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Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

In a suspenseful three-set encounter, not all points are created equal.  Few players recognize and exploit this truth more than Sharapova, who survived 11 double faults and 64 unforced errors to collect the title that painfully eluded her a year ago.  Trailing Jankovic by a set and a break in a final that resembled the nearby rollercoaster, the 2010 Cincinnati finalist sank her teeth into the match midway through the second set, holding serve twice to stay alive.  In the ensuing tiebreak, the serves and groundstrokes that had sprayed throughout the court suddenly found lines and corners with vintage precision.  Three times trailing by a break in the final set, Sharapova pinpointed her returns to erase each of the deficits in a final during which each player rarely led by more than one game or by more than one point in a game.  Never ahead between the seventh game of the first set and the seventh game of the third set, she allowed her sprightly opponent no room for recovery once she gained the initiative.   Amidst the unsightly statistics of double faults and unforced errors, another statistic proved the most relevant:  a stunning 11-0 record in third sets this season that testifies to her unsurpassed resolve when matches hang in the balance, as well as to her ability to overcome imperfections in a game designed for the pursuit of perfection.  Crushing Kuznetsova and Stosur earlier in the week, the three-time major champion scored a similarly valiant victory over Zvonareva after a dismal beginning to their semifinal.  With disappointments in Stanford and Toronto placed firmly behind her, she will travel to New York armed with a timely injection of confidence.

An even more dramatic confidence boost will have propelled the Cincinnati runner-up into the season’s final major.  A first-round loser at both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Jankovic had drifted beyond the edge of relevance this year as her 2010 slump on non-clay surfaces had deepened.  Although she profited from a walkover and an injured semifinal opponent (see below), the Serb seemed to recapture her affection for the sport this week.  Compensating for reduced foot speed with smarter anticipation, she showcased not only her lithe movement and keen instincts but the smile that accompanied her exploits during her ascent to #1.  On several occasions throughout the final and her third-round victory over Schiavone, Jankovic sprawled across the court to produce passing shots or unexpected retrievals, demonstrating her natural athleticism and racket-head control.  A potential narrative of the final would cast it as a potentially uneventful straight-set win that she let escape her, like Sharapova in last year’s final, but she battled an increasingly determined Sharapova with courage and concentration until the last two games.  Whatever one’s response to the polarizing Serb, one still can appreciate the player if not the person.  Not realistically a genuine contender at the US Open, she might provide a fascinating foil for the power-hitters atop the WTA if she can build upon this result.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

As desperate as Sharapova to forget the foibles of the previous week, Murray had not won a match at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this year—until he won all of his matches this week.  An opening-round exit had terminated his Montreal title defense, appearing to distance him further from the top three.  Had he suffered another early loss, he would have struggled to acquire the optimism necessary for surviving the intense fortnight in New York.  By capturing the Cincinnati trophy, however, the world #4 reestablished himself as a serious contender in what has become a US Open men’s field surrounded by questions, none more notable than those concerning Djokovic’s shoulder.  Unable to compete effectively against the Scot, the world #1 already had played more matches than he did all of last season and may have suffered merely a case of aggravated fatigue as he did after Miami.  Nevertheless, the injury arrived at an inauspicious moment, offering a breath of hope for the other 127 players in the draw.  Despite an uneven performance in the semifinal, Murray also outlasted the most successful player of the summer in Mardy Fish, who has assumed the mantle of leading American with unexpected speed and ease.  That encouraging victory illustrated the Scot’s skill in defusing imposing servers, the type of player that normally profits from the fastest Slam surface of all.

