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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

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

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point during the Men's Singles Final match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 4, 2010 in London, England.

Gentlemen:

First quarter:  Just one major after he narrowly escaped from Isner, Nadal may find himself forced to topple two more giants in the precocious Raonic and the resurgent Del Potro in order to reach the quarterfinals.  The world #1 at least can settle into the tournament with two comfortable rounds before confronting the Canadian, whose thunderous serve and deft forecourt touch should pose compelling threats on grass.  Least comfortable on this surface, Del Potro may struggle against the more compact strokes of Simon in the third round despite his vast advantage over the Frenchman on serve.  At the base of this quarter lies 2010 runner-up Berdych, a first-round loser at two of the three majors since that breakthrough.  The sixth seed crumbled quickly when defending his Roland Garros semifinal, and the pressure of defending 1,400 points will weigh heavily on his fragile mind.  Nevertheless, Berdych should progress comfortably to the second week unless an opportunistic journeyman like Julien Benneteau can emulate Stephane Robert’s feat at Roland Garros.  Like Del Potro, Verdasco displays his least convincing tennis on grass and has watched his ranking slide inexorably downwards during a season-long slump.  Perhaps most likely to clash with Nadal in the quarterfinals, therefore, is tenth-seeded Mardy Fish.  Despite sporadic injury struggles, the American has shone on grass before but lacks the versatile arsenal to upset the top seed.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Greatest threats:  Raonic, Fish

Second quarter:  As Murray-mania descends upon Wimbledon once again, the Centre Court crowds may grow familiar with anonymous figures like Gimeno-Traver and Kavcic.  Probably the softest quarter, Murray’s section contains no fewer than six qualifiers and two wildcards.  But it also contains 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist Gasquet, who has returned to relevance this year with an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Rome semifinal, and an unprecedented second-week run at Roland Garros.  Three years ago, the Scot entangled the Frenchman in a memorable five-setter on these lawns in which his superior fitness and fiercer competitive desire ultimately overcame his opponent’s superior artistry.  Among the intriguing openers in this section are the all-Croatian clash between Ljubicic and Cilic and the intra-Balkan clash between Tipsarevic and Karlovic.  Barely a presence since Indian Wells, world #10 Roddick benefited considerably from Wimbledon’s grass-court formula to gain a top-eight seed and avoid a fourth-round meeting with a contender.  Nevertheless, the three-time finalist may tangle with the dangerous Feliciano Lopez, who hammered 35 aces while extending the American into a third set at Queens Club.  Thoroughly dominated by Murray at that tournament, Roddick might gain confidence from his victory over the Scot in their 2009 semifinal.  In the last two years, though, illness, injury, and erratic play have exposed the American’s one-dimensionality, which he shares with most of the players around him.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Greatest threat:  Roddick

Third quarter:  Drawn in the same half with Djokovic for the fourth straight Slam, Federer should arrive in their semifinal without excessive exertions.  Fading towards retirement, notorious underachiever Nalbandian probably cannot challenge the Swiss over the course of five sets.  Equally unlikely to mount a convincing challenge is Almagro, who fell in the first round of the Dutch Open as the top seed and struggles to fit his elongated swings to the grass.  Nor is the Spaniard the only clay-court specialist in this section, for seventh-seeded Ferrer would face Federer in the quarterfinals should all unfold according to plan.  A plausible candidate to disrupt that narrative, Tsonga reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year behind his electrifying first-strike weapons.  Edging within a tiebreak of the Queens Club title, the Frenchman collected a morale-boosting victory over Nadal before severely testing Murray.  Although injuries and dips in motivation have prevented his evolution into a consistent contender, Tsonga still possesses the ability to unleash a crescendo of inspired performances at a major.  In the third round, he might face the winner of an intriguing opening duel between Dolgopolov and the aging Gonzalez, which will pit fluid grace against raw power.  Once extending Nadal to five sets at the All England Club, Youzhny might collide with Federer on the second Monday if he can overcome Isner.  The towering American cannot generate more headlines than he did at the last Wimbledon, but he will hope to record a few more wins.

