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Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Towering above the competition at the ATP 500 tournament in Dubai, Federer and Djokovic look destined to reprise their Australian Open semifinal collision.  Without Nadal, Soderling, or Murray to derail them, can anyone prevent a marquee final next Sunday?  We present a different sort of draw preview that discusses their potential obstacles individually.

Llodra (first round vs. Djokovic):  At his home Masters 1000 event last fall, the serve-and-volleying Frenchman halted the Serb’s title defense.  Can he perform the same feat as Djokovic defends another title?  Perhaps demoralized by his loss in the Davis Cup final, Llodra has not extended his impressive fall into 2011, and the wind-stroked desert differs dramatically from the laboratory-like conditions at the Paris Indoors.  On the other hand, Djokovic may start rusty and complacent in his first match since the Melbourne final.

Gulbis (quarterfinal vs. Federer):  After reaching the semifinal in Sydney, the world #24 has lost three straight matches, including a straight-sets loss to Benjamin Becker at the Australian Open.  During last year’s clay season, he appeared to have emerged from a protracted slump with a victory over Federer and near-victory over Nadal, but he reverted to his former self when he returned from a Roland Garros leg injury.  Seemingly destined to squander his potential, Gulbis won a set from Federer in Doha’s desert conditions last year and has the groundstroke firepower with which Del Potro, Soderling, and Berdych have unsettled the Swiss.  Nevertheless, he may not even reach their projected quarterfinal, since the dangerous Stakhovsky looms in the second round.

Baghdatis (quarterfinal vs. Djokovic):  Another player who flatters to deceive, the engaging Cypriot has reached a pair of quarterfinals this season after streamlining his physique during the winter.  Before retiring from the Australian Open for the second straight year, he ousted Del Potro and held the upper hand against Melzer until suffering an injury.  Back in the top 20, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at hard-court Masters 1000 events last season, where he demonstrated an unexpected degree of focus by prevailing in a pair of tense three-setters.  He has won at least one set from the Serb in each of their non-clay meetings, including a suspenseful semifinal at this tournament last year.  Then struggling for confidence after his notorious retirement in Melbourne, Djokovic overcame a one-set deficit with smarter shot selection and superior serving.  Not lacking for confidence this year, the two-time defending champion should extend his undefeated record against Baghdatis.

Youzhny (semifinal vs. Federer):  A two-time finalist at this Persian Gulf oasis, the 2010 US Open semifinalist owns one of the ATP’s finer one-handed backhands.  Able to project as much offense with that shot  as can Federer, Youzhny atoned for a disappointing exit in Melbourne with creditable performances in Rotterdam and Marseille.  At the latter event, his versatile, understated game blunted Tsonga’s unbridled power before the Russian wasted a match point in a semifinal loss to Cilic.  Recent history aside, his record against Federer stands at an inauspicious 0-10, and the Swiss has won their last 16 sets in a streak dating back to Halle in 2003.  Yet other long-time victims of Federer, such as Davydenko and Soderling, ultimately broke through after years of futility, so one should not discount a player with inspiring memories of his previous trips to the desert.  Last year, Youzhny came within a few key points of the Dubai title after outplaying Djokovic for a set and a half.

Simon (semifinal vs. Federer):  The architect of two accidents against the Swiss grandmaster, Simon nearly added to his disconcerting success in the second round of the Australian Open.  Few players have erased a two-set deficit against the 16-time major champion, but the Frenchman displayed his characteristic grit by grinding down Federer one rally at a time.  Derailed by injuries early last season, Simon reaffirmed his relevance with a title in Sydney and a victory over the vanishing Davydenko in Rotterdam.  Although he fell to Baghdatis in his Dubai opener last year, he reached the semifinal at this event’s 2009 edition and dragged eventual champion Djokovic deep into a sweat-soaked third set.  Before he can face Federer, however, Simon must solve the conundrum posed by first-round opponent Youzhny, who has won all seven of their previous encounters.

Ljubicic (semifinal vs. Federer):  With Indian Wells just over the horizon, can the ATP’s smoothest pate rekindle the magic of that spring surge?  Deep in the autumn of his career, Ljubicic became Tursunov’s first notable victim in Marseille but conquered Baghdatis in a third-set tiebreak a week earlier.  Similar to Youzhny, he has lost ten consecutive meetings to Federer and has not won a set from him since 2005.  Although the Swiss often has played an unfocused, inconsistent brand of tennis in their recent meetings, that level has proved sufficient to dispatch the Croat in straight sets.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Berdych (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Probably the most plausible ambush artist in the draw, the world #7 has begun to recover from his second-half swoon to build upon his summer accomplishments.  The occasional odd losses can still recur, though, as illustrated by a lopsided defeat against Wawrinka in the Chennai semifinal.  Impressively sturdy in the first week of the Australian Open, Berdych dropped just a single set through four rounds before colliding with Djokovic, who dismantled him with disdainful ease.  (The second-set tiebreak seemed more the consequence of the Serb’s boredom than the Czech’s brilliance.)  A contrasting narrative unfolded three majors ago at Wimbledon, where the underdog upset the favorite almost as authoritatively.  Perhaps ruffled by the odd desert conditions, though, he has won just one match in each of his four Dubai appearances.

Troicki (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  As we explored in an earlier article, the second Serb has challenged his compatriot on occasions such as their second-round encounter here last year.  A few months later at the US Open, he extended the eventual runner-up to five sets and thus should believe that he can break through against Djokovic as he rises in the rankings.  The world #18 fell twice to opening-round opponent Kohlschreiber in 2010 and fell meekly to potential quarterfinal opponent Berdych in Miami.  Yet he enjoyed a pair of sturdy weeks in Sydney and Rotterdam, where he bookended a retirement in Australian with a final and a semifinal.  The Serb has lost only to the eventual champion in all four tournaments that he has played in 2011, and three of his four losses have come against top-five foes.

Davydenko (semifinal vs. Djokovic):  Languishing in the lower echelon of the top 50, the 29-year-old Russian has struggled to string together consecutive matches since injuring his wrist at Indian Wells.  Although he has threated the Serb repeatedly in the past, Davydenko has lost four consecutive matches since reaching the final in Doha with a victory over an ailing Nadal.  He did defeat potential second-round opponent Berdych last fall, but the confidence that has played a vital role in his success must surely lie at a low ebb.

***

We return shortly to untangle some of the intriguing storylines that developed last week and then detour to Doha for the WTA Premier tournament.

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In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

Having set the stage with our two previous posts, we now contemplate who could steal the show in Melbourne.  Overshadowed by their more accomplished peers, the second tier of the ATP and WTA regularly springs memorable upsets at majors.  We nominate the potential best supporting actors and actresses below, explaining factors that might support or undermine their ambitions.

ATP:

Youzhny:  A semifinalist at the US Open, the Russian built his quarterfinal run here in 2008 with a victory over Davydenko.  In New York last year, he showcased his versatile all-court style and fluid transition game, attributes that he should showcase even more effectively on the Melbourne surface.  Still struggling to restrain his notorious temper, though, Youzhny trudged through an erratic, draining (albeit gripping) five-setter against Gasquet in the first round a year ago; he then withdrew with one of his chronically nagging injuries.

Melzer:  Deposing both Nadal and Djokovic last season, this grizzled veteran reached the second week at every major while claiming the Wimbledon doubles title.  Low on consistency, he nevertheless reached the semifinal at Roland Garros, proving himself a threat on any surface.  Melzer folds like origami when he faces Federer, so don’t expect an upset if he faces the Swiss for the third straight Slam, and it’s difficult to see him winning three sets from anyone in the top five considering their current level of confidence.

