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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

Ad-in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

Ad-out:

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

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

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.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Serena

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

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

Stuffed with nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20, the WTA draw in Sydney features spectacular entertainment and fascinating collisions from the first round onwards.  As Ivanovic discovered in an opening-round loss to Safarova, a draw so small and so star-studded offers almost no place to hide.

Top half:  Like Kvitova in the bottom half, Wozniacki receives a bye into the second round that will allow her to regroup from a moderately encouraging week in Hopman Cup.  Defeated by Kvitova and tested by Pironkova there, the world #1 improved as that exhibition progressed and should bring confidence into a meeting with her conqueror in Sydney last year, Cibulkova.  Also in Wozniacki’s quarter, though, are two top-10 players in Petkovic and Radwanska.  The top-ranked German did not distinguish herself at Brisbane while struggling to hold serve, perhaps still rusty from a knee injury that hindered her late in 2011.  In the first round, Petkovic would meet her projected quarterfinal opponent in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova, who likewise looked unimpressive there.  With an Australian Open quarterfinal soon to defend, the world #10 surely would welcome an opportunity to gain more match practice.  Fortunate to draw a qualifier in her first match of 2012, Radwanska aspires to begin this season as brightly as she ended last fall, with consecutive titles at marquee Asian tournaments.  The intriguing Pole might reprise her Beijing final against Petkovic before once again meeting her friend Wozniacki, who has dominated her for most of their careers.

Like Radwanska, Azarenka lifts a racket with malice in her heart for the first time this year when she faces a qualifier in her opener.  Considering Jankovic’s entertaining battle with Schiavone last week, the best match of the Brisbane tournament, the Serbian former #1 might challenge the third seed if she can escape Julia Goerges.  Nevertheless, Azarenka ended last season on an especially encouraging note and may have accumulated too much momentum to succumb to an occasionally dangerous dark horse like Jankovic.  In her quarterfinal awaits the unpredictable Bartoli, who enjoys perhaps the most comfortable draw of all, starting with a qualifier and continuing with the long-faded Dokic.  Although she finished the Hopman Cup with a 1-2 record in singles, the double-fister nearly defeated a resurgent Li and severely tested Kvitova for a set while mercilessly double-bageling Gajdosova.  Of her nine matches against Azarenka, though, Bartoli has emerged victorious from only a retirement and a meaningless round-robin matches at the year-end championships.  On most surfaces except grass, the Belarussian’s balanced style will outlast her.

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Bottom half:  Whereas the top half seemed the stronger section in Brisbane, the lower half looks more imposing in Sydney.  Hoping to improve upon her early exit here last year, Zvonareva confronts the challenge of facing Kuznetsova just after the erstwhile two-time major champion reached the semifinals in Auckland.  The task of defeating a compatriot often has flustered Russian woman, and neither of these two has proved themselves exactly steely under ordinary circumstances.  But the route of the winner grows briefly smoother thereafter with the streaky Safarova blocking them from the quarterfinals.  By that stage, defending champion Li Na hopes to have consolidated a promising performance at the Hopman Cup, where she lost only one set in three singles matches.  With vast quantities of points soon to descend upon her shoulders, she can ill afford a slump as Melbourne looms.  Having lost four of her last five matches to Zvonareva, including the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, Li might bring extra determination to a clash with another player who must defend a significant result at the Australian Open.  If this battle of backhands should happen, it might provide insight concerning whether either or both of these women might become a genuine contender during the following fortnight.

