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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.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

In a WTA rife with comebacks, injuries, and opportunists, the middle weekend often offers tennis as scintillating as the tournament’s climax.  That theme may continue with a fourth-round rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final, which will feature two of the three most impressive performers in this half of the draw.  Dropping just seven games in her last five sets, Clijsters has played herself into the fortnight and has survived the early meltdowns that have ambushed her at occasional Slams during her second career.  In a commanding victory over Hantuchova, who had troubled her in Brisbane this month, the defending champion retrieved and redirected balls with her familiar aplomb while showing no sign of her recent hip injury.  When healthy, Clijsters can transition from defense to offense more effectively than any woman in the WTA, except perhaps her opponent on Sunday.  Two victories from a third straight semifinal in Melbourne, Li has looked crisp as she once again has extended her momentum from a fine week in Sydney.  The Roland Garros champion owns the single most explosive weapon in this match with her forehand, although her two-hander has not failed to impress.  Overlooked amidst their excellent groundstrokes and movement are the serves of both women, which have functioned effectively this week.  Both Clijsters and Li possess very complete games and clean technique but can misfire for extended stretches, either through the presence of nerves or the absence of focus.  Unless they find their rhythms at the same time, a rollercoaster encounter could result, decided by who can finish points more effectively once they seize the initiative.

We preview each of the other singles matches as the second week begins.

Azarenka vs. Benesova:  Perhaps catalyzed by her Brisbane upset of Stosur, the least famous of the three Czech lefties extended her success here by comfortably defeating Peng.  Benesova exploited an open section of the draw, vacated by Schiavone, by swinging her hook serve and forehand to jerk less powerful opponents around the court.   But now the competition jolts upward abruptly against the third seed, who has looked one of the leading three or four title contenders here despite a wobble in her previous match.  As match point after match point slipped away against Barthel, Azarenka’s carefully managed nerves started to fray visibly until she unleashed a concluding burst of petulance mixed with relief.  Maintaining outstanding depth on her groundstrokes throughout the first week, she should succeed against Benesova simply by staying steady in both playing style and emotions.  Perhaps the most balanced player of her generation, Azarenka treads a middle path between the dogged counterpunching of Wozniacki and the fearless, sometimes reckless assaults of Kvitova.  Her serve remains the weakest component of her game, but she has protected it well here and has not yet encountered an elite returner.  Against Benesova, her backhand down the line should prove especially lethal as Azarenka aims to reach her second Melbourne quarterfinal with minimal difficulty.

Lopez vs. Nadal:  As the tournament began, Nadal generated news related to the ATP schedule, his opinion of Federer, and another injury to his knee.  To the relief of  his fans, he generated little news related to his tennis during an uneventful first week of straight-sets victories.  Experimenting with a heavier racket, his serve has looked clearly more formidable although still not at its level when he won the US Open.  Outside an occasional sloppy service game against Haas and Lacko, Nadal has provided his critics with scant ground for complaint so far.  With the exception of a Queens Club upset, he has suffocated Lopez throughout their careers by relying upon his far superior baseline consistency to erode his fellow lefty.  The older Spaniard impressed by conquering Isner in a five-setter during which her broke the American’s towering serve six times while losing his own serve only once.  But he struggled with double faults throughout that match, committing four during one crucial game that exposed his nerves.  Always high in winners and high in unforced errors, Lopez must record an outstanding first-serve percentage to threaten his compatriot on a sticky surface that blunts serves and rewards baseliners.  Not until the semifinal, perhaps, will Nadal find an adversary worthy of his steel.

