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Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

Rafael Nadal - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Eight

For the third time in four years, Barcelona audiences thrill to the spectacle of an all-Spanish final at a tournament that has not crowned a foreign champion since 2002.  Aligned to challenge five-time champion Nadal for the second time in two weeks, Ferrer confronted his fabled compatriot in the 2008 and 2009 finals here as well as a 2007 semifinal.  The diminutive, pugnacious world #6 once called himself  the “worst player in the top 100” but has voiced an almost defiant confidence in the face of the mountainous task before him.  Offering Ferrer a ray of hope is his gallant performance in the 2008 Barcelona final, the only occasion on which he won a set from the five on clay since the latter’s first Roland Garros title.  As he observed, though, only an indifferent performance from Nadal can offer him an opportunity to threaten the world #1, while he must display outstanding tennis in order to capitalize upon such an opportunity.  In the Monte Carlo final, a distinctly mortal Rafa still stifled his compatriot in straight sets amidst an afternoon riddled with more unforced errors than either player normally concedes.  An opponent with a thunderous offense, like a Djokovic or a Soderling, might well have punished Nadal for the diffident mid-court balls that betrayed his nerves.  Lacking the requisite first-strike power, Ferrer cannot wreak similar devastation but instead must attempt to win a war of attrition, thus playing neatly into the hands of the indefatigable world #1.

With that first title of the season fresh in his memory, Nadal’s nerves will have receded at the tournament closest to his Mallorcan lair.  Not just defeating but dominating their opponents, both players have advanced to the final with minimal ado.  Unconquered by a compatriot in Spain since 2003, Nadal should reassert his supremacy over his nation.  But Ferrer has infused intrigue into this clay season, crafting a potential alternate script to the Nadal-Djokovic duel at the top that seemed certain to develop.

While Barcelona spectators may wonder which Spaniard to support, Stuttgart audiences will have little difficulty identifying the bearer of their hopes.  Spared by Azarenka’s shoulder injury, Julia Goerges surged through this bristling draw into the most significant final of her career.  Stirring German pride, she ambushed Stosur in an epic semifinal by out-serving the Australian on crucial points and retaining her poise when the match hung in the balance.  Goerges may relish the opportunity to shine in the absence of her charismatic countrywoman Petkovic, who had monopolized most headlines related to German tennis.  With a win over Wozniacki, who defeated Petkovic two rounds ago, she could claim a substantial share of the spotlight while vaulting well inside the top 30.  And she can reflect upon a clash with the world #1 at Copenhagen last year, which soared unexpectedly into a third-set tiebreak.  Now that the battleground shifts to her home country, will she feel the pressure that Wozniacki felt in Denmark?

While Goerges seeks her first Premier title, the world #1 pursues an almost equally momentous milestone:  her first red clay title.  Twice a finalist on this surface in 2009, Wozniacki inhabits a generation with few clay specialists who could block her route in Paris.  Fallible during her charge to the Charleston title, she has grown looked progressively more in command of her surroundings this week.  In an arena that once hosted a fall hard-court tournament, the indoor clay of Stuttgart imperfectly resembles the slower, grittier dirt of Roland Garros.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki would boost her self-belief on the surface by claiming the trophy (and instrument of transportation) captured by Henin a year ago.  Before her 21st birthday, she already threatens to evolve into an all-surface contender, a splendid achievement for her and a disquieting prospect for her rivals.

Caroline Wozniacki - ATP Masters Series Monte Carlo - Day Two

After a Good Friday ceasefire, the four surviving contestants for a Porsche reconvene.  A tournament that once featured seven of the WTA top eight has witnessed several unexpected plot twists over the past few days, including four quarterfinalists from the home nation.   Does another bend in the Stuttgart racetrack lie ahead?