Aligned to meet in the first round are two recent Slam champions in Stosur and Schiavone, both of whom first tasted greatness relatively late in their careers.  Although less notable, the meeting between Vinci and Hantuchova might offer comparable intrigue with the contrast in styles between the biting slices of the Italian and the smooth swings of the Slovak.  Can Schiavone rebound physically from her draining week in Brisbane, and can Hantuchova rebound mentally from her demolition in the final?  At the base of this section lies Kvitova, who could reach the top ranking with a title here.  While we would not expect the pressure of that possibility to unnerve her, we also would not expect it to infuse her with additional purpose.  After winning all four of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, Kvitova eyes an accommodating path to at least the quarterfinals with Lisicki’s withdrawal.  But week-to-week dominance has eluded her so far.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark reacts to a point against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wozniacki:  About three months into the season, the world #1 looked poised to either finally break through at a major or at least continue her dominance at the most significant non-majors.  At that stage, Wozniacki not only had continued a winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments that extended back to the 2010 Rogers Cup but had recorded her best result to date at the Australian Open, where only a prodigious effort by Li Na halted her.  Then, without warning, her game unraveled on a sultry afternoon in Miami against Petkovic, and she never quite collected herself for the rest of the season.  Over the rest of the spring and summer, Wozniacki would lose matches to Goerges (twice), Hantuchova, Cibulkova, Vinci, and Christina McHale as her impressive consistency deserted her.  Especially troubling was the Wimbledon loss to Cibulkova, in which the Dane won the first set 6-1 before growing progressively more flustered as the match slipped away.  Downed by Kanepi and Pennetta in her Asian title defenses, Wozniacki trailed by a set and a break in the only match that she won at the year-end championships.  Although she did reach the US Open semifinal for the third straight year, she mustered little resistance to Serena and found herself fortunate to escape Kuznetsova two rounds before.  Undeterred by her declining fortunes on court, Wozniacki also engaged in some odd off-court behavior throughout 2011, most notably mocking the cramping spasms of a certain 10-time major champion.  Her accomplishment of holding the year-end #1 ranking for two straight years reflects much less on her than on the ranking system.

Zvonareva:  Looking back a few years from now, one wonders whether we will perceive her 2010 season as similar to Berdych’s 2010 campaign:  an unexpected mid-career surge of a highly talented but critically flawed competitor who then receded to a more familiar level of performance.   Zvonareva’s season started brightly with a third consecutive Slam semifinal appearance, built in part upon the bones of Kvitova.  With consecutive victories over top-six opponents in Doha, she displayed perhaps her most convincing tennis of the year, shifting seamlessly from defense to offense in one of the WTA’s most balanced styles.  Demolished by Azarenka in a Miami semifinal, the Russian faded during the European seasons and fell in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense.  After a nine-match winning streak in Baku and San Diego, she suffered the first of four second-half meltdowns against Radwanska that became one of the dominant narratives in her season.  Two of those losses came in finals, where the advantage of Zvonareva’s experience could not counterbalance her disadvantage in emotional composure.  Unlucky to draw Stosur in a US Open quarterfinal, she lost three of four matches at the year-end championships.  In short, Zvonareva’s season hovered around the boundary between respectability and mediocrity, judged by the standards that she set a year ago.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors, the former junior #1 showcased her brutal ball-striking on surfaces of all speeds.  Not intimidated by Serena in New York, she traded blows with the 13-time major champion as confidently as she dueled with defending champion Schiavone in Paris.  Pavlyuchenkova also displayed competitive courage on two other occasions:  when she defended her Monterrey title and when she turned the tables on Schiavone just two majors after losing their Roland Garros meeting.  Somewhat concerning is her struggle with double faults, however, which reached its apex (or nadir) in Baku when she struck 25 in one match and 52 across the course of three matches.  In a player so young, a serve so unreliable still could improve significantly, so Pavlyuchenkova should focus upon remedying that department of her game before such habits become rooted too deeply.  But the newest standard-bearer of Russian tennis should win plenty of matches next year based on her fierce groundstrokes alone

Peng:  In a memorable year for Asian sports, China’s #2 earned a modest breakthrough of her own as her compatriot Li Na thrilled a continent.  The double-fister of a disposition more pleasant than Bartoli reached five semifinals on three different surfaces in the first half alone before her results tapered in the second half.  Scoring 12 victories over higher-ranked opponents, she reached the second week of three majors and ambushed four players who ended the year in the top 15.  As her groundstrokes peppered the center of the baseline, opponents struggled to create angles or set their feet crisply.  Known mostly as a doubles specialist before 2011, Peng may want to balance her schedule more carefully in 2012 to protect herself from the injuries that accumulated this year.