Tomic vs. Federer:  In all three of his first-week matches, the home hope lost the first set as Melbourne heart rates accelerated.  Buoyed by the fervent Rod Laver crowds, Tomic demonstrated stamina remarkable for a teenager as he outlasted both Verdasco and Dolgopolov in five sets.  All the same, he cannot afford to allow Federer an early lead as he settles into the match, for the Swiss legend has proven himself an outstanding front-runner against heavy underdogs throughout his career.  After playing 14 sets in three matches and running for four miles on Friday night, Tomic will need to recover quickly for a match that will require crisp footwork, keen instincts, and a clear mind.  When he faced Federer in a Davis Cup playoff last fall, the teenager won a set and competed valiantly in the others.  The difference in that collision, the contrast between their serves could play a crucial role again as the 16-time major champion holds much more comfortably, while Tomic expends more effort on each service game.  Severely tested for nearly two full sets by Karlovic’s serve, Federer should feel less inconvenienced by the veering slices and spins of the Australian’s distinctive style.  As his career wanes, muscular ball-bruisers like Soderling, Tsonga, and Berdych have unsettled him, but the crafty artists of the court have enjoyed little more success against him on hard courts than they ever have.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  After losing the first four meetings to her fellow counterpuncher and stylistic ancestor, the world #1 defeated Jankovic three times last year in a striking momentum shift.  Many are the similarities between these women, who rely upon their movement more than their serving and project greater power from their backhands than their forehands.  Outside a shaky second set in the second round, Wozniacki has acquitted herself creditably throughout the first week, showing few signs of crumbling under the pressure of her ranking.  In the Dane’s position three Australian Opens ago, Jankovic succumbed in the fourth round and would not capture the top spot again.  With the opportunity to strip it from her opponent, she may bring more motivation than she has shown for much of her steady decline.  Overwhelming a trio of young challengers, such as the promising Christina McHale, Jankovic displayed few traces of her vintage self but did maintain her focus consistently as she waited for the raw teenagers across the net to falter.  The Serb saved break point after break point against McHale in a match that looked extremely tight early before developing into a rout.  Considering their stylistic parallels, this encounter of current and former #1s should hinge mostly upon execution.  Jankovic would seem to hold the edge in power and experience, while Wozniacki enjoys the advantage in mobility, consistency, and (arguably) composure, but each could surpass the other in any of these dimensions on any given day.  Expect a lung-burning series of rallies along the baseline as both women aim to win points than invite the opponent to lose them.

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  One of two Germans to reach the second week at the Australian Open, Goerges enjoyed a promising first half to 2011 before fading dramatically—even evaporating—in the second half.  When she retired against Jankovic in Sydney, one harbored few hopes for her Melbourne campaign despite a resilient performance in a three-set loss to Sharapova last year.  Again showcasing her bold brand of tennis on these courts, she has recorded the strongest Slam effort of her still budding career and should not underestimate her chances to progress further.  Never more than a quarterfinalist at majors, Radwanska has demonstrated her ability to score a key upset here or there but has not produced a deep run, regularly undone by a player who overpowers her from the baseline and from the service notch.  During a stirring Asian fall, however, the Pole suggested that she might have enhanced her readiness to take risks, even if her puny serve may have no remedy.  She nearly stumbled against Mattek-Sands in her opening match but used her survival instincts to escape an opponent who cracked 80 winners.  Clearly superior to Radwanska on serve, Goerges will need to earn plentiful free points from that shot if she seeks to subdue her exceptionally nuanced, clever, and tenacious foe.  Once rallies begin, the eighth seed will hope to expose the German’s deficiencies in mobility and point construction, perhaps dragging her forwards at inconvenient moments.  To become a truly premier contender, Radwanska must overcome the second tier of ball-bruisers like Goerges more regularly.

Berdych vs. Almagro:  The match most likely to feature a fifth set, this meeting of the world #7 and world #10 seems academic in a sense because the winner will have only a negligible chance of upsetting Nadal.  A quarterfinal appearance still would represent a significant accomplishment for Almagro, whose game aligns just as well with hard courts as with clay.  But he has not excelled at the most prestigious events, managing just two Roland Garros quarterfinal amidst a host of first-week exits to far less talented opponents.  In stark contrast to the functional two-handed backhand of Berdych, Almagro’s elegant one-hander exemplifies his elongated swings, which can cost him time on faster surface.  These medium-speed hard courts should allow him to set up his elaborate swings without slowing the Czech’s serve too significantly.  Winning all three of his tiebreaks this fortnight, Berdych has relied upon his most formidable shot to set up his inside-out and inside-in forehands.  To reach his second straight Australian Open quarterfinal, he should keep Almagro pinned well behind the baseline, where he will struggle to penetrate the court and may attempt low-percentage shots from frustrated impatience.  Since they lack the ability to transition smoothly from defense to offense, the player who can assert himself early in the point usually will emerge victorious.  In their only previous hard-court meeting, at Cincinnati last year, Berdych delivered the terminal blow earlier and more often, winning with ease.

