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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.

Roger Federer - 2012 Australian Open Previews

As bagels and breadsticks continue to fly out of the WTA bakery at a dizzying rate, Federer confronts a less appetizing challenge as the second week approaches.  We preview the four-time champion’s next obstacle among several other encounters on the first day of the third round.

Karlovic vs. Federer:  Resentful of the ATP’s serving leviathans, Federer deems their distinctive styles as something other than tennis, or the proper form of the sport in his view.  Although he has lost to Karlovic only once in his career, the Swiss master will know that his opponent’s nearly untouchable serve will force him into sets much closer than he would prefer in the first week—perhaps even a tiebreak or two.  Returning more competently than usual in his first two matches, the ATP’s tallest player will not threaten the Federer serve unless its owner slips into carelessness.   Still, the experience of playing Karlovic, for whom matches can hinge upon a few points, will sharpen Federer’s focus and reflexes, if not his endurance.  (After all, one doesn’t expend much energy watching barely visible bombs fly past.)  Less sharp in passing shots recently, the third seed will find ample opportunities to practice them as Karlovic regularly advances to the net.

Dolgopolov vs. Tomic:  A regular fixture in the night session now, Tomic resurrected his tournament in inspiring fashion and now seeks to reach the second week for the second time in three majors.  More imposing than it might seem is the challenge presented by last year’s quarterfinalist from Ukraine, a quirky personality more similar to Tomic in style than his two previous foes.  Defusing Verdasco and then Querrey, the teenager specializes in defusing one-dimensional opponents with a variation of speeds and spins.  How will he adapt against someone who shares those habits, relying upon timing and accuracy more than power?  Sometimes so effortless that he looks disinterested, Dolgopolov has seemed a somewhat enigmatic competitor who often plays to the level of his competition.  That habit, combined with the scintillating Rod Laver atmosphere, should produce an evenly matched contest filled with imagination

Azarenka vs. Barthel:  Conceding just two games in two matches, Vika has established herself among the leading contenders for the title.  Unflustered by the partisan crowd in a Rod Laver night session, she overwhelmed Casey Dellacqua in a nearly bulletproof effort.  The Sydney champion now faces the Hobart champion and owner of a ten-match winning streak as she seeks to reach the second week of the Australian Open for the fourth straight year.  No matter the quality of the opposition, a ten-match winning streak should give Barthel the confidence that  neither the brashness of youth nor the support of a nation could instill in her earlier victims.  On the surface most suited to her game of any major, Azarenka probably would benefit from a creditable test that will brace her for stiffer competition inevitably looming ahead.  This match should inform us about her near future this fortnight and about Barthel’s future as an aspiring threat to the top.

Isner vs. Lopez:  As he reached 6-6 in the fifth set against Nalbandian, Isner must have wondered how long this latest trudge towards tennis infinity would last.  Fortunately for him, he played only six more games and finished his comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in style with an uncharacteristically subtle sequence at the net.  Not the fastest player to recover from a protracted battle, Isner may bring depleted energy to his next round and will feel relieved to realize that this match will not require much energy from him.  Much like the American, Lopez prefers to end points as quickly as possible with either point-ending serves or brisk assaults on the forecourt.  Neither players can survive for long in extended rallies, so the points should represent bursts of rapid activity amidst the calm that surrounds the time between them.  Experiencing a taste of his own medicine in the Spaniard’s vicious lefty serve, Isner must carefully protect his own delivery while waiting for the untimely lapse in his opponent’s game that has plagued Lopez in many of his most important matches.  On a surface less than fast, the more methodical player holds the advantage, and in this case the American can lay claim to that distinction.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova: Before their meeting two weeks ago, this match would have contained little intrigue.  Having lost one total set in their first nine meetings, Clijsters clearly had solved the conundrums posed by the Slovak’s audacious angles with her own court-stretching defense and transition game.  When they collided in a Brisbane semifinal, though, Hantuchova severely tested the Belgian’s movement with a surprisingly poised performance from the first ball onward.  One would have expected her flakiness to doom her in the many multiple-deuce games of the match, but in fact she prevailed more often than not in those situations.  And, although she lost the first-set tiebreak, her game did not collapse under pressure then as it so often has.  Rebounding to claim another lead early in the second set before Clijsters retired, Hantuchova displayed the type of resistance that would produce a scintillating third-round encounter here.  A semifinalist here in 2008, she should relish the pace and bounce of these courts as much as the defending champion, who improved significantly from her first match to her second.  With Li Na potentially just one round ahead, Clijsters will not want to display any signs of fragility.

