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US Players

Readers familiar with this blog will know that we do not beat the tribal drum to proclaim the wonders of American tennis when few such wonders exist.  By contrast, we save praise of our compatriots for the moments that genuinely matter, a category that definitely includes this weekend’s victory over a heavily favored Swiss squad.  From the outset, virtually every imaginable card seemed stacked against the Americans, mired in the hostile clay without the services of their most prolific singles star (Andy Roddick) and half of their legendary doubles team (Mike Bryan) as they confronted the greatest player ever (need you ask?) and a very capable clay threat (Stanislas Wawrinka).  Only heightening the odds were the unimpressive Australian performances of both Fish and Isner, gone before the second week.

In one of the most stunning upsets during the last decade of Davis Cup, however, the Americans registered victories for every member of their team as they shut out their hosts.  Most stunning was Isner’s four-set victory over Federer that grew more emphatic as it progressed, but his teammate Fish deserves equal honors.  With the GOAT looming in the second rubber, the top-ranked American knew that he needed to secure the first rubber against Wawrinka for his team to harbor legitimate hopes of surviving the tie.  Trailing by two sets to one, Fish must have struggled to dispel memories of his demoralizing Davis Cup losses to Spain last year, when he spent eight hours on court with nothing to show for it.  Finishing the nail-biting fifth set with a burst of confident, assertive play, he set an optimistic tone crucial to his team’s success that weekend.  After Isner lost the first set to Federer, his comeback mirrored the spirited effort of his compatriot, unwilling to concede a grain of dirt to a Swiss team far superior in talent but far inferior in resolve.

Tennis sprawled well beyond Switzerland last week, though, so we discuss the rest of the best and worst from Davis Cup and two small WTA events.

Ad-in:

Team Argentina:  Another visiting team to sweep their hosts, Argentina arrived in Germany without their best player in Del Potro and yet still ravaged their higher-ranked foes with merciless efficiency.  As he has so often, Nalbandian seized center stage by winning both of his live rubbers, including a demolition of German #1 Florian Mayer.  The Argentines impressed even more because they had sustained a potentially devastating loss to Spain in yet another Davis Cup final last fall, so the psychological burden of starting their quest anew must have loomed large.  Somewhat lightening that burden, to be sure, was Germany’s uninspired decision to host this tie on clay, an unexpected courtesy to South American dirt devils like Monaco.  In the April quarterfinals, the Argentines should show less courtesy when they lay as slow a court as possible to frustrate one particular Croat.

Ivo Karlovic:  Defending his flag far from home, the tallest man in the ATP almost single-handedly thrust aside Japan by winning three rubbers for Croatia.  Like Germany, Japan may rue their choice of surface in retrospect, but Karlovic has proven himself dangerous even on slower courts.  Sweeping aside Nishikori in straight sets on Friday, he never lost his serve in either of his singles matches, including a decisive fifth rubber during which he seemed to feel neither pressure from the situation nor fatigue from his previous matches.  Perhaps most notable from the weekend was Karlovic’s ability to break serve; he needed only one tiebreak in six singles sets and won two sets by double-break margins.  Inside the top 50 as he prepares to turn 33, the Croat has grown more rather than less consistent with age.

Angelique Kerber:  While more often than not the player makes the results, sometimes the results make the player.  After bouncing around the second and third tiers of the WTA for years, Kerber astonished virtually everyone by racing within a set of the US Open final last fall.  That glimpse of what she could accomplish catalyzed her motivation and encouraged her to improve her fitness during the off-season.  Dismissed initially as an accident all too common in the parity of women’s tennis, she has begun to prove otherwise by compiling a 14-3 record in early 2012.  The German lefty reached semifinals in Auckland and Hobart before breaking through to claim her first career title in Paris with victories over two top-eight opponents.  Despite her lack of experience in finals, Kerber held her ground against multiple comebacks from Bartoli and continued creating opportunities to deliver the coup de grace.  When she did, one wondered whether the German trio of Petkovic, Lisicki, and Goerges might have become a quartet.

Pattaya City finalists:  Among players outside the top 20 when the year began, Hantuchova has surpassed all but Kerber in her achievements.  In addition to spearheading Slovakia’s victory over France in Fed Cup, she reached the Brisbane final and knocked off Schiavone in Sydney. Although she defeated no prominent name in the Thai beach city, her first career title defense represents a significant accomplishment for a player considered unreliable and emotionally frail.  Further undercutting that reputation, Hantuchova has rallied from losing the first set in seven of her fourteen victories this year, showing greater capacity for endurance than she has for most of her career.

Despite its insignificant position near the base of the WTA’s tournament hierarchy, Pattaya City featured a final filled with drama and entertainment throughout its 194 minutes.  No less responsible than Hantuchova for its quality was runner-up Kirilenko, who battled through game after game with unexpected tenacity.