Wozniacki vs. Radwanska:  Pitting two of the new generation’s most notable stars against each other, this duel could recur in a Slam quarterfinal or semifinal two or three years from now.  While both Wozniacki and Radwanska cut their teeth on hard courts, they share key strengths upon which they could build notable clay achievements.  Not instinctive movers on Europe’s crushed brick, both the Pole and the daughter of Poles enjoy exceptional consistency and defensive skills that shine on a surface where extended rallies dominate.  Separating the world #1 from the Polish #1, her precocious resilience resurfaced in a quarterfinal against Petkovic that looked grim when the German stood within a point of 5-1.  Refusing to concede even a set to her Miami nemesis, Wozniacki dug into the dirt and accumulated pressure upon her opponent until the wheels fell off that racecar.  Sometimes a sturdy competitor herself, Radwanska has not developed quite the same armor despite her greater experience on the tour.  On the other hand, her subtle artfulness should find eloquent expression on a surface that rewards finesse and versatility, not among the baseline-bound Wozniacki’s salient virtues.  Yet the conundrum of clay is that those who leave the deepest imprints upon it also must summon the power to hit through the sluggish courts.  Neither semifinalist possesses that ability at the moment, but Wozniacki appears more likely than Radwanska to enhance her offense.  In their first intersection on clay, they will write a new chapter in the history of a still nascent rivalry.

Goerges vs. Stosur:  A finalist in Stuttgart last year, Stosur’s stagnant 2011 inspired few observers to hope that she might repeat that feat this week.  Now, she has edged within a victory of accomplishing exactly that objective after extending her curious voodoo spell over Zvonareva.  Surely revitalizing the Australian’s confidence, that quarterfinal tested her recently fragile nerves with a third set that featured no breaks of serve at all.  Rather than the Australian Open and Miami semifinalist, though, it was Stosur who seized command early in the decisive tiebreak and built upon a three-set victory over a formidable opponent in the previous round.  Like Wozniacki and Radwanska, the world #7 did not participate in Fed Cup last weekend, so she entered this week in fresher physical condition than Zvonareva and other notable names who departed before they could have barred her progress.  In their stead looms a foe who conquered Stosur on the fast hard courts of Tokyo last fall.  When Azarenka retired after winning the first set, Goerges fully capitalized upon her opportunity by snuffing out the hopes of compatriot Lisicki in the quarterfinal.  Often overlooked in the shadow of Petkovic, she contributed to Germany’s Fed Cup playoff victory in the same arena and extended eventual champion Henin to a tiebreak here last year.  Whereas Stosur relies upon serve-forehand combinations, Goerges showcases a superb backhand that punished the Aussie’s indifferent two-hander in Tokyo.  On a slower surface, the task of exposing that wing becomes more challenging, as opponents from Henin to Serena and Dementieva have learned in the past two years.

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Far to the southwest in sunny Barcelona, Nadal looks certain to slide through a suspenseless semifinal victory.  Offering more intrigue is the all-Spanish meeting between Ferrer and Almagro, which repeats their three-set final on the Acapulco dirt.  That collision escalated into a pair of tiebreaks as fortune fluttered coquettishly between the two combatants.  Had he secured a few crucial points, Almagro could have recorded a straight-sets victory.  Before he ultimately faded in the third set, the first two sets illustrated his bolstered physical fitness and mental resolve, with which he could threaten the Monte Carlo finalist.  But even the Acapulco Almagro might fall well short on this occasion, for Ferrer has overwhelmed most of his April challengers with intimidating, nearly Nadal-esque ease.  No matter who prevails on Saturday, one does not envy the survivor.

Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

***

We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

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Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

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After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

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The contrast between efficient and inefficient tennis couldn’t have been much starker than in consecutive ATP matches on Court Philippe Chatrier.  While Federer never opened a window of opportunity for Alejandro Falla, Gael Monfils opened windows and doors aplenty for Fabio Fognini, nearly jumping out of a window himself before the setting sun conspired with the Frenchman to deny the Italian three match points.  We checked out on this match when Monfils led by two sets and a break, then checked out again when he led by a double break in the fourth set; unfortunately for him, though, Gael checked out on both of those occasions as well.  Over on Lenglen, meanwhile, Soderling made even Federer look positively profligate with a 71-minute evisceration of Taylor Dent, who deserves credit for swallowing the humiliation in a sportsmanlike manner (ahem, Querrey?).  Kuznetsova looked Doomed with a capital D against an inspired Petkovic until the German uncharacteristically succumbed to nerves and threw Sveta not one but four lifelines.  In other WTA news, Safarova joined fellow clay season sensations Martinez Sanchez and Gulbis on the ferry to London; even Rezai wallowed through a three-setter on Wednesday, suggesting that those much-hyped Rome and Madrid results may hold as much water as a shot glass.  We’re eagerly awaiting Rezai-Petrova on Friday, but first there’s a bit of business involving three Serbs on a Thursday.