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  In all four of their previous meetings, the US Open champion has emerged triumphant, but their two 2011 clashes hint at intrigue ahead.  Since an opening five-setter, Kohlschreiber has played only four and a half sets in two rounds, so he should bring plenty of energy to track down the Argentine’s lasers.  Following an indifferent beginning to the tournament, Del Potro has looked more authoritative with each match and almost each set that he has seized.  As he completed his demolition of a helpless Yen-Hsun Lu on Friday night, his forehands rocketed through the court with an ominous explosiveness.  Nevertheless, Kohlschreiber can trade baseline bombs with the Argentine on both groundstroke wings, relishing the opportunity to redirect balls down the line.  The product of a particularly fluid motion, his serve sets up points almost as well as does Del Potro’s mightier delivery.  Content to decide points from the baseline, the Tower of Tandil rarely ventures towards the net, whereas the German will test his opponent’s passing shots by approaching opportunistically.  That strategy could help Kohlschreiber destabilize Del Potro’s timing, uneven since his wrist surgery.  In a best-of-five format, though, the Argentine’s heavier weight of shot and suffocating court coverage should frustrate a thrilling shot-maker who plays with much less margin for error.

Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

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.

 

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.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

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

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

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

Li Na Li Na defeats Francesca Schiavone in the Women's Final to win the 2011 French Open, held at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris.

Like the two laconic syllables of her name, Li Na’s game has revolved around the twin concepts of efficiency and functionality when at its best.  In an era of flamboyant shot-makers, China’s Golden Flower often has found herself overshadowed by the towering personalities around her, in part because her competitive desire has burned more inwardly than outwardly.  Throughout her career, her streamlined style had recorded many a notable triumph over nearly every elite player of her generation.  Yet Li had won only a handful of titles, troubled by a fluctuating level of self-belief that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared without warning from one match to the next.

By no means did Li overcome that flaw in 2011, but she suppressed it long enough to change the course of not only her own life but perhaps the history of tennis in an entire continent.  Her year began explosively when she outlasted Clijsters to win the Sydney title and then brought that impetus into Melbourne the next week.  A semifinalist the previous year, she responded with aplomb to the pressure of defending that accomplishment.  Comfortably defeating the tenacious Azarenka and the rising Petkovic, Li arranged a rendezvous with world #1 Wozniacki at the same stage where she had lost a tightly contested, two-tiebreak encounter with Serena in 2010.  In one of the season’s most memorable matches, the Dane battled to within a point of victory as the Chinese challenger could not quite strike the balance between consistency and aggression.  Down match point, though, Li collected her nerve and fired a brazen forehand down the line for a winner.  Never again would she lose the momentum, although the match would wind through several more deuce games and service breaks while Wozniacki fought desperately for a victory that she needed as much as Li.  When the Chinese veteran jubilantly thrust both arms in the air after their three-set war of attrition, Asia could celebrate the first Grand Slam finalist in its history.

Still, Li left Melbourne with a bittersweet sense of achievement tinged with regret, for she had dominated an edgy Clijsters during the first set and a half of their final before faltering when the title drew near.  More inclined towards pessimism than optimism by nature, she struggled to recover from this disappointment in early exits from her next several tournaments, spurning multiple match points in two of her losses.  The impatience of tennis fans and especially her compatriots mounted during those months when it appeared that Li had gained no lasting confidence from her fortnight in Melbourne.  Nor did it appear that she had gained a sense of urgency to eke out as much as she could from the final stages of a career blighted by injury after injury.  Even when she reached the semifinals in Madrid and Rome, woeful losses on both occasions seemed to confirm these conclusions.

