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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

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

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

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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

First quarter:  Still clinging to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki warily arrives into Melbourne after a wrist injury and attempts to shed her inconsistency of the past several months.  These slow courts will benefit her defensive style, especially since she faces no overwhelming shot-maker in the first week.  Even when the Dane reaches the fourth round, she would face only her counterpunching counterpart Jankovic, who compiled respectable but not remarkable results in Brisbane and Sydney.  If Safaraova can capitalize upon a fine week in Sydney to upset Jankovic, a more intriguing test might await for Wozniacki in the Czech lefty’s assertive serve-forehand combinations.  As her 24th seed would suggest, though, Safarova likely lacks the consistency to outhit the world #1 for an entire match.  Offering more intrigue is the lower part of this section, where both Clijsters and Li Na reside.  After a series of consistently solid performances at preparatory tournaments, last year’s runner-up looks sharper than she has since winning Roland Garros.  More questions surround the defending champion, forced to withdraw from her last tournament with a minor injury but now ostensibly recovered.  Often vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments, Clijsters could meet Hantuchova for the second time in four matches, having struggled with her before retiring from their Brisbane semifinal.  No similar obstacle could intercept Li, who might replay last year’s semifinal and final in reverse order should she reach the second week.  Last year, she defeated Wozniacki and probably should have finished off Clijsters.  This year, she has acquitted herself much more convincingly than both rivals and, for once, seems physically healthier.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  The champion at Sydney in 2011, Li built upon that momentum to reach the Melbourne final two weeks later.  As she searches for her first major final, Azarenka will hope to follow that example, but her draw could prove somewhat thorny.  In the first week, clashes with Bolletieri pupil Heather Watson and rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski would prepare Vika effectively for the challenges ahead.  Capable counterpunchers Pennetta and Peng might vie in the third round for the honor of withstanding Azarenka’s offense.  When they met at the US Open, their two-set match lasted over two hours as they fiercely contested every game and point with protracted rally after protracted rally.  Bookending the lower part of this quarter are two artful practitioners of a finesse rare in the current WTA, Schiavone and Radwanska.  Although she withdrew from Sydney, Julia Goerges returns in Melbourne to eye a third-round meeting with Schiavone that would contrast the German’s penetrating serve and groundstrokes with the Italian’s biting slice and uncanny placement.  Playing for the Hobart title on Saturday, Yanina Wickmayer seeks to reassert her relevance in the aftermath of a disappointing 2011 campaign.  As she showed against Henin two years ago on Rod Laver Arena, the Belgian #2 possesses natural athleticism, crisp technique, and a generally balanced game.  Sometimes too emotional at the wrong moments, Wickmayer could find Pironkova’s deceptively vanilla style frustrating in the second round and likely would come unglued when she meets Radwanska a round later.  Reaching the second week last year, the eighth seed would aim for a quarterfinal rematch with Azarenka of their Sydney semifinal, a match that she controlled for a set and a half before fading.  While neither of these Generation Next stars has broken through at a major, the third seed Vika has accomplished somewhat more on these stages and has grown slightly more patient with age.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  When the draw first appeared, many who awaited it scanned to see where Serena had appeared.  Still an intimidating presence in any player field, the 13-time major champion lies embedded in this quarter near Cibulkova, who has played three sets in all three of her matches this year and lost two of them.  The imposing serve of Canadian Rebecca Marino, praised by Serena’s sister, might test the American should she meet her in the third round.  Yet the most serious challenge that she will face during the first week concerns her ankle, severely twisted in Brisbane and not quite recovered.  Early in her comeback last year, Serena sustained a loss in Eastbourne to Vera Zvonareva, projected to meet her when the second week begins.  Considering the Russian’s ongoing slump, though, Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi might offer more plausible resistance with her overwhelming serve and improved footwork.  Even if Zvonareva stumbles in the first week, this section still might feature a Russian quarterfinalist, since it includes 2008 champion Sharapova as well as two-time major titlist Kuznetsova.  A nagging ankle injury forestalled Sharapova’s tournament preparation and may leave her rusty for a dangerous first-round encounter with steady Argentine Gisela Dulko, who defeated her at Wimbledon in 2009.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova’s primary challenge should emerge from the chronically injured Lisicki, seeking to recover from a back injury in Auckland.  While she has not reached a semifinal at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova upset Henin and competed with unexpected tenacity throughout her epic against Schiavone last year.  The mercurial Russian defeated Serena at a major and once served for the match against her here before another of the American’s patented comebacks.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Fourth quarter:  Perhaps a little less deep than the other sections, this quarter lies at the mercy of second seed and probable future #1 Kvitova.  Losing to Li in Sydney after leading by a set and a break illustrated some remaining vestiges of immaturity, costly against elite opponents.  Aligned to face Kirilenko in the third round, Kvitova will need to cultivate her patience as she attempts to repeat her Fed Cup dominance over the Russian on slower, hotter courts.  On paper, her fourth-round encounter with either Ivanovic or Pavlyuchenkova should confront her with a hard-hitting adversary worthy of her steel.  Nevertheless, the still youthful Russian crashed out of both Brisbane and Sydney ignominiously, constantly beleaguered on serve.  While Ivanovic’s serve has improved, her overall confidence level falls well below the heights recently attained by Kvitova, who exudes purpose with each stride when at her best.  Australian fans should take confidence of their own from Stosur’s comfortable early draw, although the US Open champion nearly fell to third-round opponent Petrova early in her championship run.  Dangerous but not quite dominant in the last two weeks, Bartoli will open against her compatriot Razzano, with whom she has crossed verbal swords before.  Among the non-boldfaced names to note is Zheng Jie, the improbable Auckland champion and 2010 semifinalist.  Her opener against rising American Madison Keys ranks as one of the more intriguing first-round WTA matches.  Nor should one neglect former top-5 resident Anna Chakvetadze, who stirred from her long-dormant state in Hobart and will start against another comeback artist in Jelena Dokic.  All of these storylines feel like subplots, though, in the presence of Kvitova.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 7

