1.  Not unlike Serena at her worst, he attributed his loss to everything—from injuries to simple bad luck—except his opponent.  Has Federer perhaps been concealing a churlish streak beneath his genteel veneer?  It’s not hard to look and sound classy when you’re always holding a trophy.

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Henin:  We’ve reached a key crossroads in her comeback, which has garnered two minor titles and the Australian Open final but has fallen well short of most expectations.  During her protracted injury absence, she might want to assess the state of her game and consider what could be changed to take the next step forward.  But a third loss to Clijsters in six months—at the tournament for which this entire project is designed—must have struck a heavy blow to her easily deflated morale.

Azarenka / Wozniacki:  Once described as the future faces of women’s tennis, the Belarussian and the Dane have taken winding detours on their respective routes to what seemed inevitable Slam glory.  Both of them gulped down bagels courtesy of Kvitova, and both remain chronically hampered by injuries that restrict their movement.  Let’s hope that the post-Wimbledon hiatus provides a much-needed physical and mental respite.

Roland Garros women’s finalists:  The toasts of France quickly became French toast at Wimbledon, garnering just one set between them.  While Schiavone doesn’t need to win another match if she doesn’t want, Stosur needs to dispel the lingering aftermath of her Paris disappointment before it festers too long.

C:

Roddick:  For the second straight Wimbledon, he held his serve through five sets until losing it in the final game of the match.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he lost two of three tiebreaks.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to force a final set.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he came within a point of serving for the match.  But this time he was playing Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round instead of Federer in the final.  A major setback for the top-ranked American, Roddick’s tournament effectively erased his momentum from Indian Wells and Miami while intensifying the pressure that he’ll confront at the US Open.  Just beyond his grasp a year ago, that second Slam now looks as far away as ever.

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Venus:  Accustomed to routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament, the elder Williams is not accustomed to being the victim of routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament.  Facing break point in all but two of her service games, she never found her range against an energetic but far from overpowering Pironkova, the type of player whom she must conquer in order to contend for majors again.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine her harnessing those unruly groundstrokes throughout an entire fortnight.  In the twilight stages of Venus’ career, her game is hideous when it is anything less than sublime.

Men’s doubles stars:  Seeking to break the Woodies’ titles record, the Bryans let a potentially magical moment slip away in the quarterfinals.  Their perennial nemeses, defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic departed even earlier. 

F:

Blake / Pam Shriver:  Both of them forfeited considerable respect by stooping to engage in a mid-match war of words after Pam’s biting critique of James.  Credit Robin Haase for not allowing the fracas to distract him from the task of pulverizing Blake, whose career has drifted out to sea for good. 

Hanescu:  Keep your saliva to yourself.  Nobody wants to be infected with the type of malady that engenders such disrespect for the sport.  Or did you confuse Wimbledon with the World Cup, where such antics might be applauded?

***

Although most of the top players now embark upon quasi-summer vacations, we will not vanish into the London mist.  Here are some of the articles that you can expect to read here in the next few weeks:

Five to Frame:  The Five Most Memorable Matches of the First Half (ATP edition and WTA edition)

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder:  US Open Series Edition

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

To Have and Have Not:  Ernests Gulbis (player profile)  [Sorry for the delay on this article, a pre-Roland Garros request.  We didn’t forget, though!]

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)