Sorana Cirstea / Mona Barthel:  Flavors of the month in January, they started February with promise.  After she upset Stosur in the first round of the Australian Open, the former prodigy Cirstea reached the semifinals in Pattaya City, where she extended Kirilenko to three sets.  Even more notable was the continued surge of Hobart champion Barthel, who has amassed 16 victories already this year.  The last five of those came when she qualified for the main draw and then reached the quarterfinals at the Paris Indoors.  If her progress continues, the Germans could boast five players in the top 30 by midsummer, more than any other nation except Russia.

Deuce:

Team Kazakhstan:  One might wonder how a team can take positives away from losing a second straight Davis Cup tie 5-0, but Kazakhstan’s 10 straight losses mask a brighter story.  Faced with the task of playing a much superior Spanish team on clay, many more talented squads would have crumbled before the first ball even without the presence of Nadal and Ferrer.  In a 2011 quarterfinal, moreover, the Kazakhs had mustered only minimal resistance to Argentina in a clay tie under similar circumstances.  This year, they improved considerably by winning two sets from Ferrero and a set from Almagro in a weekend when victory lay inevitably beyond their grasp.  Still a fledgling Davis Cup power, they may have started to feel as though they belong.

Team Japan:  Literally overshadowed by their Croatian guests, Nishikori and Go Soeda nevertheless left their compatriots little reason for regret.  Although one expected a somewhat more competitive match between the Japanese #1 and Karlovic in Friday, he redeemed himself with an equally imposing triumph over Dodig on Sunday when the tie hung in the balance.  Unable to threaten Karlovic for more than a set in the decisive match, Soeda galvanized the crowd in the Bourbon Beans Dome by erasing a two-set deficit in the opening rubber.  On the heels of Nishikori’s quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, this scintillating Davis Cup tie might enhance the prominence of tennis still further in Japan.

Switzerland's Roger Federer Reacts

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Federer:  Winning two total sets in two rubbers, the Swiss #1 lost little time in finding not one but two scapegoats for his embarrassment:  the poorly laid surface (fair) and his teammate Wawrinka (unfair).  So heavily did Federer criticize the latter, someone who didn’t watch the tie might have thought that Wawrinka had slumped to a four-set defeat against Isner while Federer had extended Fish deep into a fifth set.  Despite his surprising listlessness, this defeat will occupy scant space in any survey of the 16-time major champion’s career, but his reaction built upon earlier suggestions (cf. Wimbledon 2010, Roland Garros 2011) that Federer’s sportsmanship correlates directly to his success.

Sharapova:  Spraying more than 30 unforced errors in 20 games, she fell well short of justifying her status as the top seed in a draw of players who almost never had defeated her.  A reminder that no conclusions are foregone, Sharapova’s loss paralleled Federer’s setback in the lack of intensity or purpose shown by their protagonists.  Although Kerber’s ensuing march to the title mitigated the disappointment in retrospect, it still surprised considering her dominance of that opponent in Melbourne.  Perhaps February simply offers a necessary lull for these two champions between the demanding months of January and March.

WTA health:  Just one month and one significant tournament into the season, the casualty list has started to mount.  A few days after Li retired from Paris, Zvonareva retired from Pattaya City.  Before Paris even began, both Lisicki and Jankovic excused themselves with lingering injuries that had nagged them during Fed Cup.  Even with the Premier Five tournament in Doha on the horizon, world #3 Kvitova decided to save her ammunition for grander stages.  To some extent, these injuries stem from the habit (and ability) of the top women to set their own schedules, a trend that no Roadmap can cure.  But it still raises concern to see so many injuries to important figures so early in the season.

Alex Bogomolov:  Having stirred the cauldron of controversy by playing Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States, Bogomolov did nothing to reward the trust of Tarpischev in his first World Group tie.  This most improbable Russian #1 won one total set in two singles rubbers, including an ignominious thrashing by Melzer in the tie-clincher during which he lost only seven games.  Just as embarrassing, though, was a four-set loss on Friday to the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer that essentially sealed Russia’s fate.  If Tarpischev has any other weapons at his disposal, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian should watch the next tie’s live rubbers from the safety of the bench.

 

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Roger Federer - 2012 Australian Open Previews

As bagels and breadsticks continue to fly out of the WTA bakery at a dizzying rate, Federer confronts a less appetizing challenge as the second week approaches.  We preview the four-time champion’s next obstacle among several other encounters on the first day of the third round.