In a week that witnessed the withdrawal of one former champion from the US Open, Cincinnati proved relatively unkind to most of the others.  Perhaps hampered by burned fingers, Nadal struggled with his first serve and forehand throughout his two victories before succumbing to Fish for the first time in his career.  In his three-tiebreak, 217-minute victory over Verdasco, the defending champion failed to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes for prolonged periods, a rare sight even on hard courts.  His confidence shaken by losses to Djokovic, Nadal’s abbreviated US Open Series left him additional time for much-needed preparation in New York.  Less surprising was Del Potro’s loss to Federer, for the Argentine had not defeated a top-three opponent since his return from wrist surgery and had grown oddly passive since Wimbledon.  The five-time US Open champion avenged his loss in the 2009 final with a performance as sparkling as any of his hard-court matches this year but found little of that form three days later against Berdych.  After his third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals or earlier, Federer will face a severe test in stringing together seven consecutive quality performances.  Not since February in Dubai has he reached a non-clay final.  To be sure, the Swiss won the US Open after losing early in Cincinnati three years ago, while the Czech defeated Federer twice and nearly a third time last year.

Having accomplished little of significance so far in 2011, Berdych overcame the 16-time major champion without facing a break point.  This achievement might have positioned him to threaten a fallible Djokovic on Saturday, had not an injury-caused retirement intervened.  When Djokovic himself fell victim to a shoulder injury a day later, the men’s tournament concluded with consecutive retirements.  From the women’s draw withdrew Serena and Azarenka, while Petkovic suffered a knee injury in her quarterfinal that impeded her perceptibly during her semifinal loss to Jankovic.  As the US Open approaches, one expects that some of these injuries will disappear (see S for Serena and A for Azarenka), but this rising trend on both Tours should cause them to investigate this issue further.  Despite the Roadmap, the post-Wimbledon break, and more intelligent scheduling by the players themselves, too many outcomes continue to hinge upon physical condition rather than tactics and execution.  The sport’s sprawling calendar thus remains a topic of concern.

***

We will return very shortly with capsules on the leading men’s contenders at the US Open, followed by a similar sketch of the women’s contenders.

 

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Out with the old, in with the new:  Just two days apart, spectators caught glimpses of the last decade’s dominant ATP rivalry and the rivalry that has crystallized in its place.  More striking a contrast one could scarcely imagine than the gulf that yawned between Friday’s pallid semifinal and Sunday’s pulsating final.  Only occasionally competitive, the Federer-Nadal clash lasted just 79 uneventful minutes as the Spaniard dominated a somber Swiss in every department of the game.  Early in the second set, Federer’s double fault on break point epitomized an encounter only slightly less decisive than Djokovic’s victory over Fish in the other semifinal.  The sprawling 201-minute labyrinth of the championship match, however, encompassed multiple momentum shifts between two fiery competitors who rarely relaxed their willpower.  Permitting no breaks of serve after the second game of the second set, Nadal and Djokovic collaborated on a crescendo of suspense that culminated in a final-set tiebreak after the eventual runner-up had edged within two points of the title.

The last two rounds in Miami thus proved that Federer has sunk to the third-best player in the world—and by a considerable margin.  Unless the balance of power shifts sharply on clay and grass, this realization may erode the Swiss legend’s confidence in future meetings with the two who have surpassed him.  Meanwhile, fans can thrill to the prospect of a new, distinct, equally scintillating duel at the top.  Can Djokovic launch an assault upon Nadal’s clay citadel?  If he doggedly pursues the Spaniard’s footsteps across the spring and summer, the Serb could initiate a genuine battle for #1 that few would have envisioned a year ago.   In a sport where narratives shift exceptionally fast, though, one would be unwise to project too far ahead.

In with the old, in with the new:  Amidst a transitional period and the criticisms that accompany it, the WTA must have relished the convergence of past and future that transpired in Miami.  Suggesting parallels with Zvonareva’s emotional maturation, Azarenka found her long-absent composure to withstand three three-setters in her opening matches.  Not distant from defeat against Cibulkova, she later surrendered just 14 total games to the notable trio of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Azarenka  admittedly struggled to deliver the coup de grace after thoroughly dominating both Slam champions, but she likely will maintain leads with greater aplomb as her confidence mounts.  Juxtaposed with Wozniacki’s performance at Indian Wells, the Belarussian’s second Miami title reclaimed at least a corner of the spotlight from her peer, although she still must prove that she can build upon the achievement more effectively than in 2009.

