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Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

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

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

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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.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Although we normally approximate the order of play in our daily previews, we diverge from it today to start with the match that many eagerly awaited since the draws appeared.  (Scroll further down for the Battles of the Blondes, equally delicious in our opinion.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

When one glances back across the tapestry woven together by the two great rivals of their generation, one cannot fail to see the central role of clay and grass in this narrative.  Only once have they met at a hard-court major in a memorable but not quite classic five-set final, more notable for the tears of the loser than the triumph of the victor.  During the three long years since then, much has happened to both of our protagonists, each of whom completed a career Grand Slam and one of whom established himself firmly as the greatest of all time.  Despite those accomplishments, their collisions have waned inexorably with time.  Perhaps one should not regret the attenuation of this rivalry, however, for the imperfections of the present cannot cast too long a shadow upon the glories of the past.

Not since Wimbledon five years ago has Federer defeated Nadal at a major, and not since Madrid in 2009 has he defeated the Spaniard at a tournament other than Rafa’s bête noire, the year-end championships.  To be sure, he will gain confidence from a resounding victory in their clash there last year, but a similarly emphatic triumph at the 2007 year-end championships preceded the turning point in their rivalry:  consecutive victories by Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals.  When they met on the Miami hard courts last spring, Federer looked passive and resigned almost as soon as the match began, notwithstanding his perceived superiority on this surface.  Rarely threatening Rafa on his serve, Roger struggled with his serve and approach shots throughout a match that felt even more lopsided than its scoreline.  Curiously, Federer acquitted himself much more creditably in two clay losses to Nadal at Madrid and Roland Garros, both times winning a set and finding ways to unsettle his nemesis for extended stretches.  At this stage in their careers, each man can hide few secrets from the other as their games have hardened into crystals that will resist significant alteration.  The second seed’s amplified serve might trigger concern in Federer fans, but that shot has not dazzled at pivotal moments throughout this fortnight, such as when Nadal served for the second set against Berdych.  On the contrary, Roger-Rafa XXVII should hinge once again upon the mental dimension, which the Spaniard gradually wrested away from the Swiss star as their rivalry unfolded.

While one might think that recapturing that advantage would lie beyond the powers of a 30-year-old legend, perhaps one should not jump to conclusions prematurely.  In his quiet, methodical way, Federer has compiled a perfect record since the US Open and has looked the more poised player throughout this fortnight.  Beset by nagging knees, festering concerns over the schedule, and the looming specter of Djokovic, Nadal has displayed less competitive appetite and relentless focus than one has grown accustomed to observing from him.  All the same, his four-set quarterfinal victory over Berdych rekindled that familiar spark at the most auspicious moment.  Uninspired for much of the first two sets, Nadal erupted into his fiercely physical, fiery self during the last two sets as he swung with more predatory purpose than he had shown in any of his previous matches.  If that determination replaces his diffident edginess from the first week, Federer will find himself under pressure once again.  As he attempts to summon his own positive energy, he should reflect back upon his virtuoso performance against Del Potro, during which he struck nearly every shot with conviction from his forehand drop shots to his down-the-line backhands.  That latter shot must penetrate the court to prevent Nadal from targeting it and waiting patiently for a mid-court reply to hammer with an inside-in or inside-out forehand.  Since each man knows how to probe the weaknesses of the other, expect a chess match in each point and game from these two masters of their craft.  While they will not scorch rockets like a Djokovic or a Soderling, Roger and Rafa complement each other’s styles and personalities more symmetrically than any other pair of gladiators.

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  From their head-to-head spring few memorable matches and fewer lessons, other than the Belgian’s superiority in three-setters.  Winning both of her final stanzas against Azarenka, Clijsters benefited from her opponent’s emotional immaturity in their early meetings.  The two women rarely have displayed their finest tennis against each other at the same time, a pity considering their evenly matched talents.  Having reached her second semifinal just two majors after her first, Azarenka has evolved into a more poised competitor over the past year who now believes more deeply in her right to play on the grand stage.  To be sure, she still can veer off course without warning at inopportune moments, but Vika now recovers more courageously from those lapses to reverse the momentum.  An eloquent example of this trend, her quarterfinal against Radwanska witnessed a disastrous tiebreak bagel in the first set, which previously would have unlocked the frantic, feckless Azarenka of years past.   Instead, she held her ground during two close games early in the second set and abruptly stopped a tenacious opponent in her tracks.  After four victories over thoroughly outclassed opponents, her comeback should inspire confidence in her should this semifinal prove as tight as expected.

