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Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

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Wozarenka:  When the surface changed, the champions stayed the same.  While she didn’t quite tower over the Charleston draw, Wozniacki elevated her performance as the week progressed and satisfyingly erased the memory of her ankle sprain here last year.  Challenged more than expected by Zahlavova Strycova and Wickmayer, the world #1 should draw confidence from her ability to capture crucial points even when she couldn’t find her best form.  Wozniacki’s comfortable victory over Jankovic, one of her generation’s finest clay players, augurs well for the Dane’s chances at Roland Garros.  Armed with sufficient consistency, concentration, and fitness to prevail on clay, she could finally legitimize her top ranking in a draw without clear favorites.  On the other hand, Caro’s best friend might ruin that storyline.  Spanning the hard courts of Miami and the red clay of Marbella, the longest winning streak of Azarenka’s career has vaulted her into the top 5 for the first time.  In the relatively toothless Andalusian draw, Vika did not succumb to complacency but instead marched through the week without surrendering a set.  A somewhat more natural mover on the crushed brick, Azarenka shares Wozniacki’s hope that injuries will not cripple her clay campaign as happened last year.  If they remain healthy, this budding rivalry could blossom during the European spring.  Stay tuned for Stuttgart, where they compete for a Porsche.

First-time champions: While Begu and Vesnina fell a round short of their maiden titles, Pablo Andujar and Ryan Sweeting completed most improbable weeks by defeating distinctly favored opponents in the final.  Prognosticators should not extrapolate too boldly from these peripheral tournaments, far removed in geography and significance from the battlefields of Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Nevertheless, Andujar deserves credit for capitalizing upon his victory over Verdasco in Miami, which itself extended promising portents such as a win over Robredo and a competitive three-set loss to Wawrinka.  And Sweeting will have claimed the attention of hopeful American fans with aggressive ball-striking and a confident demeanor that belied his inexperience in finals.  That confidence assisted him in a victory over the recently resurgent Karlovic, who has flustered many a more notable foe.  Under pressure from Nishikori late in the second set, Sweeting found the courage to take his fate into his own hands during the championship-clinching tiebreak—not an easy feat for a first-time finalist.

Nishikori:  Unfortunate to draw Nadal in his Miami opener, he acquitted himself impressively throughout a match more complex than the scoreline suggested and built upon that encouraging performance in Houston.  Still early in his partnership with Brad Gilbert, Nishikori has climbed to a position within range of his ambition to become the highest-ranked Japanese player in ATP history.  He should aim to bolster his second serve and refine his down-the-line forehand, but this week provided a desperately needed flicker of positive news for his beleaguered compatriots.  (Nishikori also has started an auction and a Facebook fund-raising drive for tsunami relief in which anyone interested should participate.)

Peng:  Despite Li Na’s post-Australian collapse, Chinese tennis continues to enjoy an outstanding 2011.  A paragon of consistency amidst the tumultuous WTA, China’s #2 surrounded an Indian Wells quarterfinal with fourth-round surges in Melbourne and Miami during which she defeated Jankovic and Kuznetsova, respectively.  The double-fister once known largely for her doubles skills plowed into the Charleston semifinals despite a style seemingly unsuited for the clay.  Firmly embedded in the top 30, Peng soon can look forward to seeded status at Grand Slams and perhaps even byes at some of the smaller tournaments.

Lisicki:  Sweeping to the Charleston title in 2009, the German with the infectious smile looked on the verge of a breakthrough that could catapult her to the top of the WTA.  Injuries (probably permanently) thwarted those aspirations, but Lisicki proved with a resounding victory over Bartoli that she still can threaten top-20 opponents.  To be sure, the Frenchwoman has suffered her share of head-scratching losses.  Still, this triumph must have delighted a player who spent months on crutches learning how to walk again one step at a time.

Deuce:

Jankovic:  Inching back towards her former reliability, she has reached the quarterfinals or better in six of seven tournaments since a second-round Melbourne loss to the aforementioned Peng.  This stretch represents a significant step forward from a disastrous second half of 2010, and Jankovic’s most productive time of year lies just over the horizon.  But one expected more from the Serb than a routine straight-sets loss when she faced a fallible Wozniacki.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has begun to struggle against the stars of the next generation (Pavyluchenkova, Petkovic, Wozniacki), never an auspicious sign.

Safina:  Whether or not one supports Marat’s controversial sister, only the hardest hearts could lack at least a tremor of compassion for her frustrating, chronically aborted return from a back injury.  Two creditable victories in Marbella set up an intriguing clash with Azarenka, at which stage her body failed her again.  Few players deserve a shift in karma more than Safina.

Green clay:  On the one hand, the slow-but-not-too-slow courts in Charleston offered a pleasant transition in color and texture between the blue/purple of the North American hard courts and the red of the European clay.  On the other hand, how relevant is a surface when only one tournament in either the ATP or WTA calendar uses it?  Even more ominously, Charleston’s move to the week immediately after the Indian Wells-Miami marathon does not bode well for its future viability. While Wimbledon could survive as the season’s only grass tournament, if necessary, Charleston might struggle to lift the banner of green clay on its own.