Semfiinalist:  Federer

Greatest threat:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  Aiming to halt his one-match losing streak, Djokovic enters Wimbledon with scant grass-court preparation but looked impressive during pre-tournament exhibitions.  The Serb announced his determination to conquer the sport’s citadel last month despite his less confident movement on grass.  A two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, Djokovic might reprise an epic 2007 encounter with Baghdatis in the third round, while South African giant Kevin Anderson might lurk in the second round.  Should the second seed survive those obstacles, his path might grow smoother with docile compatriot Troicki or perhaps serve-and-volleying Frenchman Michael Llodra, who conquered him at the Paris Indoors last fall but could not trouble him in Dubai this year.  His route barred by only the eventual champion at the last two Wimbledons, Soderling hopes to rebound from a tepid spring by overcoming battle-scarred veterans like Hewitt and Davydenko.  A year after unsettling Federer in the first round, Alejandro Falla could trouble Melzer in the aftermath of an impressive French Open.  Joining heavy-hitting Russians Tursunov and Gabashvili are the formerly promising Gulbis and the still-promising Nishikori in a section of players with talent disproportionate to their accomplishments.  Yet Soderling remains the most probable candidate to progress through this wilderness of enigmatic competitors, presenting Djokovic with a quarterfinal opponent whom he has dominated on all other surfaces.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Greatest threat:  None

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Murray, Federer vs. Djokovic

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Roger Federer

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russian Federation celebrates a point during the women's singles round one match against Stephanie Foretz of France on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 24, 2008 in London, England.

Ladies:

First quarter:  Although world #1 Wozniacki perches atop this section, the most formidable contender prowls at its base.  Reaching the semifinals or better in four of her last five tournaments, Sharapova accumulated momentum this spring for the first time in her comeback.  Like Djokovic, the 2004 champion enters Wimbledon this year without match practice on grass, but she has routinely smothered opening-round opponent Chakvetadze.  Unless pugnacious British teen Robson can emulate Caroline Garcia in the second round, Sharapova should maneuver through a draw filled with powerful but erratic opponents such as Safarova. Although Stosur represents the Russian’s sternest competition on paper, the resilient Peng in fact might prove her greatest cause for concern.  Winning a set from Sharapova at Indian Wells in March, Peng extended the finest season of her career by reaching the Birmingham semifinal.  Nevertheless, Stosur reached the semifinals a week later at Eastbourne with a slightly surprising triumph over third-ranked Zvonareva.  Aligned against Wozniacki in a potential third-round clash is Jarmila Gajdosova, the type of heavy hitter who could prevent the Dane from finding a rhythm in short points.  On the second Monday, the top seed should face one of two contrasting opponents who have combined for three victories against her in 2011.  Whereas Cibulkova relies on her movement and compact strokes, Goerges showcases an outstanding serve and massive forehand in a game seemingly better suited for grass.  But only one player in this quarter has left an imprint on this surface before.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Greatest threat:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Whereas the first quarter features only one former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, this region features no fewer than seven who have attained that stage here before.  Possibly colliding in the second round are two of those figures, newly crowned Roland Garros champion Li Na and newly crowned Birmingham champion Lisicki.  Between them, however, stands volatile Russian Kudryavtseva, who upset Sharapova and nearly Venus on the lawns before as her high-risk title ignited at timely moments.  The survivor of Li-Lisicki then might collide with 2008 semifinalist Zheng, well below her best since a wrist injury last year but still a competitor of underestimated ferocity.  Although Ivanovic’s 2007 semifinal lies four long years ago, the Serb also reached the second week in 2009 and will have lifted her spirits after a Birmingham semifinal as well as an Eastbourne victory over Goerges.  Not quite a title contender, two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska has found surprising success on these fast courts, which reward her delicate touch and amplify her serve.  After thrusting into the Roland Garros semifinals, 2007 runner-up Bartoli extended her momentum with an Eastbourne title run built upon victories over Stosur and Kvitova.  Back in the top 10, the double-fisted Frenchwoman should face little opposition until the second Monday, when she would meet the defending champion.  If Serena stays fit and Li focused, they should reprise last year’s quarterfinal.  Both of those questions loom large indeed, however, considering their history.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Greatest threat:  Li