Forced to concede the champion’s supremacy, Sharapova may struggle to solve the conundrum posed by newcomers like Azarenka who can fuse power with consistency.  Nevertheless, she demonstrated throughout the week how far the mind and the spirit can carry a competitor of her towering resolve.  Psychologically adjusted to her serve’s fallibility, the Russian continued to impose her will upon opponents with a grim determination as relentless and intimidating as her shrieks.  Returning to the top 10 for the first time since 2009, the three-time major champion earned her ascendancy in suitably dramatic fashion with the longest match of her career.  That signature performance tested her perseverance to the limit, but 76 unforced errors, 17 double faults, and a painful ankle injury could not dull the Russian’s appetite for conquest.  Her most impressive result since shoulder surgery, Sharapova’s exploits in Miami extended her surge from Indian Wells and dispelled the malaise that had hovered above her since the US Open.

Surprise semifinalists:  Earlier in his career, Fish would not have won wars of attrition against formidable opponents in the torrid environment of Key Biscayne.  But a draconian fitness program has enabled him to complement his shot-making skills with serviceable defense and movement, which he showcased in an unexpected triumph over Del Potro.  Then he mentally outlasted grinder par excellence Ferrer in a quarterfinal to become the top American man, an accolade that he earned for the first time.  Unable to convert his first-set opportunities against Djokovic, Fish nevertheless challenged the world #2 more consistently than the scoreline suggested.  Unfortunately for him, the clay season will blunt his momentum, but he might well resurface during the US Open Series for the second straight year.

Even more impressive than the American’s accomplishments were the feats of a plucky, zany German in the other draw.  Although Wozniacki contributed to her own demise with over 50 unforced errors, Petkovic still merits applause for inflicting steady pressure on the world #1 and showing no uncertainty as she served out the match.  Firmly confident in her weapons, she clawed back from a third-set deficit against 2008 finalist Jankovic by weathering a grueling series of deuce games riddled with protracted rallies.  Bursting to the attention of international audiences with her patented “Petko-dance,” Petkovic now wisely has chosen to center her energies upon activities during rather than after the match.  A threat on every surface, the German has developed a habit of peaking at the most significant tournaments; this trend could vault her into the top 10 later this year should it persist.

What a difference a year makes:  Plunging outside the top 10, Roddick suffered from a host of ailments en route to an opening-round loss at the tournament that he captured in such scintillating style last year.  When he fell just one victory short of the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2010, the American seemed on the verge of regaining the form that he displayed during the 2009 Wimbledon final.  But such hopes evaporated after an untimely bout of mono from which Roddick still has not quite recovered.  While winning Memphis and reaching the Brisbane final this year, he has lost before the quarterfinals at the three marquee events that he has contested:  the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Despite a quarterfinal appearance at this year’s tournament, 2010 runner-up Berdych resembled his inconsistent former self during a three-setter against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and a near-loss to Florian Mayer.  Required to defend copious quantities of points on clay and grass, the Czech may bounce from his elevated ranking by the second half.

What a difference a surface could make:  Shining on the red-brick road to Roland Garros last year, Verdasco will welcome the Tour’s return to his favorite surface after losses to Querrey and the nearly unknown Pablo Andujar in North America.  Doubtless sharing his delight is compatriot and 2010 Rome finalist Ferrer, eager to erase the memories of an oddly listless loss to Fish in a quarterfinal poisoned by costly double faults.  Like Roddick, Soderling has battled illness and injury over the past month, so his premature exit against Del Potro raised few eyebrows.  Nevertheless, the Swede’s spirits should soar when he steps onto the terre battue where his greatest achievements have occurred.