Monfils:  After an unconvincing first half, the flamboyant Frenchman swaggered to the quarterfinals of the US Open and three fall finals, including a second straight Sunday appearance at his home Masters in Paris.  Opponents never quite know which Monfils will step onto the court, or even which Monfils will play the next point.  If he chooses to unveil his intense, explosively athletic self, his fusion of counterpunching and offense could reap rewards on a surface that favors rallies over first-strike tennis.

Fish:  Seizing the American spotlight from Roddick for most of the summer, this former underachiever launched a late-career surge that carried him within a tiebreak of the Cincinnati title.  Recurrently flustering foes as prominent as Federer, Fish deploys a net-charging assault dissonant from this era’s baseline vernacular.  But the American relies upon high-precision shot-making executed with less than impeccable technique, a risky tactic to deploy in a best-of-five format.  He barely earned Djokovic’s attention at the US Open in a meeting that failed to justify its anticipation.

Stanislas Wawrinka Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland reacts against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during his men's single quarterfinal match on day eleven of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wawrinka:  Separating from his wife in order to maximize the rest of his career, the Swiss #2 began to vindicate that drastic measure when he won Chennai last week after routing Berdych.  An impressive victory over Murray at last year’s US Open sparked a stirring charge to within a set of his first Slam semifinals.  Otherwise a monochromatic baseliner, Wawrinka has crafted one of the most elegant one-handed backhands in the ATP.  Despite challenging all of the top five in the past, however, his self-belief appears to fluctuate from tournament to tournament.

Querrey / Isner:  Will the United States become the new Croatia, producing graceless towers of power in the ATP and nothing of note in the WTA?  These two juggernauts serve and serve and serve some more.  Sometimes that shot alone will vault them past opponents, although thankfully not very often in this era of diversified playing styles.  While the Melbourne surface will allow both Americans extra time to set up their forehands and shield their woeful backhands, they’ll also face greater difficulty in penetrating the court and finishing points quickly before their erratic technique betrays them.

Baghdatis:  Emulating Fish’s fitness drive, the Bag Man shed some of his baggage over the offseason, only to see an injury threaten his preparations for Melbourne.  The 2006 finalist suffered a pair of gallant defeats on Rod Laver Arena to Hewitt and Safin, but his ceaselessly exhorting fans often lift him to unexpected feats there (in part by unnerving his opponents).  Many observers consider the Cypriot a dubious competitor, yet last year he engineered a compelling comeback from a two-set deficit against Ferrer, no benign opponent.  Defined by low, laser-like groundstrokes, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at Masters 1000 events in 2010, the former after saving match points.

Llodra:  Breathlessly serving and volleying to within a point of the Paris Indoors final, he expanded his acclaim from doubles with victories over Djokovic , Davydenko, and Soderling.  Until the last rubber of the Davis Cup final, Llodra had played a pivotal role in his nation’s almost immaculate record last year.  Maintaining his tightrope act through best-of-five matches, he conquered Verdasco and Berdych in this extended format.  Far less friendly to his vintage style, however, are the medium-speed courts in Australia, which scarcely resemble the slick surfaces where he staged his key accomplishments.

Gulbis:  As rich in talent as in more conventional capital, the boyish Latvian possesses a more percussive groundstroke arsenal than anyone in his ranking vicinity.  Furthermore, Gulbis interweaves effortless power with a surprisingly deft touch at the net that penalizes opponents for retreating far behind the baseline.  Defeating Federer and nearly Nadal during the clay season, he never quite regrouped after a Roland Garros injury and hasn’t looked especially sharp in his two January events.

Troicki:  The hero of last year’s Davis Cup final, he won his first title at the Kremlin Cup after holding match points against Nadal in a Tokyo semifinal that demonstrated his deceptively imposing serve.  At his previous Slam, he led Djokovic by two sets to one and a break in the fourth set, although the sultry conditions played a perceptible role in Novak’s discomfiture.  Beyond a crisp backhand, Troicki’s seemingly improvised, careless technique can break down more easily than those of the contenders.

Del Potro:  The only unseeded player on this list, he also has the distinction of being the only Slam champion on this list…and the only player on this list who has defeated both Nadal and Federer at a major.  Winning his last three meetings against the Spaniard and his last two meetings against the Swiss, Del Potro still searches for confidence after a wrist injury derailed him for most of 2010.  He struggled to oust Lopez in Sydney before falling to the unheralded Florian Mayer, but adversaries should beware of taking such a battle-tested champion too lightly.

WTA:

Peer:  Poised at the vertiginous #12 position, she reaped the rewards of a sterling 2010 campaign that included victories over Wozniacki, Li, Kuznetsova , and Radwanska in addition to semifinals at two Premier Mandatory tournaments and the Premier Five event in Dubai.  Had she not encountered the Williams sisters so often, her season might have extended even further.  Although Peer has sought to elevate her aggression, though, she still relies upon a counterpunching style and a serve that usually doesn’t allow her to match leading contenders hold for hold.

Petrova:  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne last year, she bludgeoned Clijsters and then Kuznetsova off the court before Henin wrapped a spider web around her once again.  Scoring clay victories over Serena and Venus, Petrova generally has prevented rust from creeping into her game as she ages.  But she lost her openers in both Brisbane and Sydney, the latter to a qualifier, and her early exit in New York last year offers little reason for confidence.

Pavlyuchenkova:  Her retirement from Hobart with a leg injury did not bode well for her Melbourne hopes, yet this former junior #1 jumped out to a sprightly start this season with a Brisbane semifinal appearance.  Last season, she collected the first two titles of her career and began to show glimpses of the promise that first emerged at Indian Wells in 2009.  A two-time conqueror of Venus on hard courts, Pavlyuchenkova must harness her serve more effectively before taking the next step forward; also concerning are her recurrent injuries, too frequent for a teenager.  The Russian’s top-16 seed shields her from a leading contender until the second week, and simply reaching that stage would represent an accomplishment at this juncture of her career.

Rezai:  Unexpectedly wresting the Madrid trophy from Venus, the flamboyantly attired Frenchwoman finally began to complement her eye-catching fashion with equally eye-catching groundstrokes that belied her diminutive stature.  While she has won no notable titles outside Madrid and Bali 2009 (via retirement), Rezai believes that she can pound her way past any prestigious opponent; she poses an thorny challenge for offensively limited counterpunchers like Jankovic.  Accomplishing little of significance in the second half of 2010, however, she survived 11 double faults in her Sydney victory over Jankovic before falling to Jovanovski a round later.

Maria Kirilenko Maria Kirilenko of Russia looks on against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during her women's singles match on day six of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 4, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Kirilenko:  The glamorous Russian blonde ambushed Sharapova in the opening match of last year’s tournament and translated that momentum into a startling quarterfinal appearance.  In contrast to her gentle visage is a latent competitive streak that can arise at key moments.  Designed to capitalize upon erratic foes, Kirilenko’s graceful game rarely disintegrates into cascades of unforced errors.  More successful in doubles than in singles, she lacks real weapons and struggles to finish points.

Kanepi:   Despite falling in her Sydney opener to Jovanovski, the burly Estonian earned her position on this list with her quarterfinal surges at the last two majors, where she defeated Stosur and Jankovic.  The medium-speed courts in Melbourne will allow her even greater time to unleash her groundstrokes and further her tendency to hit downwards on the ball.