A round after she launched a comeback of her own, the defending champion squelched a putative comeback from Wozniacki in a match that she dominated until the threshold of victory.  Like Azarenka, who has struggled to finish matches this week, Clijsters grew increasingly tense as she thrust the world #1 towards the brink of the precipice.  With a third set on the horizon, though, she collected herself impressively to deliver some of her best shot-making and most imposing serves of the encounter.  During the second-set tiebreak, Clijsters did not miss a single first serve or lose a point on her serve, finding the same lines that she had missed as her lead had evaporated.  Probably the two best players in the WTA at transitioning from defense to offense, these semifinalists often will force each other to restart rallies and hit multiple shots to finish points.  Although she does not sprawl across the court in flamboyant splits like the Belgian, Azarenka possesses keen instincts and anticipation that allow her to return offensive shots with depth.  Gifted with especially crisp backhands, both women can lose their timing on their powerful but less reliable forehands for games at a time, so watch that wing for symptoms of pressure.  The Melbourne crowd, firmly in the Belgian’s corner so far, may ruffle Azarenka as a similar pro-Clijsters crowd did in Miami, but she has grown somewhat more skillful at turning hostility into renewed willpower rather than self-defeating frustration.

In her final Australian Open, the defending champion surely will not depart without a valiant struggle.  Nevertheless, Azarenka may bring greater ambition and intensity to a match that means far more to her career than it does to the waning Belgian.  Having won one set in her first Slam semifinal last year, an impressive effort for a debutante at that level, she should fancy her chances to double that total on her second visit to the penultimate round.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Through the minds of both statuesque blondes will wander the memories of their meeting on the most prestigious stage in the sport last year.  Whereas one woman will seek continuity, the other will focus on plotting her revenge.  Not expected to reach the semifinals when the tournament began, Sharapova has demonstrated once more that she can stride into a tournament with minimal preparation and immediately plow deep into the draw.  Abetted by a gentle draw during the early stages, she nevertheless has impressed while losing only a handful of games in each round with the exception of a three-set comeback against Lisicki.  Well below her best form in the quarterfinals, Sharapova surrendered just five games to a dangerous dark horse while missing swarms of routine shots and sometimes hesitating when presented with an open court.  Refusing to retreat, the 2008 champion seemed to strike the ball even harder and even closer to the lines after every error.  After three backhand errors cost the Russian her first three match points, a backhand bullet scorched a sideline to convert her fourth. Throughout the uneven but courageous display, though, her serve and return rarely abandoned her.  Those key shots proved the difference in the Wimbledon final and offer her the greatest hope of reversing its outcome here.

When this pair clashed in the grassy confines of the All England Club, untimely double faults and wayward service returns cost her at crucial moments, while Kvitova unleashed a nearly flawless display of first-strike tennis that kept her opponent pinned helplessly behind the baseline.  Through her first five matches, the world #2 has continued to win as many points with sheer depth as with ruthless angles, challenging her foes to absorb her pace.  Like Sharapova, though, she has not advanced without occasional glimpses of frailty, sharing the Russian’s tendency towards second-set lapses.  Also like Sharapova, Kvitova rarely settles into lengthy cross-court exchanges but instead redirects the ball whenever possible to stretch the contours of the court.  Since neither woman moves especially well and will struggle to recover from a defensive position, this semifinal will contrast with its counterpart in the length of its points.  Although the surface at the Australian Open plays more slowly than does Centre Court at Wimbledon, the power of each woman’s weapons and the deficiencies of their defense should combine to produce a match of relatively short, explosive points.  Curiously, though, the most overlooked or underestimated element in an arsenal often proves the very weapon that secures a crucial victory.  One semifinalist’s desperate retrieval might well take the other by surprise at a turning point in the match.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue to their encounter is the succession struggle over the world #1 ranking among Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova.  If Clijsters wins the first semifinal, Kvitova would earn a ticket to the penthouse with a victory.  Otherwise, the winner of this semifinal would play Azarenka for both the title and the #1 ranking.  Don’t look too far ahead too soon, though, for the duel of these two Wimbledon champions promises a scintillating smorgasbord of shot-making that any admirer of offensively oriented tennis should relish.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Not without adversity did Sharapova reach her first quarterfinal at a hard-court major since 2008, withstanding Lisicki’s percussive serve and maintaining her bulletproof resilience in three-setters.  As had happened in her previous matches, the former champion bolted into an early lead before her opponent settled into the match.  When Lisicki weathered that initial assault and unleashed a major momentum surge of her own, Sharapova found herself forced into a fierce battle for the first time in 2012.  Erasing all seven break points on her serve in the last two sets, including five in one game, she dug into the trenches with characteristic determination.  That brush with danger should heighten the Russian’s intensity as she approaches the round where the draw had seemed likely to pit her against Serena.  Surely satisfied to avoid that obstacle, she nevertheless should not discount the draw’s most lethal dark horse, who has compiled victories over Kanepi, Zvonareva, and Serena.

Completely undismayed by the sight of a 13-time major champion across the net, Makarova has not lost a set since the first round and has frustrated her seeded victims with explosive down-the-line lasers  that showcase her ability to redirect the ball from behind the baseline.  The pace of these courts suit her game especially well, and few would dispute that her ranking of #56 does not accurately reflect her abilities.  If she continues to connect on those groundstrokes so precisely, she will test the improved movement of her fellow Russian.  Both of their previous meetings have unfolded on clay, the surface least suited to them, and Sharapova has fed her compatriot three straight breadsticks after losing a set in the first of those clashes.  Nevertheless, clay muted the wickedly slicing lefty serve of Makarova, which won her the Eastbourne title from another prestigious field.  By maintaining a high percentage of first serves and cracking second-serve returns as fiercely as she did against Serena, the underdog could deliver a message of intent to the favorite.  Usually quick to respond to such messages with a barrage of her own, however, Sharapova astonishingly won nearly half of the points on Lisicki’s serve, considered among the most formidable in the WTA.  Undefeated in ten major quarterfinals outside Roland Garros, the 2008 champion devoured Petkovic and Cibulkova in this round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon last year.  Only a relentlessly opportunistic effort by Makarova will save her from that fate.