Jovanovski vs. Serena:  When she returned to Wimbledon, an emotional Serena endured a three-set rollercoaster against a shotmaker flamboyant and unpredictable even by WTA standards in Aravane Rezai.  Less extreme a personality than the Frenchwoman, the third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski still might pose a creditable threat.  Winning a set from Zvonareva at the Australian Open, Jovanovski threatened Sharapova in Toronto and has not looked intimidated by either an elite opponent or a grand stage.  A night session in Arthur Ashe Stadium should not rattle her nerves, therefore, especially since much of the crowd may depart following the opening men’s match.  But Serena never has lost a first-round match at a major, while her return should regularly menace Jovanovski’s serve as did Sharapova’s replies.  Only if the Serb can survive the American’s first strike on serve and return can she display her talents from the baseline, which should shine sporadically during the lulls in Serena’s play without becoming the dominant narrative.

Ferrer vs. Andreev:  Clay-courters by nature, both of these grizzled veterans have achieved some of their most memorable moments on a surface seemingly at odds with their styles.  Four years ago, Ferrer battled past Nadal in a night-session four-setter en route to the semifinals, a surge that attests less to his shot-making ability than his mental and physical durability.  In the following US Open, Andreev extended Federer to five sets in what proved the eventual champion’s most compelling test of the tournament.  Reliant on meticulous effort more than spontaneous inspiration, this duo should engage in a series of elongated rallies punctuated by their common strength, inside-out forehands.  Amidst Andreev’s decline, Ferrer has won their last three meetings after losing four of their previous five.  Nevertheless, the Spaniard played only two matches during the US Open Series and lacks the match rhythm that has formed the cornerstone of his success.  Although Andreev probably can’t win, the match should stay closer than their respective rankings would suggest.

Jankovic vs. Riske:  A bright day for the future of American women’s tennis, Monday witnessed victories by rising star Christina McHale and perhaps soon-rising star Madison Keys.  Tasked with a far more difficult challenge, Riske hopes to hand Jankovic her second straight opening-round loss at a major.  Since reaching the 2008 US Open final, the Serb has suffered first-week exits in her last two appearances during her descent from the top ranking.  Meanwhile, her odd summer has featured three first-match losses (Wimbledon, Toronto, New Haven) surrounding a finals appearance in Cincinnati, where she came within four points of the title.  With wins over Schiavone and Petkovic there, together with a resilient effort against Sharapova, Jankovic proved that she can unleash bursts of her former competitive vigor and her trademark smile.  Not available in New York, on-court coaching appeared to aid her significantly at key moments in Cincinnati.  If Riske poses a challenge, can Jankovic solve it without assistance?