Wickmayer:  Unable to defend her Auckland title, she nevertheless duplicated her 2010 finals appearance in New Zealand after a string of uneven three-setters.  The Belgian #3 caught fire at this time a year ago, qualifying for the Australian Open before charging within a few games of the quarterfinals once she arrived in the main draw.  A fluid, natural athlete infused with dedication for the sport and an almost harsh determination to succeed, Wickmayer can let her emotions race away with her sometimes in key matches.  In order to maximize her potential, she must learn to balance passion with poise.

Pennetta:  The Italian Fed Cup heroine posted an encouraging and a less encouraging result in Sydney, ousting #2 Zvonareva and then slumping against the qualifier Jovanovski.  Although little in her game electrifies, she has few clear flaws for opponents to exploit beyond her chronic negativity, which can fling her into a downward spiral.  If she faces a sharpshooter on a shaky afternoon, though, Pennetta has more than adequate balance and experience to profit as she has on previous occasions against Venus and Sharapova.

Kvitova:  Disappearing almost entirely after that startling Wimbledon semifinal charge, the enigmatic Czech resurfaced to capture the Brisbane trophy last week.   To be sure, she conquered no opponents more noteworthy than Petrova and Pavlyuchenkova, who belong in this list rather than its prestigious predecessor.  In her victory over then-#1 Safina at the 2009 US Open, moreover, Kvitova displayed surprisingly sturdy nerves as she navigated through a final-set tiebreak.  On the other hand, lefties have enjoyed little recent success in the WTA, and her quirky game can collapse without warning just as often as it can ignite.

Petkovic:  Like Kvitova, she garnered attention in Brisbane with victories over the increasingly dangerous Groth as well as Bartoli, although the Bosnian-German succumbed rather too meekly in the final.  Far from meek, by contrast, was her performance at the US Open, when she reached the second week after winning a final-set tiebreak from Petrova before saving match point against home hope Mattek-Sands.  These promising portents extended into the fall with a second straight Tokyo triumph over Kuznetsova and a semifinal appearance in Linz, suggesting that Petkovic may have found a measure of consistency to complement her fierce forehands.  Yet she remains a raw, unfinished product who doesn’t always construct points as intelligently as she could.

Date-Krumm:  Snatching a set from Wozniacki here last year, the most impressive comeback artist of all stunned or nearly stunned several renowned foes.  Her acutely angled groundstrokes and unpredictable shot selection can fluster the programmatic styles currently dominant in the WTA, while her lack of self-inflicted pressure itself constitutes a dangerous weapon.  Since Date-Krumm typically aims to unleash low lasers below her opponent’s strike zone, however, the high-bouncing surface may hinder her customary tactics.

Safina:  Encouraging in a three-set loss to defending champion Wickmayer in Auckland, the former #1 then departed Hobart with just one game from top-seeded Bartoli; clearly, the deities of the draw have not smiled on her lately.  If she doesn’t win at least one match, she drops out of the top 100.  That circumstance should either motivate her to an eye-opening success or produce a memorable implosion—compelling entertainment either way.  Which narrative will Marat’s sister craft?

***

Meriting a special mention are the Aussie threats of Hewitt and Groth, neither of whom possesses all of the tools necessary for a title but both of whom will arrive in Melbourne determined to compete at their highest level.  We look forward to watching their progress in the Australian Open draws, which we will return to preview on a quarter-by-quarter system about a day after their release.


 

We continue our backward glance at 2010 by reflecting upon the members of the ATP who crafted seasons that they (and we) should pause to remember even as the new year rushes towards us.

Nadal:  After the first three months of 2010, the Spaniard’s career seemingly hovered at a crossroads.  Starved of titles for nearly a year, he struggled to find his rhythm deep in three-set losses at Indian Wells and Miami to opponents whom he typically defeats.  But a fearsome charge through a depleted Monte Carlo field struck the spark that Rafa needed to revive his confidence just before the most important segment of his season.  The spark soon blazed into flames as he swept the three clay Masters tournaments for the first time in his career and avenged last year’s loss to Soderling in an authoritative Roland Garros final, one of the most stunning performances in his stunning career there.  Dropping just one total set in the Slam finals that he played, Nadal won three consecutive majors for the first time.  Famously fallible in the fall, he even countered that trend by defeating four top-10 foes at the year-end championships before dropping a three-set final to Federer.  Just months ago, the Spaniard’s career seemed in considerable peril.  By jolting from six majors to nine, he has positioned himself to enter the GOAT debate if he continues to carefully manage his physical condition and his schedule.  Qualitatively, in fact, he already has surpassed Federer by adding an Olympic gold medal and the Davis Cup to the career Slam and the #1 ranking.  The Swiss still has a considerable quantitative edge, but the gap should close swiftly in the next two or three years.

Djokovic:  Even shakier than Nadal early in the season, Djokovic surrounded the Dubai title with premature defeats in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Much more gradual than the Spaniard’s revival, the Serb’s awakening began with a Wimbledon semifinal run and continued with a sporadically brilliant duel with Federer at the Rogers Cup.  His momentum didn’t fully reverse until the US Open, where he swept aside the memories of three consecutive losses to Federer at the year’s final major.  In the most dramatic Slam match of 2010, Djokovic saved double match point before outlasting the Swiss star with the fearless shotmaking that won him the 2008 Australian Open.  Consistent although not dazzling during the fall, he conserved his energies for the Davis Cup final.  Effectively required to win both of his matches against France, the world #3 never allowed the visitors a flicker of hope with two comprehensive victories.  Undefeated in Davis Cup singles rubbers this year, Djokovic claimed that his nation’s first title in this team competition represented the most significant triumph of his career.  Objectively, 2010 fell short of the 2008 campaign in which he captured both the Australian Open and the year-end championships.  But the Davis Cup title offers the Serb a platform upon which to build for 2011.  The off-season’s much-lamented brevity will aid him by not allowing his impetus to decay.

Soderling:  The feral Swede likes Paris in the springtime and Paris in the fall.  For the second straight year, he dethroned the reigning Roland Garros champion in a barrage of bone-crushing groundstrokes.  A first-round flop in Melbourne, he recorded respectable but not remarkable results at Wimbledon and the US Open.  Still too erratic and moody to reach the #1 ranking, Sodering took another impressive step forward with his first Masters 1000 title at (where else?) the Paris Indoors, where the menacing trophy seemed designed specifically for him.  A career-high #4 ranking temporarily settled within the Swede’s mighty paws and might well return there early in 2011, considering his lack of points to defend at the Australian Open.  While Soderling failed to preserve the momentum in his mini-rivalries with Federer and Nadal, he consolidated his status as a permanent top-5 contender following his 2009 breakthrough.  If he can harness his weapons a shade more consistently, a major title lies in his future.

Berdych:  After arid years of underachievement, the Czech appeared to have cracked the code in Miami, where he ambushed Federer in the sort of cliff-hanger that he would have lost in previous seasons.  To his credit, Berdych wasted little time in capitalizing upon that triumph, battling past two more top-10 players in Verdasco and Soderling.  Still, one week does not a champion make, so we remained slightly skeptical about Berdych until Roland Garros, when he dispelled doubts by marching to his first career Slam semifinal.  Falling a set short of the final Sunday, he arrived there just one Slam later after a majestic Wimbledon campaign that toppled Federer and Djokovic consecutively.  Struggling to breathe the rarefied air of his elevated status, the world #6 left almost no impact on the second half of the season, which included a crucial Davis Cup loss to Djokovic.  2011 will play a similar role for him as 2010 did for Soderling.  Can he maintain his lofty position beneath the accumulating pressure of expectations?  A credible debut at the year-end championships suggested that his second-half hangover might lift sooner rather than later.