Third quarter:  Alternately stunning and shaky in recent weeks, the seeds who bookend this quarter will have little time to settle into a groove.  Confronted by Dutch Open runner-up Dokic, Schiavone hopes to avoid her early 2010 exit at the major that exposes her offensive shortcomings from the baseline.  Tasked with powerful albeit feckless Slovak Rybarikova, Azarenka will attempt to rebound swiftly from her Eastbourne retirement.  Vika usually has followed those concessions with sparkling performances, though, springing back from an Indian Wells retirement with a Miami title and from a Stuttgart retirement with a Madrid final.  The leading headline of the preparatory events, Hantuchova has defeated Wozniacki, Ivanovic, and Venus in her last three tournaments before also retiring from Eastbourne.  If her injury proves insignificant, she might ruffle Azarenka’s composure in the third round.  Seeking her third consecutive Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic eyes a comfortable first-week draw with few potential foes who can match her self-belief.  Already extending Azarenka to two three-setters this season, meanwhile, budding Russian Pavlyuchenkova seeks to capitalize upon her quarterfinal (near-semifinal) at the previous major.  Pounding winners through the clay from both wings, she should find the grass even better suited to her power-heavy, movement-light style.  Pavlyuchenkova’s compatriot Makarova also stands poised to garner attention for her quirky left-handed game and forecourt skills, honed through her doubles experience.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Greatest threats:  Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic

Fourth quarter:  Spared an early-round meeting with her sister, Venus instead might collide with familiar foe Jankovic in the first week.  Outside the top 10 for the first time in four years, the Serb rarely has enjoyed her visits to Wimbledon, although she reached the second week last year.  The elder Williams looked initially impressive during her Eastbourne week with victories over Petkovic and Ivanovic before her first career loss to Hantuchova cast a pall upon those achievements.  At the bottom of this quarter stands 2010 finalist Zvonareva, likely to respond to the pressure of defending her points with little more resilience than her counterpart Berdych.  After an encouraging victory over Serena at Eastbourne, the second seed slumped to a demoralizing defeat against Stosur as a frustratingly inconsistent season continued.  Handed a relatively comfortable draw, Vera could reprise last year’s semifinal triumph over Pironkova in the third round before battling the winner of the marquee Venus-Jankovic collision.  Nevertheless, the most imposing threat may spring from the upper section of this quarter, from which Kvitova will launch her bid to reach a second straight Wimbledon semifinal.  If she can escape an early stumble, this Czech lefty will gather momentum with each round.  Falling only to eventual champion Li at Roland Garros, she remains less consistent than one expects from a contender but sufficiently confident to ambush a rusty Venus or a fragile Zvonareva.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Greatest threat:  V. Williams

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. S. Willliams, Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Final:  Sharapova vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Maria Sharapova

 

Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

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Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

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Welcome to the debut of our daily preview series on all of the Wimbledon action, which will briefly discuss an intriguing topic from the previous day’s action before examining several key matches in detail.  They will conclude with a “briefly noted” section on matches of lesser interest that might be worth more casual attention when the central action ebbs.  Since there’s little to discuss from today’s action beyond the arrangement of Federer’s trophy room (read his interview if you haven’t already), we ignite this series by previewing a former champion who will grace Centre Court on Monday.  No, not you, Roger.

