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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

***

Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

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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.

In the four tournaments that unfolded this week, each top seed advanced to the final.  Can the favorites quell their last challengers to claim their crowns?  Entrusting Buenos Aires to other pens, we preview the championship tilts in Dubai, Memphis, and Marseille.

Caroline Wozniacki - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Five

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Just as she did last fall in Beijing, the gentle but determined Dane seeks to consolidate her #1 ranking with a title.  Although semifinal victim Jankovic has sagged in recent months, Wozniacki will have gained additional momentum from securing her first career victory over the Serb after four losses.  Such skids do not end easily notwithstanding the quality of the opponent, and the top seed saved four set points before outlasting her fellow counterpuncher.  Illustrating her resilient character, Wozniacki has recovered impressively from her deflating semifinal loss at the Australian Open.  If she can notch a third consecutive Premier Five crown, she would travel to the crucial North American hard-court events with impetus for duplicating or perhaps surpassing her sterling performances there last year.

In just her second appearance at this event, Wozniacki faces an opponent who has contested two previous finals and two other semifinals in the Persian Gulf oasis.  Defeating three successive higher-ranked opponents, Kuznetsova has catapulted herself within range of the top 10 after meandering outside the top 20 before this tournament.  Her game conforms smoothly to the Dubai courts, fast enough to reward her forehand blows but not so fast that she cannot run around her backhand.  Once farcically feckless in finals, the Russian now has won her last three championship matches, including Roland Garros and the prestigious Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.  Conceding her two previous Dubai finals in three sets, Kuznetsova can hope that the third time proves lucky against a foe with whom she has split their four hard-court meetings.

Yet the momentum in this mini-rivalry lies with Wozniacki, who succumbed to Kuznetsova at Indian Wells and Miami before she ascended to the top 10.  Since arriving in that elite group, the Dane has won both of her collisions with the Russian, including a 2009 US Open rollercoaster that careened wildly between the ridiculous and sublime until it climaxed in a third-set tiebreak.  Less athletically gifted than Sveta, Caro demonstrated her firmer focus and steadier desire when she captured their rain-addled semifinal in Montreal last year.  While her weapons do not rival those of her opponent, Wozniacki’s court coverage will test Kuznetsova’s ability to finish points.  Despite a high first-serve percentage in her semifinal against Pennetta, the Russian struggled to hold serve and cannot rely upon many free points from her delivery.  Her forehand does possess the raw power necessary to hit through Wozniacki from the baseline, so her success will depend upon striking as many of those strokes as possible without conceding too much court territory.  If the Dane can pin Sveta behind the baseline and organize rallies around their backhands, though, her superior consistency will prevail.  Although less experienced and (so far) less accomplished, she brings greater confidence to their encounter than Kuznetsova, still in the process of rediscovering a game that had deserted her until a few weeks ago.

Andy Roddick - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Roddick vs. Raonic:  Having hurled 97 aces at his first four opponents, the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian might club as many aces this week as did Isner at Wimbledon last year.  Beyond that magnificent statistic, however, lurks a concerning corollary.  Amidst his serving barrage, Raonic has played two third-set tiebreaks and four total three-setters over the past four days.  Somewhat less brilliant than during his exhilarating title surge in San Jose, this untested wildcard has dropped sets to the fading Stepanek and the irrelevant Kendrick.  He may enter the final physically and emotionally jaded from the events of the past fortnight, which have propelled him to a renown that he could not have imagined when the season began.  A few parallels emerge between his week in Memphis and the series of epic wins that the then-unheralded Isner scored en route to the Washington final a few years ago.  Then, Roddick subdued his challenger with relative ease.

On the other hand, Raonic ranks among the few players in the ATP who can cruise through service games as swiftly as the American.  Accustomed to playing much longer games on return than on serve, Roddick may find his fortitude tested by an opponent with a mightier forehand and superior forecourt skills.  Free from pressure against Verdasco in San Jose, Raonic delivered perhaps the most composed, bulletproof performance of his torrid streak.  Unruffled by the Spaniard’s ability to hold serve without drama, he should not flinch when Roddick does the same.  Twice rallying from one-set deficits this week, moreover, the top seed has not held serve as comfortably as one might expect on an indoor hard court.  But his competitive resilience enabled him to reverse the tide against Berankis and Hewitt.

Following those stumbles, Roddick found his rhythm midway through his quarterfinal and rarely relinquished it in a dominant victory against Del Potro.  Like Wozniacki, Roddick will have accumulated momentum from defeating a player who had tormented him in their most notable previous meetings.  Also like Wozniacki, Roddick will want to erase the disappointing conclusion to his Melbourne campaign with a title that would buttress his confidence before defending his 2010 achievements at Indian Wells and Miami.  In order to reclaim his elite stature, the top seed must recapture his mastery over tiebreaks.  Roddick’s record in thirteenth games sagged precipitously during the second half of 2010, but he did win an 18-point nail-biter against former nemesis Tipsarevic that lifted him to 3-0 in 2011 tiebreaks.  Considering the mighty serves on display in Memphis today, his 50th career final may offer him an opportunity to burnish that record.

Robin Soderling - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2

Soderling vs. Cilic:  Contrary to our expectations, the scowling Swede needed no time at all to transition from savior Magnus Norman to new guide Claudio Pistolesi.  Undefeated at non-majors this year, Soderling has rampaged to his fourth final in his last six tournaments while dropping his serve only once this week.  The trio of Mahut, Llodra, and Tursunov exerted scant pressure upon an opponent who relishes indoor hard courts as much as the outdoor clay on which he has reached two Slam finals and defeated the two greatest players of his era.  A 2004 finalist in Marseille, the Swede also has developed a curious affinity for the nation of brioches and Bardot; three of his eight titles have come on French soil, including his sole Masters 1000 crown thus far.  But his opponent also has reaped rewards on this surface, where he has won two titles and reached a third final.

Enduring an annus miserabilis that extended with little respite from Indian Wells last year to Zagreb this year, Cilic finally flickered into life with a victory over the 11th-ranked Melzer in Rotterdam last week.  (The glow faded a bit from that victory, to be sure, when the 129th-ranked Tursunov toppled the Austrian on Friday.)  In contrast to Soderling, the unseeded Cilic has battled to the final past a pair of top-10 players in Berdych and Youzhny, whom he conquered in contrasting manners.  Comprehensively commanding against the Czech, the Croat saved a match point in a vigorously contested semifinal against the Russian.  Such a triumph could calm his nerves when he confronts the heavily favored Soderling, for the world #28 will count himself fortunate to have escaped Youzhny and earned this berth in the final.  Nobody would identify with that situation more keenly than the Swede, who himself won Rotterdam last week after saving a match point against Kohlschreiber.

Mustering little resistance to Soderling at Roland Garros last year, Cilic never has faced him on the hard court that he prefers.  Gifted with symmetrical groundstrokes, both players can terminate points as emphatically with their two-handers as with their fearsome forehands and serves.   We expect short, sharp exchanges low on point construction and high on first-strike firepower, the ideal brand of tennis for indoor conditions.  Can Cilic rise to the occasion and test the world #4?  Even if he contents himself with a runner-up trophy, which seems likely, a competitive performance would position him promisingly for the mini-majors ahead in California and Florida.

***

We return soon to preview the men’s draw in Dubai, which will offer a first post-Melbourne glimpse of the Australian Open champion and his semifinal victim.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

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