Karlovic vs. Federer:  Resentful of the ATP’s serving leviathans, Federer deems their distinctive styles as something other than tennis, or the proper form of the sport in his view.  Although he has lost to Karlovic only once in his career, the Swiss master will know that his opponent’s nearly untouchable serve will force him into sets much closer than he would prefer in the first week—perhaps even a tiebreak or two.  Returning more competently than usual in his first two matches, the ATP’s tallest player will not threaten the Federer serve unless its owner slips into carelessness.   Still, the experience of playing Karlovic, for whom matches can hinge upon a few points, will sharpen Federer’s focus and reflexes, if not his endurance.  (After all, one doesn’t expend much energy watching barely visible bombs fly past.)  Less sharp in passing shots recently, the third seed will find ample opportunities to practice them as Karlovic regularly advances to the net.

Dolgopolov vs. Tomic:  A regular fixture in the night session now, Tomic resurrected his tournament in inspiring fashion and now seeks to reach the second week for the second time in three majors.  More imposing than it might seem is the challenge presented by last year’s quarterfinalist from Ukraine, a quirky personality more similar to Tomic in style than his two previous foes.  Defusing Verdasco and then Querrey, the teenager specializes in defusing one-dimensional opponents with a variation of speeds and spins.  How will he adapt against someone who shares those habits, relying upon timing and accuracy more than power?  Sometimes so effortless that he looks disinterested, Dolgopolov has seemed a somewhat enigmatic competitor who often plays to the level of his competition.  That habit, combined with the scintillating Rod Laver atmosphere, should produce an evenly matched contest filled with imagination

Azarenka vs. Barthel:  Conceding just two games in two matches, Vika has established herself among the leading contenders for the title.  Unflustered by the partisan crowd in a Rod Laver night session, she overwhelmed Casey Dellacqua in a nearly bulletproof effort.  The Sydney champion now faces the Hobart champion and owner of a ten-match winning streak as she seeks to reach the second week of the Australian Open for the fourth straight year.  No matter the quality of the opposition, a ten-match winning streak should give Barthel the confidence that  neither the brashness of youth nor the support of a nation could instill in her earlier victims.  On the surface most suited to her game of any major, Azarenka probably would benefit from a creditable test that will brace her for stiffer competition inevitably looming ahead.  This match should inform us about her near future this fortnight and about Barthel’s future as an aspiring threat to the top.

Isner vs. Lopez:  As he reached 6-6 in the fifth set against Nalbandian, Isner must have wondered how long this latest trudge towards tennis infinity would last.  Fortunately for him, he played only six more games and finished his comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in style with an uncharacteristically subtle sequence at the net.  Not the fastest player to recover from a protracted battle, Isner may bring depleted energy to his next round and will feel relieved to realize that this match will not require much energy from him.  Much like the American, Lopez prefers to end points as quickly as possible with either point-ending serves or brisk assaults on the forecourt.  Neither players can survive for long in extended rallies, so the points should represent bursts of rapid activity amidst the calm that surrounds the time between them.  Experiencing a taste of his own medicine in the Spaniard’s vicious lefty serve, Isner must carefully protect his own delivery while waiting for the untimely lapse in his opponent’s game that has plagued Lopez in many of his most important matches.  On a surface less than fast, the more methodical player holds the advantage, and in this case the American can lay claim to that distinction.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova: Before their meeting two weeks ago, this match would have contained little intrigue.  Having lost one total set in their first nine meetings, Clijsters clearly had solved the conundrums posed by the Slovak’s audacious angles with her own court-stretching defense and transition game.  When they collided in a Brisbane semifinal, though, Hantuchova severely tested the Belgian’s movement with a surprisingly poised performance from the first ball onward.  One would have expected her flakiness to doom her in the many multiple-deuce games of the match, but in fact she prevailed more often than not in those situations.  And, although she lost the first-set tiebreak, her game did not collapse under pressure then as it so often has.  Rebounding to claim another lead early in the second set before Clijsters retired, Hantuchova displayed the type of resistance that would produce a scintillating third-round encounter here.  A semifinalist here in 2008, she should relish the pace and bounce of these courts as much as the defending champion, who improved significantly from her first match to her second.  With Li Na potentially just one round ahead, Clijsters will not want to display any signs of fragility.

McHale vs. Jankovic:  Amidst another encouraging Slam for young Americans, McHale reached the third round for the second straight major.  After knocking off Safarova in the first round with a display of nearly impeccable consistency (no unforced errors at all), she showed her mettle in adversity a match later.  Brought  by Erakovic to within a tiebreak, McHale found a way to turn the trajectory of their encounter in her favor and showed no sign of fading during the final set.  Her physical and mental stamina should aid her against Jankovic, who specializes in breaking down opponents one game at a time.  Following that pattern in her first two matches here, the former #1 played solid tennis to unravel the inexperienced Laura Robson and Kai-chen Chang.  While she may start by maintaining that strategy against yet another young challenger, Jankovic eventually may need to shift into offensive mode more often.  Since McHale can counterpunch comfortably from the baseline, the Serb should aim to exploit the greater pace and depth of her own groundstrokes.  She will find herself superior to her opponent in many areas and inferior in none, but the American has demonstrated her ability to score upsets and will not flinch when she meets a much more accomplished opponent.