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Robson (W) vs. Jankovic (4) (Centre Court, 2nd match):  Eagerly embracing drama and intrigue, the fourth seed should relish her opening Centre Court clash with Great Britain’s leading female hope, a junior champion in 2008.  A lefty with a modest serve but aggressive groundstrokes, Robson is more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the pressure of her surroundings.  Surprisingly declining to enter a grass prep, Jankovic may need time to adjust to her weakest surface and settle into the match, which could provide an early opportunity upon which the teenager must capitalize.  Although Serb suffered a startling loss to Oudin here last year, she remains too steady to succumb to a largely untested opponent unless one of her chronic, innumerable health issues intervenes.  But Robson might well win a set and temporarily ignite the fervor of British fans.

Djokovic (3) vs. Rochus (Centre Court, 3rd match):  After upsetting Murray in his Miami opener, Fish sprang a second ambush on the Scot during the grass season.  Can the diminutive Rochus, who likewise upset Djokovic in his Miami opener, also repeat the accomplishment on grass.  The Belgian oddly has won three of their four previous meetings, none of which have been played in the best-of-five format; nevertheless, the Serb won their only collision on grass.  Despite his unimpressive stature, Rochus maximizes the pace upon his groundstrokes with compact, well-timed swings and crisp footwork.  Falling to the enigmatic Xavier Malisse at Queens Club, Djokovic did hone his grass skills later that week by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich.  Crucial to his success at Wimbledon will be his recently remodeled serve, which faltered in the Miami match with Rochus.  When the Serb’s serve wobbles, so does his confidence, and an alert counterpuncher like the Belgian can take advantage.  This match is Djokovic’s to win or lose; he’ll probably win it, but not without some ado.   

Anderson vs. Davydenko (7) (Court 1, 1st match): Never at his most formidable on grass, Davydenko returned from a two-month injury absence in Halle, where he won a match before losing to former Wimbledon nemesis Benjamin Becker.  Generally considered one of the ATP’s premier returners, his talents in that arena will be severely tested by a South African giant (6’7”) whose delivery should scoot through this fast surface.  Since the seventh seed will struggle to break, he’ll feel additional pressure on his own service games.  On the other hand, Murray thumped Anderson at the Australian Open and broke his serve almost at will, while the South African has yet to score a win over a marquee player at a marquee event.  Beyond the serve, he’ll be overwhelmingly outgunned by Davydenko from the baseline, and his net prowess remains indifferent at best.  If Anderson doesn’t maintain an extremely high first-serve percentage, a challenging task in a best-of-five format, he lacks the consistency to trouble the Russian.

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Fish vs. Tomic (Q) (Court 2, 2nd match):  Reaching the Queens Club final with impressive wins over Murray and Lopez, the American veteran illustrated his continuing relevance in singles despite a mediocre 2010.  His first-strike, serve-and-volley aggression should suit the grass, but he confronts a future top-20 or possibly top-10 star who already has performed impressively at this level.  In Melbourne, Tomic extended Cilic to five compelling sets with fluid movement, balanced groundstrokes, and more versatility than one would expect from such a relatively raw player.  Will youth or experience triumph?  Fish needs to relentlessly move forward behind his imposing first serve and perhaps behind second serves as well.  Once Tomic lures him into a neutral baseline rally, the teenager’s superior consistency and durability would prevail, allowing him to set up a potential rematch with Cilic.  Therefore, the American must attempt to engage in a vertical battle of forward movement, while the Australian will seek to engage in a horizontal battle of lateral movement.  Fish should hit many more winners and many more errors, but the key to the match will be the length of point; the longer, the better for Tomic.

Hercog vs. Shvedova (30) (Court 8, 2nd match):  A lanky Slovenian teenager, Hercog achieved her first impact in the WTA by surging to the Acapulco final with victories over Szavay and Suarez Navarro; once there, she demonstrated impressive maturity by winning a set from Venus.  Since that breakthrough, she crushed Safarova at the French Open while winning sets from Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Peer.  Across the net stands unexpected Roland Garros quarterfinalist Shvedova, who underlined her own maturation by conquering the mental challenge of Radwanska and the physical challenge of Kleybanova.  Consecutive wins over those almost diametrically opposed playing styles testified to the Kazakh’s development into an all-court player with sufficient consistency to complement her long-impressive power.  While both players will require more time to evolve, they comprise part of the answer to the omnipresent question “who’s next?” in the WTA.  More important than who wins or loses here is how they respond to various match situations and the pressure inherent at this prestigious event.