McHale vs. Jankovic:  Amidst another encouraging Slam for young Americans, McHale reached the third round for the second straight major.  After knocking off Safarova in the first round with a display of nearly impeccable consistency (no unforced errors at all), she showed her mettle in adversity a match later.  Brought  by Erakovic to within a tiebreak, McHale found a way to turn the trajectory of their encounter in her favor and showed no sign of fading during the final set.  Her physical and mental stamina should aid her against Jankovic, who specializes in breaking down opponents one game at a time.  Following that pattern in her first two matches here, the former #1 played solid tennis to unravel the inexperienced Laura Robson and Kai-chen Chang.  While she may start by maintaining that strategy against yet another young challenger, Jankovic eventually may need to shift into offensive mode more often.  Since McHale can counterpunch comfortably from the baseline, the Serb should aim to exploit the greater pace and depth of her own groundstrokes.  She will find herself superior to her opponent in many areas and inferior in none, but the American has demonstrated her ability to score upsets and will not flinch when she meets a much more accomplished opponent.

Wawrinka vs. Almagro:  When we previewed both of their matches for the previous round, we somewhat favored their opponents to end their fortnights.  By dispatching Baghdatis and Dimitrov, these two Europeans of the second tier delivered a meaningful statement of intent that the rest of this weak section should not cast aside lightly.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s Australian Open, Wawrinka has battled an apparent inferiority complex to prominent rivals for much of his career but broke through at the 2009 US Open with a victory over Murray that catalyzed his best tennis to date.  While he no longer works with coach Peter Lundgren and has rejoined his family, the Swiss #2 can continue to apply the lessons of his eccentric, aggressive mentor.  Three of his four previous matches with Almagro have reached a final set, and he has won their only previous five-setter (on clay) in a testament to his superior fitness.  But the superior serve and shot-making power belongs to the Spaniard, who faces the challenge of pulling the trigger at the right moment in rallies.  Expect plenty of tightly contested service games, more breaks than the ATP average, and a critical test of nerve at some stage that separates them.

Falla vs. Kohlschreiber:  Two years after an upset of Federer at Wimbledon eluded him, Falla refused to let world #8 Fish off the hook in straight sets.  That victory likely marks the most notable achievement of the Colombian’s career, accomplished by lulling the American into bland, neutral rallies where his inconsistent groundstrokes undermined him.  Extremely solid with all shots except his second serve, Falla rarely slashes winners past opponents but slowly maneuvers them into awkward positions.  An effective lateral mover, he retrieved even Fish’s more penetrating backhands with surprising depth.  When he meets another volatile, erratic shot-maker in Kohlschreiber, the same tactics should serve him effectively.  Springing a much less notable upset over Monaco in the first round, the German dazzled Rod Laver Arena during a 2008 night session when his flat, deceptively fast groundstrokes whizzed past a helpless Roddick in a five-set thriller.  When streaky meets steady, expect a complicated match in which both players will attempt to deliver their most impressive bullets from their backhands rather than their forehands, a rarity in the ATP.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Feliciano Lopez Davis Cup team captain Albert Costa (R), Feliciano Lopez (2nd R), Rafael Nadal (C), Fernando Verdasco (2nd L) and David Ferrer of Spain celebrate with the crowd after the last match during the third and final day of the semi final Davis Cup match between Spain and France at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas on September 18, 2011 in Cordoba, Spain.

As December descends, most of the competitors who toiled so tirelessly through the labyrinthine tennis season enjoy a well-deserved respite.  But not quite all of them do.  Proving that this sport’s calendar, unlike all others, lasts twelve months a year is the Davis Cup final in Seville this weekend.  On the (red and gritty) surface, Argentina’s visit to the land of Nadal looks even more fruitless than Spain’s trip to the indoor hard courts of Mar del Plata three years ago.  Nevertheless, the Davis Cup final three years ago took more than one unexpected twist, reminding viewers that the team competition does not always fulfill expectations.  What key questions should we ask of the last men standing this year?