Wawrinka vs. Almagro:  When we previewed both of their matches for the previous round, we somewhat favored their opponents to end their fortnights.  By dispatching Baghdatis and Dimitrov, these two Europeans of the second tier delivered a meaningful statement of intent that the rest of this weak section should not cast aside lightly.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Australian Open, Wawrinka has battled an apparent inferiority complex to prominent rivals for much of his career but broke through at the 2009 US Open with a victory over Murray that catalyzed his best tennis to date.  While he no longer works with coach Peter Lundgren and has rejoined his family, the Swiss #2 can continue to apply the lessons of his eccentric, aggressive mentor.  Three of his four previous matches with Almagro have reached a final set, and he has won their only previous five-setter (on clay) in a testament to his superior fitness.  But the superior serve and shot-making power belongs to the Spaniard, who faces the challenge of pulling the trigger at the right moment in rallies.  Expect plenty of tightly contested service games, more breaks than the ATP average, and a critical test of nerve at some stage that separates them.

Falla vs. Kohlschreiber:  Two years after an upset of Federer at Wimbledon eluded him, Falla refused to let world #8 Fish off the hook in straight sets.  That victory likely marks the most notable achievement of the Colombian’s career, accomplished by lulling the American into bland, neutral rallies where his inconsistent groundstrokes undermined him.  Extremely solid with all shots except his second serve, Falla rarely slashes winners past opponents but slowly maneuvers them into awkward positions.  An effective lateral mover, he retrieved even Fish’s more penetrating backhands with surprising depth.  When he meets another volatile, erratic shot-maker in Kohlschreiber, the same tactics should serve him effectively.  Springing a much less notable upset over Monaco in the first round, the German dazzled Rod Laver Arena during a 2008 night session when his flat, deceptively fast groundstrokes whizzed past a helpless Roddick in a five-set thriller.  When streaky meets steady, expect a complicated match in which both players will attempt to deliver their most impressive bullets from their backhands rather than their forehands, a rarity in the ATP.

Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Janko Tipsarevic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Having examined the leading contenders for the Australian Open titles, we now cast a glance across the diverse spectrum of dark horses who might stifle the hopes of a favorite.

Tipsarevic:  Long before his late-career surge carried him into the top 10, the second-ranked Serb dragged Federer deep into a fifth set on Rod Laver Arena.  While Tipsarevic’s more recent visits to Australia have resulted in few such exploits, his appearance in the Chennai final extended his momentum from a strong second half, including a US Open quarterfinal.  His compact physique conceals an unexpectedly effective serve, and his backhand down the line sometimes triggers parallels to his more famous compatriot.  Throughout his career, though, Tipsarevic has struggled with injuries, fatigue, and sporadic lack of motivation.

Del Potro:  During the Davis Cup final, he competed vigorously throughout two losses on clay to Ferrer and a heavily favored Nadal.  Those matches illustrated not only Del Potro’s forehand but his movement, uncommon in a player of his height and a key to his Melbourne success.  Never has he distinguished himself in Rod Laver Arena, even before his wrist injury.  Nevertheless, Del Potro won sets at majors from Djokovic and Nadal last year.  If he has gained confidence from his Davis Cup performance and a strong week in Sydney, his groundstrokes should regain some of the explosiveness that they have lacked since his injury.  Very few other players in the draw can claim victories over every member of the top five.

Dolgopolov:  For an example of the Ukrainian’s talent for wizardry, one need look no further than the first set of his US Open encounter with Djokovic last fall.  Against the ATP’s leading player, his befuddling mixture of spins, slices, and sudden groundstroke blasts nearly worked their magic.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov won consecutive five-setters against Tsonga and Soderling during which his counterpunching blunted their far superior power.  One might expect him to feel pressure when he returns to the scene of those former triumphs, but the Ukrainian seems thoroughly immune to such emotions, as he does to more significant aspirations.

Isner: A stark contrast to Dolgopolov, the American relies upon an unvarnished, almost retro style of serving and simplistic first-strike tennis.  Stiff and ungainly at times, he nevertheless won two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros last year—something that Federer never has accomplished in five attempts.  As he showed at the US Open when reaching the quarterfinals, Isner can force even the most elite foes to tiebreaks, an uncomfortable position for a contender early in the tournament Since his game revolves around a single shot, Isner can struggle with almost any opponent when his first-serve percentage dips, so he also could suffer an upset of his own before he meets a notable name.