Less than a month later, of course, Li would brand herself irrevocably upon the tennis world with a triumph that represented a fitting reward for her years of struggle both on and off the court.  Tasked with a thorny draw at Roland Garros, she defeated four consecutive top-10 players in her last four matches—a feat accomplished by no champion of her generation.  Twice trailing Kvitova in the fourth round, Li refused to retreat into fatalism and maturely found ways to defuse her powerful but raw opponent.  When Sharapova threatened to wrest away control of their semifinal, the Chinese star summoned the courage to deny the Russian her date with history by playing each bone-crushing rally with a steeliness worthy of her foe.  Her own date with history arrived two days later against the dangerous Schiavone, renowned for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  During the first set and a half of their encounter, just as in the Melbourne final, Li had established herself as the superior player.  Just as in the Melbourne final, she stumbled within range of victory in a way that struck consternation into the hearts of her husband and the 100 million Chinese who watched the match.  Before long, Li found herself within two points of a third set while memories of Melbourne surely swirled through her head.  But Li did not succumb to the past or to her inner insecurities, courageously winning the next nine points to reach a place where no Asian tennis player had gone before.

Having claimed the first major title of her career, she became besieged by an avalanche of endorsement opportunities and promotional activities caused by her newfound celebrity.  To no surprise, then, Li spent the rest of 2011 adjusting to her elevated status, and one should not reproach her too harshly for losing her focus in the aftermath of her triumph.  A fiercely independent individual in a society that officially repudiates individualism, she unlocked a pathway for her compatriots to follow.  If her breakthrough inspires them, tennis may continue to expand beyond its traditional core in Europe, North America, and Australia, becoming a global sport in the fullest sense of the word.

Petra Kvitova Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic holds up the Championship trophy after winning her Ladies' final round match against Maria Sharapova of Russia on Day Twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2011 in London, England.  Kvitova won 6-3 6-4.

She won in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end.  Similar to Li, Kvitova opened her season with a small title that propelled her to a promising (although less spectacular) fortnight in Melbourne, where she reached the quarterfinals.   Another small title and a victory over Clijsters later, the precocious Czech lefty had asserted herself as a woman to watch in a WTA where so many rising stars have stalled or crumbled in recent years.  Curbing that anticipation somewhat were her deflating losses in the spring’s remaining hard-court tournaments, which exposed her lack of tactical nuance and reluctance to adapt when her weapons deserted her.  As the clay season approached, observers couldn’t decide what to expect from Kvitova on the surface least suited to her thoroughly offense-oriented style.

Then came Madrid, a tournament where the altitude mitigates the demands of red clay and offers hope for irrepressible shot-makers.  Although the tenacious Cibulkova nearly derailed Kvitova in the quarterfinals, the Czech emerged strengthened by that adversity and blazed to the Premier Mandatory title with redoubled confidence.  The final against Azarenka proved one of the most compelling WTA matches of 2011, filled with magnificent winners by Kvitova and expert counterpunching by an opponent who forced her to earn every point and every game.  In addition to the champion’s composure during the first-set tiebreak and other key junctures, the most remarkable feature of this match surrounded her ability to snatch the racket from the hands of Azarenka, a fierce attacker herself.  But she could not unleash her own offense against first strikes as overwhelming as Kvitova’s serves, returns, and forehands.

Unfortunate to meet eventual champion Li Na in the fourth round of Roland Garros, the Czech lost no time in rebounding during the grass season.  After she reached the Eastbourne final, her hopes for Wimbledon ran high considering her accommodating draw and a surface hospitable to her game.  All the same, only the boldest observers expected her to win the title (although we did expect her to reach the final).  Reeling off hundreds of winners from both groundstroke wings throughout the fortnight, Kvitova often left opponents flat-footed or wrong-footed as the grass prevented them from reaching her penetrating blows.  Also effective at Wimbledon was her lefty serve, which separated her from most top women and opened up the court, allowing her to shorten points.  Yet Kvitova suffered sporadic lapses throughout the tournament that cost her sets in matches that she dominated, a product of her youth and unsteady focus.  That trend did not bode well when she prepared to face former champion Sharapova in the final, for the Russian had built her reputation upon an implacable intensity.  Perhaps daunted by the experience of playing for the Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court, Kvitova lost her serve immediately with a cluster of unforced errors.  After she broke back in the next game, though, she never would fall behind again.  A relentless assault of serves and forehands kept Sharapova at bay, pinned behind the baseline while Kvitova stepped inside it to target lines with spine-tingling abandon.  Serving for her maiden Slam title, the 21-year-old cracked an ace down the center on her first championship point.  Finally, a member of the WTA’s Generation Next had claimed one of the sport’s central prizes, snapping the stranglehold of the veterans.