Stirring briefly to life before Sharapova stifled her, Stosur prepares to mount her title defense in Charleston this week.  Often confused and disorganized during her recent slump, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up should profit from the additional time allowed by the surface where her kick serve most thrives.  Looking similarly puzzled over much of the last several months, Kuznetsova has failed to capitalize upon her victory over Henin in Melbourne as well as a Dubai finals appearance a month later.  Searching for consistency, the Russian will find the terre battue an ideal terrain to hone her technique and develop a rhythm, while the longer rallies will force Sveta to sharpen her focus.  And, while March proved generally kind to the 2008 Roland Garros champion, a change of surface and continent may aid Ana in draining the disillusionment of her Clijsters defeat from her mind.  Justifiably determined to view that match through an optimistic lens, she still may benefit psychologically from turning her back on the hard courts for the next few months.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Djokovic:  Having operated a flourishing bakery on Key Biscayne, the omnivorous Serb now plans to open a sushi bar at the season’s second Masters 1000 event.  Impeccable on serve throughout the tournament, Djokovic stands within two victories of the Indian Wells-Miami double after four victories that ranged between the routine and the resounding.  Nevertheless, occasional cracks in his stunning veneer emerged during his wins over Troicki and Kevin Anderson.  After struggling to close out the first set against his compatriot, Djokovic looked unsettled on serve in the opening set against the South African leviathan.  Although he escaped several deuces and break points, one wonders whether he has grown so accustomed to comfortably cruising past his victims that he will feel pressure when his opponent can stay somewhat within range.  Unlikely to break Fish with regularity, Djokovic will need to maintain his focus and positive energy more scrupulously than in his previous routs.  If the American can lure him into a tiebreak or a third set, the Serb may struggle to adapt mentally in such unfamiliar circumstances.  And such a narrative plausibly could unfold on Friday, for Fish twice has won sets from the world #2 at Indian Wells despite never capturing a match from him in five attempts.

Now his nation’s top-ranked man, the fourteenth seed aims to extend the momentum from upsets over Del Potro and Ferrer into a fourth Masters 1000 final.  All of those victories came on American soil, in part a product of vociferous crowd support that he will receive again.  At the US Open last year, however, no amount of applause could have saved Fish from a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Serb.  Since Mardy’s game should thrive on the New York fast courts even more than in the Miami conditions, that precedent looks especially ominous for this semifinal.  As Blake attempted with disastrous results, Fish will need to impose himself from the first ball on both the serve and the return. Despite his improved fitness and consistency, he discovered at the US Open that a player of his level cannot survive in rallies with Djokovic from the baseline.  But opponents long have learned that the second seed’s superb reflexes enable him to blunt even the most formidable first strike.  Among the few memorable moments of the Anderson match came when the South African cracked a sizzling return.  Not content to simply retrieve it, the Serb thrust the full force of his compact physique behind his reply, which skidded breathlessly past his flat-footed opponent.  Similarly explosive counterpunching could unsettle an unwary Fish, while Djokovic’s lethal passing shots will stifle many of his serve-volley forays.  Unless his serve or his fans can manage to ruffle the world #2 psychologically, the American should succumb to his opponent’s superior technique, consistency, and versatility.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Outside the anomalistic year-end championships, they collide before the final for the first time since Roland Garros 2005.  Without a title at stake, how will each of them respond to confronting their archrival?  No matter what happens in this match, it will have virtually no impact upon either legend’s legacy, perhaps a comforting thought for both of them that will defuse the pressure and enable them to play their finest tennis.  Rarely threatened by his previous opponents, Federer has not quite attained a lofty height but instead maintained a modest altitude sufficient to win without undue exertion.   By contrast, Nadal dazzled against Nishikori and Dolgopolov by unleashing thunderous forehands from and to everywhere on the court.  Especially notable was a flat, down-the-line rocket that complemented the heavy spin on his cross-court rally ball and the sharp angles on his inside-in hook.  Curing his serving malaise from the Indian Wells final, the Spaniard found first serves on crucial points while varying his spins and placement.