Raonic:  The champion in Chennai after an arduous battle with Tipsarevic in the final, Raonic never lost his serve throughout the tournament.  His relentless holds intensify the pressure on his opponents during their own service games, sometimes resulting in anxious, uncharacteristic errors.  Since a hip injury at Wimbledon truncated most of his second half, he begins the new season fresher than many rivals.  Unknown until this time last year, Raonic won six consecutive matches in Australia to burst through qualifying to defeat Llodra and Youzhny before Ferrer finally outlasted him in four sets.

Nishikori:  Somewhat like Ferrer, the Japanese #1 always will lack the effortless power on serve and groundstrokes that forms the cornerstone of the modern game.  Without those attributes, he still can punish the unwary or profligate with a steady, disciplined baseline style and excellent stamina, both physical and mental.  Finally breaking through at meaningful tournaments last fall, Nishikori already has proven that he can spring a stunning upset at a major when he conquered Ferrer a few US Opens ago.  He likely will receive substantial crowd support in Melbourne, the major nearest his home.

Tomic:  Although Hewitt remains the sentimental favorite in the men’s field for most Aussies, the two-time major champion has ceded the status of his nation’s leading hope to this precocious prodigy.  Surprising Wimbledon by reaching the quarterfinals, Tomic has evolved into a more mature player and always has possessed a complete game with intelligent shot selection.  That attribute has convinced observers like John McEnroe that he has the greatest potential of his generation’s players, but the Australian must improve his serve and gain more experience before hoping to fulfill his potential.  To the delight of his compatriots, he reached the Brisbane semifinals before Murray unraveled him.

Harrison:  Just as Tomic represents the future of Australian men’s tennis, so does this brash youngster represent the future of American men’s tennis.  That prospect has sat comfortably on Harrison’s shoulders more often than not, spurring him towards a few inspired runs on American soil.  Still waiting for the breakthrough performance that Tomic unleashed at Wimbledon, he crumbled in the first round of the US Open and surely will burn to improve upon that result at the next major.  His passion for competition will serve him well as his career progresses, but he has not always channeled it productively thus far.

Agnieszka Radwanska - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Three

Radwanska:  Appearing in the second week at last year’s event despite a recent foot injury, the clever Pole enjoyed an outstanding second half of 2011 by her standards.  Among her three titles were prestigious events in Tokyo and Beijing, which preceded a competitive display at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Radwanska finally seemed to mix more opportunistic tactics with her customary counterpunching.  Although her benign serve always will leave her at the mercy of serving juggernauts like Serena or Kvitova, she can frustrate players with less first-strike power by deploying her clever court sense.  Also demonstrated by her upset over Wozniacki in Sydney was her improved competitive resilience.

Bartoli:  Lethal at the middle two Slams last year, the double-fisted Frenchwoman knocked off former champions at both Roland Garros (Kuznetsova) and Wimbledon (Serena).  But she left no mark whatsoever on the two hard-court Slams, despite reaching the Indian Wells final.  Bartoli probably would prefer a faster surface that would allow her to shorten points more easily, and the serve that shone at Wimbledon continues to desert her more than it should.  All the same, she looked convincing at Hopman Cup even while winning only one of three matches.

Schiavone:  From the first two weeks of the WTA season, the most entertaining match featured her comeback victory against Jankovic in Brisbane after saving double match point in the second set.  Undeterred as she clawed out of deficit after deficit, Schiavone seemingly won through sheer force of will and appetite for battle.  That appetite emerged most strikingly not in either of her memorable fortnights at Roland Garros but in the epic that she contested with Kuznetsova at last year’s Australian Open.  Yet she could not withstand the blows of second-tier shotmaker Kanepi a round later, illustrating the limits of her agility and ingenuity as a counterbalance to raw power.

Lisicki:  Raw power describes the game of this German, who will serve as the flag-bearer of her nation in Melbourne following Petkovic’s withdrawal.  Plagued by injuries throughout her still young career, Lisicki began the season inauspiciously with a retirement and a withdrawal.  Buttressing her charge to the Wimbledon semifinals, her serve ranks among the fiercest in the WTA and allows her to slash at her returns with impunity. A little like Isner, her dependence on that single shot mean that she can win or lose to almost anyone at any moment, even discounting her chronic injuries.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova battled courageously against Serena at the US Open and showed sufficient composure to avenge a Roland Garros loss to Schiavone.  She continues to struggle with sporadic injuries and especially with her serve, which donates an alarming quantity of double faults for a player so young.  Early in 2012, Pavlyuchenkova struggled to hold at all in two early-round losses at Brisbane and Sydney.  When she can sink her teeth into baseline rallies, though, she can match the firepower of any opponent from either groundstroke wing.