Youzhny vs. Gulbis:  From countries chained together during much of the last century, these two competitors could not diverge more strikingly in playing style.  Roaming around the court like a Cossack on the steppe, Youzhny exploits its geometry with a graceful albeit not powerful game.  The 2010 US Open semifinalist will shoulder the burden of defending those massive quantities of points, however, and much less pressure has unhinged him before.  Reinvigorated for now by new coach Guillermo Canas, Gulbis enjoyed an encouraging US Open Series highlighted by a title in Los Angeles, where he defeated Del Potro and Fish.  Revolving entirely around raw power, his muscular shot-making aims to pound opponents out of a point before they settle into it.  The Latvian should deny the Russian time to construct his clever combinations, but the best-of-five format will test his questionable consistency.  Always susceptible to emotional peaks and valleys, Gulbis can score this minor upset only by sustaining his focus more effectively than in majors past.

Davydenko vs. Dodig:  While one star wanes, another star rises.  Like his countryman Youzhny, Davydenko has reached the final weekend at the year’s final major before but has plummeted with stunning speed to ATP purgatory.  Surrounded in the rankings by unfamiliar journeymen, this formerly fascinating ball-striker rarely recaptures the form that catapulted him into the top 5 almost as swiftly.  By contrast, Dodig had gained little notoriety until he became the only player to win a set from Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, then won his home tournament in Zagreb, and most notably conquered Nadal in a third-set tiebreak.  Such exploits have paved the route to his first seeding at a Slam, although ironically not a kinder draw.  An emotional player in the past, Dodig has maintained his composure more effectively this year while serving more impressively than one would expect from a player of his modest height.  The vintage Davydenko would have experienced little trouble in defusing his serve and net-rushing tactics with a sparkling array of returns and passing shots, but the depleted Davydenko no longer possesses that pinpoint timing.

Marino vs. Dulko:  Overshadowed this year by her compatriot Raonic, Marino has stalled in recent months after she nearly toppled Schiavone in Melbourne and reached the Memphis final.  On a four-match losing streak, the Canadian nevertheless fell just a few spots below a seeded position at the tournament where she impressed in a loss to Venus last year.  Marino’s explosive serve should reap rewards on this slick surface, although one would have thought the same on the fast courts of Stanford and Cincinnati.  Aligned against her is an opponent playing her first Slam as a married woman, an understated counterpuncher with an uncanny knack for upsets.  As players as renowned as Henin and Sharapova have discovered, Dulko can capitalize upon fallible performances by opponents who typically would brush her aside.  Her Roland Garros victory over Stosur this year reminded viewers of the Argentine’s ability to overcome a substantial disadvantage on serve.

Ivanovic vs. Pervak:   At the only major where she has not reached a quarterfinal, the former #1 seeks not to contend for the title but to build momentum as she settles into her alliance with Nigel Sears.  Riding a wave of momentum herself, Pervak soared to the second week of Wimbledon after victories over Peer and Petkovic.  The Russian lefty then reached her first career final in Baku and competed more sturdily there than one might have expected in the circumstances.  Sometimes troubled by left-handers before, Ivanovic might benefit from the intimate confines of the Grandstand more than the cavernous vault of Arthur Ashe.  Two three-set losses in the opening rounds of majors this year probably will undermine her confidence should the match stay close, but the Serb also has served bagels in eight of her last fifteen opening-round matches.  Only when she holds the most commanding lead, it appears, can Ivanovic—and her fans—feel secure.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

 

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Ana Ivanovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Two