Like the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion struggled with adjusting to her unexpected ascendancy.  Virtually invisible on the summer hard courts, she exited the US Open in the first round and continued to struggle with erratic form early in the fall.  A small title in the indoor Luxembourg tournament primed her for a final charge at the year-end championships, however, where she appeared for the first time.  Brushing aside world #1 Wozniacki as well as Zvonareva and Radwanska, Kvitova advanced through the round-robin stage without losing a set.  Able to strike winners from behind the baseline and redirect the ball with ease, she exploited the fast, low-bouncing surface much as she had Centre Court at Wimbledon.  The Czech then rallied from a one-set deficit against new US Open champion Stosur to win her semifinal.  Steadily gaining greater control over the match as it progressed, she suggested a greater ability to reverse an opponent’s momentum than she had shown for much of the season.  In yet another memorable clash with Azarenka, whom she had defeated at Wimbledon as well, Kvitova extended her mastery over this leading rival.  Despite letting a 5-0 lead in the first set evaporate, she never seemed in serious danger of losing the match even after the Belarussian extended it to a final set.  With these five consecutive victories over top-eight opponents, Kvitova may have settled into her elevated stature and adjusted her self-image from ambush artist to regular contender.  This outstanding culmination to her season launched a player who had started the year outside the top 30 to a career-high ranking of #2.

She may well move even higher in 2012.

Victoria Azarenka - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Azarenka (1-0) vs. Li (1-0):  Showing scant respect for her elders, the Minx from Minsk marched straight from her Luxembourg title to Istanbul and demolished Stosur for the fifth straight time.  While the Aussie suffered from a competitive hangover following her breakthrough against Sharapova, Azarenka permitted her virtually no openings as she surrendered just five points on serve until the last game of the match.  Early in what one hopes will become a week of gritty, grueling competition, the opportunity to notch a swift victory will have enhanced her already excellent hopes of advancing to the semifinals of this event for the first time.  After Sharapova’s withdrawal, Azarenka can rest confident in the knowledge that she most likely will notch a second win on Friday over Bartoli, whom she has dominated almost as relentlessly as Stosur.  She probably will advance even if she doesn’t win on Thursday, therefore, but no top-five player has reached that height by taking such things for granted.

Neither should Azarenka take a win over Li Na for granted, since the Chinese star halted her at two majors this year and has won four of their five encounters overall.  At both Melbourne and Roland Garros, Li proved both slightly more consistent in the extended exchanges from behind the baseline and slightly more adept at finishing points once she moved inside the court.  Much more impressive when returning than when serving, both women should know that breaks mean little and that almost no lead or deficit is insurmountable.  In her opening victory over Sharapova, Li illustrated that fact when she managed to win a first set that she appeared to have lost on three different occasions:  when she faced break point trailing 2-4, when Sharapova served for the set after breaking her at love, and when the Russian led 4-0 in the tiebreak.  At that last juncture, the Roland Garros champion relied upon her return to barely flick two mighty serves into play—and then watched her opponent miss a routine point-ending shot.  Although Li cannot expect such generosity when she faces Azarenka, her rhythmic style will benefit from the similarly rhythmic style across the net.  Remarkably, she could erase the disappointments of her second-half campaign by reaching the semifinals here, an objective likely accomplished with a victory on Thursday.