Kuznetsova:  Less than three years removed from her last major title, she attempts to rebound from one of her worst seasons, which witnessed no titles and an embarrassing series of losses to anonymities.  A natural athlete who might have excelled in a variety of sports, Kuznetsova probably cannot maintain her wayward focus for an entire fortnight.  Her taste for the spotlight sometimes spurs her to rise to the occasion, as evidenced by her near-upset over Wozniacki at the US Open.  Despite her unimposing physique, she strikes a heavy ball that travels through the court with deceptive speed.

Kanepi:  On this list merely for her performance in Brisbane, she has accomplished nothing memorable at majors to date.  But one should note that she held serve seamlessly through three of her last four victories that week against quality competition, an astonishing feat in the WTA.  Having reached the Moscow final in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi deserves credit for extending that momentum through the offseason.  And all three previous Brisbane champions vaulted from that success to greater heights before long.

Zheng:  Two years ago, China stood within two combined victories of monopolizing both berths in the women’s final here.  Thwarted in the semifinals by Henin, Zheng also reached a semifinal at Wimbledon in 2008.  Having gained greater acclaim for her exploits in doubles than singles, she returned to relevance by sweeping to the Auckland title following a semifinal victory over Kuznetsova.  The relatively high bounce of these courts will hinder her returns, normally one of her strengths, but her ability to keep the ball low and deep troubles tall opponents and those who specialize in creating angles.

Ivanovic:  The 2008 runner-up, “Aussie Ana” can count upon ample fan support in her quest to erase the memories of last year’s first-round exit.  Since succumbing to Sharapova four years ago, Ivanovic has not reached the second week at the Australian Open and has not reached the quarterfinals at any hard-court major.  Extending Clijsters to three sets in Brisbane, she still showed flashes of the form that lifted her to the top ranking while continuing to struggle with finishing matches.  Searching for renewed confidence, she has improved her serve under the guidance of Nigel Sears and has shown more patience in constructing points.  If any Slam suits her temperament, moreover, it’s the “Happy Slam.”

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Sydney International - Day 1

Juan Martin Del Potro Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina reacts tot a play during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2011 in London, England.

Not among the highest achievers of 2011, these players nevertheless merited briefer discussion during the off-season.  Having discussed the best of the season, we now reflect upon some of the other players who caught our attention, for better, for worse, or for both.

Del Potro:  A tale of two seasons for the former US Open champion, 2011 began promisingly with a pair of minor first-half titles and encouraging runs at more significant tournaments.  Competitive against Nadal in an Indian Wells semifinal and even more competitive in the fourth round of Wimbledon, perhaps a match that he should have won, Del Potro also tested the then-undefeated Djokovic when they met at Roland Garros.  Over the summer, his charge towards the top 10 stalled unexpectedly on the North American hard courts where he had scored his greatest successes.  One of the more enigmatic champions in recent years, Del Potro faded meekly away throughout the fall with the exception of Davis Cup.  Having assisted Argentina to a victory over Serbia in Belgrade, he spared no effort in the final hosted by the heavily favored Spain.  Although he lost both of his rubbers, Del Potro severely threatened both Ferrer and Nadal with a competitive tenacity too little seen from him since 2009.  The question remains as to whether he can build upon those gallant defeats and reconstruct his tattered aura.  Entering 2011 with great uncertainty surrounding him, he will enter 2012 with his status as a contender almost equally unclear.

Soderling:  After a relentless succession of injuries and illnesses halted his 2011 campaign, viewers might not remember that the Swede started the season 19-1 with three titles in his first four tournaments.  But he played only 27 matches the rest of the season, winning just one more title, and entered only one tournament after Wimbledon.  Serving the role of a gatekeeper to the top, Soderling finished 0-3 against top-five opponents and 5-0 against opponents ranked sixth through tenth.  Few players ever quite recover from mono, especially those who rely so heavily on ball-striking power, so the Swede may struggle to recapture his magnificent form of 2009-10.  On the other hand, he did finish his half-season in sensational fashion by allowing just five total games to Berdych and Ferrer at his home tournament in Bastad, an intimidating performance that surely comforted him during the absence that followed.