Ivanovic vs. Larsson:  A first-round victim at two of the last three majors, the 2008 champion has succumbed in her opening match at three of seven tournaments this season.  While the first statistic illustrates her recent psychological frailty on grand stages, the latter statistic springs more from the injuries that have limited her to just 17 matches in 2011.  When healthy and confident, however, Ivanovic can carve her way deep into prestigious draws (cf. Indian Wells this year) and challenge the most elite opponents (cf. Clijsters in Miami).  Despite a wrist inflammation last week, she gained encouragement from her pre-tournament practices and can remind herself that she dominated Larsson in their previous meeting last fall.  The Swede has enjoyed a surprisingly fine clay season, highlighted by an Estoril semifinal, and she showed sufficient steel to topple Li Na in Miami.  If Ivanovic can subdue the inevitable first-round nerves, her much superior weight of shot should prevail.  But she will not want to invigorate her opponent with the sort of mid-match wobble that has dogged her all year, leading to squandered leads in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, and Rome.

Sharapova vs. Lucic:  For the second straight season, the three-time major champion arrives with a winning streak at the only Slam that has eluded her.  Far more impressive than the 2010 Strasbourg title, though, was a Rome surge that catapulted Maria from the outer to the inner circle of contenders with a  single blow.  A single blow remains the Russian’s preferred manner of terminating rallies with what Francis Ford Coppola might consider “extreme prejudice.”  In order to ultimately win this title, she must balance on the edge between aggression and recklessness, although her first opponent may not require such precision.  More than a decade ago, Lucic reached the Wimbledon semifinals with a win over Seles before soon fading from the picture like so many former prodigies.  While her comeback has not reached the celebrity of Date-Krumm’s revival, she won a set from Jankovic at the US Open and has the ball-striking capacity to survive the initial wave of assault from Sharapova.  Whether she can stay competitive throughout an entire match lies open to question.

Nadal vs. Isner: Never at his most comfortable against the skyscrapers of the ATP, the five-time champion must feel that Ivanovic played a naughty prank by assigning him the sport’s second-tallest man.  But the first-round loss of the sport’s tallest man, Karlovic, demonstrated the danger of relying upon a single shot to win three sets on these dusty battlefields.   After a desultory season thus far, Isner probably will enter the match with no real self-belief that he could threaten a player against whom he once won a set on a hard court.  If Nadal can score an early break of serve, the intrigue here could evaporate quickly.  Before it does, the match should provide a scintillating exercise in Rafa’s returning skills that will serve him well against later foes like Soderling.  Few elements of Nadal’s game impress more than his ability to gradually maneuver himself into control of a rally after absorbing a massive serve, and no surface showcases that talent more clearly than clay.

Harrison vs. Soderling:  Entering the main draw as a lucky loser, the future of American men’s tennis faces the two-time finalist.  After a pedestrian spring, Soderling brings little momentum into a clash with a player whom he defeated en route to the Brisbane title.  Nor did he bring momentum into his 2010 fortnight here, however, so Harrison should expect to meet the giant-killer who toppled Nadal and Federer in his last two appearances.  As unlikely to mount a legitimate threat as Isner against Nadal, the American has the opportunity to test his fledgling game against one of the ATP’s central pillars.  Mentally, he has the makings of a champion, but does he have the raw weapons?

Li vs. Zahlavova Strycova:  At her finest when coolest in the head, the Australian Open runner-up faces a perpetually sizzling firecracker.  An indifferent talent at best, Zahlavova Strycova attempts to strike sparks from her opponents with her pugnacious gamesmanship and tasteless theatrics.  One wonder whether she can crack the veneer of the Chinese star, so solid in Melbourne but so brittle over the following months.  If Lie aims to become a genuine contender on a consistent basis, the Czech exemplifies the type of journeywoman whom she must regularly defeat in uneventful fashion.

Monaco vs. Verdasco:  Hindered by several unkind draws this season, Verdasco has won consecutive matches at only three of eleven tournaments this year.  Now unseeded at Masters 1000 events, the Spaniard at least enters the tournament fresher than he did last year after an exhausting spring schedule.  Verdasco will need all of the energy that his legs can summon in order to outlast the tireless Monaco, the Argentine answer to Ferrer.  Technically sound albeit offensively underpowered, he can punish the Spaniard for the chronic lulls in the latter’s game by forcing him to hit multiple quasi-winners to finish points.  The world #20 has escaped unscathed from only two of their eights wars of attrition, so he will gain impetus from grinding down the defenses of this recurrent nemesis.