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

Two years ago, the greatest clay player in tennis history had endured one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, including what remains his only loss in a five-set match on a favorite surface.  When Nadal slumped through a winless week in the World Tour Finals, many wondered whether his presence in Davis Cup would lift the fortunes of his team as significantly as he had in the past.  Assigned the task of facing Berdych on Friday, the Spanish #1 did in fact look uneasy through the first several games—before utterly demolishing the Czech once a set threated to slip away from him.  Although he earned only one victory in that tie, Nadal celebrated the title ecstatically with his team and compatriots.  This momentum-reversing triumph may have propelled him towards the most impressive season of his career so far in 2010, just as a Davis Cup title boosted Djokovic’s moral before his year to remember in 2011.  After another inconsistent second half and tepid performance in the World Tour Finals, a return to his homeland should raise Nadal’s spirits for the short term and could lift his game in the long term.

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

In what became known as the Massacre of Mar del Plata, a Nadal-less Spanish team tiptoed into the Argentine beach town to face an ebullient home squad on indoor hard courts, the surface least suited to Spanish strengths.  All went according to script during the first rubber, an emphatic victory for Nalbandian over Ferrer.  As Del Potro edged towards a two-set lead over Lopez in the second rubber, a first Cup title looked almost a foregone conclusion.  But then Argentina’s rising star played a poor tiebreak before fading physically, the Argentine doubles team wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of the next rubber before fading physically, and suddenly the battered veteran Jose Acasuso found himself handed a must-win assignment against Verdasco.  Following a hideous five-setter, the Spanish lefty finally clinched the Cup for the leading ATP nation of the last decade.  The humiliation for the still Cup-less Argentines, meanwhile, reached staggering heights as reports of friction between Nalbandian and Del Potro bubbled to the surface.  This time, the same duo will hope to avoid the dissension that made their talented squad less than the sum of its parts.  Far from their compatriots, the away location of this tie may relieve some of the pressure that Del Potro especially seemed to sense in Mar del Plata.

3)     Will we see the Del Potro of the first half or the Del Potro of the second half?

Through Wimbledon, the Tower of Tandil had progressed promisingly and more swiftly than one would have expected.  Winning two small titles in Delray Beach and Estoril, he had reached a semifinal at Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Miami, defeated Soderling twice, and won a set apiece from Djokovic and Nadal at majors.  Since he enjoyed an outstanding reputation on North American hard courts, the US Open Series offered the perfect platform to vault him towards what looked like an almost certain berth in the top 10.  But the summer did not unfold as one would have expected, combining losses to underachievers Gulbis and Cilic withan unsightly deluge of unforced errors in a first-week defeat to Simon at the US Open.  On the same court where he had dethroned Federer, Del Potro’s forehand suddenly lacked its characteristic explosiveness and his demeanor the quiet confidence that had intimidated his rivals.  Nor did the fall indoor season much improve his fortunes.  Looking much more like the tentative, brittle introvert of his pre-2009 self, he bookended a creditable loss to Tsonga in Vienna with unexpected stumbles against Blake and Granollers in Stockholm and Valencia.  A product of these early losses and a limited schedule, Del Potro’s second half has allowed him ample time to rest for Davis Cup, but rest may translate to rust.  In a must-win match against Ferrer on the first day, with Argentina almost certainly trailing 0-1, will the Spanish crowd unnerve a personality much less imposing than his physique?  Mentally inferior to Ferrer, Del Potro will need to rediscover his bullet serves and forehands for this tie to survive the first day in any meaningful fashion.