Errani vs. Kvitova:  A thoroughly unexpected presence in a major quarterfinal, the Italian’s route resembles a genealogy of this section’s more notable upsets.  Defeating only one seeded opponent in four matches, the unseeded Errani dispatched Bartoli’s conqueror in Zheng a round after she defeated Stosur’s nemesis in Cirstea.  At this stage, mere opportunism alone will not suffice as the moment of truth arrives for this doubles specialist who has reached the quarterfinals in that event as well.  In no area of the game, except perhaps her net play, does Errani surpass the world #2 and Wimbledon champion.  And reaching the net will prove especially difficult against an opponent who habitually lasers returns of serve and pockmarks the baseline with her penetrating groundstrokes.  Even if Errani plays an exceptionally clean, error-free match, she lacks the stylistic eccentricities or variety with which some of her compatriots might upset Kvitova’s rhythm.

As has proven the case at this tournament so far, the second seed perhaps has most to fear from herself.  She has established comfortable leads in all four of her matches, conceding no more than two games in any of her first sets.  But two of her second sets witnessed concerning wobbles that led to a fiercely contested three-setter on the former occasion and a second-set tiebreak on the latter.  En route to the Wimbledon title, Kvitova suffered similar mid-match lapses during two of her victories and candidly admitted that her focus deserted her.  When her mind wanders, she often starts to misfire and then loses control of her weapons with unnerving speed.  Essentially an offensive player only, Kvitova has no options in those situations other than to keep aiming for the lines and hope that she hammers a path out of her own doldrums.  To be sure, this match looks boring at first glance, but the Czech lefty has developed a habit of making the boring become interesting.  In a major quarterfinal, moreover, one cannot afford to take an opponent too lightly.

Murray vs. Nishikori:  To some extent, this match reminds us of the Wozniacki-Clijsters quarterfinal in its pairing of two counterpunchers, one of whom does everything just as well as the other and several things better.  For example, Murray can expect to win many more free points with his serve than can Nishikori, burdened by the pressure of more difficult service games.  Chipping away at Tsonga with a grittiness worthy of Ferrer, the top-ranked Japanese man has developed a game with very few flaws but not many weapons.  As his victory over Djokovic in Basel last fall demonstrated, he certainly can exploit a mediocre performance on mental or physical levels by a greater talent.  As his routine defeat to Murray in Asia last fall demonstrated, Nishikori struggles to solve an elite opponent on a day when that opponent delivers his finest tennis.  Having not played on Rod Laver Arena, he may start the first major quarterfinal of his career with uncertainty, although the experience of facing Nadal on a Wimbledon show court may allow him to settle his nerves.

Often subject to nerves himself at this stage of a major, Murray has kept his inner demons at bay so far with the assistance of the perennially calm Ivan Lendl.  When he lost his first set of the fortnight, usually a signal for a self-targeted harangue, the fourth seed regrouped relatively calmly to outlast the threat posed by Ryan Harrison.  Since then, no meaningful challenge has confronted the Scot, who received a retirement in the previous round and thus should bring greater energy to the match than Nishikori, perhaps depleted by his five-set duel with Tsonga.  It seems likely that Murray can win this match without venturing outside his natural, patient playing style, which bodes well for his success here but perhaps not for a probable semifinal with Djokovic.  When the competition spikes upward dramatically, can he adjust overnight?  No answers will come until Thursday in a rematch of last year’s final that should prove a worthy sequel to the Federer-Nadal collision a night before.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  In an odd quirk of tennis fate, the defending champion met Hewitt in the fourth round and Ferrer in the quarterfinals of his march to the 2008 title.  Defeating both of them in straight sets that year, he set a less encouraging precedent by needing four sets to foil the feisty challenge of the Australian champion.  Like Sharapova, however, the experience of playing his first competitive match of the tournament after a farcically dominant first week may assist Djokovic prepare mentally for the top-five opposition likely to confront him henceforth.  First among them is a Spaniard who shares Hewitt’s appetite for competition and has enjoyed recent success in Melbourne.  Although he benefited from an injury to Nadal, Ferrer performed valiantly in his semifinal appearance last year as he extended Murray—a much superior player on the surface—to a fourth-set tiebreak.  This year, Ferrer did not impress in an first-week epic against Ryan Sweeting, but he has played himself into the tournament with a commanding victory over Gasquet in which he effectively translated his brand of clay-court tennis to these medium-speed hard courts.