Petkovic vs. Jovanovski:  Can Jovanovski become “the third Serb” and follow in the footstep of compatriots Ivanovic and Jankovic?  Can Petkovic restore Germany to the tennis map a generation after the exploits of Steffi Graf?  The politician-musician-filmmaker-dancer-athlete has made substantial strides in that direction by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal and Miami semifinal, but her momentum slowed between that performance and her Strasbourg title last week.  While both players prefer hard courts to clay, Petkovic has accumulated greater experience on the dirt and came within a point of halting Kuznetsova’s title defense last year.  In somewhat the opposite of Harrison’s position, Jovanovski has shown that she has ample firepower to compete with the elite, most notably in a Melbourne three-setter against Zvonareva.  What she has not shown is the mental stamina and willpower equally essential to becoming a champion.  To that end, she could learn from her opponent on Tuesday, a few steps higher on that evolutionary ladder although still a work in progress.

Querrey vs. Kohlschreiber:  One of the ATP’s most familiar scènes à faire, this match pits a steady, serve-oriented American against a fiery, versatile European.  Their respective backhands encapsulate the contrast between their styles, Querrey’s a studied, conservative two-hander and Kohlschreiber’s an effortless, audacious one-handed flick.  On clay, steady normally overcomes streaky, but the German has enjoyed much the stronger season overall and finds his footing here more naturally, having scored terre battue triumphs over Djokovic and Murray before.  A day that looks dismal for Americans from Isner to Russell to Harrison may turn no brighter when Querrey takes the court.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain) beats Robin Soderling (Sweden) to win the French Open 2010. The trophy was presented to him by former Roland-Garros champ Nicola Pietrangeli and Jean Gachassin, President of the French Tennis Federation. French Open 2010, Internationaux de France de tennis 2010, held at Roland-Garros in Paris.

First quarter:  Handed a disorienting opener against Isner, Nadal should tower over the towering but clay-averse American while acquiring valuable confidence for the challenges ahead.  Among the talented rivals that riddle this quarter is former Roland Garros semifinalist and potential third-round opponent Davydenko, who has won his last four meetings with Nadal.  Nevertheless, the Russian’s precipitous decline following a wrist injury suggests a match of scintillating rallies but little suspense.  Mired in a less explicable slump, Verdasco has endured a fruitless clay season as his ranking has sagged below the top 15.  If the second-ranked Spanish lefty survives a grinding opener against Monaco, however, his draw could grant him smooth passage into the second week and another doomed battle with his compatriot.  At the base of this section lurks the ATP king-maker, who transferred the Roland Garros crown from Nadal to Federer in 2009 and back to Nadal in 2010.  Dormant since March, Soderling rumbled into relevance with a Rome quarterfinal and can settle into the tournament without facing extreme pressure during the first week.  Although Simon’s lithe movement might unsettle him, only an especially inspired effort from the Frenchman could weather the Swede’s punishing assault.  Having split memorable Roland Garros clashes in the last two years, Rafa and Robin will collide earlier than either would wish.  History always will infuse these meetings with intrigue, but Nadal regained control over their rivalry last year and has solved Soderling (not without difficulty) when healthy.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  In 2011, every significant ATP draw has included a quarter open for opportunists and arrivistes.  To be sure, Murray justified his top-four seeding in both Monte Carlo and Rome, where he came closer than anyone this season to snapping The Streak.  The Scot does not intimidate opponents on this surface to the extent that Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer do, though, so a dark horse like flamboyant fourth-round opponent Dolgopolov could wreak havoc.  A quarterfinalist in Melbourne, the 21st seed ambushed Soderling and Tsonga there before falling to Murray; moreover, he demonstrated budding clay-court skills with a final in Brazil and a win over Ferrer.  Perhaps still demoralized from his epic Rome defeat, the Scot might spend this tournament restoring his psyche, although he has shown marked improvement in his clay movement and point construction.  Unlikely to repeat his 2010 semifinal, an injured Melzer has accomplished little on clay this year following a Monte Carlo upset over Federer.  A more imposing threat to Murray or Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals springs from Nice finalist Almagro, who has won two clay titles this season while losing only one clay match to a player outside the top 8.  Recently reaching the top 10 for the first time, Almagro thrust Nadal into two tiebreaks during a compelling quarterfinal here a year ago and has greater ability to hit through the slow courts than most players in this section.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Third quarter:  Weeks after surviving a match point against Lopez in Madrid, Federer surely did not thank Ivanovic for assigning him an encore with his Spanish near-nemesis.  Once past that initial obstacle, however, the 2010 champion’s route grows more tranquil with the stagnating Tsonga perhaps waiting in the fourth round.  Or perhaps Federer will enjoy a relaxing afternoon with Wawrinka at that stage, having dominated his compatriot and doubles partner on all occasions but one.  In theory, a quarterfinal with Ferrer should prove scarcely more intimidating, considering the Swiss legend’s 11-0 record against the Spaniard (5-0 on clay).  In reality, Ferrer could profit from Federer’s increasingly erratic form to detain him for longer than usual.  An early loser to Melzer last year, the world #7 has reached the second week at Roland Garros in only one of his last five appearances.  Regularly carving deep into most clay draws, Ferrer’s futility at the clay major may arise from his hectic schedule and exhausting playing style in previous weeks.  A Nice loss to Dolgopolov hinted at accumulating weariness that might leave him vulnerable to a shot-maker like Monfils.  Surely eager to atone for an opening-round collapse last year, Gael has earned surprising success at his home major before.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates match point during the final against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day eight of the Internazoinali BNL D'Italia at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 15, 2011 in Rome, Italy.