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

At the 2005 year-end championships, the Argentine with the smooth two-hander and dubious fitness rallied from losing the first two sets to stun Federer in a final-set tiebreak.  Just a few months later at the 2006 Australian Open, he carelessly let a two-set lead slip away against Baghdatis when victory would have allowed him to play for his first major title.  In such an erratic fashion has his long, injury-plagued career veered between spectacular success and spectacular collapses.  His Slam ambitions have long since evaporated, if they ever existed, but Nalbandian long has harbored hopes for his nation’s first Davis Cup crown.  A controversial figure in his home country as elsewhere, he would become a hero forever by snapping Argentina’s futility in Cup competition.  If Nalbandian plays as he did against Ferrer in the first rubber of the 2008 final, the Spaniards will have reason to furrow their brows if he meets Ferrer again in the potentially decisive fifth rubber.  (Although Argentina currently has scheduled Monaco for that match, one expects to see the Grouchy Gaucho riding to the rescue should their title hopes hinge upon it.)  Well past his prime, he still has amassed a formidable 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers that demonstrates his tendency to shine under national colors.  For Argentina to have any chance at all, Nalbandian must spearhead their doubles charge while conserving adequate energy to fluster Ferrer on Sunday.  The task looms large, but so do the stakes and likely the motivation—the only factor that has prevented him from becoming one of his generation’s elite contenders.

5)     Why don’t we have more questions about Spain? 

Unlike Argentina, the hosts have assembled a squad beyond Nadal that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts, especially at home and on clay.  Whereas uncertainty swirls around the visitors, one can expect an unwaveringly professional effort from Ferrer, who would serve almost any other country well as their #1 singles player.  One need only recall his five-set comeback against the then-imposing Roddick in the 2009 semifinal, or his five-set comeback against Stepanek in the 2009 final, to realize the value of his tenacity in this context, on this surface, and under the eyes of his compatriots.  Somewhat less steady are Lopez and Verdasco, but this flamboyant duo has competed valiantly throughout many a Cup campaign.  More likely than not, Argentina must defeat Ferrer twice and the two lefties once in order to claim its first Davis Cup title. Unless complacency strikes Spain in 2011 as it did Argentina in 2009, the visitors lack the depth and resilience to accomplish that mission.

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

***

Outside exhibitions, this weekend witnesses the last matches of the 2011 season.  We return next week to start reviewing the greatest performances from a fascinating season in both the ATP and the WTA.

Novak Djokovic - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Six

First quarter:  Clouding this diverse section is the uncertainty enveloping the world #1, who seems all but certain to withdraw but has not as of Sunday evening.  Should Djokovic find discretion the better part of valor, the two highest-ranked men in the tournament would reside in the same half of the draw.  Conversely, opportunity would knock for 2008 champion Tsonga, who has relished the stage-like setting of this indoor arena as well as its slick surface.  Amidst the second-best season of his career, the Frenchman won the Vienna tournament two weeks ago and has won three of his seven titles on home soil.   Yet this crowd favorite should not overlook the almost equally flamboyant Almagro in the third round.   Although he has won all five of their meetings, the Spanish shot-maker came within a point of ousting Nadal two years ago on this court.  Sandwiched between them is Davydenko, who may no longer deserve a special mention in these previews but historically has feasted on the depleted draws and battered opponents of fall.  Elsewhere, Nishikori may struggle to regroup both physically and mentally from a Shanghai semifinal followed by a Basel final.  Surely hoping for a Djokovic-less draw is his compatriot Troicki, a finalist in Moscow despite an otherwise unremarkable second half.  Only the third-best player in his own country, he has won three of four meetings from Tsonga.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga (whether or not Djokovic plays)

Second quarter:  Likely to compete with his characteristic vigor, the fourth-seeded Ferrer probably will not survive long on a surface antithetical to his strengths.  On the other hand, none of the opponents in the immediate vicinity may muster the determination to dispatch him.  Known for scintillating one-handed backhands, Youzhny and Kohlschreiber will battle for the opportunity to meet Dolgopolov, who has faded from awareness since testing Djokovic at the US Open.  The theatrical atmosphere in Bercy might inspire the charismatic Ukrainian to unleash his fluid, all-court style, while the laboratory-like environment should allow him to perfect his timing.  Weakened by the withdrawal of Del Potro, this quarter still contains two-time finalist Monfils, denied by Djokovic in 2009 and Soderling in 2010.  As enigmatic and engaging as ever, the French #2 recorded one of the most impressive wins of his career on this court when he saved multiple match points to stun Federer in a semifinal, and he collected the Stockholm crown as Tsonga seized Vienna.  Possibly awaiting “La Monf” in the second round is his compatriot and fellow 2010 semifinalist Llodra, who will engage with Lopez in a battle of serve-and-volleying lefties.  Mirroring each other, their vintage styles will contrast with the baseline-bound Monfils or Wawrinka.  Will the more modern game prevail on the surface least designed for it of all Masters 1000 tournaments, or will the fast courts in Paris set the stage for a miniature upset?