Ferrer:  Once dubbing himself “the least talented player in the top 100,” the diminutive Spaniard should inspire future stars to maximize their potential.  Rewarded for two ATP 500 titles and a Masters 1000 final in Rome, Ferrer qualified for the year-end championships and finished as the world #7, a remarkable feat considering his indifferent serve and straightforward style.  But he competes far more vigorously than many players with greater talent; his intensity wins at least as many matches as his shot-making.  A disappointment at Melbourne and Roland Garros, Ferrer did not disappoint at the year’s last two majors, where he reached the second week on surfaces unfriendly to his grinding game.  Even more impressively, he extended the mighty Soderling to a fifth set at Wimbledon and Verdasco to a fifth-set tiebreak at the US Open.  Squandering a two-set lead in the latter marathon, Ferrer nevertheless played a starring role in one of the season’s most compelling matches.

Melzer:  Few casual fans knew of the left-handed veteran until his implausible semifinal run at Roland Garros, which climaxed with a five-set quarterfinal victory over Djokovic.  Rather than fading afterwards like Ljubicic (see below), Melzer reached the second week at both Wimbledon and the US Open, falling to Federer on both occasions.  The Austrian then ambushed Nadal in a Shanghai three-setter, slapping forehands with uncanny precision and displaying deft technique at the net.  Moreover, he collected the Wimbledon doubles title with Petzschner, creating memories that will warm him through the bitter Austrian winter.  Just outside the top 10 at the season’s conclusion, he still doesn’t represent a legitimate threat at majors or Masters 1000 events, but few contenders other than Federer will want to face him in early rounds.

Gael Monfils Gael Monfils of France during his 1-6,6-7 defeat against  Robin Soderling of Sweden in the final during Day Eight of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports  on November 14, 2010 in Paris, France.

Monfils:  The core of a French Davis Cup team that came within one rubber of the title, the acrobatic Frenchman scored victories in that competition over such Davis Cup stalwarts as Ferrer and Nalbandian.  Facing a virtual must-win situation in the first rubber of the final, he defused the dangerous Tipsarevic with exemplary efficiency.  Not unlike Djokovic, Monfils played his best tennis of the season from the US Open onwards, following a quarterfinal appearance in New York with three finals in the fall.  As he did in 2009, the Frenchman electrified his compatriots by reaching the final at Paris Masters.  Saving match points against two different opponents there, his prestigious victims included not only Murray but Federer, whom he never had defeated before.  The numerous detractors of Monfils feel that his bent for whimsical entertainment and relative disinterest in outcomes has little place in tennis.  We disagree, believing that his carefree attitude provides a refreshing antidote to the stoical demeanors so often displayed by the sport’s champions.

Ljubicic:  With one glaring exception, his year proved thoroughly and predictably forgettable.  Yet Ljubicic will remember 2010 for his startling surge at Indian Wells, during which he dispatched Djokovic and Nadal.  Winning his last three sets there in tiebreaks, the Croat relied upon a serve that crashed through this extremely slow hard court with a force that belied his unassuming visage. His first and likely last Masters 1000 title, Indian Wells represented a dome on Ljubicic’s career rather than a foundation for future exploits.  After Federer and other had repeatedly frustrated him at such events, however, he can stroll towards retirement much more contentedly than he could have a year ago.

Baghdatis:  Climbing back into the top 20 after a medley of injuries and dips in motivation, the charismatic Cypriot sometimes recalls Davydenko with his flat, early groundstrokes strikes.  After securing the Sydney title in January, he scored his first career victories over Federer and Nadal, both in tense three-setters that tested his once-suspect nerves.  Still suspect is his fitness, which did not prevent from winning a five-setter against Ferrer in Melbourne but led to his retirement against Hewitt a round later.  The Bag Man still hasn’t learned how to pack lightly.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France during his straight sets victory against John Isner of USA during Day Four of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports on November 10, 2010 in Paris, France.

Llodra:  Although his 2010 ended in heartbreaking fashion, he vindicated the ossifying serve-and-volley style with two small titles and a semifinal appearance in Paris.  Before holding three match points against eventual champion Soderling, Llodra upset the resurgent Djokovic and familiar fall fiend Davydenko.  The extremely fast surface in Bercy mirrored his leaping, lunging, darting flair more than anywhere else on the calendar, and the controlled indoor conditions assisted his laboratory-like style.  Defying the stereotypes typically applied to his compatriots, Llodra never fails to expend all of the effort and energy available to him.

American men:  They may have won scant Slam glory for the Stars and Stripes, but the quartet of Roddick, Querrey, Isner, and Fish collected nine titles among them, more than any nation except Spain and an impressive quantity for a tennis power in decline.  Capturing four of those trophies, Querrey trailed only Federer and Nadal in that category, although he has yet to win a tournament of any significance.  Coming within a single victory of the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double, Roddick won his most significant title since 2006 when he triumphed at the latter event.  Eschewing his beloved carbohydrate-saturated diet, Fish devoted himself to improving his fitness and subsequently reached four finals on grass and North American hard courts.  Outshone in total titles by his compatriots, Isner produced the single most astonishing headline of the year with his three-day hallucination at Wimbledon.  While that match offered little aesthetic entertainment, its rococo statistics and Hollywood-worthy drama ensured that people who didn’t know the meaning of “forehand” or “backhand” knew the meaning of “Isner” and “Mahut.”

***

We continue this series with a WTA edition of “seasons to remember” before chronicling “seasons to forget” in both the ATP and the WTA.

Armed with a perfect record in Davis Cup live rubbers this year, the French team now leaves its homeland for the first time this season.  Entering Novak’s lair, Monfils and his supporting cast must target victories in the three matches not contested by the world #3.  The task looms somewhat less large than it seems at first glance, however, for the visitors hold modest advantages in each of those encounters.  But will the notoriously flaky French buckle under the pressure of the vociferous Belgrade multitudes?  As Monfils noted, Djokovic and his compatriots face the perhaps more intimidating mission of capturing their nation’s first Davis Cup amidst the lofty expectations swirling around them, both inside and outside Serbia.  We unfold a potential weekend narrative below.

Day 1:  After an uncharacteristically consistent fall, Monfils must overcome Tipsarevic in order to prevent this final from becoming The Novak Show with Guest Appearances from Gael and Gilles.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, the world #49 has proved a difficult test in national team competition, toppling both Berdych and Stepanek in the semifinals this year.  A quirky, intelligent player who never shrinks from the spotlight, Tipsarevic has split his four previous meetings with Monfils and clearly thrives upon the electrified atmosphere unique to Davis Cup.  On the other hand, the top-ranked Frenchman has showcased some of the best tennis of his career over a fall that has featured a US open quarterfinal, three finals, and just one loss to a player outside the top 10 (Gasquet).  At the US Open, in fact, Monfils outlasted Tipsarevic just a round after the Serb upset Roddick.  He opened a crucial quarterfinal tie against Spain with a victory over Ferrer that became more adventurous than it should have, though, so stay alert for drama.  France leads 1-0.