Jankovic:  Title-less for the first year since 2006, this precursor to Wozniacki lost to her descendant three times after having won all of their previous meetings.  The reversal of their mini-rivalry illustrated Jankovic’s decline in consistency, essential for her counterpunching style and likely a terminal condition.  Winning two total matches at the three non-clay majors, the former #1 fell outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.  All the same, she collaborated with several of her conquerors in compelling matches from Doha and Miami (Zvonareva and Petkovic) to Roland Garros and Cincinnati (Schiavone and Sharapova).  Filled with oscillating momentum, those melodramatic three-setters will have satisfied her trademark appetite for drama.  While her hopes of winning a major will remain a mirage, Jankovic’s sporadic flashes of feistiness still adds spice to matches that otherwise might seem bland.

Kuznetsova:  As with several of the other players on this list, the best came first for Kuznetsova in 2011.  Thwarted as relentlessly by Henin as Roddich by Federer, she gained the grim satisfaction of defeating the Belgian in the last match of her career.  One round later, Sveta contested the most memorable women’s match of 2011 in a thriller with Schiavone that lasted nearly five hours and during which she held five match points.  Following that spectacle, Kuznetsova reached the final in Dubai but then almost totally evaporated with opening-match losses in five of her next six tournaments.  Bursting back into relevance with a Roland Garros quarterfinal, she nearly repeated that feat at the US Open against a hapless Wozniacki.  In that late-night comedy of errors, the Russian led by a set and 4-1 before the tide turned inexorably against here.  Littered with stunning winners and absurd errors from every corner of the court, that sprawling encounter offered a metaphor for everything that Kuznetsova could have achieved—in this season and in her career—and everything that she has not.

Cibulkova:  Proving that stature does not always correlate to success, the plucky Slovak toppled Wozniacki twice as well as four other members of the year-end top 10.  Ever willing to engage in wars of attrition, she outlasted Zvonareva in an epic Indian Wells three-setter and threatened eventual champion Azarenka more than any of her other opponents in Miami.  Despite the inherent limitations on her power, Cibulkova clubbed forehands with remarkable pace throughout her Wimbledon quarterfinal run.  Assisting her in constructing points around that shot as much as possible, her coach Zelkjo Krajan has burnished his reputation by succeeding with two such different pupils in Cibulkova and Safina.  His disciple ended 2011 in the most satisfying fashion imaginable by winning her first career title at the Kremlin Cup after twice rallying from one-set deficits, including a dramatic comeback in the final.

Hantuchova:  Nine times out of ten, the elegant Slovak crumbles under the pressure of facing elite opposition and contributes to her own demise.  On the tenth time, Hantuchova unleashes a virtually unplayable barrage of acutely angled groundstrokes and expertly placed volleys.  That inspired version of the Slovak appeared against Zvonareva when she raced to the Pattaya City title without dropping a set, and then again for extended spans of their Doha quarterfinal, one of the most thrilling and relentless explosions of shot-making that the WTA witnessed all year.  Over the next few months, Hantuchova would stifle Wozniacki, Li, and Venus by defying the odds of her low-percentage shots for longer than one would believe possible.  Frustrating to watch when her shots misfire, Hantuchova embodies the ebbing but still stunning aesthetic dimension of tennis at a time when the sport’s physicality has captured the spotlight.

Pironkova:  Many players perform far above their normal level at a certain tournament, having developed comfort with the surface or the setting.  For examples of such anomalies, consider Hantuchova’s two Indian Wells titles or Schiavone’s consecutive Roland Garros finals.  Or consider the nine wins that Tsevtana Pironkova has registered in her last two Wimbledon appearances, including two over five-time champion Venus (by eerily identical scores) and two more over finalists Bartoli and Zvonareva.  The willowy brunette even extended Kvitova to a third set this year with a seemingly unremarkable game.  If Pironkova signed some Faustian bargain that allowed her to excel at exactly one tournament on the calendar, she certainly chose well.

Kerber:  Thoroughly anonymous until the US Open, the German lefty carved through the section of the draw vacated by Kvitova and Sharapova to reach the semifinals, where she temporarily struck fear into Stosur.  For now, her suddenly exalted station in the WTA testifies less to her talents than to the extreme unpredictability of women’s tennis, similar to Greta Arn’s year-opening title in Auckland.  But Kerber can revise our interpretation of that narrative in 2012, and she owns the lefty weapons to make a legitimate attempt at consolidating her momentum.