Semifinalist:  Monfils

Third quarter:  Having waited ten months from his previous title, Federer earned some desperately needed momentum by capturing his hometown tournament for the fifth time.  A champion only in Doha and Basel this year, he has reached just one total final this year at majors and Masters events as Djokovic’s ascendancy uprooted the ATP hierarchy.  And Federer never has reached the final here, a distinction that Paris shares with no other tournament of its level.  Thwarted by players like Nalbandian and Benneteau in previous appearances, he often has looked drained of motivation and already focused on the year-end championships.  Rome nemesis Gasquet could collide with Federer in the third round, but the former prodigy has specialized in squashing the hopes of his countrymen until reaching the second week of Roland Garros this spring.  Yet another bold-faced French name has ambushed Federer twice on hard courts, including once on an indoor hard court in the fall, and his comeback from a two-set deficit against Roger at the Australian Open clearly discomfited the GOAT.  Not until the quarterfinal would Gilles Simon earn the chance to accomplish a third “accident,” as he self-deprecatingly has termed his upsets over the Swiss.  Still, few opponents in his section impress at first glance, whether the recently injured Fish or the fading Stepanek.  The nemesis of Nadal in Shanghai, Florian Mayer might edge past the American with his underrated serve and penetrating backhand, but few would consider him a threat to Federer.  After a second-half campaign that has revitalized his stagnant career, Donald Young burst through a qualifying draw once more and eyes a winnable encounter with weary Valencia runner-up Monaco.  All of these names, except perhaps Simon, look like subplots if Federer’s form continues to climb as it did from one match to the next in Basel.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Seeking his fourth consecutive title since the US Open, Murray propelled himself to the #3 ranking by demolishing all adversaries throughout the Asian season before a sore backside negated his Basel wildcard.  Unlikely to resist the Scot too fiercely is Valencia champion Granollers, who probably soared into Paris on a wave of elation from that most notable performance of his career. Nor do flammable, fickle second-tier Frenchmen Benneteau and Chardy appear legitimate upset bids.  Since reaching a US Open quarterfinal, Roddick’s form has ranged across the spectrum from the dangerous (third-set tiebreak loss to Ferrer in a Shanghai quarterfinal) to the dismal (opening-round loss to Kevin Anderson in Beijing).  Climaxing with one of the season’s most dazzling winners, his epic triumph over Raonic in the Memphis final might find an encore in his opener here, where their towering serves should produce at least one tiebreak.  Thoroughly stifled by Murray at Queens Club this year, Roddick would have to maintain a superb first-serve percentage to compensate for his inferiority to the Scot in almost all other departments.  A similar task awaits the fifth-seeded Berdych, who has won two of his last three meetings with Murray and should find the surface more suited to his offensive orientation.  But his recurrent bête noire Tipsarevic might lurk in the third round.  The Serb even has enjoyed sporadic success against Murray, while his first career title in Moscow built upon summer breakthroughs in Canada and New York.  In the absence of Djokovic, can one of his compatriots proudly plant his nation’s flag on French soil?

Semifinalist:  Murray

Semifinals:  Tsonga d. Monfils, Federer d. Murray

Final:  Tsonga d. Federer

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

David Ferrer - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 5

On a reportedly fast surface like the Decoturf in Shanghai, one raises an eyebrow to see just one full-blooded shot-maker (Lopez) in the semifinals, together with one passive-aggressive hybrid (Murray), and two innate defenders (Ferrer and Nishikori).  We break down what to expect on Saturday.

