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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

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Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

Serena Williams Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after winning championship point against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during the women's singles finals on Day 14 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Unlike Djokovic atop the men’s draw, Wozniacki does not tower but rather totters above her rivals.  But a fourth consecutive title in New Haven will have elevated her confidence at a critical moment following opening-round losses at the two Premier Five events, while the type of player who typically challenges the Dane does not lie in her immediate vicinity.  Looking more like her comfortably counterpunching self last week, the top seed should find that understated style sufficient to outlast erratic competition like Gajdosova, whom she defeated routinely at Wimbledon.  Potentially aligned to meet her in the fourth round, however, is one of two volatile dark horses.  Amidst a noteworthy clay-grass season, Hantuchova terminated Wozniacki’s Roland Garros campaign in startlingly emphatic fashion.  An enigma for most of the last two years, 2004 champion Kuznetsova compiled a pair of wins in Cincinnati before crumbling against Sharapova and dropping her New Haven opener to the underpowered Christina McHale.  Nevertheless, Sveta extended Wozniacki to a third-set tiebreak when they met two years ago at the US Open, so she could trouble the world #1 if she manages to avoid a stumble herself beforehand.  At the base of this section lies reigning Roland Garros champion Li Na, who has struggled to win consecutive matches since that fortnight until she came within a tiebreak of the New Haven final.  Her decision to take a wildcard into that minor tournament suggests a renewed level of commitment that bodes well for her fortunes in New York.  So does her tranquil draw, which could feature an entertaining third-round meeting with Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Much more consistent than Li this summer, Petkovic would await her early in the second week.  As we learned in Melbourne, though, the Chinese veteran’s more balanced style offers few holes for the less disciplined German.

Quarterfinal:  Li d. Wozniacki

Second quarter:  While Azarenka and Schiavone may bookend the draw, the most prominent name here would intersect with the Belarussian in the third round.  Sensibly withdrawing from Cincinnati, Serena will arrive in New York with a 12-0 hard-court record this season as she seeks a third consecutive title.  Rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski might prove an entertaining challenge for a set or so in her opener, but the three-time US Open champion never has lost her first match at a major.  Tasked with sterner resistance in the heavy serve of Canada’s Rebecca Marino, Azarenka will need to keep her composure and focus on holding serve.  Nearly falling to the Belarussian at the 2010 Australian Open, Serena must raise her intensity immediately for a challenge that should prepare her well for the rest of the fortnight.  A fellow former #1 and Slam champion might intersect with the American in the fourth round, should Ivanovic extend her encouraging upward trend from the summer hard courts and build confidence from her partnership with Nigel Sears.  In order to reach Serena, however, the Serb might need to overcome Wimbledon nemesis Cetkovska, who charged to the New Haven final with consecutive victories over Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li.  Positioned near Schiavone once again is the other Serb, Cincinnati runner-up and 2008 US Open runner-up Jankovic.  Falling in the first round at three of her last four tournaments, “JJ” should survive through at least her first two matches before meeting Pavlyuchenkova, who conquered her in the Monterrey final and earned her first Slam breakthrough by reaching a Roland Garros quarterfinal.  In that quarterfinal, the former top-ranked junior fell to Schiavone after squandering an immense lead.  She should gain an opportunity for revenge here, although the Italian has fared better than one would expect in recent visits to New York.