Encountering Simon in a best-of-five format for the first time, Djokovic has won their last five matches but surrendered sets in three of them.  A history of regularly defeating the Frenchman in close matches should serve the Serb well, as will the recent memory of a resounding victory in Beijing from which Gilles extracted only games.  Either mediocre or indifferent in his previous Davis Cup appearances, Simon principally functions as a means to preserve Llodra for what might become a title-deciding fifth rubber.  While he probably can’t win this battle, he might aid France in winning the war if he can collect a set or deplete Djokovic’s physical and mental reserves prior to a more demanding clash with Monfils.  Tied 1-1.

Day 2:  With the tie delicately poised, we expect former Wimbledon champions Clement and Llodra to seize center stage on Saturday.  A regular Davis Cup partnership that defeated the Bryans in the United States during this competition, they likely will overcome a Serbian team comprised of one doubles player and a singles player who has played just two Davis Cup doubles rubbers.  Seemingly fragile in tense situations, Troicki generally has represented the most vulnerable component of an otherwise sturdy squad.  Will Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic replace him with Djokovic in order to avoid a probable 1-2 deficit?  Even if he partners the world #3 with Zimonjic, such a tactic failed markedly in the semifinals against the Czech Republic, so we would advise Obradovic to spare his superstar and rely upon winning the two Sunday matches.  Offering a ray of hope for the home team is Zimonjic’s recent triumph at the World Tour Finals, which concluded his memorable collaboration with Nestor.  Moreover, a debut title at the Kremlin Cup this fall may allow Troicki to settle his nerves.  Exhorting him relentlessly, the crowd ironically won’t benefit him.  France leads 2-1.

Day 3: Just as in the semifinals, Serbia probably will face the challenge of winning the last two matches.  Entrusted with ensuring survival for the second straight tie, Djokovic will hope to prolong his mastery over Monfils, who never has won a match against him and has lost all three of their tiebreaks.  Two rounds after defeated Tipsarevic at the US Open, curiously, the Frenchman mustered just nine games from the Serb in an unfocused, listless effort.  While Monfils has reached three finals since September, so has Djokovic.  Revitalized with his victory over Federer at the US Open, the world #3 rode that momentum to the Beijing title and the Basel final before faltering in Paris.  While his loss to Llodra there raised eyebrows, the medium-speed hard courts in Belgrade align much more closely with Djokovic’s game than the lightning-fast courts in Bercy, although he won the title there last year.  Initially tentative when seeking to preserve a tie against Berdych in the Davis Cup semifinal, Djokovic recovered before the match slipped too far out of his grasp; he also profited from untimely errors by his opponent and likely will do so again.  During their only indoors meeting, though, Monfils dragged the Serb deep into a third-set tiebreak before surrendering, so this match should offer the highest-quality tennis of the weekend, mingling formidable serving with explosive forehands and lithe defense.  Tied 2-2.

Eyeing the hero’s mantle for the second straight Davis Cup tie, Tipsarevic probably won’t know until shortly before the match whether he will face Simon or Llodra.  Since the two Frenchmen display almost diametrically opposite styles, Guy Forget might want to delay his announcement as long as possible in order to diminish the Serb’s preparation time.  In addition to Llodra’s greater Davis Cup experience, his outstanding performance in Paris should compel his captain to select him for the championship-deciding match, yet an eye-opening effort from Simon could cause Forget to ponder carefully.  Among further variables to consider are the length of Llodra’s doubles match, the more Simon-friendly surface, and Tipsarevic’s dominance over the Llodra-like Stepanek in the decisive fifth rubber of the semifinals.  Unless a significant talent gap yawns between the two competitors, an impassioned audience beating thundersticks, blowing horns, and chanting national slogans should play a vital role in the outcome of this decisive rubber.  After a fiercely contested series of matches, a scarred, long-beleaguered nation should fling itself into cathartic celebration.  Serbia wins the Davis Cup, 3-2.

***

We now regret to announce a week-long interval before our next article.  Next Friday, we open a series of reflections on the season that has just concluded.

Hunting a third consecutive title this week, Federer has pounded aces, slashed volleys, and glided with leonine majesty across the Bercy court.  The top seed has faced break points during just one of his thirty service games, typically cruising through them in two or three minutes.  In his fourth straight week of action, he has shown few signs of either physical or mental fatigue but instead has displayed an urgency absent from his previous fall campaigns.   Considering the slick surface and his glittering performances this week, one easily forgets that Federer had not reached even a semifinal at the Paris Indoors before this year; in fact, it remains the only Masters event where he has not contested a championship match.  Between the Swiss legend and a Nadal-tying 18th shield lie three opponents who have toppled him exactly once in 21 attempts and never on a hard court.  Spared from facing Masters 1000 nemesis Murray, Federer confronts the far less troubling challenge of cooling a feverish French crowd in his semifinal meeting with Monfils.  Although they haven’t met on a hard court since early 2008, the world #2 has won twelve of thirteen total sets from a player whose showmanship he seems to disdain.  An emblem of the sport’s elite dimension, Federer frowns upon the idiosyncratic albeit entertaining antics of his Saturday opponent.  This dissonance in their styles and personalities should lend intrigue to an encounter that theoretically should produce scant suspense.

A finalist here last year, Monfils came within a tiebreak of claiming his first Masters shield before his frenzied fans.  Watching him maneuver past Murray, we reflected that the exceptionally fast court speed may benefit this feline counterpuncher by forcing him to play shorter, more aggressive points.  Armed with ample offensive weapons, Monfils usually rallies purposelessly from the baseline rather than unleashing them.  In his quarterfinal, however, he rarely failed to exploit an opening and approached the net with confidence.  After his concentration predictably dipped in the second set, he recovered impressively to snatch away the initiative from his higher-ranked opponent.  And his drum-beating, flag-waving compatriots refused to let him surrender when he tottered towards near-certain defeat against Verdasco.  Nevertheless, home-court advantage could not rescue Monfils during his three previous clashes with the world #2.  While all of those matches unfolded on clay rather than the Frenchman’s favored hard courts, Roger also prefers the asphalt of Bercy to the dirt of Roland Garros.  Last year here, however, the much less dangerous Benneteau built a spectacular upset over Federer upon inspired shot-making and relentless fan support.  Not traveling to London for the year-end championships, Gael still targets a meaningful objective in 2010:  the Davis Cup final.  The leading singles member on the French team, he could bring substantial momentum to Belgrade if his week rises from memorable to magical.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France (L) and Robin Soderling of Sweden (R) pose with their trophies after the singles final of the ATP 35th ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament at the Ahoy Centre Rotterdam on February 24, 2008 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Stunning two former champions this week, Llodra has proudly hoisted the banner of serve-and-volley tennis on the hard court best suited to this style.  The Eastbourne champion leaped and lunged through tense first sets against both Djokovic and Davydenko before those prestigious foes folded swiftly in the second set.  Although Llodra’s style requires precision and intense focus for extended periods, it demands a similar investment from his opponents, who must connect with low, pinpoint returns and capitalize upon the rare opportunities that emerge.  Will Soderling prove equal to that task?  Seeking his first career Masters final, the moody Swede still oscillates between overwhelming and underwhelming in the same tournament.  The French crowd could not salvage more than four games for Simon against Soderling, however, nor could Roddick repeat his two victories over the world #5 earlier this year.   After a modest fall season, he should have accumulated precious confidence from those wins as London looms.   But an unexpected loss to Llodra could reverse this encouraging surge, so Soderling can’t afford to let fantasies of Federer invade his mind.  He has fallen twice to the Frenchman on indoor hard courts, including a quarterfinal this year in Marseille.  Since they have played three tiebreaks in five total sets, one suspects that this encounter might be decided in a few fleeting moments, such as a net-skimming return or bold second serve.  In the Swede’s two previous Masters semifinals, he fell far short of his brutal best and contributed to his own demise with unsightly errors.  A far more complete player than Llodra, he probably will atone for those earlier disappointments—but not before French hearts flutter with ephemeral hope.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the final Masters 1000 match of 2010!