Through their previous meetings of these quarterfinalist winds a clear pattern of clay dominance for the Spaniard and hard-court dominance for the Serb, with the exception f two clashes at the year-end championship in which fatigue played a pivotal role.  Together with Murray, these men have honed the best returns in the ATP and should threaten each other’s serves repeatedly.  The prospect of losing serve does not intimidate Djokovic, who converted more break points than anyone on the Tour last year.  Despite improvements over the last few months, Ferrer’s serve remains the weakest element of his game and a key target for the world #1 to attack if he wishes to avoid a prolonged war of attrition, although he will feel grateful to play this match at night.  His fitness has improved dramatically since the start of last season, admittedly, but Djokovic will not want to exhaust himself on the eve of consecutive battles with Murray and the winner of the Federer-Nadal semifinal.  By redirecting the ball throughout rallies and taking time away from Ferrer with timely forays into the forecourt, he can neutralize the Spaniard’s principal virtues of consistency and stamina.  But Djokovic must strike just the right blend of control and aggression.


Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

Thrilled to reach the second week at the Australian Open for the first time since 2008, Ivanovic overcame a spirited challenge from Vania King as well as a lingering virus to arrange a rendezvous with a—perhaps “the”—tournament favorite.  Announcing that she had accomplished her goal for the fortnight, she cheerfully cast herself in the role of an underdog against a player who has not defeated her in three meetings.  During much of her post-2008 woes, Ivanovic continued to perceive herself as a leading contender at virtually every event that she entered.  Her recent definition of herself as someone who can “play a great match” or “upset a top player” (essentially, a dark horse) represented a welcome recognition of reality that likely will help her rebuild her game and confidence.

In the same round of  the US Open last fall, the former #1 faced a similar sort of obstacle in Serena but competed valiantly despite absorbing the loss.  Ivanovic hammered more winners than the 13-time Slam champion during that match, stepped inside the court whenever she could, and even swung freely at her opponent’s justly feared serve.  Now, she must deploy those tactics again.  Practically oozing a Serena-like power, Kvitova launches massive first strikes on her serve and return as well as her other groundstrokes.  Unable to track down balls with the alacrity of a Suarez Navarro, a player of Ivanovic’s type simply must aim to pull the trigger and decide the point before the Czech can.  After an unforeseen second-round wobble against the aforementioned Spaniard, Kvitova settled back into her groove against Kirilenko and should relish the steady rhythm of a fellow heavy hitter like Ivanovic.  Expect plenty of explosive shot-making from both sides of the net before the former #1 gracefully demurs to the future #1.

Murray vs. Kukushkin:  In one of the tournament’s most disorderly matches, Kukushkin blew a two-set lead against an oddly disinterested Monfils before weathering a comeback from the Frenchman, his own fatigue, and a curious disruption in the final game to preserve his perfect record in five-setters.  Also overcome by this opportunistic anonymity in a fifth set was Troicki, not an outstanding competitor on major stages but still much more talented than his nemesis.  Suffice it to say, therefore, that Murray will not want to tempt fate by letting his unseeded foe linger into a final stanza.  After losing the first set to Kukushkin in his first match of 2012, their only meeting so far, an irritable Scot recovered to control the encounter thenceforth. Under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl, the world #4 survived a four-set opening battle with Ryan Harrison that may have steeled him for the challenges ahead.  In his last two rounds, Murray looked scarcely more troubled than Djokovic as he subjected his opponents to the tennis version of death by a thousand cuts.  Although he occasionally has struck his forehand with more authority and has hinted at a greater willingness to approach the net, he has not needed to leave his counterpunching comfort zone thus far.  Murray should not need to exert himself or attempt anything extraordinary to reach a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, where the resistance might stiffen suddenly.

Makarova vs. Serena:  Into the second week for the second straight Australian Open, the Russian lefty banished her countrywoman Zvonareva with a combination of well-placed serves and blistering down-the-line groundstrokes.  A round before, in fact, Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi with even greater ease despite a surface suited more to the Estonian’s style.  Only once has she met Serena, losing routinely in Beijing on a somewhat slower court.  Rarely tested by any of her first three opponents, the woman who has won more Australian Open titles than any player in history did not find herself forced to play her best tennis during the first week.  Serena looked bored at times in her third-round victory over Greta Arn, while her greatest concern so far surrounds the insects that visit Rod Laver in the evenings.  Although she has played with heavy wrapping on her legs and ankles, her movement has looked reasonably efficient on the few occasions when her thunderous weapons do not win her the point within three or four shots.  Mustering surprising resistance to eventual champion Clijsters in the same round a year ago, Makarova will bring more self-belief than Serena’s previous opponents.  The Russian’s lefty groundstrokes will stretch the American along the baseline and may offer her less time to prepare her shots.  But Serena loves to create angles with her returns and groundstrokes, exploiting her natural athleticism to hit her most dangerous lasers while racing along the baseline.  Despite staying competitive for much of the match, Makarova never will threaten to win it.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  In the third game of the second set in Sharapova’s second-round match, something remarkable happened:  her opponent held serve without facing a break point.  All of her other 22 return games resulted in at least one break point—and 20 of them in a break.  Ravaging her opponent’s delivery with impunity, the 2008 champion has protected her own serve more smoothly than she has for much of her comeback.  Early in the second set of each match, though, Sharapova suffered a lull in her serve and the rest of her game after a nearly flawless first set.  At that stage occurred her two lost service games of the tournament, in addition to the bulk of her unforced errors.  For a set and a few games of Lisicki’s meeting with Kuznetsova, one expected an all-Russian meeting in the fourth round.  To the German’s great credit, though, she rebounded from a woeful start to steadily assert her mastery behind a massive first serve.  She will need that weapon to fire more regularly than during her previous meetings with Sharapova, who mauled her much less fearsome second serve in victories at Miami and Wimbledon last year.  Even when the Russian suffered a poor serving day at the All England Club, she still defeated Lisicki comfortably.  Those precedents suggest that her second meeting with a German in the fourth round of the Australian Open will unfold more successfully than its predecessor.  All the same, we have not seen Sharapova respond to pressure during this tournament as she has sizzled through matches while losing no more than two games in a set.  Lisicki could place her opponent in the unfamiliar situation of a competitive match, testing her under pressure, if she can survive the initial bombardment.  But it’s easier said than done.