Quarterfinal:  Serena d. Schiavone

Third quarter:  Headlined by the two Wimbledon finalists, this section features an intriguing first-round battle between the two Radwanskas.  Recapturing her form with a San Diego title and Toronto semifinal, the more famous sister hopes to rebound from a nagging shoulder injury to reverse past defeats against the less famous sister.  As did Li Na following her first major title, Kvitova has accomplished little since winning Wimbledon while playing only two tournaments.  Winning just one match at each of them, she showed little motivation in straight-sets losses to Petkovic.  Sometimes susceptible to fellow Czhecs, she would confront left-handed compatriot Safarova in the third round before progressing to a meeting with Radwanska, who regularly punishes the unmotivated.  Anchoring the lower half of the section, Sharapova will clash with a British youngster for the second straight major after vanquishing Robson at Wimbledon.  After Heather Watson, the 2006 champion’s route remains uneventful except for a possible but highly unlikely third-round collision with Oudin.  As the second week begins, Sharapova could test her precision against one of two players whom she defeated at majors earlier this season.  Mounting a formidable challenge in their three-set Melbourne encounter, Goerges attempts to awaken from a summer swoon after breakthrough performances in the clay season.  Armed with a crackling serve and forehand, the second-ranked German twice hit through Wozniacki this spring but will find her consistency tested once more by Peng Shuai.  In the shadow of Li’s brilliance, the Chinese double-fister has compiled the finest season of her career but will struggle to survive Sharapova unless the Russian’s accuracy deserts her.  One could say the same about Radwanska, winless in their meetings since her 2007 victory over the then-defending champion in New York.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova d. Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  In the absence of Clijsters, Zvonareva has become the player with the greatest pressure upon her to repeat last year’s accomplishments.  Succumbing to Pironkova early in her Wimbledon final defense, the second seed could face an intriguing early test in the form of Laura Robson, a lefty unflustered by her elite peers.  A champion in Dallas last week, Lisicki has reached the semifinals in four of her last five tournaments as she has surged forward from her Wimbledon success.  En route to her first notable title in Charleston two years ago, the German overcame Venus in a match filled with booming serves and bereft of extended rallies.  They could clash again in the second round, just the 12th match of the 31-year-old American’s season and her second since Wimbledon.  Often troubled by potent servers, Zvonareva has won two three-setters from Lisicki during the last few months, so she could bring more confidence into that match than into a potential fourth-round encounter with Cibulkova.  A quarterfinalist in New York last year, the diminutive Slovak has amplified her deceptively powerful groundstrokes during a season that has witnessed victories over Wozniacki, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Likely to proceed through the less impressive upper half of this section is two-time 2011 Slam quarterfinalist Bartoli, who suffered a few unexpected losses during the US Open Series after reaching the Stanford final.  Embedded near the Frenchwoman, Christina McHale aims to register a promising victory or two to consolidate her status as the leading American women’s hope of the future.  College Park champion Petrova and 2010 US Open quarterfinalist Stosur should duel in a third-round match of veterans with similarly traditional styles, after which the victor should contrast with Bartoli’s eccentricities.  Long feckless against Stosur, Zvonareva will hope to gain an opportunity to extend her long-time dominance against the Frenchwoman.

Quarterfinal:  Zvonareva d. Bartoli

Semifinals:  S. Williams d. Li; Sharapova d. Zvonareva

Final:  S. Williams d. Sharapova

***

We return shortly with a preview of Day 1 at the US Open, which features action from the top half of the men’s draw and the bottom half of the women’s draw.

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Djokovic:  The undisputed monarch of all that he surveys, the new #1 cemented his ascendancy by triumphing on the most prestigious stage of all.  Expanding his empire to a second surface, Djokovic confirmed that his Roland Garros loss represented a temporary wobble rather than a return to the old order of Federer and Nadal.  This champion’s credentials rise significantly with his conquest of a major outside the less glamorous Australian Open and his first career victory over the Spaniard in a best-of-five format.  Twice dominating the opposition in Melbourne, Djokovic proved in London that he could maneuver through a draw without delivering his best tennis from start to finish.  His unremarkable performances against players like Baghdatis and Tomic disappeared from memory after his emphatic victory over the defending champion.  Especially notable in the final were the improvements to the Serb’s two former weaknesses, his serve and volleys.  While he did not concede a single break point to the Spaniard in the first two sets, he manufactured the only championship point that he needed with an expertly knifed volley that Nadal could not touch.  Maintaining his composure when the top seed mounted the inevitable rally, moreover, Djokovic rebounded from an ugly third set to recapture the momentum immediately in the fourth.  As he travels to the North American hard courts, the new #1 must fancy his chances of becoming the third player since 2000 to win three majors in a season.  Valedictorian

Kvitova:  When the much-awaited younger generation of the WTA finally broke through at a major, neither Wozniacki nor Azarenka scored the vital blow.  Those two competitors now find significant pressure heaped on their shoulders after a feisty 20-year-old lefty snatched the Wimbledon title with a fearlessness reminiscent of Sharapova’s 2004 surge.  Seemingly immune to pressure herself, Kvitova seized the initiative from famously aggressive opponents in the semifinal and final.  Accustomed to dictating rallies, Azarenka and Sharapova instead struck only nine and ten winners, respectively, as they struggled to withstand the Czech’s baseline barrage.  Beyond the fierce groundstrokes that have become de rigueur in the WTA, Kvitova owns a serve with pace, variety, and consistency; that shot separates her from the underpowered deliveries of Azarenka and Wozniacki and the erratic deliveries of Sharapova and Clijsters.  Whereas first-time finalists frequently wilt under the spotlight, the Czech served out the match at love against a legendary opponent.  Beneath her tranquil demeanor lies a degree of confidence remarkable for a player whom few knew before her semifinal appearance here a year ago.  Many of her peers have remained essentially the same players through time, combating the same weaknesses with little success.  In contrast, Kvitova has learned from her setbacks and developed into an increasingly complete competitor.  If she can adjust to her newfound celebrity, a kingdom could await.  A+