 

Djokovic has beaten Federer and Nadal in the space of a week.

Although Nadal doesn’t tower atop the draw, the Paris Masters will offer ample intrigue over the next week as the year-end championships beckon.  The concluding Masters 1000 event of 2010 not only will determine the final entries in London but will provide a last window of insight onto the status of Rafa’s primary challengers for the most important title still absent from his collection.  We break down the Paris draw, one section at a time.

First quarter:  For the second consecutive year, Federer faces a local favorite in his opener.  Unlikely to permit an encore, however, the Swiss legend has reached the final in his last five non-majors and will enter Bercy eager to end a disappointing season on a positive note.  His second match might feature the talented but enigmatic Almagro, who held multiple match points here against Nadal last year but has faded in the last few months after a promising spring surge.  Edging towards a berth in the year-end championships, Ferrer eyes a third-round clash with lefty veteran Melzer, who conquered the world #1 at the most recent Masters 1000 tournament.  Since both the Spaniard and the Austrian have captured indoor titles this fall, they should collaborate on an engaging performance that juxtaposes the former’s tenacious consistency with the latter’s mercurial aggression.  Yet Federer won’t fear either of them in his potential quarterfinal, having compiled a perfect record and Ferrer and having comprehensively defeated Melzer at both of the last two majors.  He should arrive in the semifinals without undue anxiety, his winning streak comfortably intact.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  The champion at two of the last three Masters 1000 events, Murray slumped to a listless loss in Valencia last week just as he did in Beijing a week before winning Shanghai.  Always dangerous in the fall, 2007 champion and 2008 finalist Nalbandian could pose a stern opening test, although the Argentine succumbed rather meekly to Roddick in Basel.  After a sensational start to 2010, Cilic has curiously evaporated since March despite suffering no apparent injury or illness.  Drawn to face doubles partner Lopez in the second round, Verdasco must awaken swiftly in order to preserve his waning hopes for London.  A two-time finalist since the US Open, Monfils seeks to recapture the ephemeral magic that lifted him to the championship match (and nearly the title) here a year ago.  The flamboyant Frenchman should delight his compatriots with a miniature upset over Verdasco, but his passive tactics and defensive court positioning will render him vulnerable to Murray.  Leisurely loping behind the baseline, Monfils too often relies upon his outstanding defensive skills rather than his equally outstanding offensive potential.  By turning the match into a comfortable contest of consistency, this athletic underachiever probably will play directly into the Scot’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Transmission reference: XAW107

Third quarter:  Retiring from Shanghai with a leg injury, Roddick rebounded impressively in Basel with a comfortable victory over Nalbandian before colliding with Federer once again.  The American should start against resurgent left-hander Nieminen, while US Open semifinalist Youzhny could await in the third round.  Although he hasn’t encountered the Russian in over four years, Roddick should suffocate the fluid, versatile Russian with a power-centered style much better suited to a fast hard court.   In the lower half of this section, Soderling faces a compelling collision with Valencia semifinalist Simon, who displayed his fierce competitive spirit in a tense three-set victory over Davydenko last week.  Still emotionally volatile despite recent improvements, the Swede might falter in the hostile atmosphere of a Paris crowd.  The winner of that match should routinely dismiss Indian Wells champion Ljubicic in the third round before testing Roddick in the quarterfinals.  Nearly a semifinalist in Paris two years ago, the American should reach that round on this occasion.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter:  Enduring an extended arid spell since reaching the Wimbledon final, Berdych might find himself in a third-round encounter with Davydenko, who has struggled almost as dramatically over the last few months.  Between the Czech and the Russian, however, lie a few notable dark horses such as Montanes and Kohlschreiber, so a surprise quarterfinalist might confront Djokovic on Friday.  In order to reach that stage, the Serb might need to overcome both heads of the American hydra known as Querrey and Isner.  But the gritty, underrated Monaco might ambush Querrey in the opening round, for the Argentine charged to the quarterfinals in Shanghai and defeated Murray last week in Valencia.  First reprising a recent clash with Llodra, Isner probably could duel with Djokovic for a set before fading.  Bringing much more momentum into the week than anyone else in his section, the Serb should glide smoothly into the weekend.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

***

We return to Paris for previews of the semifinals and finals, but first we will revisit the events of Basel, Valencia, San Diego, and Bali.  The next edition of TW(2) looms…

 

Transmission reference: BAS101

Just days removed from the US Open’s climax, several of its notable performers descend upon Europe for a weekend of intriguing Davis Cup semifinals, saturated with intense personalities and stylistic variety.  We discuss the key players and matchups in the two ties, unfolding the most plausible narratives that might unfold in Lyon and Belgrade:

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Argentina at France:

Without lanky superstar Del Potro for its entire 2010 campaign, the Argentine team may in fact be stronger in his absence, which cloaks the temperamental Nalbandian in the hero’s mantle.  Relishing this role, the infamously “grouchy gaucho” splendidly rose to the occasion during the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Russia, when he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in a weekend that signaled his summer resurgence.  Buttressed by the momentum of his recent exploits on the American hard courts, the former Wimbledon finalist also may suffer from fatigue after the US Open.  Although captain Tito Vazquez will want to conserve Nalbandian’s energy for the singles, he will be tempted to enlist his team’s only hard-court threat for doubles if the tie stays tense; thus, a difficult choice may loom on Saturday.  Cast as supporting actors, the trio of Monaco, Schwank, and Zeballos has accumulated respectable clay-court credentials but should struggle against the French shotmakers on the fast, indoor surface.

Not usually celebrated for teamwork and Davis Cup camaraderie, les bleus countered their reputation during their stunning whitewash of defending champion Spain in the quarterfinals, to which almost the entire squad contributed.  Even Gilles Simon, who didn’t play a live rubber that weekend, enthusiastically supported his compatriots and (tastefully) exhorted the spectators on their behalf.  In the often vital doubles rubber, France enjoys a significant edge with former Wimbledon titlists Clement and Llodra.  Yet captain Guy Forget has gambled by asking Llodra to play three rubbers, including the potentially decisive fifth rubber against Nalbandian.  If Argentina remains in contention until that stage, they would be favored to upset their hosts and advance to their second Davis Cup final in three years.  In order to split the first four rubbers, however, the visitors will need either the doubles rubber or a win from their clay specialists over Monfils or Llodra, both of whom have excelled on fast surfaces and recorded impressive results this summer.  Buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, Monfils might even defeat Nalbandian on Friday and effectively clinch the tie for France.  While the Argentine veteran probably wants a Davis Cup title more than anyone else in Lyon this weekend, the much superior depth and fast-surface talent of the French squad should comprise an insurmountable advantage.