Djokovic vs. Hewitt:  Soaked with emotion was the Australian veteran’s triumph over mighty prodigy Raonic under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  After losing the first set for the second straight match, Hewitt weathered several miniature momentum shifts in the three sets that followed as he defused the Canadian’s power, exploiting his low first-serve percentage.  What reward does the home hope receive for his labors?  In order to stay competitive, he will need to play even better tennis than he did while winning his first three matches.  To win a set from Djokovic, Hewitt must find his first serve whenever he needs it, finish points at the net, and pepper the baseline with both of his groundstrokes.  At his age, such a complete display of offensive ability probably lies behind his grasp, even with the Australian crowd vigorously supporting him.  Throughout his career, Djokovic has played especially fine tennis when he has not one but thousands of opponents to conquer; among examples, one might reflect back to his victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open or his victory over Tsonga when he won in Melbourne for the first time.  If he senses especially fierce opposition on Sunday night, then, he merely will redouble his efforts to crush it.  Surrendering just ten games in nine sets so far, the world #1 has stayed relaxed without slipping into carelessness as he openly uses his matches to work on less impressive facets of his game.  Although Hewitt won a set in each of their Wimbledon encounters, Djokovic recorded a routine straight-sets victory when they met four years ago in the same round on the same court.  During the four years that have passed, the Serb has grown infinitely more dangerous, while Lleyton has faded nearly as sharply.  Neither of those trends bodes well for the survival of the last Australian remaining in either draw.

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Nishikori vs. Tsonga:  When they collided for the first time last fall, the top-ranked Japanese man stunned the top-ranked Frenchman in one of the latter’s few disappointments during the span from Wimbledon to the year-end championships.  Extending his momentum through the offseason, Tsonga collected the Doha title uneventfully and has won 13 straight matches against opponents other than Federer as he seeks his fourth consecutive final.  In the section of the draw that lacks a member of the Big Three, he must fancy his chances of reaching his third semifinal at the major where he has enjoyed the most success.  Celebrated much more for his athleticism than for his focus, Tsonga often wobbles at some stage during the first week against some unheralded foe.  This year, by contrast, he has rolled through three matches while losing only one set and growing more impressive with each round, much like Del Potro.  Dropping the first two sets to Matthew Ebden before mounting a comeback, Nishikori lost the first set to Benneteau and should have counted himself fortunate not tot trail by two sets to one.  That lesser Frenchman served for the third set no fewer than three times, at which moment the Bolletieri product demonstrated remarkable resilience by refusing to relinquish his toehold on it.  Breaking Benneteau’s resolve as well as his serve, Nishikori returned fearlessly even when in danger, a trait that should benefit him against Tsonga.  But his own delivery remains relatively benign by ATP standards, so he fares best in a match of breaks and long rallies.  The sixth seed enjoys neither of those events, preferring to dominate behind his serve and hurtle towards the net to finish points.  Despite the modest speed of these hard courts, Tsonga should impose himself upon the underdog once more.

Gasquet vs. Ferrer:  During a fine first half of 2011, the Frenchman surged towards the threshold of the top 10 and recorded victories over four top-10 opponents while reaching an Indian Wells quarterfinal, a Rome semifinal, and the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Much less productive in the second half, Gasquet slipped to the edges of the top 20.  Such ebbs and flows have characterized his career, whereas Ferrer has embedded himself in the top 10 with the same relentlessness that he has shown on the court in contesting each point.  To no surprise, then, the Spaniard has won five of their six meetings in a rivalry that has not featured a single final set or any encounter in which the winning player lost more than seven games.  In the best-of-five format at a major, where they have not played before, Ferrer’s tenacity and superior fitness would seem to place him at an even greater advantage.  Although the extended length allows Gasquet more time to strike one of his patented flawless streaks, it also allows the Spaniard more time to recover from it.  Forced to five sets by Ryan Sweeting, last year’s semifinalist did not dominate as resoundingly as one would expect in the first week.  By contrast, Gasquet has grown increasingly imposing with a sequence of victories that led to a straight-sets demolition of Tipsarevic, admittedly not at his best that day.  One need look no further than their respective backhands to understand their contrasting approaches to the game, Ferrer’s a compact model of efficiency and Gasquet’s an aesthetic wonder worthy of an artist.