Nadal:  Reaching the Wimbledon final in his fifth straight appearance, the top seed comfortably overcame his two most notable rivals outside Djokovic.  After he battled through a four-set epic against Del Potro, prevailing in two tiebreaks, his triumph over Murray showcased some of the most compelling tennis that Nadal has delivered during a season a little below his lofty standards.  Counterpunching with imagination and conceding only one service game, the defending champion illustrated the competitive mercilessness that has carried him to ten major titles.  A round later, the hunter became the hunted as Nadal’s tentative performance at crucial moments in the final revealed his psychological frailty against Djokovic.  At the two most important junctures of the match, Rafa played two abysmal service games.  At 4-5, 30-15 in the first set, a blistering Djokovic forehand clearly unnerved him and led to two missed first serves followed by two routine errors, including a needless miss into an open court on set point.  At 3-4 in the fourth set, following a love hold by the Serb, the Spaniard uncorked a double fault and three more groundstroke errors to donate the decisive break.  Cast in the role of Federer to Djokovic’s impersonation of Nadal, the Wimbledon runner-up faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career so far.  Still, he has lost only one match since January to an opponent other than the scorching Serb.  A

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova:  Absent from the grass preparatory tournaments for only the second time, the 2004 champion showed little rust in roaring to the final without dropping a set.  Although skeptics will note that she faced no top-15 opponent in those six matches, Sharapova nevertheless navigated with ease past a diverse array of stylists, from the lefty Robson to the double-fister Peng to the jackrabbit Cibulkova to the mighty server Lisicki.  Having suffered only one pre-semifinal loss since the Australian Open, the Russian has proclaimed her return to the circle of elite contenders (albeit not the champion’s circle) by translating her momentum from the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami to the clay of Rome and Paris to the grass of Wimbledon.  Still fickle at inconvenient moments, her serve contributed to her demise in the final by lowering her confidence in the rest of her strokes.  As Kvitova effectively out-Sharapovaed Sharapova, one wonders whether Maria’s mind drifted back to her own emergence here as a 17-year-old, when she defeated Serena at her own game.  In both of those encounters, spectators expected the veteran champion to mount a valiant comeback that never happened as they succumbed to defeat with uncharacteristic meekness.  But the cathartic, self-vindicating experience of again starring on the sport’s grandest stage after a seven-year absence surely will inspire Sharapova to a sparkling second half on the hard courts that best suit her strengths.  A

Lisicki:  Amidst an engaging fortnight of women’s tennis, the single most inspiring story came from a player who had narrowly survived a career-threatening injury and had seemed unlikely ever to reproduce her bombastic best.  Perhaps the next generation’s grass-court specialist, the former Bolletieri pupil built upon her Birmingham title with victories over top-10 opponents Li and Bartoli.  Despite her relative inexperience, she displayed encouraging composure in saving match points against the reigning Roland Garros champion.  While the WTA’s age of parity has produced plentiful upsets, few of their perpetrators have extended the momentum from their breakthroughs as did Lisicki when she reeled off three more wins after defeating Li.  The German’s raw, less balanced game, heavily reliant on her serve, may prevent her from rising into the echelon of regular Slam contenders, but she should remain a threat at Wimbledon—and on the faster hard courts—as long as she stays healthy and positive.  A-

Tsonga:  Many are the players who have stared at two-set deficits against Federer and mentally submitted to the inevitable, but Tsonga refused to follow their path.  Erratic for much of the first week, the Frenchman suddenly soared near the tournament’s midpoint into the irrepressibly athletic shot-maker witnessed only sporadically since the 2008 Australian Open.  As he pounded forehands and slashed volleys past the six-time champion, he began to appear a legitimate contender at the major that most favors short points.  Djokovic then restored order in the semifinals, not without difficulty, after Tsonga’s fickle mind floated out of focus once again.  While he probably cannot summon the stamina necessary to win a major, his ebullient insouciance offered a refreshing antidote to the grimly intent top four.  Rarely does tennis look more like a sport and less like a business than when watching Tsonga.  A-

Azarenka:  Falling to the eventual champion for the second straight major, the Minx from Minsk finally capitalized upon a farcically cozy quarterfinal draw to reach her first Slam semifinal.  Contrary to the expectations of some, Azarenka did not collapse at that stage despite an unimpressive first set but instead battled to reverse the momentum, albeit temporarily.  Sometimes vulnerable to upsets against streaky opponents, she also impressed by defusing the recently scorching Hantuchova under the Centre Court roof.  Unruffled by the most prestigious arena in the sport, Azarenka largely controlled her emotions throughout the fortnight and ultimately lost not because of her shortcomings but because of her conqueror’s brilliance.  Yet her serve remains a less imposing weapon than one might expect from a player of her height, while her groundstrokes penetrated the court rather than exploding through it.  A-