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Jankovic (4) vs. Kanepi (Q) (Chatrier, 1st match):  The architect of Jankovic’s demise a year ago in Dubai, Kanepi has struggled during recent months and surprisingly was forced to qualify here.  Not renowned for her clay prowess, the Estonian defeated none other than Henin in Fed Cup a few weeks ago; the four-time French Open champion admittedly was fatigued from Stuttgart and coping with a broken finger, but still…it’s Henin.  On the other hand, the savage but erratic baseline-bashing of Kanepi (not unlike Djokovic’s first-round opponent, Korolev) should provide an excellent foil for Jankovic in her quest to claim a first Slam, seemingly within the Serb’s grasp here.  In fact, we’d even say that circumstances from her recent resurgence to her tranquil draw and Henin’s contrastingly mountainous path have aligned almost ideally in her favor, which probably means that Jelena will find a way to botch the opportunity eventually.  It won’t happen here, however, for JJ’s superb ball-retrieving will enable her to wear down Kanepi after the type of inspiring defensive display that clay regularly rewards.

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Nishikori vs. Djokovic (3) (Lenglen, 3rd match):  Watching the Bolletieri Academy’s Japanese star outlast Ferrer (a rare event indeed) at the 2008 US Open, we were struck by the resemblance between his game and the Spaniard’s.  If Nishikori successfully impersonates Ferrer’s gritty tenacity, Djokovic might find his fitness severely tested in an endless sequence of baseline exchanges.   As mentioned above, his first-round opponent possesses precisely the opposite style, designed to win short points on fast surfaces; consequently, the Serb’s questionable physical condition wasn’t fully examined.  But one should remember that Nishikori’s own fitness may be a few notches below its best in the aftermath of a thrilling comeback from a two-set deficit against an emerging Santiago Giraldo.  Moreover, Djokovic should be able to break (or at least create opportunities to break) with sufficient frequency to take mental pressure off his own serve.  Although the recent rainy weather favors Nishikori’s counterpunching game, Novak should profit from his vastly superior experience to escape this tricky encounter.  If he wavers early, though, stay alert.

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Kleybanova (28) vs. Ivanovic (Court 1, 1st match):  They’ve clashed three times since the beginning of 2009, of which the Russian has claimed two (Australian Open 2009, Fed Cup 2010).  Having scored upsets over Clijsters and Jankovic as well as Ivanovic, Kleybanova regularly has thrilled us with her competitive fire and fascinating angles; no player came closer to defeating Henin in Melbourne before the final.  (Without being unkind, we also should note that the Russian’s movement is surprisingly effective for a player of her physique.)  In Canada last year, we attended her 3½-hour marathon against Jankovic, during which her poise and desire glowed ever more brightly as the match grew tighter.  Nevertheless, Ana possesses a distinct edge on the surface, which is her favorite and Kleybanova’s least favorite.  Although the Serb struggled immensely with her serve during her opener, she looked consistently comfortable with the shot during her Rome run, where the confidence that she gained from it infused the rest of her game.  While Kleybanova does have the psychological advantage from the head-to-head, Ana did defeat her in Dubai last year even in the midst of her slump and thus should enter the match knowing that she can win against the Russian.  It’s an opportunity for her to make a modest but important statement. 