Errani vs. Zheng:  Fortunate to reach the fourth round of a major, Errani marched through the section that once contained Stosur and would become a most improbable Slam quarterfinalist, even by recent WTA standards.  The Italian doubles specialist lacks any noteworthy weapons and instead wins matches through consistency as well as fine forecourt skills, which she has showcased for her nation in Fed Cup.  Also a greater presence in doubles than in singles, Zheng did reach the semifinals here and at Wimbledon behind her streamlined groundstrokes and alert anticipation.  Compensating for her tiny physique with crisp footwork, she uses the full weight of her body behind shots that penetrate the court more effectively than one would expect.  Nevertheless, neither of these players can compensate for serves that earn them virtually no free points, or for second serves that properly should have a bow tied around them.  A superior returner to Errani, Zheng might capitalize more skillfully upon this weakness that they share.  She also enjoys the advantage of momentum, accumulated through an eight-match winning streak that culminated with an upset over Bartoli.  Through her first three matches, Zheng has defeated opponents with a variety of experience and playing styles, ranging from the double-fisted strokes of the Frenchwoman to the biting backhand slices of Vinci and the straightforward power tactics of Madison Keys.  When she faces the relatively bland Errani, that experience should help her adjust to whatever the Italian will offer.

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.

 

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open Previews

Overcome by Makarova in her first Melbourne match last year, Ivanovic strides towards a less formidable obstacle in the diminutive Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino.  Never have they met before, but the Serb possesses far superior weapons on every stroke and should pummel her opponent’s weak serve with aggressive returning.  Rather than reaching for her more nuanced, stylish gambits, she should stick to straightforward first-strike tennis for an efficient victory.  The first round invariably triggers nerves in even the most prominent contenders, so this match might provide a glimpse into how steady Ivanovic’s serve stays when her mind grows tense.  Nevertheless, Day 2 offers many more intriguing and suspenseful matches, of which we now preview our favorites.

Dushevina vs. Kvitova:   Falling in the first round of the US Open, Kvitova lost six of nine matches on outdoor hard courts during the spring and summer of 2011.  The favorite for the title notwithstanding, she faces a potentially tricky encounter against a woman who has an uncanny knack for threatening far superior players from both Williams sisters to Sharapova and Ivanovic.  At first glance, one struggles to discern what in Dushevina’s game can pose such difficulty.  But her lack of a clear strength or weakness, as well as her marked fluctuations in form, can confuse and frustrate opponents as they seek to develop a strategy.  If Kvitova strikes her shots with relentless authority, she should overpower the Russian in a match scarcely more competitive than Azarenka’s first-round victory.  If she succumbs to complacency and underestimates her opponent, on the other hand, the second seed might not advance as comfortably as she should.

Paszek vs. Serena:  A surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Paszek reinvigorated a career that had disappointed over the previous few years following injuries and sporadic play.  Australian fans might recall her as the player who nearly upset Jankovic in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, while others might remember the pronouncements of Henin and others who identified her as a key talent of the next generation.  Unlikely to fulfill those prophecies at this stage, Paszek projects little power from her serve and does not quite fit into the mold of either attacker or counterpuncher.  All the same, she does deliver penetrating groundstrokes from both wings and will approach Serena with more optimism than many first-round opponents.  The American has accumulated an immaculate record in the first round of majors but often doesn’t bring her finest tennis to the very beginning of a tournament.  Watch her attempts to change direction along the baseline to see whether the ankle injury incurred in Brisbane affects her mobility.

Kirilenko vs. Gajdosova: After she absorbed a humiliating double bagel against Bartoli in Hopman Cup, Gajdosova fell well short of defending her Hobart title.  The second-ranked Australian woman thus hopes to salvage her January with a creditable performance in Melbourne.  Reaching the quarterfinals here two years ago, Kirilenko may find this medium-speed surface more suited to her style than will her uncompromisingly aggressive foe.  The Russian should aim to exploit Gajdosova’s impatience by pinning her behind the baseline without offering her the pace that she relishes.  Skilled in doubles as well as in singles, Kirilenko acquits herself impressively from everywhere on the court.  Whereas the Aussie stays at the baseline except to dispatch point-ending swing volleys, the Russian can venture towards the net with confidence.  That tactic should work effectively to rush the slow-footed Gajdosova.