Fourth quarter:  As befits the colossus looming above the ATP, Djokovic has received the most formidable early draw.  Although he has won all seven of the sets that he played against Del Potro, the Serb could find him an arduous third-round challenge permitting him little time for settling into the fortnight.  But the Argentine first must conquer the elephantine serve of Karlovic and the unpredictable Gulbis as he rebounds from a leg injury.  Elsewhere in this section stands the resurgent Gasquet, who came within a few games of upsetting Murray in the first round last year and will have gained momentum from upsetting Federer in Rome.  The Frenchman has disappointed his compatriots in major after major, though, and his fitness remains questionable in a best-of-five encounter with an athlete of Djokovic’s caliber.  Instead, the second seed might face Madrid semifinalist Bellucci, a dangerous lefty who tested Nadal here before and led the Serb by a set and a break in Madrid before faltering.  The section’s upper half pits 2010 semifinalist Berdych against several players least comfortable on clay, such as Cilic and Youzhny.  Possibly threatened by Fognini in the second round, the Czech should experience scant difficulty en route to a quarterfinal with the player who defeated him in the same round at the Australian Open.  Since Berdych smothered Djokovic in a Wimbledon semifinal last year, their paths have veered in opposite directions.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

Final:  Nadal vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Francesca Schiavone wins the 2010 French Open at Roland Garros tennis stadium.