Lopez vs.  Ferrer:  Through the three sets and two tiebreaks of the Ferrer-Roddick quarterfinal, one player never lost his serve.  Upon casual inspection, one would identify Roddick as that player considering the numerous occasions on which he has accomplished such a feat.  But instead it was Ferrer who erased all five break points on his serve with aplomb, striking as many aces as did the American (11) and even finishing points at the net.  This most uncharacteristic display of offense disconcerted Roddick and may well cause Murray concern if the Spaniard can sustain that style for two more matches.  In a semifinal against his compatriot Lopez, Ferrer’s ability to consistently hold serve will prove critical when he confronts a foe who has not lost serve in his last two matches, facing one total break point against Berdych and Florian Mayer.  Probably the most intriguing factor in this all-Spanish duel lies in the clash between the third seed’s premier return game and the skidding, darting serve of Lopez, so effective on this low-bouncing surface.  Less known for striking audacious return winners than for his relentlessness in punching serves back into the court, Ferrer should find that style well-suited to an opponent who can struggle with consistency and prefers to win points with one or two shots.

Also on display is the contrast between the efficient volleys of Lopez, an expert doubles star, and the equally efficient passing shots of Ferrer, who relishes the opportunity to thread needles.  Despite the contrasts in their playing styles, though, the two Spaniards share the experience of having extricated themselves from perilous positions earlier in the week.  Saving match points in the third round and coming within a tiebreak of defeat in the quarterfinal, Ferrer flirted more brazenly with disaster than did Lopez.  Nevertheless, his compatriot danced with danger when he faced 16 break points (saving 14) against Alex Bogomolov in the second round before comfortable victories in the last two matches.  That type of resilient, grinding counterpuncher can wear down the more brittle, one-dimensional game of Lopez, and Ferrer will aim to exploit that one-dimensionality to the fullest by forcing the lefty to hit one, two, or three additional shots to finish points.

Nishikori vs. Murray: Whereas the first semifinal will hinge upon Ferrer’s ability to neutralize the Lopez first strike, the second semifinal will unfold mostly from behind the baseline.  Yet another product of the Bolletieri method, NIshikori shares the preference for penetrating groundstrokes displayed by many of the top women from that Florida hothouse of champions.  Limited by a Ferrer-like statute, however, the compact Japanese star cannot project the point-ending power on both wings that has become a hallmark of taller Bolletieri pupils.  A more natural grinder, he has honed exceptionally reliable technique and footwork on every stroke except his volleys, which still leave much room for improvement.  For the first time in his career, he has strung together noteworthy victories over a series of opponents who range from the heralded but not especially hungry to the hungry but not especially heralded.    Reaching his highest career ranking to date, Nishikori has positioned himself to test the boundaries of his upward mobility next year.

Still, the semifinal rests firmly in the hands of the second seed, seeking to hold a trophy for the third consecutive week.  While Shanghai will prove little about the state of Murray’s game or his likelihood of winning a major someday, he shoulders a pressure rare for him in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era:  entering the semifinal of a Masters 1000 tournament as the prohibitive favorite.  If he navigates comfortably to the title past these last two obstacles, Murray will have shown a maturity that augurs well for the future.  Against Nishikori, his serving superiority should reward him with more free points on this fast court, and he even might seek to experiment with an occasional net-rushing tactic.  In general, strengths—movement, consistency, versatility—mirror the strengths of his opponent and surpass them in every category, the best possible news for a player and his supporters.  While Murray probably can advance without leaving his comfort zone to attempt anything special, he might use these highly winnable matches in Shanghai to prepare for thornier fields like the World Tour Finals.  There lies a tournament where a title for the Scot would mean something significant as he prepares for a critical season in 2012.

Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 7

While Djokovic and Federer sprawl harmlessly across couches rather than courts this week, Florian Mayer excised another member of the ATP top four from the depleted Shanghai draw.  The sole survivor at the eighth Masters 1000 tournament of 2011, Murray now looks poised to sweep the Asian season and gorge himself on fall titles like a vulture on carrion.  But this section of the calendar historically has witnessed more unexpected ambushes than any other, and Murray displayed hints of vulnerability in a three-set triumph over Wawrinka.  We consider the seven remaining players who stand between the defending champion and a second straight Shanghai title.

Ferrer:  Not to be underestimated on any surface, the third seed might gain momentum after saving three match points in the third round against Ferrero and escaping a very tight two-setter with the dangerous Raonic.  If Murray enters Sunday a little fatigued from his recent exertions, Ferrer could capitalize just as he often does upon an opponent’s complacency.  Nevertheless, their head-to-head record splits cleanly according to surface, with the Spaniard undefeated on clay and the Scot undefeated on hard courts.  Just last week in Tokyo, Andy cruised through a semifinal during which David rarely could generate the groundstroke pace to hit through the Scot’s defenses or the serving power to seize control of the points from the outset.  In order to defeat Murray on a court, therefore, Ferrer needs assistance from across the net in the form of an erratic or disinterested performance, which he probably will not receive in a Masters 1000 final.