Roddick:  As dependent on his serve as ever, the American now wins fewer free points on it than ever before.  That trend stems in part from the improved returning skills of even second-tier opponents and in part from his own diminishing energies.  Averaging just two wins for each loss in 2011, Roddick suffered straight-sets Slam losses to Wawrinka and Lopez, the type of talented but unexceptional opponent whom he would have dispatched with ease two or three years ago.  He also compiled a losing record at Masters 1000 tournaments (6-7) and failed to qualify for the year-end championships for the first time since winning his first major.  On the bright side, Roddick delivered his best tennis for the home audience when he upset Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals and won a thrilling final in Memphis over the rising Raonic.  He should collect a few more of those vintage wins while his ranking ebbs slowly but surely.

Almagro:  The only inhabitant of the top 10 who did not appear on our “Best of 2011” list, Almagro reached all five of his finals on clay tournaments at the 250 or 500 level.  Then, he lost to the lowly Lukasz Kubot in the first round of Roland Garros, illustrating the inconsistency that has troubled his adherents.  With more first-round losses than second-week appearances at majors, Almagro unquestionably built his inflated ranking by feasting on low-hanging fruit.  His powerful serve and groundstrokes should earn him more than 13 hard-court wins in a season, the remarkably low number that the world #10 recorded this year.  Still, his choice to play three consecutive minor clay tournaments after Wimbledon tells you everything that you need to know about his priorities.

Monfils:  Whenever and wherever he flickered onto the screen, Monfils briefly enlivened the lives of everyone who watched.  Rallying from a two-set deficit in the first round of the Australian Open, he outlasted Ferrer in a 14-game fifth set at Roland Garros and then succumbed to Ferrero in a four-hour epic in the first round of the US Open.  Dizzy and out of breath?  We haven’t even started to discuss the non-majors, where he nearly let the Stockholm final slip away against the underwhelming Nieminen, did let the Washington final slip away against the aging Stepanek, played final sets against the world #1 and the world #112, and contested eleven match-ending tiebreaks.  In short, the Monfils rollercoaster often impressed, often disappointed, and almost always entertained.  Just when he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious threat, he vanished.  Just when one gave up on him, he leapt back into relevance.

Dolgopolov:  Like Monfils, the mercurial Ukrainian attempted to hit virtually any shot from anywhere on the court—and succeeded much more often than one would have expected.  In his marathon first set against Djokovic at the US Open, Dolgopolov befuddled the world #1 as much as any other player did this year, ceaselessly changing pace and rhythm while looking for angles to exploit.  His most impressive achievement of the year came at the beginning, though, when he defeated Soderling and Tsonga in consecutive five-setters to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.  Hampered by a chronic medical issue, Dolgopolov cannot maintain his momentum for long even if he could maintain his focus.  His smooth, seemingly effortless game nevertheless captures the imagination when he times his shots crisply, more than compensating for his inexplicable early-round losses.

Isner:  One of the most boring players to afflict the ATP in recent years, the towering server played no fewer than 58 tiebreaks.  In four matches, he played three tiebreaks or more as the inefficacy of his return symmetrically balanced the impenetrability of his serve.  Riding that latter shot to a US Open quarterfinal, Isner unhinged many an opponent with the steadily mounting pressure caused by his routine holds.  Perhaps his most notable performance came in a loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, when he lost just four points in the two tiebreaks that they played and closed within a set of a world-shocking upset that would have cast Soderling into shadow.  As mind-numbing as we find his monochromatic style, he has proven it effective even against the elite and has asserted himself as a dark horse in any draw on any surface.

Verdasco / Davydenko:  Both of these players peaked in 2009, when the Spaniard edged within six points of the Australian Open final and the Russian won the World Tour Finals with victories over Federer and Del Potro  Since then, their stock has fallen dramatically.  Despite his excellent shot-making skills and other fast-court talents, Verdasco reached only two hard-court quarterfinals this year and suffered one embarrassing stretch of six losses in seven ATP matches.  His descent still paled next to the disappearance of the now 41st-ranked Davydenko, who posted a 25-25 record this year in a perfect illustration of mediocrity.  But at least the Russian has a convincing alibi of a wrist injury from which he never recovered, whereas the Spaniard’s struggles live largely above the neck.  Jesting aside, it’s curious to observe the different paths that decline can take.  The steep trajectories charted by Verdasco and Davydenko contrast with the more gradual routes traced by other veterans.

Cilic:  Although he accomplished little of note at the majors, the lanky Croat distinguished himself during the fall and on indoor hard courts.  He might continue to reap rewards during that season and on that surface, far from the spotlight of more important events.  Or Cilic might use a promising fall as a springboard towards 2012, capitalizing upon the talent that once seemed likely to embed him in the top ten.  Considering his plethora of weapons and unruffled demeanor, few reasons explain his underachievement over the past two years, save perhaps an ornate technique on his forehand or possibly a lack of competitive intensity.  For now, he remains a bland enigma.