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Hantuchova (23) vs. Govortsova (Court 3, 3rd match—4th including Baghdatis completion):  A late addition to our preview, this match opposes two competitors who effectively were off the radar several months ago but have since awakened…at least for now.  We were delighted to watch the elegant Slovak resurface with a finals appearance in Monterey, a near-quarterfinal appearance in Miami, and a semifinal appearance in Charleston.  One would think that Hantuchova’s high-risk shotmaking and limited movement wouldn’t suit the clay, yet she trains regularly in Monte Carlo and previously has prospered in tournaments such as Rome.  To be sure, Slams are not a comfort zone for the easily unnerved Hantuchova, who has endured excruciating meltdowns on the sport’s grandest stages.  Once considered a potential top-20 or top-30 prospect before a moribund stretch, Govortsova stirred into life at the end of 2009 by reaching the Moscow final; this year, she plowed into the Amelia Island final before seriously threatening Safarova in Rome and Madrid.  (Ordinarily, “threatening Safarova” doesn’t exactly impress, but the streaky Czech compiled one of the best clay seasons of anyone before ignominiously exiting Roland Garros on Wednesday.)  The Slovak and the Belarussian have split their last two meetings, the last of which was won by Hantuchova in a third-set tiebreak after Govortsova had held match points.  Both players are notoriously uncomfortable with any sort of lead, no matter how vast, so don’t tune out on this one even if it looks lopsided early.

Shvedova vs. Radwanska (8) (Court 4, 1st match):  High on velocity and low on nuance, Shvedova always will enjoy more significant success on hard court than clay, yet she smoothly dismantled Italian clay-court specialist Errani in her opener.  Low on velocity and high on nuance, Radwanska theoretically should thrive at Roland Garros but in fact much prefers the grass of Wimbledon, where she is a two-time quarterfinalist.  The Pole’s comfortable win over Shvedova just weeks ago in Miami suggests that she should defuse the Kazakh just as she has defused so many more notable sluggers.  All the same, this match should provide an engaging puncher-counterpuncher contrast rather akin to Jankovic-Kanepi.  Although one always should favor the counterpuncher on clay, one need look no further than Soderling to remember the increasing success of offensive players at Roland Garros, where the grit is not quite as sluggish as it once was.

Seppi vs. Kohlschreiber (30) (Court 17, 3rd match):  This Transalpine confrontation opposes a mercurial German to a steady Italian, just the reverse of what one would associate with both nationalities.  While that stereotype-shattering fact alone might warrant a brief trip to Court 17, don’t forget that Kohlschreiber has achieved remarkable results both at Slams and on clay, defeating Roddick in a thrilling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic at the 2009 French Open, and Murray at this year’s Monte Carlo. In the latter tournament, he produced a highly competitive pas de deux with Ferrer, perhaps the greatest dirt devil of all outside Nadal.  Like Dulko, Kohlschreiber unfortunately doesn’t follow his huge wins with deep runs on most occasions.  Nevertheless, his ability to hit winners off his sturdy forehand and his gorgeous one-handed backhand should trump the Italian’s forehand-reliant game.  On this occasion, we favor the counterpuncher over the puncher.

Briefly noted:  The sight of aging serve-and-volley artist Mardy Fish in the second round of Roland Garros was arguably as unexpected as the sight of Taylor Dent there.  On Thursday, Mardy faces a player with a similarly serve-based style and the same odd affinity for Indian Wells, Ivan Ljubicic; while the American came within a set of netting the 2008 title after upsetting Federer in the semis, the Croat stunned Nadal and Roddick to capture this year’s title.  Ever a perfectionist, Serena reported dissatisfaction over a first-round win that lacked the customary authority with which she customarily dispatches overmatched opponents like Stefanie Voegele.  We’ll be interested to note whether her disgruntled demeanor persists in a second round against the less overmatched Julia Goerges, or whether the world #1 will have settled into the tournament.  On the other hand, little sister’s tournament started much more impressively than the 2009 edition, when Klara Zakopalova dragged her into a three-set torture chamber.  This year, the Czech ball-retriever seeks to turn the screws on Henin, whose sporadic inconsistency in her comeback might prolong matters but probably won’t derail her progress.  Unless Flipkens renders her fellow Belgian some unexpected assistance, though, the competition will elevate dramatically (haha) in the next round.

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