Through the first set of his quarterfinal with Berdych, therefore, Nadal seemed clearly the hungrier, more motivated player of the two rivals.  Rarely has a top-10 contender looked so thoroughly outclassed as did the Czech during a first set in which Rafa withstood his initial assault before repeatedly outmaneuvering him from the baseline.  Abruptly, a strained nerve disconcerted the Spaniard early in the second set, transforming his effortless strokes into tense, labored jabs that mirrored the uncertainty in his expressive eyes and furrowed brow.  At triple break point in the first game of the third set, the marquee semifinal looked far from assured.  But then Nadal escaped from that trap with a sequence that included three consecutive aces and dominated on his serve thereafter, although he never regained the free-flowing form of the first set.  Hovering above his duel with Federer thus is the specter of a potential injury that could dilute his energy and concentration.

All the same, these slow hard courts in Miami featured one of the most memorable occasions when the GOAT and the Spanish bull locked horns, a five-setter that remains the only encounter in which one of them (Federer) rallied from a two-set deficit.  While the best-of-three format inherently limits a match’s narrative arc, this tournament offers a relatively neutral surface that can showcase Nadal’s feline movement along the baseline as often as Federer’s serve and forecourt assault.  In their last 11 meetings, the player who has won the first set has emerged victorious, a pattern that might well continue at a non-major where the incentive to launch a ferocious comeback simmers a little lower.  Not since Wimbledon 2008 have the two legends crafted a classic that one would frame for future generations, suggesting that their rivalry may have slid into the domain of nostalgia.  Colliding just twice in each of the last two years, Nadal and Federer nevertheless represent one of the great dramas not just in this sport but in all sports, a spectacle to savor as much for the past as for the present.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - "Rally For Relief"

 

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Caro(usel) at the top: After the briefest of interregnums, Wozniacki marched into Dubai and terminated Clijsters’ one-week reign atop the rankings.  Although she nearly dropped sets to both Chakvetadze and Jankovic, the Dane ended her week in emphatic fashion by outclassing Kuznetsova in her seventh win across an eight-final span.  Wozniacki struck a blow for the WTA’s Generation Next against its aging aristocracy this week, but Clijsters may well regain the top ranking when she defends only third-round points at Indian Wells.  Tethered to finals points in the California desert, Caro perhaps could snatch the top spot back a fortnight later when the Belgian defends her Miami title.  Similarly unspectacular during last year’s clay and grass seasons, the prodigy and the veteran could trade the #1 ranking back and forth as spring turns to summer.  We don’t know where this rollercoaster will stop, but we expect to enjoy the ride—and the photo shoots that ensue each time that Wozniacki reclaims the top spot. 

Sleeping giants stir:  Ascending from year-long obscurity, two towers of power delivered warning salvoes to their peers.  A week after upsetting Melzer in Rotterdam, Cilic unexpectedly reached his first final since Munich last May.  On the indoor hard surface where he has reached four of his nine career finals, the Croat swept past the seventh-ranked Berdych  and then battled past Youzhny before snatching the first set from a scorching Soderling in the final.  While Cilic’s technique still looks laborious and unwieldy at times, he can generate explosive power from both groundstrokes when he times his elongated swings effectively.   Before the battlefields change to clay, he will hope to buttress this recent awakening upon a few imposing wins in North America, although his lowered ranking could pit him against a top seed as early as the third round.  Seemingly both physically and psychologically sturdy, Cilic might rejoin the circle of contenders more swiftly than the other comeback artist of the past two weeks.

Sidelined and demoralized by a wrist injury, Del Potro showed flashes of his familiar self during a semifinal run in Memphis that included a comfortable victory over Isner and built upon his semifinal in San Jose a week before.  Thoroughly outgunned by Roddick as he was by Verdasco, the 2009 US Open champion still lacks a critical fraction of confidence in the groundstrokes that once jerked Federer around Arthur Ashe like a puppet on a string.  Once he regains that extra bit of sting in his forehand, though, the other elements of his game look ready to slip into their appointed places.  Also in Memphis, Querrey finally snapped an embarrassing six-match losing streak by rallying from within two points of defeat against Istomin.  Quarterfinal conqueror Fish labeled the lanky Californian “the future of American tennis,” but American fans should hope that this future lies well beyond the horizon.