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

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Stosur:  For last year’s Roland Garros finalist, her past accomplishments weigh upon her as a burden rather than buttressing her as a source of confidence.  Considering her 2011 form, though, one could not have expected her to defend her title, and her defeat to Vesnina looked less embarrassing after the Russian reached the final.  Can a return to the red clay reverse her spiral before it imperils her top-10 status?

Kuznetsova:  Fortunate to escape a qualifier ranked outside the top 100 in her opener, the 2009 Roland Garros champion wasn’t so lucky when the same situation recurred in her semifinal.  While conquering Henin and three top-10 opponents this year, Sveta has suffered four of her nine defeats against players ranked outside the top 60.

Rezai:  Another hideous loss for the pugnacious Frenchwoman as time ticks towards April 30, the day when her Madrid title defense begins.  It may end then as well, judging from recent evidence.

 

Almost unnoticed except by the sport’s most fervent followers, four tournaments came and went this week even while most of us recharged our batteries after the drama in Indian Wells and Miami.  Scraping off the rust that accumulated during an extended paternity leave, Stanislas Wawrinka claimed the not very Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca, which provided an opportunity for the Olympics gold medallist (see above) to dust off his prodigious clay-court skills before the European events.  Here are four other thoughts from the past week that we wanted to share before taking the next step along the red-brick road to Roland Garros:

1)  Nothing halts a player’s momentum like a change of surface.  Clijsters looked virtually invincible in Miami but came crashing down to earth in Marbella against the 258th-ranked Beatriz Garcia Vidagany.  The Spaniard was playing the first WTA main draw of her career, so her upset surely delighted the home crowd.  Also, we doubt that Clijsters arrived in this Mediterranean resort brimming with competitive ferocity; she needed this title as much as Federer needs a coach.  But she looked decidedly uneasy on her least favorite surface and should have been able to dispose of her many-syllabled opponent despite the insignificance of the occasion.  Keep an eye on Clijsters’ performances in Stuttgart and Rome; is she targeting a deep run in Paris, or is she willing to concede that territory to her compatriot?

2)  The injury bug keeps biting.  Every new day seems to bring another retirement, walkover, or withdrawal.  In Houston, four Americans suffered such fates on the same day, while Argentine Eduardo Schwank limped through his match only to incur a $1,000 fine for lack of effort (moral of the story:  playing through pain doesn’t pay).  Azarenka suffered a leg injury in Marbella, robbing her of almost certain revenge against Indian Wells nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Soderling and Monfils withdrew from the depleted Monte Carlo field, while Del Potro still suffers from the wrist injury that has sidelined him since Melbourne, and Davydenko probably won’t return until the grass. Last year’s French Open semifinalist  Cibulkova withdrew from the Charleston event, already struck by the withdrawals of Serena, defending champion Sabine Lisicki, and the elegant young lady pictured below.  Somewhere, a bespectacled Novak Djokovic is steadily compiling evidence to support his case for shortening the schedule. 

3)  Wozniacki is indefatigable…so far.  The Great Dane has been great indeed recently, climbing impressively to the #2 ranking.  In Charleston next week, she’ll be the #1 seed at a Premier event for the first time in her young career.  While swarms of rivals keep sports doctors employed, Wozniacki relentlessly chugs through week after week without a significant injury, despite her physically wearing style; next week will be her sixth (yes, sixth!) consecutive week in action.  We applaud her physical and mental resilience, but we’re a little worried about the long-term effects of her workaholic schedule.  After expending so much energy so early in the season, will she be spent in the second half?  Jankovic traveled down a similar road in the past and found herself too exhausted to deliver her best tennis when it mattered most.  Don’t be surprised if Wozniacki endures the same experience once spring turns to summer.

4)  Odesnik is even dumber than we thought.  We concurred with Roddick’s assessment of this American journeyman as a “jackass” after the HGH revelations, which restored credibility to the sport’s draconian, much-ridiculed drug testing policy.  Without plunging too deeply into details, we think that other players can learn a lesson from this case.  If Odesnik remained buried deep below the top 50 despite the assistance of PEDs, there’s clearly much more to performance than what a pharmacist can provide.  At any rate, Odesnik chose not to fade quietly away from our minds, thus allowing sore tempers to heal, but instead entered the Houston event and nearly reached the final (clearly, he’s replenished his supplies since the Melbourne confiscation).  Liable to face an extended suspension for his affront to tennis’ integrity, the American will lose his prize money and rankings points once the investigation culminates in what appears to be a virtually certain verdict.  Therefore, he gains nothing at all from this week while senselessly inflaming the wrath of all those concerned.  Perhaps he has deluded himself into believing that he can eventually wriggle out of his predicament; after all, he once compared himself to an “American Nadal,” an analogy that seemed uncomfortably hubristic at the time and sounds downright disgusting in retrospect.  We can’t think of a single ATP player who has less in common with the unfailingly classy, hardworking Rafa.

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Speaking of Nadal, we’ll take a look at the Monte Carlo draw tomorrow in our next tournament preview, while casting a briefer glance towards the somewhat defanged field in Charleston.  Like Wozniacki, tennis scribes never take a vacation!  🙂

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