Wozniacki (1-1) vs. Kvitova (1-0):  Splitting three-setters in her first two matches, the world #1 must elevate her level from her first two matches in order to ensure that her last round-robin match does not become her last match of 2011.  Having spent about five hours on court against Radwanska and Zvonareva, Wozniacki cannot afford to lose any of her fabled foot speed when she confronts Kvitova.  While the allegedly sluggish surface slows the ball and produces the longer rallies that she favors, its stickiness also takes a toll upon her all-important legs.  Late in her loss to Zvonareva, Wozniacki looked weary and emotionally deflated despite staying well within range of the Russian.  Perhaps the labors of a long season, fraught with greater turbulence than the calm Dane would prefer, weighed upon her mind as the court clung to her feet.  Or perhaps the accomplishment of clinching the year-end #1 ranking for the second straight season shrank the match into insignificance from her perspective.

Only once in four attempts has Kvitova conquered Wozniacki, but that victory came in the most important of their meetings at Wimbledon last year.  When she dispatched Zvonareva in her first match, the Czech lefty penetrated the court with ease from both groundstroke wings and even added a few surprising touches of finesse.  The controlled indoor atmosphere tilts more towards her unflinching pursuit of precision than towards the style of anyone else in her group.  Not the best front-runner, however, she squandered a double-break lead in the second set against Zvonareva with bizarrely unfocused play.  Even during her sensational run at Wimbledon, Kvitova allowed more than one opponent to edge back into the match after she had won the first set in commanding fashion.  Probably a symptom of her immaturity, this carelessness would play into the hands of Wozniacki should the Dane stay alert and the match stay close.  In the 2-and-0 demolition that Kvitova inflicted upon her at Wimbledon, the match didn’t last long enough for this issue to surface.  On the other hand, the world #1 has lost six or fewer games in each of her three triumphs over the reigning Wimbledon champion, so one senses that this match may end quickly no matter the outcome.

Zvonareva (1-1) vs. Radwanska (0-1):  Most likely a must-win encounter for both combatants, this meeting represents their fifth clash of the season.  After Zvonareva prevailed comfortably in Miami, the Pole prevailed just as comfortably in their three second-half meetings, including finals in San Diego and Tokyo.  Most stunning from her performance there was her impenetrability on serve, hardly a trait that one associates with her; only once in the two matches combined did she lose her serve.  A more familiar Radwanska traded break for break with Wozniacki in a three-setter on Tuesday that remains the best match of the tournament so far.  Although she frustrated her friend much more than in their past several meetings, the inability to hold serve when absolutely necessary ultimately cost the eighth seed a winnable match and will continue to hamper her upward mobility. All the same, her cavernous bag of tricks might fluster the inflammable Russian more than the placid Dane.  By the end of her last few matches, Zvonareva looked hopelessly bewildered as she committed routine errors and lost her normally acute tactical sense.

As she outmaneuvered Wozniacki from the baseline yesterday, the Russian’s versatility and tactical sense shone much more clearly than in her tepid loss to Kvitova that preceded it.  Despite her natural tendency towards counterpunching, she rose valiantly to the occasion when her opponent forced her to take the initiative and redirected the ball down both lines with conviction while approaching the net with success.  Even more notably, Zvonareva did not grow discouraged by her mistakes as did the Dane, nor did she celebrate her winners with much vigor.  That inner poise will serve her well as she aims to conquer a recent but repeated nemesis.  By no means did the world #6 play an immaculate match, though, and a few of her nine double faults threw Wozniacki fleeting lifelines late in the second and third sets.  Radwanska’s season probably ends here if she fails to sustain the momentum in her rivalry, but Zvonareva probably faces a similar prospect.  Whereas Azarenka and Li have everything to gain with a win, these two women have everything to lose with a loss.  Who will handle that situation more smoothly?

Samantha Stosur - 2011 US Open - Day 14

Azarenka (0-0) vs. Stosur (1-0):  For the second time in less than 24 hours, Stosur confronts a strong-willed and strong-lunged blonde who has throttled her throughout their previous meetings.  Less extensive than her streak of futility against Sharapova is her winless span against Azarenka, during which she has lost four straight matches and eight straight sets.  Yet, as one might expect, the experience of winning her first major by defeating the greatest player in her (or perhaps in any) generation has galvanized Stosur’s confidence against her competition in general.  No sterner test of that confidence could one imagine than a meeting with her long-time nemesis, who had crushed her twice this year.  Two improved components of the US Open champion’s arsenal allowed her to prevent a double-digit losing streak against Sharapova and could spur her to snap the winless drought against Azarenka as well.  Formerly a neutral shot at best, her backhand has provided a barometer of Stosur’s confidence throughout the peaks and valleys of her career, and rarely has she struck it with greater depth and conviction than in her victory on Tuesday.  Perhaps more importantly, her poise on important points assisted her in escaping a perilous, fascinating, multiple-deuce final game, when her nerves inevitably crept upon her but remarkably failed to overtake her.