Sharapova vs. Dulko:  Recovering from an ankle injury sustained at Tokyo last fall, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since the US Open and none at all in 2012.  Understandably in those circumstances, she looked sporadically brilliant and sporadically hapless during a practice match with Vesnina a few days ago.  Memories of her first-round exit from the 2010 Australian Open flicker into one’s mind, considering her rustiness and the steadiness of her opponent.  Although she has distinguished herself more in doubles than in singles, most recently with Pennetta, Dulko has slain many a notable champion at a prestigious tournament.  Among her victims were Henin at Indian Wells and Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, but the willowy Argentine also toppled defending finalist Stosur at Roland Garros last year.  Quite literally overshadowed by the three-time major champion, she can unleash surprising power with her forehand and will bring valuable experience to their encounter.  When she upset Sharapova before, Dulko unsettled the Russian’s wayward serve with bold returning.  Her own serve offers a vulnerable target for the WTA’s leading returner, however, so expect a match onf uneven quality littered with breaks.

Murray vs. Harrison:  Before one feels sorry for Ryan Harrison’s unfortunate luck in drawing Murray for his first-round opponent, one should remember that Harrison probably doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  Never bereft of confidence against leading opponents, the brash American youngster stretched Federer to a first-set tiebreak at Indian Wells a year ago before winning two sets from Ferrer at Wimbledon.  To be sure, Ferrer on grass poses a much less daunting challenge than Murray on a hard court, especially the hard court where he has defeated Nadal and reached two major finals.  But Harrison should enjoy the experience of playing this grand stage, albeit Hisense rather than Rod Laver Arena, and opponents who have assaulted the Scot with abandon have reaped rewards from that strategy before.  Across the best-of-five format, Murray’s far superior versatility and depth should suffocate Harrison and expose his mediocre backhand.  American fans should not expect a sequel to Tomic’s accomplishment, then, but they reasonably can expect a strong competitive effort from their nation’s leading man when these two temperamental perfectionists collide.

Haase vs. Roddick:  Dominant through two sets against Murray at the US Open, the lanky Dutchman somehow lost the script and ultimately the match.  This pattern defined much of Haase’s 2011 campaign, which featured no fewer than twelve defeats in which he had won the first set.  Early in that series, he won the first set from Roddick at this tournament a year ago, came within a tiebreak of winning the second set, and then faded thereafter as an apparent ankle injury overtook him.  Can Haase finish what he started this time?  As Roddick’s career has waned, he has won fewer and fewer free points with his serve, leaving him more susceptible to shot-makers like Haase.  Consistency and experience represent his greatest weapons, though, and both of those should serve him well against an opponent who has much to prove regarding his competitive resilience.

Dokic vs. Chakvetadze:  When they met three Australian Opens ago, one of these women still held a prominent position in the WTA, and the other sought to mount a comeback from obscurity.  Now, both Dokic and Chakvetadze seek to revive their careers from potentially terminal setbacks on both physical and mental levels.  In addition to their experience in adversity, they share similarities in the strengths and flaws of their games, such as a tendency towards double faults and a talent for redirecting their groundstrokes, which skim low over the net.  During a promising week in Hobart, Chakvetadze defeated Pironkova and won a set from Peer before retiring ominously.  During an odd week in Sydney, Dokic served a double bagel to her first opponent and then nearly ate another from Bartoli.  All of this evidence suggests that we should expect the unexpected in a meeting of two personalities strung more tightly than their rackets.

Zvonareva vs. Dulgheru:  Strung tightly herself throughout a lopsided Sydney loss to Kuznetsova, Zvonareva looks ripe for an upset as she attempts to defend semifinal points.  Dulgheru overcame Kvitova in the first round of the US Open, battled Sharapova to a third-set tiebreak in Miami, and extended Kvitova to a third set in Sydney last week.  Although the Romanian rarely has progressed deep into tournaments, she mounts a credible threat on all surfaces with her excellent court coverage and clean backhand.  Those strengths shouldn’t suffice to defeat a top-10 opponent, of course, but Zvonareva rarely has played like a woman in the top 10 over the last several months.  Far in the distant past now, seemingly, are her consecutive major finals in 2010.  After those twin peaks to her career, she has slid backwards steadily.

Mahut vs. Stepanek:  Lilting around the court with a panache undimmed by age, these serve-volley artists probably would prefer a faster surface, like grass or an indoor hard court.  Vestiges of a nearly vanished area, Mahut and Stepanek will engage in truncated points that display a mixture of power and touch.  Neither can muster the consistency to survive extended rallies, so the audience should focus on the precision with which they place their serves and their approach shots, a demonstration more intellectual than aesthetically pleasing but still intriguing for its rarity.

Keys vs. Zheng:  After Christina McHale overcame Safarova, another young American woman aims to continue her nation’s momentum.  The Auckland titlist, Zheng peppers the baseline with flat, low groundstrokes that bedevil tall players.  Her opponent remains a work in progress, still raw and far from mature while filled with potential that merited a wildcard into the main draw.  With a serve that regularly reaches triple digits already, she can target Zheng’s much weaker delivery with her returns to capitalize upon this advantage to the fullest.  In this clash of two players with such different styles, Keys should view this opportunity as another step on her long evolutionary journey.

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

Petra Kvitova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

Whereas only a few of the 128 men in Melbourne will harbor serious title aspirations, several top women can set their sights legitimately upon the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  In fact, the list probably extends beyond these elite eight.