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Murray:  Strikingly similar to his Wimbledon performance last year, the Scot wove an eventful route around second-tier opposition en route to another mildly competitive loss to Nadal.  That four-set defeat in some ways felt more disappointing than last year’s straight-set loss, for Murray had challenged the top seed on clay earlier this spring and opened this encounter in sparkling form.  Within range of a set-and-break lead, though, a few minor stumbles sufficed to shatter his self-belief for good.  While he must ground his confidence more firmly in order to halt Great Britain’s drought of futility at majors, Murray continued to handle the microscopic scrutiny that he endures at every Wimbledon with poise and maturity.  Moreover, the glimmers of aggression that surfaced during this natural counterpuncher’s clay season emerged again on grass.  The Scot now must display his characteristic stubbornness in retaining that more offensive mentality even when it yields ambivalent results.  A-/B+

Bartoli:  Unlike Federer, the Frenchwoman surged from her Paris exploits to a notable accomplishment at Wimbledon, where she expelled the two-time defending champion.  Not known for her serving excellence, Bartoli kept Serena at bay with that stroke late in the second set, when the greatest player of her generation threatened to mount one of her patented comebacks.  Despite the rust evident on the American’s game, a triumph over this fabled competitor ranks among the highlights of the double-fister’s career, similar to her victory over Henin here in 2007.  Having conquered Serena, though, Bartoli fell immediately afterwards to Lisicki as her questionable fitness betrayed her in a third set.  One might have expected Monday’s magic to last a little longer than a day.  B+

Pironkova:  Seemingly designed by the gods to vex Venus at every possible opportunity, last year’s semifinalist fell only one round short of repeating that implausible accomplishment.  In addition to dispatching the American by an eerily identical scoreline, the Bulgarian won a set from eventual champion Kvitova and flattened defending finalist Zvonareva for the loss of only five games.  Some players excel far more at one tournament than any other, and Pironkova certainly has chosen her spot of sunshine wisely.  B+

Cibulkova:  Similar to Bartoli, the Slovak watched a magnificent Monday turn to a tepid Tuesday as a stirring comeback over Wozniacki preceded a rout at the hands of Sharapova.  Few Slam quarterfinalists have eaten four breadsticks in the tournament, as did Cibulkova, but she illustrated a different route to success on grass than the huge serves and huge returns pioneered by champions like the Williams sisters or Sharapova.  Clinging tightly to the baseline, the Slovak chipped away at the top seed and earlier victims with low, darting groundstrokes.  Nearly toppled by Lucic in the first round, she competed through three three-setters against more powerful opponents with admirable durability and concentration.  B+/B

Federer:  The fashionable pre-tournament choice for the title (and not just because we chose him), the Roland Garros runner-up could not extend that momentum to the site of his most memorable accomplishments.  Undone in part by the Frenchman’s ball-striking power and in part by his wayward return, Federer resembled more than ever a genius from an earlier age.  Although Tsonga unleashed some of the finest tennis that he ever has displayed, the 16-time major champion formerly weathered those tempests and simply refused to permit such a blot upon his escutcheon.  Much more courteous in defeat than last year, he sounded strangely content with his tournament for a competitor who generally demands perfection from himself.  Perhaps even Federer has begun to accustom himself to the world after Federer—good news for his psyche but bad news for his viability as a contender.  B

Tomic:  Stealing the spotlight from his youthful contemporaries in the ATP, the controversial Aussie prodigy strung together the sequence of victories for which his languishing compatriots had hoped.  As events unfolded, Tomic tested Djokovic more than any opponent before or after him, although he faced a diluted version of the Serb far different from the tornado that swept away Nadal’s title defense.  At just 18, he has developed a surprisingly versatile array of weapons but, like Murray, sometimes outthinks himself when choosing among them.  A straight-sets victory over a two-time Slam finalist en route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal will earn the teenager ample attention over the summer.  Not adept at handling scrutiny and hype previously, has he matured mentally as well as physically?  B

Del Potro:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, he had every opportunity to claim a two-set lead against Nadal.  Allowing the Spaniard’s unfortunately timed treatment request to unglue him, he gave further credence to suspicions of competitive fragility.  From a broader perspective, though, his ability to battle the world #1 on equal terms throughout three tense sets augurs well for a comeback that remains a work in progress.  B

Berdych:  While he didn’t implode in spectacular fashion as he did at Roland Garros, a straight-sets loss to Fish on Manic Monday did little to counter the impression that his 2010 campaign stands as a unique moment in a career of underachievement.  Since reaching the Wimbledon final last year, Berdych has won seven matches in four majors as his introverted personality has shrunk from the expectations placed upon him.  His lowered ranking may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing him to collect himself under the gaze of fewer eyes.   B-