Ivanovic:  In a season rather similar to 2010, the former #1 enjoyed her second half much more than a first half filled with the indignities of first-round losses at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and elsewhere.  Long fond of Indian Wells, Ivanovic must have relished a quarterfinal appearance there, especially a commanding victory over countrywoman and bitter rival Jankovic.  Within a point of scoring a spectacular upset over defending champion Clijsters in Miami, she let slip away a thrilling encounter from which she needed a few months to recover.  Lacking an exclusive, full-time coach for much of her post-2008 tribulations, Ivanovic found stability in a partnership with Nigel Sears.  That stability ultimately translated into a confidence that she had lacked while compiling a dismal record in three-setters and tiebreaks, the areas that most test a player’s fortitude.  Reaching the second week of the US Open, Ana delivered consecutive victories over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in Beijing before extending her reign over Bali.  Defending a title for the first time, she ended 2011 with her seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope restored once more.

We join Ana in wishing you a Happy Holiday.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia holds alloft the Fed Cup trophy on day two of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 14, 2008 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Svetlana Kuznetsova

Dominant in the team competition of women’s tennis over the past several years, Russia hosts a challenger worthy of its steel in a Czech battalion spearheaded by the world #2.  If Kvitova aims to crack the Russian stranglehold, she may need to overcome Fed Cup stalwart Kuznetsova in the first meeting between these similarly named shot-makers.  We offer five keys to the Fed Cup final.

1)     Will Kvitova have a hangover?

After she catapulted into fame with the Wimbledon title, the leading Czech woman wandered through a fruitless summer of seemingly disinterred performances.  In the aftermath of her triumph at the year-end championships, anyone not from her nation could forgive Kvitova for suffering from a sense of anticlimax.  More marginalized in the women’s game than Davis Cup in the men’s game, a Fed Cup title would not rank among the most memorable accomplishments of a year during which she raced to the #2 ranking.  The single most valuable player on either squad cannot afford to slip into this mentality against a Russian team that already has ambushed one opponent this year (see below).  For inspiration, perhaps Kvitova could note the steady semifinal march of Djokovic in Basel, a tournament no more than a tiny footnote in the Serb’s season.

2)     Can Kuznetsova continue her Fed Cup heroics?

The flagship of the Russian squad following Zvonareva’s injury, Sveta spent most of the season mired in a malaise of brittle focus and uncertain motivation.  But she did rise to the occasion on two notable stages, reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinal and nearly upsetting Wozniacki in the fourth round of the US Open.  Fiercely proud of her national heritage, she also has distinguished herself in fiercely contested Fed Cup rubbers, such as a three-set tilt with Schiavone during the 2007 final.  Kuznetsova sparked Russia’s unprecedented rally from a 0-2 deficit against France earlier this season and has won two of three meetings from Safaraova, which bodes well for a Saturday rubber that her team must claim.  Moreover, she never has faced Kvitova, so canny captain Shamil Tarpischev may expect the element of surprise to rattle the Czech star when combined with the hostile, unfamiliar setting.

3)     Does Tarpischev have something up his sleeve?

Rarely does the grandmaster of Davis and Fed Cup approach an evenly matched tie without a specific plan, and virtually never does he approach an uphill battle without some stratagem calculated to level the odds.  Despite home-court advantage, Russia appears the underdog when comparing the two teams but only because of Kvitova.  While the Czechs will lean upon her brilliance, Tarpischev may rely upon the superior depth available to him, including Roland Garros and US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova.  Relatively untested in Fed Cup, she has won her previous meetings against both Kvitova and Safarova.  If one of her countrywomen stumbles, Tarpischev may seriously consider a substitution.  On the other hand, Kirilenko has enjoyed notable success against Safarova, and the Russian captain typically places great confidence in head-to-head records.  No matter whether he embraces or eschews risk, Tarpischev will consider his options carefully at every stage of the weekend.   And, no matter the outcome, he will shoulder a larger share of the responsibility than do most captains.