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Czech Republic at Serbia:

Fresh (or not) from his sparkling New York performance, Djokovic opens this tie against a player whom he defeated in two of the last three US Opens.  Extending the Serb to the brink of defeat on the first of those occasions, Stepanek offered little resistance in their second meeting there and has faded dramatically this year.  Reliant on agility and timing, the idiosyncratic Czech has enjoyed extensive Davis Cup success but will struggle to cope with Djokovic’s superior consistency, versatility, and technique.  In the midst of a breakthrough season, Berdych will seek to level the tie against the unpredictable, ever-dangerous Tipsarevic.  Probably invigorated by a first-rubber victory, the Belgrade crowd will seek to fluster the Czech, who hasn’t entirely shed his reputation for mental fragility.  Although Tipsarevic hopes to recapitulate his scintillating upset over Roddick in New York, Berdych should control most rallies with his superior first-strike weaponry and pin the Serb behind the baseline.

Currently listing the unprepossessing duo of Hajek and Minar as his doubles team, Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil almost certainly will substitute Berdych and Stepanek once Saturday arrives.  Superb together in Davis Cup doubles, these singles specialists will confront the slightly odd pairing of Troicki and the perceptibly aging Zimonjic.  While the visitors might well win this battle, they probably will lose the war, for both of Serbia’s singles players will rest on Saturday as the Czech singles players continue their exertions without respite.  Reprising his Wimbledon semifinal with Berdych in the fourth rubber, Djokovic may face the task not of clinching the tie but of ensuring his nation’s survival into a decisive fifth rubber.  Despite his disappointingly passive loss to the world #7 a few months ago, one suspects that the new world #2 would outlast his weary opponent in an encounter of ferocious ball-striking and scintillating shot-making.  Ranked only two slots apart, Stepanek and Tipsarevic have split their two previous encounters and share a propensity for alternating the ridiculous with the sublime.  When so little separates two opponents in a Davis Cup fifth rubber, though, home-court advantage can play a pivotal role.

Davis Cup Final:  France at Serbia

***

Over the weekend, we will return with an article on leading Slam performers in 2010. Who were the top five men and top five women at the year’s four most important tournaments?  As you will find out, we take an extremely objective approach…

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Dominant on serve during a comprehensive first-round win over Makarova, Ivanovic has earned an opportunity to consolidate her revival by exacting revenge from one of the architects of her decline.  Fresh from the 2008 Roland Garros title, the Serb entered Wimbledon as a buoyant top seed, only to be deflated by the tenacious Chinese star.  In addition to outstanding movement and consistency, Zheng has troubled Ana with low, deep groundstrokes that force her statuesque opponent below her comfortable striking point.  Among the key advantages that Ivanovic holds over the petite 21st seed, however, is her recently reinvigorated serve and sparkling second-serve return.  Those first-strike weapons should shine on the Open’s fast courts, capturing short points without allowing Zheng to settle into rallies.  While first-serve percentage will prove vital for Ana, this statistic also will be essential for the Chinese star, who can’t afford to expose her benign second delivery on crucial points.  Both Ana and Jie typically rely upon baseline might to dictate exchanges, but the Serb and the doubles specialist have ventured into the forecourt with panache during recent weeks.  As the match evolves, note the duration of the points to determine who holds the edge at any stage; short points augur well for Ivanovic, while longer rallies favor Zheng.

We proceed to preview several of the other intriguing events on Day 3:

Tipsarevic vs. Roddick:

A day after three Serbs showcased their talents on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the bespectacled Tipsarevic takes aim at the leading American hope.  Two years ago at Wimbledon, Janko stunned the three-time Wimbledon finalist by capitalizing on almost every opportunity that he gained on Roddick’s serve while profiting from his adversary’s untimely miscues.  Recovering from a summer hampered by mono, Andy briskly dispatched Stephane Robert in his opener and displayed more impressive all-court coverage than one generally associates with him.  If fitness doesn’t become an issue, the home-court crowd and slick surface should lift Roddick over Tipsarevic, but the Serb has developed a habit of rising to the occasion against elite opponents on the grandest stages.  His five-set epic with Federer at the Australian Open two years ago ranks among the most thrilling first-week Slam encounters of the last few years, and he won’t feel intimidated by the hostile crowd.  Once reliant upon his tiebreak prowess, Roddick has struggled notably in those situations since Wimbledon, so watch closely if the match arrives at that stage.  Unless Tipsarevic can set up backhand-to-backhand exchanges that test Andy’s fitness or patience, however, he won’t be able to win three sets from the American.

Dulko vs. Azarenka:

Does Vika fancy a bit of vengeance?  At this year’s Roland Garros, the delicate Argentine inflicted one of the most lopsided losses of the Belarussian’s career in majors.  Nevertheless, Dulko profited from Azarenka’s hamstring injury in addition to a succession of shanked forehands, and don’t forget that she (unlike Vika) reached the second week here last year.  Healthy and refocused, the tenth seed enjoyed a stellar US Open Series that included a Stanford title and Rogers Cup semifinal appearance.  Beyond her Paris embarrassment at the Argentine’s hands, she may be hoping to atone for her painful demise in New York last year, courtesy of the indefatigable Schiavone.  Tantrums, meltdowns, and odd injuries still play a role in Azarenka’s evolution, and she displayed familiar frailty in the second set of her opener against the crafty but underpowered Niculescu.  As she prepares for a tantalizing collision with Pavlyuchenkova, however, Vika will hope to dismiss this opponent with maximum efficiency.

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Llodra vs. Berdych:

At the core of France’s Davis Cup upset over defending champion Spain stood the quirky lefty Michael Llodra, who named Mauresmo his coach, discusses his wine collection during press conferences, and once celebrated a Wimbledon doubles title by prancing around the court in his underwear.  More importantly, the Frenchman captured the Eastbourne title this summer, sternly tested Roddick at Wimbledon, and even held a brief lead over Federer at the Rogers Cup.  Having reached a semifinal and a final at his last two majors, Berdych should be filled with confidence and relaxed in his new role as one of the ATP’s premier contenders.  On the other hand, he showed a disquieting glimpse of his former, flustered self by failing to finish Federer in Toronto, and a leg injury hobbled him during a Cincinnati loss to the now-absent Baghdatis.  One would expect the Czech’s thunderous game to flourish in Flushing just as did Del Potro’s monstrous groundstrokes a year ago, yet his mind remains the most vulnerable element of his game.  If Llodra can rattle the easily rattled Czech with relentless forays to the net and deftly angled volleys, a scintillating rollercoaster could develop.

Errani vs. Kleybanova:

Opposing an Italian with an intelligent all-court game but limited first-strike potential is a Russian with prodigious groundstroke power but underwhelming recent results.  In San Diego, Errani came within a handful of points of upsetting eventual champion Kuznetsova; a few weeks later in New Haven, she held multiple match points against the admittedly ailing Stosur.  On both of those occasions, the diminutive doubles specialist rallied from one-set deficits in displays of a Schiavone-like tenacity that nearly toppled opponents of far greater shot-making talent and athletic ability.  An imaginative shotmaker herself, Kleybanova fell twice to Errani’s compatrio­t Pennetta this summer and suffered a perplexing loss to Hantuchova in San Diego, after she had thoroughly controlled their encounter.  The Russian’s deceptively effective movement and relentless depth on both groundstroke wings should hit through the Italian on this fast surface, one would think, but the Italian frustrated her on the Miami hard court earlier this year.  Look for an intriguing contrast of styles and cleverly constructed points that probe unexpected angles on both sides of the court.