Caroline Wozniacki - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Wozniacki:  When the Dane dines, she must prefer the appetizer to the main course.  Winning New Haven in the week before the US Open, Brussels in the week before Roland Garros, and Copenhagen in the week before Wimbledon, Wozniacki failed to reach the final at any of the aforementioned majors.  Almost entirely a hard-court threat, she perhaps can explain her premature exits in Paris and London as a product of the surface.  Had a champion like a Williams or a Sharapova fed a breadstick to a sub-20 opponent, though, one feels confident that they would not have let their victim wriggle free.  Moreover, Kvitova’s breakthrough underlines and italicizes the question mark hovering above Wozniacki’s #1 status.  Meanwhile, Bastad beckons…  B-

Zvonareva:  Not expected to duplicate her finals appearance from last year, the tempestuous Russian at least should have earned herself an opportunity to face Venus in the fourth round.  But she slumped to an embarrassingly lopsided defeat against Pironkova, whose counterpunching skills might trouble a shot-maker as inconsistent as Venus but should not have troubled an opponent as complete as Zvonareva.  Although her top-5 position survived the avalanche of sliding rankings points, the early upset does not bode well for her attempt to defend the same result at the US Open.  C+

Soderling:  After winning three titles in the first two months of 2011, he has vanished almost entirely from relevance in the wake of injuries, illness, and allegedly a bout of food poisoning at Wimbledon’s new pasta bar.  Understandably surly in defeat, the Swede probably senses that his window of opportunity will pass swiftly as rivals emerge who can match his firepower while surpassing his movement and versatility.  Alone among the top five, he exited the European majors with his credibility dented rather than burnished.  C+

Roddick:  Perhaps Feliciano Lopez played the match of his life in their third-round encounter, dismissing Roddick in three sets less competitive than the scoreline suggested.  But it seems as though the American’s monochromatic style more and more brings out the best from more multifaceted, flashy opponents.  Never quite recovering from his mono last year, the three-time Wimbledon finalist lacks much spark or direction as his career inexorably wanes.  C

Williams, Inc.:  By far the more encouraging return came from the younger sister, who revealed an encouragingly human side after her opening victory over Rezai.  Two uneven victories later, a rusty Serena nearly scratched and clawed into a third set against Bartoli.  Even in defeat, the defending champion displayed the trademark intensity that could propel her to Slam glory again if she stays healthy.  On the other hand, she may struggle to intimidate a WTA that has grown increasingly opportunistic and populated with players who don’t know enough about Serena to fear her.  After she collaborated with Kimiko Date-Krumm on one of the tournament’s most thrilling encounters, Venus dismissed the dangerous Martinez Sanchez with aplomb.  But then she flunked the consistency test posed by Pironkova for the second straight year.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,…?”  Incomplete

Li:  Suffering the misfortune of a second-round meeting with Lisicki, the Roland Garros champion repeated her post-Melbourne stumble of failing to convert match points en route to a loss, the third time that she has accomplished that dubious feat this year.  Since few expected her to complete the Channel Slam, though, the early loss largely just repeated the precedent set by Schiavone and Stosur here after their Paris breakthroughs last year.  Had Wimbledon followed Roland Garros by more than a few weeks, a different narrative might have unfolded.  Excused Absence

Manic Monday:  Replete with upsets in the women’s draw, the busiest day on the tennis calendar felt like an embarrassment of riches better enjoyed in moderation.  By introducing matches on the middle Sunday, Wimbledon could ensure that spectators see and appreciate more of the fascinating action that generally unfolds in the final 16, when dark horses often trample the top seeds.  Furthermore, dividing this round into two days would allow the tournament to include both men’s and women’s matches on each of the following days, not a possibility at present because it would require men to play best-of-five encounters on consecutive days.  Ticket holders and television viewers alike probably would prefer the variety of seeing two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as they do at the other majors.  (Also on our list of convention-bending reforms:  night sessions.)  Expulsion

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals and on an article on the most entertaining matches of the first half.

Venus Williams Venus Williams of the United States in action during her first round match Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 20, 2011 in London, England.

Date-Krumm vs. V. Williams:  Commonly considered one of the WTA’s most seasoned veterans, Venus resembles a mere novice compared to her second-round opponents.  Still thirsty for competition into her fifth decade, Date-Krumm unleashed a stirring sequence of successes last year highlighted by victories over former #1s Safina and Sharapova.  In 2011, her miraculous rejuvenation waned as foes grew more familiar with her distinctive style and perhaps a bit less respectful of her age.  The Japanese star certainly cannot match Venus hold for hold, so her prospects for mustering a credible threat look slim indeed.  If she can embed herself in rallies, though, her short, flat, sharply angled strokes could test the five-time champion’s instincts and movement.  Kudos to the All England Club for featuring this classy pair of competitors on Centre Court.