4)     Who does the surface actually favor?

At first glance, Russia’s choice of a relatively fast indoor hard court strikes one as odd (the fast part, not the indoor part).  While mightiest first-strike weapons on either team belong to Kvitova, the sturdiest consistency on either team belongs to Kirilenko.  The choice of surface thus would seem more favorable to the visitors than to the home squad, which includes the 2009 Roland Garros champion and might have exploited the erratic stretches of both Kvitova and Safarova more effectively on indoor clay.  But the world #2 has won titles on every surface this year, including the Premier Mandatory tournament in Madrid.  Meanwhile, Russia’s #1 has proved much less than a model of consistency herself this season, so she might not relish the thought of hitting several extra shots to win points.  As Radwanska has demonstrated on grass and fast hard courts, counterpunchers like Kirilenko sometimes benefit from the extra jolt of pace added by the surface to their strokes.  The surface probably will prove a neutral factor, refreshing in a sense when one thinks of the numerous Davis and Fed Cup ties decided not by players but by the ground beneath their feet.

5)     What happens if it comes down to doubles?

Outside Peschke on the Czech side, neither team owns a double specialist if the tie reaches that decisive phase.  Both captains would need to decide between a singles player with greater talent and a singles player with more rest.  While the length of the singles rubbers might play a role in that evaluation, Tarpischev has favored momentum more often than not and trusted the top performer of the weekend to deliver one more time.  Considering that many players compete in singles and doubles on the same day in a best-of-three format, this philosophy seems sensible in most cases but probably will not apply to the opposition.  Since Kvitova and Safarova lack extensive doubles experience, captain Petr Pala should turn as advertised to Lucie Hradecka to partner Pesche, who just appeared with regular partner Srebotnik in the Istanbul final.  In that case, the visitors would prepare to rely upon superior doubles expertise against the superior overall talent of the Russian duo.

But the tie probably won’t reach the fifth rubber with the outcome uncertain.  In a surprising end to an often surprising season, the Czechs should topple the last decade’s Fed Cup leviathan 3-1.

 

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with her WTA Tour World Number 1 trophy in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel on October 12, 2010 in Beijing, China.