Bogomolov:  To some observers, his decision to play Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States suggested a traitorous ingratitude to the USTA.  While surprising, Bogomolov’s decision didn’t offend us to that extent.  He hardly would have appeared in anything but a dead rubber for the American squad (or the Russian squad, most likely), and the USTA has suffered much more serious slights at the hands of other recipients of its generosity, like Donald Young.  That controversy aside, Bogomolov’s upset over Murray galvanized him to a string of results that his most optimistic followers could not have predicted.  He stands on the verge of receiving a seed at the Australian Open after 15 victories over higher-ranked opponents, including Murray and Tsonga.

Raonic/Tomic/Harrison:  Of this rapidly rising trio, Raonic recorded the most consistent success by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier before rampaging to his first title in San Jose and another final in Memphis.  After he bombarded opponents with an ATP-leading quantity of aces during the first half, the Canadian spent much of the second half convalescing from a hip injury.  Meanwhile, Australian hope Tomic astonished Wimbledon with a quarterfinal appearance that culminated in a tightly contested four-setter against eventual champion Djokovic.  A disappointment at the US Open, he still finished 2011 with a winning record at ATP tournaments for the first time and secured fall victories over three top-20 opponents while reaching the top 50.  Compared by some to an embryonic Roddick, the fiery Ryan Harrison lacked the second-week Slam appearances of his fellow prodigies but defeated Raonic in a compelling three-setter at Indian Wells.  Competing with confidence against opponents like Federer and Ferrer, the foremost American of the next generation gained valuable experience by reaching consecutive semifinals during the US Open Series.  All three of these talents must mature before rising into the upper echelon of the ATP, but fans should feel heartened to see such reassuring glimpses of the ATP’s future.

Bernard Tomic - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 1

Roger Federer - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Federer vs. Berdych:  Aiming to progress further than ever before in Bercy, Federer could win this title without defeating any of his three major rivals.  Projected to meet Murray in the semifinals, he instead will encounter an opponent who has won three of their last four meetings in a rivalry historically dominated by the Swiss master.  In fact, Berdych probably should have won the fourth meeting in that span (at the 2010 Rogers Cup) before Federer snatched victory from the jaws of defeat much as the Czech had when they met in Miami that spring.  Often unable to showcase his most fearless tennis at prestigious tournaments, Tomas has proved that he can quell his diffidence when he faces Federer on occasions as important as the Olympics and Wimbledon.  Although too sporadic to propel him into true contention with his superiors, that self-belief can surface at unpredictable moments for the 2005 champion.  In his quarterfinal against Murray, one would have expected Berdych to wilt after dropping the first set or after he failed to serve out the second set.  As this battle of attrition lurched into its fourth hour, though, he did not waver in his commitment to an ambitious strategy of attacking the net and the Scot’s serve.  The 192-minute victory may have drained Berdych’s fitness and focus for the semifinal, for rarely do best-of-three matches last so long when won by a player with an affinity for short points.  Likewise preferring efficient tennis, Federer has advanced much less eventfully past three second-tier opponents without dropping a set.  His crisper footwork and overall technique should become even more striking with the Czech’s fatigue, but the player who can scorch his inside-out forehand into his opponent’s backhand on important points should prevail.  Not since 2001 has Federer finished a season without winning either a major or a Masters 1000 tournament, so his recurrent malaise in Bercy may not descend this week.

Tsonga vs. Isner:  While little about the 81-inch giant from Georgia would seem unobtrusive at first glance, he has navigated a pathway to his first Masters 1000 semifinal amidst minimal fanfare.  Only when he ambushed the fourth-seeded Ferrer did Isner capture significant attention, for none of his three previous victories came against a seeded opponent.  Not entirely unexpected because of the surface, that quarterfinal victory over the Spanish veteran defied expectations in one sense:  the American’s superior stinginess from the baseline.  Like most players of his height, Isner generally wields a gawky game as overt and unsophisticated as his outfit this week.  On this occasion, though, he stayed consistent under pressure while committing few of the mental blunders that his inexperience often produces.  From his serve stems his calm, which contrasts with the fireball of athleticism across the net.  Seeking to claim a fourth consecutive French berth in a Paris final, Tsonga thrives upon the enthusiasm of his compatriots and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.  Sometimes lacking in focus, though, he cannot afford a lull against an opponent who holds serve with monotonous ease and maintains leads as well as much more renowned peers.  In their only previous collision, Isner relied upon his own compatriots to edge through a third-set tiebreak, a stage at which his matches often climax.  Few would dispute that Tsonga will offer more scintillating entertainment with his acrobatic arsenal of lunges, leaps, and lashing forehands.  But he would do well to remember the tale of the hare and the tortoise, whose methodical approach Isner resembles.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 China Open - Day 7

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

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

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

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

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

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