Benneteau vs. Berdych:  Most dangerous on the fastest surfaces, the mercurial Frenchman defeated Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago behind opportunistic forecourt attacks coupled with stinging down-the-line backhands.  Last summer, Benneteau held a match point against Nadal at the Rogers Cup, reminding spectators that this doubles specialist still can threaten the ATP elite in their mortal moments.  Surprisingly convincing in his opening win, Berdych eyes a reasonably comfortable draw en route to a quarterfinal with Nadal yet has struggled to capitalize on such situations before.  The 2010 finalist has not recaptured the form that earned consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic here last year, although Wimbledon’s calm atmosphere may help settle his nerves.   Dour and somewhat laborious, the Czech must forestall the Frenchman from rushing him out of his comfort zone on a wave of positive energy as another Frenchman did against Berdych at Roland Garros.

Del Potro vs. Rochus:  Dwarfed by the lanky Argentine, the Belgian struck fear into an adversary as lofty as Djokovic in the opening round of Wimbledon 2010.  Leading by two sets to one on that occasion, Rochus ultimately could not overcome the Serb’s superiority on serve and sheer pace of shot.  While a similar task confronts him against Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion rarely has imprinted his presence onto a significant grass draw.  In fact, Hewitt’s compact, far from overpowering style comfortably overcame the Argentine in straight sets during his last appearance here.  Normally an above-average mover among the ATP giants, Del Potro arranges his lanky limbs less naturally on grass, as a Queens Club loss to Mannarino illustrated.  With no points to defend through the rest of 2011, though, he can focus on accumulating points and momentum for the summer hard courts where his weapons have proved most lethal.

Dulgheru vs. Kuznetsova:  Far from top-10 quality for most of this season, Sveta could return to the top 10 with a second-week run here following her quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros.  Always fonder of clay than grass, she still reached the quarterfinal here in 2007 and plausibly could repeat that feat in a section with no rival more imposing than Kvitova.  Kuznetsova has entertained audiences with a rollercoaster career built upon momentum surges and sputters, so one wonders whether that Paris accomplishment will remain an anomaly or ignite another upward climb.  Suggesting the former was an unnecessarily complicated opener, and the Russian has faltered against non-threatening but persistent opponents like Dulgheru for much of 2011.

Muller vs. Raonic:  If at first you don’t succeed, serve, serve, and serve again.  Such a motto has defined the careers of Muller and Raonic, two monumental ace machines with compromised movement but reasonable skills at the net.  When the Luxembourg lefty meets Canada’s Ancic-like prodigy, few points should extend past three or four shots in a contest that resembles less a tennis match than a dart-throwing competition.  Nevertheless, Wimbledon still offers the best possible venue in which to observe this curious manner of playing the sport, which led to Isner-Mahut here last year.  Viewed as a future Wimbledon champion by bolder prognosticators, Raonic thus far resembles Isner more than Sampras.  Whether or not such glory lies in his future, he can only profit from the experience of playing an opponent with a game so parallel to his own.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Petrova:  As one Russian wanes, another emerges to supplant her.  A former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Petrova possesses the heavy serve and aggressive mentality designed for success on grass.  Well past the apex of her abilities, however, she enters this match as an underdog against the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA.  Pavlyuchenkova reached her first Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros, where she thoroughly dominated Schiavone for a set and a half.  A baseliner with little affinity for the net except regarding swing volleys, her laterally oriented style may not adapt as impressively to grass as to clay, while her serve remains a work in progress.  From a breakthrough as significant as her Paris performance, though, she may have gained the confidence to believe in herself as a genuine contender and a threat to emerge from the weakest quarter of the draw.

Marino vs. Vinci:  Not unlike Raonic, his female compatriot can release a thunderous serve that Venus once compared to her own.  Also not unlike Raonic, Marino has a rough-hewn, raw game that requires considerable refinement before she can vault much higher in the rankings.  The WTA rewards the exercise of unbridled power more handsomely than does the ATP, however, especially on faster surfaces.  By winning the Dutch Open title last week against the heavy-hitting Dokic, Vinci demonstrated a different way to win on grass:  with sharply carved slices, artistic volleys, and swift reflexes.  But will any of those skills matter against Marino’s one overpowering weapon?

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


 

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.

As a collective effort, the WTA may not have produced a season to remember in 2010.  But many of its familiar and several of its less familiar denizens did.  We memorialize their achievements below.