What a difference a week makes:  Weary from their last week’s accomplishments, none of the players who excelled at those smaller tournaments could translate their momentum to the Persian Gulf.  Days after title runs in Paris and Pattaya City, Hantuchova and Kvitova dropped their Dubai openers to Chakvetadze and qualifier Ayumi Morita, respectively.  Less notably, Pattaya City finalist Errani pried one game away from Stosur, a player whom she previously had threatened.  Perhaps exacerbating their struggles was the contrast between humid Thailand, climate-controlled Paris, and the windswept desert in Dubai.  Not forced to make such adjustments, the four semifinalists at this Premier Five event participated in neither Paris nor Pattaya City, although Kuznetsova and Pennetta did play Fed Cup.  In the WTA’s geographically sprawling schedule this month, choosing battles became a crucial step towards winning them. 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

What a difference a week doesn’t make:  Thrown into relief by the whiplash effect in the WTA, an exceptional degree of continuity prevailed in the ATP.  An ocean apart, Soderling and Almagro battered through their draws for the second consecutive week and overcame a resilient pair of opponents in their three-set finals.  Both the Swede and the Spaniard profited from the relatively benign draws in these 250 events, so one should not overstate their surges when the leading contenders reconvene at Indian Wells.  In Soderling’s case, though, the extra rankings points will further insulate his #4 position should Murray improve upon his meager 2010 results at the spring Masters events.

But the highest honors go to a player who fell just short of his second straight title after a riveting albeit stylistically one-dimensional final in Memphis.  Hammering 130 aces across five three-setters, Raonic demonstrated a fortitude remarkable in a player who just turned 20 in December.  More durable than one might expect for such a massive frame, the Canadian suffered many more dips in form than he did in San Jose, yet he rebounded sturdily from that adversity.  Unusually edgy in the first-set tiebreak against Roddick, he did not buckle in the second set but instead swatted away three match points in the 24-point second-set tiebreak.  Few would have faulted Raonic had he surrendered at 1-4, 30-40 in the final set, when he somehow clawed back onto even terms and saved another match point before the breathtaking denouement.  In the end, only the most spectacular shot of the season so far could subdue the Canadian.

The Russian bear growls:  While Davydenko, Sharapova, and Zvonareva all may have sagged recently, an implausible group of reinforcements arrived to bolster their nation’s pride.  Capitalizing upon her victory over Henin at the Australian Open and her ensuing Fed Cup exploits, Kuznetsova not only avenged her Melbourne loss to Schiavone but reached her most notable final since Beijing 2009.  Wedged into the top 20 after an eye-opening quarterfinal run, Kleybanova overcame compatriots Pavlyuchenkova and Zvonareva in imperious fashion before falling to recurrent nemesis Pennetta. Perhaps less surprising was the Marseille charge of Youzhny, who overcame not only a fiery Tsonga but a crackling French crowd to reach his first semifinal of the season.  Joining him in that round, however, was the forgotten Tursunov, fallen from the top 100 after nagging injuries but able to recapture just enough of his vintage firepower to record his first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2008.  As of this writing, however, all four Russians lost their openers this week in Dubai and Doha, so their caution seems advisable in projecting from the feats of last week.

Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

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We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 1)      Business as usual for Roger, Maria (more or less):  After Soderling snapped his Slam semifinal streak in Paris, Federer once again found that the grass was greener in Halle, where he reached the final for the sixth time in six attempts since 2002.  Meanwhile, Sharapova charged to the Birmingham semifinals for the seventh time in seven attempts and reached her fourth final at the posh-sounding Edgbaston Priory Club, a record unparalleled among all of her tournaments.  Cracking the fastest serve of her career at 121 mph, she recorded double-digit ace totals in two separate matches while delivering 33 aces against just 14 double faults during the entire week.  Although both marquee stars profited from mediocre opposition en route to the championship match, they found their grass-court games with aplomb, serving brilliantly and moving forward at the earliest opportunity.  Their serves let them down a bit in the finals against a pair of extremely gritty competitors in Hewitt and Li Na; Federer’s first serve faltered at key moments, while Sharapova donated nearly half of her meager tournament double-fault total in the first set of the final.  Fully content with their weeks despite these lapses, Roger and Maria gained a key injection of confidence before traveling to the All England Club. 