First quarter:  Fresh (or not) from a strong week in Brussels, Wozniacki arrives in Paris after a peripatetic, slightly disappointing clay campaign.  Like Nadal, she must navigate through a curious opener against Kimiko Date-Krumm, no longer a serious threat despite winning a set from the Dane before.  Not until the fourth round will Wozniacki meet an opponent worthy of her steel, for the fragile Hantuchova should not trouble the resilient Dane.  If she can evade Rybarikova in the first round, 2009 champion Kuznetsova could reverse the trajectory of a season that began promisingly in Melbourne and Dubai but has derailed spectacularly since then.  Although the Russian mustered little resistance to Wozniacki in the Dubai final, Kuznetsova has both the offense and the court coverage to challenge her on those increasingly rare days when she performs at her potential.  Equally intriguing is the projected fourth-round collision between Stosur and Goerges, who overcame the Aussie in a tense Stuttgart semifinal.  Before that rematch, the 2010 finalist must recover quickly from her illness against the inflammable Benesova, architect of a Melbourne second-week run.   Nor should one underestimate another Czech lefty as an early test for Goerges, since Safarova upset Jankovic in Madrid and adapts her elongated swings effectively to the slower surface.  Both Goerges and Stosur have scored recent success against Wozniacki, so the top seed should find her accumulating clay skills severely tested in a quarterfinal.  More accomplished at significant tournaments than either of those potential rivals, she also faces greater pressure as the still Slamless #1.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Second quarter:  Resembling the second quarter of the men’s draw, this softest section hosts several fading veterans and a pair of perpetually rising, never quite risen Russians.  Aligned to meet in the third round, Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova spearhead the next generation of their nation’s stars and have inherited the familiarly ball-bruising baseline style of their compatriots.  While neither delivers her best tennis on clay, each has the ability to hit through the slow courts as well as the competitive resilience to stun a contender.  Few are the true contenders in this quarter, moreover, for defending champion Schiavone has followed her historic Australian Open with a series of uninspired performances.  Surprise champions rarely repeat their feats, more often losing early to steady opponents like potential third-round foe Peng Shuai.  Defeated by Peng in Brussels, Zvonareva has shown little appetite for clay wars of attrition and may prefer to conserve her energies for defending her Wimbledon final.  Once an all-surface threat to the WTA elite, Pennetta has won only one match since Indian Wells and could face Rome conqueror Mattek-Sands in the second round.  From this seething chaos nevertheless will emerge a semifinalist, and who better to exploit the void than three-time Roland Garros semifinalist Jankovic?  Although the Serb has sunk to the fringes of the top 10, she has acquired a reputation for seizing opportunities that present themselves.  A generally unremarkable clay season did include a closely contested Rome quarterfinal with Wozniacki, and at any rate nobody else in this section can claim more momentum than the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Jankovic

Third quarter:  Since February, exactly one player has converted a match point against Azarenka as the fourth seed has alternated titles with retirements.  This pattern suggests that physical issues may pose her greatest challenge this fortnight, but Madrid nemesis Kvitova or Melbourne nemesis Li could await in the quarterfinals.  If her elbow injury does not trouble her, Azarenka should ease through a comfortable section of the draw largely bereft of players who can match her firepower or willpower.  The only exception in that group, 2008 champion Ivanovic defeated Vika twice last year after losing their Roland Garros meeting two years ago.  Hampered by abdominal and wrist injuries, the Serb has played only five clay matches before Paris and could encounter the unnerving test of Australian Open conqueror Makarova in the second round.  Attempting to rekindle the flames of Madrid, Kvitova confronts the third-round obstacle of Cibulkova, her sternest test en route to that title and a former semifinalist in Paris.  The Slovak’s relentless retrieving will harden the Czech’s resolve and focus should she survive their meeting, however, and prepare her to reprise her Madrid victory over Li.  Can she follow that script to another win over Azarenka?  On a much slower surface, Vika’s superior movement should allow her to reverse the earlier narrative.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Eight

Fourth quarter:  Here roars the Siberian lioness, as confident as ever in her comeback following an unexpected title in Rome and an equally startling victory over Wozniacki.  Situated in a tranquil corner of the draw, Sharapova might find a compelling test of her consistency against indefatigable roadrunner Zakopalova in the third round.  The 31st seed once won a set from Serena here and should prepare Maria for more challenging encounters against players with similar movement but more dangerous offense.  Perhaps endangered earlier by Wickmayer, Radwanska could attempt to block Sharapova’s passage  as she did at the 2007 US Open.  Although the Russian has not lost to the Pole since that notorious meeting, their matches sometimes have grown tense as a result of the latter’s crisp instincts and keen intelligence.  The victor of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox might face two-time finalist Clijsters—but just as plausibly might not.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam that would rival the Serena Slam, the Belgian has not won a match on clay in five years and has not recovered entirely from injuries to three different joints.  Most concerning of those injuries is her ankle, which could undermine her movement and leave her vulnerable to a strutting shotmaker like fourth-round opponent Petkovic.  After an encouraging week in Strasbourg, the charismatic German will open against the blossoming Jovanovski and later might face Gajdosova-turned-Groth-turned-Gajdosova, a talent who can unsettle anyone when at her best.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Petkovic could face Sharapova for the second straight major and the third time this year, allowing us to discover whether Paris has more in common with Melbourne or Miami.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

***

Final:  Stosur vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Victoria Azarenka


 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

While Ivanovic gazes languorously into a future beyond the Australian Open, we remain firmly in the present and bring you the six most compelling encounters of Day 4.  Can these twelve players fill the void left by the absence of Ana?