Wozniacki:  Stagnant for most of the first half, the Pole-Dane reached her first Premier Mandatory final at Indian Wells but suffered an ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass campaigns.  After an embarrassing rout at Wimbledon, however, Wozniacki collected herself and reeled off an outstanding second-half surge, featuring six finals and five titles in eight tournaments.  Securing the inaugural edition of her home event in Copenhagen, the future #1 then swept to consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven within a six-day span.  At the US Open, she scored her first career victory over a former #1 before succumbing to fellow breakthrough artist Zvonareva in the semifinals.  Shrugging off that listless performance, Wozniacki thundered through the Asian fall season until she intersected with the equally scorching Clijsters in the Doha final.  Unruffled so far by the controversy surrounding her Slam-less #1 status, Caroline will face an increasingly polarized reception in 2011 until and unless she wins that elusive major.  The new #1 should refine her schedule in order to pursue that goal most effectively, but regrettably she has shown little sign of doing so.  On the other hand, Wozniacki just turned 20 this summer and has displayed a maturity exceptional for her age; her cherubic, ever-smiling visage also represents the WTA better than the churlishness of fellow Slam-less #1s Jankovic and Safina.

Zvonareva:  Never lacking in talent and versatility, the volatile Vera imploded in Melbourne yet erupted in a positive way just two majors later at Wimbledon.  After a stunning three-set upset over Clijsters, Zvonareva burst into her first Slam final on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club, where she mustered more resistance against Serena than the scoreline suggested.  Disproving the commentators who attributed her breakthrough to an upset-riddled Wimbledon draw, the Russian repeated the feat at the US Open with a smart, balanced brand of tennis that flustered less tactically subtle foes.  Nevertheless, her excruciating disintegration in the final revealed that her affinity for tear-soaked melodrama hasn’t entirely vanished.  (We’re waiting for the endorsement contract with Kleenex.)  More often poised than petulant during the fall, Zvonareva marched to her debut Premier Mandatory final in Beijing and another semifinal at the year-end championships, falling to #1 Wozniacki on both occasions.  Since she defends few points early in 2011, she could challenge the Pole-Dane for the top spot if her momentum continues.  With question marks currently surrounding most of the WTA elite, the Russian should carpe the diem while she can.  A former semifinalist at the Australian Open, she might find its medium-speed surface suited to her style.

Clijsters:  Brilliant in the final of the season-opening Brisbane event, the understated Belgian recaptured the momentum in her storied rivalry with Henin by seizing all three of their meetings in three sets, two in uncannily similar fourteen-point third-set tiebreaks.  Her next two hard-court events ended ignominiously with ambushes by Petrova and Kleybanova, demonstrating the inconsistency typical for such comebacks.  But Clijsters proceeded to win her next 18 matches in the United States, a run that extended from Miami through the US Open and included six victories over former #1s.  Despite a physically and emotionally exhausting semifinal against Henin at Key Biscayne, she dominated a hobbled Venus in the final.  Likewise, a labyrinthine three-set semifinal against Venus in New York did not deplete her reserves for a one-sided final against Zvonareva.  Thoroughly outclassed by Sharapova for nearly two sets in the Cincinnati final, the Belgian clawed herself back into the contest with a resilience too often absent from her rivals.  In many of her most notable victories, however, Clijsters looked commanding early, faltered when victory lay within her grasp, and then mentally regrouped to seal the match.  While this pattern doesn’t produce this crispest, most aesthetically laudable tennis, it does provide compelling drama.  Clearly most comfortable on the American hard courts, she now should attempt to consolidate her legacy by winning a major outside New York.

Serena:  Taking her strategy of “play a little, win a lot” to unprecedented heights, Serena entered just six tournaments in 2010 and still walked away with half of the season’s majors for the second consecutive year.  Her signature moment came in the Australian Open quarterfinal, when she trailed 6-4, 4-0 to a ferociously intent Azarenka before summoning her own ferocity and overcoming a deficit that almost any other player would have found insurmountable.  Together with Henin, Serena delivered the most scintillating final of the Grand Slam season (for men or women), relying on spine-tingling serving and her peerless willpower to conquer both the Belgian firecracker and an injury that soon forced her out of competition.  Setting new ace records with each successive Wimbledon, the 13-time Slam champion roared—often literally—through the fortnight, when she displayed the athleticism and shot-making talent that many have emulated but very few have equaled.  Then Serena abruptly disappeared.  If history serves as any guide, she should spring back into contention almost instantly when she returns.

French Open finalists:  Just a year before, few observers would have expected Stosur to reach the second Saturday at Roland Garros.  Just a week before, even fewer observers would have expected Schiavone to caress the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen with clay-smeared hands.  Yet the Australian courageously dethroned Henin in a tense three-setter before conquering Serena in an even more suspenseful epic.  The first two sets of that quarterfinal recalled the Serena-Azarenka encounter in Melbourne, in which the American somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Boldly rewriting the script, Stosur saved a match point with a sparkling forehand passing shot and then became the only player to defeat Serena at a Slam in 2010.  When she thumped a listless Jankovic a round later, a maiden major seemed firmly within her grasp.  Swaggering through the draw’s less star-studded lower half, though, Schiavone stunned Stosur and an international audience by rising to the occasion in the most important match of her life.  Rather than drifting complacently away after this most implausible triumph, the exuberant Italian notched a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open and another Fed Cup title for her beloved nation.  Despite an injury-plagued summer, Stosur likewise reached the quarterfinals in New York, where she took a set from eventual champion Clijsters.  Both players enjoyed their debuts at the year-end championships, where the Aussie avenged the Roland Garros defeat before reaching the semifinal.  A dark horse no longer, Stosur owns the second-best serve in the WTA after Serena and one of the finest forehands.