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2)      Business emphatically not as usual in London:  On the other hand, the downgraded ATP Queens Club event witnessed a WTA-worthy avalanche of upsets.  Who would have expected the Quirky Quintet of Lopez, Malisse, Fish, Sela, and Llodra to topple the not-very-Fab Five of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Roddick, and Cilic?  Never at his most comfortable on grass, Djokovic did secure some solace by winning the doubles title with Jonathan Ehrlich, while Rafa perhaps overstretched himself by switching surfaces days after his fifth French Open title.  Of greater concern were the losses by the two Andys, commonly perceived as the primary challengers to Federer and Nadal on grass.  Petulant and passive during his loss to Fish, Murray continued to demonstrate his vulnerability to any ultra-aggressive player on any fast surface, which bodes ill for his Wimbledon fortnight should he collide with a bold shotmaker early in the draw.  Roddick had little excuse for not closing out the second-set tiebreak against the Israeli, considering his outstanding career tiebreak record and his far superior serve.  After the match, he sounded oddly complacent, not the appropriate attitude to adopt at this crucial stage of the season.

3)      ATP veterans keep winning:  Hold off on the pension plans for former Wimbledon semifinalist Rainer Schuettler, two-time former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, and the still rocket-serving Mardy Fish, all of whom accompanied Sam Querrey to the semifinals at Queens Club.  In Halle, moreover, the multiple-surgery survivor Hewitt halted a 15-match losing streak against Federer, doubtless inspiring other players who are struggling to return from assorted injuries.  Although youth eventually prevailed at Queens Club, we’re curious to see whether the surge of the senior citizens can extend into the more draining best-of-five format at Wimbledon.  As suggested in our Indian Wells tournament summary, Ljubicic’s title at Indian Wells seems to have signaled the revival of some names who looked destined to quietly fade away.  Now the youngsters must strive to follow Querrey’s example and ensure that the past doesn’t become the present.

 4)      Americans start winning:  Not so long ago, Querrey moped out of Paris in a noxious cloud of self-doubt.  This weekend, however, the London tournament finally found itself an oversize champion to match its absurdly oversize trophy.  Also delighted to see green rather than red was his opponent in the Queens Club final, the first-strike, serve-and-volley specialist Fish.  About a hundred miles northwest of that all-American final, the 185th-ranked Alison Riske earned a Wimbledon wildcard by pounding her way to the Birmingham semifinals past Wozniak, Chakvetadze, and the third-seeded Wickmayer.  Most impressive in her run was her ability to hold serve throughout the three-set victory over the Belgian, during which she rallied from a one-set deficit.  Against Sharapova, she showed sterling fortitude by rebounding from a lopsided first set to force a decider.  Keep an eye on her as well as the two men’s stars when looking for potential snakes in the grass at the All England Club.

 ***

Enjoy Eastbourne and the UNICEF Open this week!  How will Henin and Clijsters adapt to grass in their first green tournaments since 2007?  Are grass standouts Bartoli and Radwanska ready to wreak havoc again?  Can a bandaged Ivanovic find her footing in a relatively comfortable draw?  Can Kuznetsova find her footing in a highly uncomfortable draw?  How many rackets will Azarenka obliterate?  How much tape will Wozniacki need for her ankle?  And what in the world are we to expect from our new French Open champion?

We return very shortly with the first of four articles in our Wimbledon preview.  Tuesday, the favorites.  Wednesday, the challengers.  Thursday, the dark horses.  Friday or Saturday, thoughts on the draws.  Happy reading!  🙂

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