Roddick:  Before the third seed even reaches the final, in fact, he may fall prey to a miniature upset from the evergreen American.  Toppling Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals, Roddick quickly thrust the disappointment of a first-round Tokyo loss behind him in Shanghai.  A round ago, he showcased not only the familiarly formidable serve against Almagro but also crisper court coverage, both vertically and laterally.  Roddick delivered one of the finest performances of his Slam career in conquering the home hope at the All England Club two years ago, exploiting his opponent’s negativity under pressure.  Outside that memorable meeting, though, he never has defeated Murray outside the United States, and his serve-reliant style plays directly into the hands of the ATP’s second-best returner.  So clinical was the Scot’s rout of Roddick at Queens Club this year that the American half-jokingly asked him for mercy.

Dolgopolov:  Captivating at his best and maddening at his worst, the quirky Ukrainian seems to have struck a rich vein of form at a convenient moment, when large quantities of cheap rankings points might await him.  Down a set in each of his last two matches, Dolgopolov conceded just one game in the last two sets against future superstar Tomic.  His quarterfinal opponent Nishikori will test his patience, rarely a strength, and force him to construct points more thoughtfully than usual.  Susceptible to veering in and out of focus throughout a match, Dolgopolov has the arrhythmic flair that could irritate Murray, as he showed in the third set of their Australian Open quarterfinal.  As Murray showed in the other three sets, Dologopolov oddly lacks the core of motivation that inspires elite contenders in significant matches.  When his focus fades, the second seed will pounce.

Mayer:  Last year, Melzer battered Nadal into submission in the third round before exiting Shanghai a round later.  As he recovers from the most impressive win of his career to date, Mayer must avoid the lull that afflicted his predecessor and fellow Central European.  Despite Rafa’s returning skills, he never faced a break point throughout that upset and lost only four first-serve points.  Should he maintain that standard, he will trouble anyone in the draw, but common sense suggests that he will not.  Mayer’s deceptively powerful backhand frustrated Murray throughout a first-set breadstick in Monte Carlo this year, after which an irritated Scot hurled two breadsticks back at him.  When faced with such a consistent opponent, the German’s precariously assembled technique proved his undoing, while his serve-volley attempts merely exposed him to Murray’s passing shots.

Lopez:  In the final of Judy Murray’s dreams, the one-dimensional lefty would stand little chance against Murray’s versatility unless he maintains a superb serving percentage.  Amidst one of the best seasons of his singles career, Lopez has fallen to the world #4 in straight sets at the last two majors, including an exhibition-like evisceration in New York.  Only one of their fifteen sets have tilted in the Spaniard’s direction, for his unreliable groundstrokes prevent him from surviving in extended baseline exchanges with Murray.  As long as the Scot can keep him out of the forecourt, he should contentedly concentrate on high-percentage strokes and wait for Lopez to either donate an unforced error or gamble upon an ill-advised approach.

Nishikori:  Somewhat similar to Ferrer in size and mentality, the Japanese star finally has achieved his goal of becoming the highest-ranked man in his nation’s history.  Guided by Brad Gilbert and finally (relatively) free from injuries, he rallied to stun Tsonga in a result almost as astonishing as Mayer’s upset over Nadal.  Also like Ferrer, however, Nishikori lacks the weapons to hit through Murray from the baseline or the serve to generate free points.  Never having reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in his career, he would rely upon a pedestrian performance from the Scot should he arrive there.

Ebden:  Perhaps buoyed by Stosur’s stirring US Open fortnight, this 124th-ranked qualifier derailed what might have become a compelling quarterfinal between Simon and Murray.  In its place awaits a demolition in the making, potentially similar to the Scot’s crushing victory over Donald Young in the Bangkok final.  After a rollercoaster victory over Wawrinka, Murray will welcome the respite that allows him to conserve energy for the weekend.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

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