Kvitova:  While her Wimbledon title represented a breakthrough unprecedented for her generation, she dazzled just as brightly she charged undefeated through five top-eight opponents at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Kvitova’s groundstrokes whistled past her victims with a ferocity that froze even the WTA’s most agile movers.  To be sure, the courts at Melbourne resemble neither the grass of Wimbledon nor the fast indoor surface of Istanbul, which only enhanced her power.  If she aims to collect her second major in Australia, she must curb her chronic impatience and prepare for slightly longer points.  No opponent or situation intimidates her, though, as Kvitova demonstrated at the All England Club, and her serve has become not only fierce but generally reliable in a combination rare for the WTA.

Wozniacki:  Clinging to the #1 ranking at the time of this writing, the Dane looked increasingly burdened by the pressure of her position as 2011 progressed.  Thus, the more relaxed atmosphere of Australia might serve as a welcome tonic to her spirits.  Wozniacki advanced within a point of the Australian Open final last year, felled only by an exceptionally inspired Li Na.  Although she still lacks an elite weapon and probably always will, her defense remains as stingy as ever, forcing opponents to sustain a high level of precision throughout an entire match.  Outside her recent meetings with Kvitova, she has dominated most rivals from her generation, including Azarenka.  But coach Ricardo Sanchez, best known for guiding Jankovic to nowhere, seems a dubious choice of vehicle for the Dane’s evolution into a champion.

Azarenka:  Somewhat neglected in Kvitova’s brilliance at the year-end championships was the formidable week that Vika enjoyed at that event, which concluded the best season of her career so far.  Somewhat reminiscent of Djokovic in her sophisticated transition game, Azarenka should benefit as does the Serb on the medium-speed hard courts where she twice has threatened Serena.  Despite her inexorable rise in the rankings, though, she still seeks her first major final and lost all three of her marquee collisions with Kvitova last year, albeit in tightly contested fashion.  One of the WTA’s premier returners, Azarenka may need to improve both her first and second serve to win a major.  Her famously explosive temper, another longtime weakness, has receded as she has matured into a sturdier competitor.

Sharapova:  During what remains the best fortnight of her career, the three-time major champion swept to the 2008 title while exploiting the relatively high bounce of the courts, which brought balls into her favored strike zone.  In her last two appearances there, by contrast, Sharapova has struggled to find her rhythm in unsightly losses to Kirilenko and Petkovic.  Hampered by her slow recovery from an ankle injury, she has played only four complete matches since the US Open, so rust may play a role again.  In such an open draw, though, her experience on these stages could prove almost as valuable as her vicious return.  If she can survive the first few rounds, Sharapova should grow ever more dangerous as her confidence and momentum accumulate.

Serena:  Until an ankle injury struck without warning, the US Open runner-up had started 2012 in imposing fashion at Brisbane.  After losing at the 2009 US Open in deflating fashion, Serena rebounded to win the next major in her characteristic zeal for resolving unfinished business.  On that occasion as on many others, she shrugged off nagging injuries to defeat opponents as accomplished as Azarenka, Li, and Henin.  Even and perhaps especially in a battered state, Serena brings a fearsome degree of willpower to the court in addition to the most imposing serve and the most natural athleticism in the field.  As her career wanes, so will each of those strengths, but one sense that she didn’t return from her protracted absence without Slam glory firmly in mind.

Clijsters:  Blighted by injuries since she won this title a year ago, the defending champion began this season in discouraging fashion with yet another withdrawal.  Like Serena, Clijsters can win almost at will and needed little preparation before winning the US Open as the first major of her second career.  Affectionately dubbed “Aussie Kim,” she will not lack for crowd support at a tournament that appreciates her human qualities.  Clijsters remains susceptible to the unexpected wobble against an anonymous opponent, and her confidence fluctuates more often than it should in view of her status as a four-time major champion.  When the Belgian takes her time and maintains her composure, her game becomes a smooth, efficient mechanism with few flaws.

Stosur:  After bathing in glory half a world away, the Australian #1 returned to her homeland—and promptly tripped over herself in both Brisbane and Sydney.  Uninspired in consecutive losses to Benesova and Schiavone, Stosur has not reached a quarterfinal in nine Melbourne appearances.  Still, her kick serve can extract her from many a predicament, while she should have even more time than at the US Open to run around her backhand and hit forehands.  In the US Open final, she rose to the occasion far more courageously than anyone could have expected, demonstrating both that she can overpower virtually any opponent when at her best and that she can display her best tennis at the most important moments.

Li:  Having accomplished little of note since June, Li arrived at the Hopman Cup searching for a spark.  That spark seemed to arrive with a comeback victory over Bartoli that catalyzed a perfect week in singles.  As we write, she has just defused the dangerous Safarova in a Sydney quarterfinal, suggesting that last year’s finalist might rediscover her game at just the right moment.  Defending a vast quantity of points this month, Li must insulate herself from the pressure that could lead to a third straight precipitous Slam exit.  Probably the streakiest inhabitant of an exceptionally streaky top 10, she remains its most compelling enigma.

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