When she faces Azarenka, a better scrambler than Sharapova, Stosur may need to strike one or two additional shots to finish rallies despite a surface through which her forehand has jolted percussively.  Moreover, the Belarussian vixen swaggers into Istanbul just days removed from a Luxembourg title.  On the other hand, fatigue or one of her frequently recurring injuries could blunt the daggers hurled by Azarenka, who has recorded mixed results at the year-end championships.  Whether Vika’s forehand or Sam’s backhand breaks down sooner and more often should decide this scintillating encounter.

Sharapova (0-1) vs. Li (0-0):  Seemingly pained by her lingering ankle injury, Sharapova lacked the characteristic depth on her groundstrokes and the pinpoint ferocity of her returns.  Without diminishing Stosur’s effort, Maria aided her adversary’s cause by committing clusters of routine errors at crucial moments, such as second-serve returns on break points in the last game.  Somewhat reminiscent of grass, the low-bouncing surface in the Istanbul Dome may hamper a player as statuesque as Sharapova.  Better adapted to the lower bounce is the compact physique of her opponent on Wednesday, who twice defeated the Russian on grass as she reversed the latter’s early dominance over their rivalry.  When Sharapova edged within two victories of the career Slam at Roland Garros this year, Li Na narrowly stifled that bid for history before creating her own historic moment two days later.  Since that sparkling June afternoon, however, the Chinese star has accomplished virtually nothing of note—at least in a positive sense.

A battle-tested veteran who has endured surgery after surgery, Li has greeted her breakthrough like a wide-eyed novice rather than embracing the spotlight of international celebrity.  In the first match of her career at the year-end championships, she should reassure herself that she has nothing to lose against an opponent far more experienced on such occasions.  During four previous appearances at this tournament, Sharapova never has failed to reach the semifinals.  A loss to Li almost certainly would halt her hopes this year, so one does not doubt that the Russian will expend as much energy as her ankle permits in the struggle to survive for another day.  As a player sound in mind but not in body meets a player sound in body but not in mind, we expect a match less attractive than its participants with copious unforced errors and puzzling momentum shifts.

Wozniacki (1-0) vs. Zvonareva (0-1):  Evenly split are the eight meetings between the Dane and the Russian, who held the top two ranking positions about a year ago.  Six of those eight encounters have occurred since the start of 2010, all of them in semifinals or finals, so they always have played for some of the highest stakes imaginable and meet in the year-end championships for the third consecutive season.  Winning both of their previous clashes at this event, Wozniacki gallantly overcame not only Zvonareva but an excruciating leg injury in a three-setter two years ago.  In the 2010 sequel, Vera nearly edged through the first set before suffering one of her familiar meltdowns.  Steadier in personality and slightly more consistent on the court, the world #1 typically has emerged triumphant when both attain their highest level.

Recently, however, neither woman has delivered her best tennis for sustained stretches.  While Zvonareva mustered unconvincing resistance to Kvitova on Tuesday, only narrowly did Wozniacki deflect the accelerating charge of Radwanska, whom she had handled comfortably before.  Had the Pole preserved her set-and-break advantage, this match would have opposed two 0-1 players on the edge of elimination.  As matters unfolded, only Zvonareva totters with her back to the precipice, whereas Wozniacki eyes a nearly certain semifinal berth with a win here.  Unlike her compatriot Sharapova, the second-ranked Russian often does not confront adversity with steely determination but can allow fatalism to overtake her.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki has built her ascent to #1 in part upon the bones of insecure, easily unhinged competitors.  But Zvonareva won their most recent meeting in February and captured their most significant meeting in a semifinal at last year’s US Open.  Discount her at your peril.

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