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It’s time to revert to the ajdes as we prepare for Episode II of the Adventures of Ana!  Maybe we should close our eyes and hope for the best…

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Conventionally considered a second-tier competition populated by mid-level players, the Davis Cup also can be perceived as a theater where those outside the ATP elite can seize a rare chance for immortality.  Contrasting with most tournaments in this individual sport, the raucous atmosphere of the national team competition often christens unexpected heroes.  Studded with several marquee attractions, though, will the quarterfinals perpetuate or diverge from this pattern?

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France vs. Spain:  Surely thrilled not to see the Wizard of Wimbledon and Ruler of Roland Garros (aka Nadal), the French will be disappointed to contest this tie without the services of fast-court specialist Tsonga.  Likely to rise to the occasion is Gael Monfils, who delighted his compatriots last year by reaching the final of the Paris Indoors.  Yet one never knows precisely what to expect from the mercurial “La Monf,” who exited prematurely at the last two majors while his first-rubber opponent, David Ferrer, excelled even on his worst surface.  Surging within a set of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, the second Spanish singles player has thrived in Davis Cup and can be expected to deliver as sturdy an effort as possible despite the fast indoor court.  This first rubber must be claimed by the home nation, for the visitors will be heavily favored to win the Verdasco-Llodra clash that follows it.  Although the left-handed Llodra did claim the Eastbourne title before testing Roddick at Wimbledon, Fernando will relish the surface speed and enjoys a far more imposing arsenal of weapons than his opponent.

Somewhat unusually in Davis Cup, the doubles match will oppose two teams who often compete together at ATP events (Benneteau/Llodra vs. Verdasco/Lopez) , so one should expect a hotly contested match at the pivot point of the weekend.  If France can secure the 2-1 lead, the hosts will head into the reverse singles with a vital boost of confidence, but Spain’s greater experience in crucial Davis Cup ties must provide them with a slight edge.  One of the key factors in the tie will be Verdasco’s ability to win three best-of-five matches in three days (albeit one in doubles), a feat that he nearly performed last year against Germany.  Potentially tasked with closing out the tie against Monfils in the fourth rubber, the highest-ranked Spaniard outside Nadal generally responds with aplomb to the demands of Davis Cup.  In the 2008 final, he scored the clinching victory over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso after a poorly played but suspenseful five-setter.  Since Ferrer will struggle to win either of his singles rubbers, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Spanish captain Albert Costa substitute the superior fast-court player Almagro for him in the fifth rubber should it prove decisive.  It probably won’t, for the Spanish team’s far superior teamwork and shared experience should prevail over their flaky trans-Pyrenean rivals.  Spain, 70-30.

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Serbia vs. Croatia:  As volatile as this intra-Balkans rivalry might be at a national level, all of the competition’s participants have developed personal friendships that should defuse the hostility bubbling around them.  Fresh (or not fresh) from a Wimbledon semifinal run, Djokovic enters the weekend in his best form of the season, whereas his first-rubber foe Ljubicic has fallen well short of his Indian Wells success thereafter, losing his Wimbledon opener to an anonymous Pole.  The Croatian veteran won their last meeting during that magical Indian Wells surge, though, so recent history might play a factor; otherwise, Djokovic has dominated their collisions.  During the Davis Cup first round in Belgrade, the Serb embraced this competition’s combative atmosphere and played forceful tennis against American giants Querrey and Isner.  After he scores the first point of Serbia, Croatia’s top singles player Marin Cilic should even the tie despite his recently underwhelming form.  An easily disheartened, mentally fragile competitor, his opponent Victor Troicki lacks the emotional poise to vanquish a distinctly superior foe before a hostile crowd.  Sometimes a little fragile himself, Cilic recorded two sturdy wins in the quarterfinals at home last year, when Croatia hosted the United States.

In the unlikely event that Serbia leads 2-0 after the first day, expect Croatian captain Goran Prpic to substitute Ljubicic and Cilic in the doubles, where Serbia’s doubles star Nenad Zimonjic provides the visitors with a clear advantage.  If Prpic sticks with Dodig and Veic, his team likely will be forced to win both of the reverse singles on Sunday, an imposing but not impossible challenge.  Serbia will want to finish the job immediately in the fourth rubber, a marquee clash between Djokovic and Cilic.  Although the budding Croat sternly tested the world #2 at the 2008 US Open, the Djoker has dominated their fledgling rivalry by winning all four meetings and nine of ten total sets.  If the tie comes down to a fifth rubber, Ljubicic would be distinctly favored over Troicki on a fast indoor court, so Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic might consider substituting Tipsarevic, a sturdier competitor and superior server despite his lower ranking.  The efforts of Djokovic and Zimonjic should render such speculation unnecessary, however.  Serbia, 60-40.

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Russia vs. Argentina:  In this tie that might be labeled “Russia vs. Nalbandian,” the Argentine will be expected to win all three rubbers in order to propel his nation into the semifinals.  Relishing heroic roles, he skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare for this weekend, which opens with a stunning matchup against Davydenko, who also recently returned from injury.  Although their head-to-head is nearly even, Nalbandian has won three of their four non-clay meetings as well as two of their three Davis Cup clashes.  Having developed a highly similar style predicated upon early ball-striking and audacious angles, these bold shotmakers should produce scintillating tennis if both can shed the rust from their prolonged absences.  The second rubber should swing definitively towards the hosts, for Leonardo Mayer displays a far less complete game than Mikhail Youzhny, who often has shone in team competition. 

Far more adept in singles than doubles, Russia probably will surrender the doubles to Nalbandian and Horacio Zeballos while pinning their hopes upon the reverse singles.  If Nalbandian has defeated Davydenko at that stage, one should expect a decisive fifth rubber between the Argentine and Youzhny.  But if Davydenko starts the weekend with a victory, he should finish the task in the fourth rubber against Mayer.  Even supposing that Nalbandian does win the first rubber and the doubles, he would enter the reverse singles a little weary considering his lack of match play over the last few months.  Although he might deplete Youzhny’s limited reserves of patience and extend their encounter to a thrilling conclusion, he might struggle to win three sets from the versatile Russian.  Although Nalbandian played the hero expertly in the first round against Sweden, there is significantly more pressure on his shoulders when Argentina faces this much more formidable foe.  Russia, 60-40.

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Chile vs. Czech Republic:  Who are these people, and what did they do with Gonzalez, Berdych, and Stepanek?  While Fernando and Radek battle injuries, Tomas understandably proved reluctant to test his footing on red clay during the transition from grass to hard courts.  During the Czech Republic’s slightly surprising run to the 2009 Davis Cup final, Berdych and Stepanek played virtually every rubber including the doubles, which suggests that Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil possesses hardly any other weapons at all.  None of the visiting names here ring a bell except doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy, so the home nation will be favored to prevail in all four singles matches, contested on their favorite surface and before a partisan crowd.  Capturing the 2004 Olympic gold medal for Chile, Nicolas Massu has competed impressively at the national level even as his ATP results have sagged.  Once a notorious under-performer in Davis Cup, Paul Capdeville has shown signs of dispelling that reputation with a few key recent wins.  If the Czechs can somehow find a way to survive this round, of course, they could catapult directly back into contention with Berdych’s return for the semifinals against Serbia or Croatia.  Therefore, a literally gritty performance by its B-team could reap greater rewards than simply survival into the next round.  But it’s difficult to see the Czech journeymen winning three rubbers from the Chilean veterans on a surface barely familiar to them, thousands of miles from home.  Chile, 80-20.

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Over the weekend, we’ll compile the first of next week’s two player profiles, which will feature Wozniacki and Gulbis.  They’ll follow the trademark five-strength, five-weakness format with which we have prospered thus far.