Wickmayer (15) vs. Riske (W) (Court 14, 3rd match):  The All England Club took a bit of a Riske by awarding the American a wildcard following a Birmingham semifinal run that saw her depose Wozniak and Wickmayer.  Distinctly underwhelming since a Miami quarterfinal appearance, the third highest-ranked Belgian recently endured arthroscopic surgery on her elbow, flopped miserably against Clijsters at Eastbourne, and failed to break Riske’s serve at all during their three-set confrontation.  If the American wildcard enters the court with a positive attitude, she’ll already possess an advantage over the waffling Belgian.  The draw would open up a little for her after an upset, so she must discipline herself to control her emotions and play steady, intelligent tennis, which might well be good enough. 

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Peer (13) vs. Ivanovic (Court TBA, not before 17:00 local time):  Having surprisingly reached the second week at last year’s Wimbledon, Ivanovic faces a moderately significant rankings drop should she fail to score the mini-upset here.  Not at her best on grass, Peer fell to Zheng in her Eastbourne opener after an excellent clay season.  As usual, the Serb’s serve will play a pivotal role in what could be a Centre Court clash; following a disastrous Roland Garros, that shot rebounded to deliver 23 aces in her two matches at the UNICEF Open, where her three-set loss to Petkovic looked more respectable when the German came within two games of the title.  Much more consistent and balanced, the Israeli will try to extend Ivanovic along the baseline, set up crosscourt backhand exchanges, and pin the Serb into awkward positions when she unleashes her high-risk groundstrokes.  Peer always represents a challenging mental test as well, brimming with competitive vigor and intense focus.  Yet grass generally favors bold aggressors more than sturdy counterpunchers (ahem, Murray), pleasant news for the Serb.  The match should play out a bit like Fish-Tomic, with Ivanovic moving forward, shortening points, and littering the statistics sheet with far more winners and far more errors than her adversary.  If she brings a positive, confident mind to the match, she’ll give herself the opportunity to move forward into an invitingly weak area of the draw.

Briefly noted:  Fresh from an improbable title run in Eastbourne, today’s sensation Makarova intersects with the rapidly fading but still sporadically dangerous Szavay.  Not so fresh from an even more improbable title run in Paris, Schiavone prepares to battle Vera Dushevina in a clash of two all-court games; Dushevina nearly upset Venus, Serena, and Sharapova within the past year, so don’t be surprised to witness an upset here.  Nadal’s nemesis from Queens Club, Feliciano Lopez, will test a recently injured shoulder against fellow lefty Jesse Levine, while the still huge-serving Karolina Sprem quietly continues her comeback against Fed Cup heroine Bethanie Mattek-Sands.  As spring turns to summer, the expectations will mount on Melanie Oudin to recapitulate her outstanding performances from Wimbledon and the US Open a year ago.  The Georgian has achieved little of note so far in 2010 and faces a much more powerful although much more erratic opponent in Anna-Lena Groenefeld; a win here might open the door for another second-week appearance.  Taking aim at the streaky Wawrinka is Nadal’s near-nemesis from Queens Club, Denis Istomin, whose powerful offense might unsettle an adversary who opted to enter a clay challenger in his native Switzerland rather than a grass prep. 

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We return tomorrow with previews of opening rounds for the bottom half of the men’s draw and the top half of the women’s draw.  If any particular matches seem especially worthy to you, you’re welcome to mention any preferences in the comments or write to us on Twitter about them.  We’ve fulfilled all requests so far!