Petrova vs. Molik:  Pitting the 2010 quarterfinalist against a comeback-minded Aussie, this encounter should feature a combination of heavy serving and adept net play.  Whereas Molik relies almost exclusively on her forehand, Petrova derives greater power and consistency from her backhand.  If she can target the Aussie’s weakness, the Russian will control the overwhelming majority of the rallies.  Molik will not gain an equally immense advantage if she targets Petrova’s forehand, though, for that less reliable wing still can explode with unpredictable winners.  Not inclined to defend from behind the baseline, both players will seek to capitalize upon their first serve and truncate rallies by moving forward at the earliest opportunity.

Del Potro vs. Baghdatis:  As memories of his US Open title recede, the gentle Argentine represents the single greatest uncertainty in the ATP season.  His reclamation project began inauspiciously last fall and grew only slightly more ominous in Brisbane with a victory over Lopez.  Seeking to rediscover the rhythm on his groundstrokes, Del Potro found an ideal opponent in his opener against Dudi Sela, a consistent ball-striker who extended him into rallies without outhitting him from the baseline.  A finalist in Melbourne five long years ago, Baghdatis collaborated with Hewitt on the latest Slam finish in Open era history here.  In the night session once again, he may well extend that record in a match contested almost entirely from the baseline and littered with flat groundstrokes that skim dangerously low to the net.  Will the Argentine’s superior serve or the Cypriot’s improved fitness prove the greater weapon?

Jankovic vs. Peng:  After Li and Zheng flourished the Chinese flag at the 2010 Australian Open, Peng hopes to follow in their footsteps by building upon consecutive semifinal appearance in Auckland and Hobart.  Conquering the dangerous Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round, her double-fisted forehand created angles reminiscent of Bartoli during her New Zealand upset over Kuznetsova.  Although Jankovic dominated their first six meetings, Peng upset the Serb at the Beijing tournament in 2009, where she also overcame Sharapova.  Solid early and erratic late in her opening victory over Kudryavtseva, the seventh seed will find her renowned movement tested if she resorts exclusively to counterpunching rather than seizing the initiative in rallies.

Tomic vs. Lopez:  Spearheading the future of Australian men’s tennis, the precocious teenager shoulders the hopes of a nation already impatient despite a Slam drought far shorter than the British counterpart.  In addition to that source of pressure, Tomic must navigate around the publicity generated by his controversial father, an enigmatic presence at best.  Nevertheless, the home hope impressed with a comfortable victory over Chardy in his opener and nearly upset eventual semifinalist Cilic early in last year’s tournament.  A less imposing foe than the Croat, Lopez will confront Tomic with serve-and-volley tactics that the teenager rarely will have encountered among his peers.  The Australian will have demonstrated his maturity if he can adjust to the lefty’s arrhythmic style, which has flustered even Federer before.

Jovanovski vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist in Sydney, the third-ranked Serbian woman stunned the top-30 trio of Kanepi, Rezai, and Pennetta.  At the same tournament, Zvonareva slumped to an early exit amidst 11 double faults; these serving struggles trickled slightly into an otherwise emphatic start to her Melbourne campaign.  While Jovanovski’s good fortune almost certainly ends here, the experience of playing in the vast expanse of Hisense Arena will benefit her maturation process, and spectators can glimpse a potential star still on the horizon.

Soderling vs. Muller:  Never having reached the third round of the Australian Open, the Swede hopes to rectify that alarming statistic against a former US Open quarterfinalist.  Outside that one splendid fortnight, the top-ranked player from Luxembourg has accomplished little of significance in a career clouded by injury.  On the other hand, Soderling struggled mightily against the net-rushing lefty Llodra at the Paris Indoors, saving three match points before snatching a final-set tiebreak.  Almost impeccable against Starace in the first round, the Swede might drop a set here but surely not three.

***

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