First quarter:  Battered by Gajdosova and banished by Kanepi in Tokyo last week, Wozniacki hopes that this week’s title defense fares better than its predecessor.  Remarkably, she could face the same pair of opponents again in her first two matches, although the booming serve of Lisicki might disrupt that odd serendipity.  Absent from action since the US Open, the 17th-ranked German suffered a slight dip in form following her Wimbledon semifinal appearance and will engage in a bruising second-round battle of first-strike bombs.  Lisicki resoundingly defeated Wozniacki twice in 2009, so the world #1 certainly will have earned a quarterfinal berth should she navigate her Viking vessel around such a dangerous reef.  Less dangerous are her potential quarterfinal opponents, headlined by Schiavone and home hope Peng Shuai.  A quarterfinalist in Beijing two years ago with wins over Jankovic and Sharapova, the Chinese double-fister will aim to steal a bit of the spotlight from newly crowned Slam champion Li Na.  Meanwhile, Schiavone lost her first-round match in Seoul and has looked shaky for most of the second half.  Perhaps more intriguing than the bold-faced names, therefore, are two of Wozniacki’s Slam nemeses this year:  the flamboyant Hantuchova (Roland Garros) and the gritty Cibulkova (Wimbledon), who has struggled lately with an abdominal strain.  In a section with ample talent but plenty of questions hovering over its leading combatants, the hour seems ripe for an unexpected heroine to make a statement.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Second quarter:  Spiked with three Slam champions, this quarter could feature a second-round clash between fellow Roland Garros titlist Ivanovic (2008) and Kuznetsova (2009), should the Serb defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm for the fourth time in less than a year.  Although she displayed flashes of her vintage brilliance in a Wimbledon epic against Venus, 2011 has proved much less kind to the aging Japanese legend than 2010.  Last year’s runner-up Zvonareva should arrive either determined to win one more match than she did in Tokyo or deflated from still another loss to Radwanska, an opponent whom she formerly had dominated.  Should she arrange a third-round clash with the winner of Ivanovic-Kuznetsova, however, one would fancy the steady Russian’s chances to outlast either of those erratic opponents in an encounter of oscillating momentum.  What reward would Zvonareva gain for such an achievement?  As she did in Cincinnati, she could confront the challenge of defeating Radwanska less than a week after losing a final to the Pole, a challenge to which she could not rise this summer.  Inadvertently positioned to rescue Zvonareva is her semifinal victim last week, Kvitova, who delivered a generally reassuring series of performances in Tokyo.  On the other hand, her unsightly meltdown against a player infamous for such meltdowns herself continues to trigger concerns surrounding her maturity.  Kvitova can ill afford such a lapse when she meets the stingy Radwanska in the third round, for the Tokyo champion will magnify and exploit the flaws in her still-raw style.  At Eastbourne this year, they dueled into a third-set tiebreak before the Czech’s power prevailed.  She could profit from the dip in performance that one expects from both Tokyo finalists.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:   A member of the Wozniacki “déjà vu” club, Stosur likely will reprise her second-round meeting with Kirilenko in Tokyo should she neutralize Pironkova, who tested Zvonareva for a set last week.  To the surprise of some, the Aussie’s competitive experience proved no shield to the hangover suffered by all three of the WTA’s first-time Slam champions this season.  Just weeks after stunning Serena in such spectacular fashion, she should aim to reassemble her motivation before the year-end championships in Istanbul but may fall victim to one of her steady opponents here.  Nevertheless, Stosur will enjoy a distinct serving advantage over most early opponents except Julia Goerges, an enigmatic German who extended Sharapova to two tiebreaks in Tokyo following an indifferent summer.  If this ambitious German rediscovers her spring prowess, a path to the quarterfinals might lie open.  Among the most compelling questions surrounding this tournament is the tennis with which Li Na will either dazzle or dismay her compatriots.  Although she left little imprint upon Beijing in recent years, the reigning French Open champion reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics in her nation’s capital, vanquishing Venus and Kuznetsova en route.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in their vicinity, Li should feel relatively sanguine about a draw that she will tackle with the guidance of her coach-husband rather than Michal Mortensen.  That new arrangement might infuse the Chinese superstar with fresh energy, valuable against Guangzhou champion Scheepers or the persistent Dulko.  Should she reach a quarterfinal with Stosur, though, Li somehow must solve an opponent who has dispatched her in all five of their meetings while conceding one total set.  Slightly less likely is a rematch with New Haven nemesis Cetkovska in the quarterfinals.  Like a volcano that quietly accumulates lava before exploding, Li has spent a career alternating between long dormant periods and abrupt, ephemeral explosions of greatness.  She has accomplished almost nothing in the last four months, so…

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter:  A tight two-set encounter, Petkovic’s victory over Safarova determined one of the week’s most intriguing first-round matches.  By dispatching the WTA’s second most dangerous Czech lefty, the WTA’s most dangerous German moved a step closer to an Istanbul berth and showed little sign of sliding into complacency after a US Open quarterfinal.  Two rounds ahead, Petkovic might encounter the third most dangerous Czech lefty in Benesova but more plausibly would encounter Bartoli or Christina McHale.  The rising teenager ambushed the double-fisted Frenchwoman in New York, although that task will prove more daunting without the vociferous American fans to exhort her.  Not at her most impressive in Tokyo, US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova faces recent Quebec champion and fellow serpentine surname Zahlavova Strycova.  Either the 20-year-old Russian or Seoul titlist Martinez Sanchez could pose a stern test for Azarenka, who might meet the equally feisty Laura Robson in her first match.  While the second seed has struggled with lefties before, including Martinez Sanchez, Vika twice has lost sets to Pavlyuchenkova and probably would prefer to avoid her on the court where “Nastia” once defeated Venus.  Rather than a predictable second straight quarterfinal against Bartoli, an encounter between the brash Belarussian and the pugnacious Petkovic would offer the scintillation of the uncertain.  Only once have they clashed before, in a Moscow three-setter, and their relatively even strengths should intertwine for a blazing battle from the baseline as well as a fiery clash of personalities.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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