Li:  With consecutive Melbourne victories over future #1 Wozniacki and former #1 Venus, the Chinese superstar advanced to the first Slam semifinal of her career.  While the quality of tennis in those marquee wins oscillated between the uninspired and the abysmal, Li once again showed her competitive tenacity against heavily favored opponents. In the semifinals, moreover, she dragged defending champion Serena into two tiebreaks before reluctantly conceding the American’s superiority.  Coinciding with the semifinal dash of her compatriot Zheng, her Australian exploits garnered valuable attention for tennis in a region where the sport hopes to expand.  Fresh from a Birmingham title over Sharapova, Li dispatched two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Radwanska at the All England Club en route to the quarterfinals herself.  A proud patriot who fell one win short of a medal at the Beijing Olympics, she thrilled her compatriots again by reaching the semifinals at the Premier Mandatory event held in the same stadium.  Yet Li remains a mercurial, enigmatic shotmaker who sprinkled losses to Malek, Baltacha, Bacsinzky, and Zakopalova amidst her prestigious triumphs.  We expect equally jagged peaks and valleys in 2011.

Peer:  Whether or not a fan of Shahar, anyone who followed the Dubai Debacle of 2009 must have relished the Israeli’s unexpected semifinal run at the Persian Gulf tournament this year.  Victories there over Wozniacki and Li heralded a resurgent campaign for the promising but long-dormant Peer.  If she hadn’t collided with the Williams sisters more often than she would have preferred (five losses), she might have progressed even deeper into draws.  Nevertheless, Peer reached the second week at two majors and the semifinals at two Premier Mandatory events, not only placing herself close to contention for Doha in 2010 but in an auspicious position for 2011.

Petrova:  Exactly one player defeated Serena, Venus, and Clijsters this year.  Overcoming the latter two opponents at majors, Nadia inflicted the most lopsided loss of Kim’s career at the Australian Open.   Her characteristic ebbs and flows continued with losses to such unremarkable names as Stefanie Voegele and Anastasija Sevastova, but the Russian veteran crafted plenty of satisfying memories to mull as she sips her vodka during the holiday season.  Having witnessed several of her feckless performances on grand stages, we enjoyed watching her disbelieving glee at these stunning upsets.

First-time Russian titlists:  Even as many of the more experienced countrywomen fizzled and floundered, a pair of rising Russians broke through to claim the first two titles of their career.  Ambushing Clijsters in a third-set tiebreak at Indian Wells, Kleybanova held her first trophy at Kuala Lumpur before continuing her Asian exploits at Seoul in the fall.  Also a finalist at Bali, the burly ball-bruiser aims to carve out a regular residence in the top 20, while her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova targets a loftier objective.  The former junior #1 first opened a window onto her brilliance at Indian Wells in 2009, but she had stalled somewhat until scoring titles at Monterrey and Istanbul this year, where she outlasted Vesnina in the longest final of the WTA season.  Sagging sharply towards the end of the 2010, Pavlyuchenkova probably can claim a position in the top 10 if she can resolve her recent serving woes and reduce an injury rate alarmingly high for such a young player.

Martinez Sanchez / Rezai / Pironkova / Kvitova:  Each of them had their week in the sun, or, in the case of the last two, their fortnight.  None of them has accomplished anything worthy of note since then, and they probably lack either the physical and mental consistency (Rezai, Kvitova) or the firepower (Martinez Sanchez, Pironkova) to impose themselves as consistent contenders.  But at Rome, Madrid, and in the great temple of tennis itself, however, they conquered no fewer than five players who have held the #1 ranking.  The improbability of those upsets and the magnitude of their setting converge to merit a mention here.

Kimiko Date Krumm:  Simply by returning to the battlefield at age 40, she would have deserved inclusion among the most memorable performers in an often pallid 2010.  The 40-year-old Japanese dynamo did far more, however, as Sharapova, Safina, Stosur, and Li can attest.  More durable than many players a generation her junior, Date battled through a gripping series of marathons and often unhinged rhythm-oriented baseliners with her distinctively arrhythmic, unpredictable style.  Here’s hoping that she continues to defy Father Time for at least another year, exhibiting her refreshingly unassuming joy for the game.

***

Our next article shifts from the nice to the naughty, reflecting upon the most notable disappointments of 2010.  Who hopes that the new year holds more promise than the old?  Answers to come.

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.

***

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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