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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


 

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Caroline Wozniacki Kim Clijsters of Belgium is congratulated at the net by Caroline Wozniacki of Belgium after their match in the singles final on day six of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 31, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Unveiling the sequel to our ATP preview of the Australian Open, we outline three tiers of WTA contenders in Melbourne, arranged in an inner circle, an outer circle…and an Arctic Circle.  Look no further for a comprehensive point-counterpoint discussion of the memorable fortnight to come.

Inner circleWhether from pedigree, recent form, or both, these five mount the most convincing claims to the Daphne Akhurst Cup.

Wozniacki:  Burying a pedestrian first half beneath a dazzling second half, the world #1 reached the final in six of the eight tournaments that she played after Wimbledon and sailed home with the trophy at all but one of them.  In the aftermath of gaining the top spot, she brushed aside the surrounding controversy to capture the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing and reach the final at the year-end championships.  While the high bounce and modest pace of the Melbourne courts should suit Wozniacki’s playing style, its relaxed atmosphere will complement her perpetually sunny personality.  Opportunity knocks for the Dane at a time when most of the WTA elite struggles with injuries or confidence, and she continues to dominate her peers, suggesting that time rests firmly on her side.

On the other hand:  Carrying the dubious mantle of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki will shoulder increasing pressure as she seeks a maiden Slam; neither Jankovic nor Safina rose to the occasion in the same situation during the last two years.  Halted by Clijsters in the two most important finals of her career, she continues to struggle against fellow former #1s with the sole exception of a victory over Sharapova at the US Open.  Wozniacki also slumped out of Melbourne in dismal fashion against Li Na last year, striking just three winners, while she fell to Cibulkova this week in her Sydney opener.

Clijsters:  The clear favorite in a Serena-less field, Kim has maintained a sterling record during her comeback against everyone else in this inner circle, winning all nine of her meetings with Wozniacki, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  As impressive as the Dane in the second half, the Belgian won the two most significant tournaments on the post-Wimbledon calendar, accomplishments that she garnished with a Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Clijsters also collected the coveted Miami tournament with consecutive wins over Henin and a hobbled Venus, erasing the doubts that arose from a perplexing start to 2010.  Surely aware that a non-US Open major title would greatly boost her legacy, she has hinted at a second, permanent retirement in 2012 and thus may enter Melbourne with elevated urgency.

On the other hand:  Toppled ignominiously by Petrova in last year’s Australian Open, Clijsters looked clueless and rusty as she struggled for rhythm.  Built around consistency and durability, she remains vulnerable to an early, self-inflicted wobble against an inspired upstart.  Although she won both of her hard-court meetings with Henin in 2010, those suspenseful matches hinged upon a pair of third-set tiebreaks and witnessed stark momentum shifts.  Anything and everything could happen if the Belgians clash again in Melbourne.

Venus: In the absence of her little sister, the elder Williams may bring greater intensity to a major that she oddly has never won.  Without Serena in New York, she charged to within a tiebreak of the final and likely the title.  Venus has struggled with knee injuries for much of 2010 but claims to have regained her health and hence her lithe mobility; moreover, she still has the ability to unleash mighty serves on crucial points.  Far more erratic than she once was, she nevertheless can rely upon greater experience than most of her challengers, only one of whom has claimed an equal number of major titles.  Even when she sinks well below her best, Venus usually finds a way to navigate past all but the fiercest and most talented foes.

On the other hand:  The American has played only one tournament since a dispiriting defeat to Pironkova in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and she did not impress during losses to Zvonareva and Li at a Hong Kong exhibition.  Far from imposing is her history at the Australian Open, which includes a second-round loss to Suarez Navarro and an almost unwatchable debacle against Li last year.  When her serve wanders away, the rest of her game rushes after it, and it’s difficult to imagine her controlling her unruly weapons through seven consecutive matches against progressively sterner opponents.

Henin:  One of only two former champions in the draw, the diminutive Belgian dynamo crafted a memorable fortnight in Melbourne a year ago, when she hurtled within a set of the title before Serena mustered all of her resources to halt her.  Despite concern over the elbow injury that curtailed her 2010 campaign, Henin won all of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup last week without dropping a set.  Since the Australian Open does not rank high among her comeback goals, she will not place as potentially crippling a psychological burden upon herself as she will at Wimbledon.  Still intimidating to most of the WTA, Justine may win some matches on reputation alone, allowing her to settle into the tournament and accumulate confidence.

On the other hand:  After the initial momentum of her comeback subsided, we noticed that Henin often found herself on the wrong side in some of the season’s most thrilling matches, including all of her meetings with Clijsters.  Emotionally frail even before her “first” retirement, she never quite settled into the amplified aggression that she seeks to employ in her comeback.  On a surface less swift than Wimbledon and New York, Justine may find fewer opportunities than she would wish to exploit her unsurpassed talents in the forecourt, while the high bounce does not favor her low contact point.

Sharapova:  Armed with a new coach, new racket, new shoes, and new schedule, the leonine Siberian seeks to replicate her memorable 2008 title run, when the high-bouncing surface proved an ideal venue for her ultra-flat groundstrokes.  Sharapova showed increased commitment this season by entering a WTA event in Auckland rather than her customary exhibition, and her premature exits at the last three majors stemmed principally from draws that aligned her against Henin, Serena, and Wozniacki.  Severely testing her opponents in the first two of those defeats, she held match points against Clijsters in Cincinnati during an uplifting summer.  Like Venus, Sharapova brings vast experience and competitive resilience to each of her matches, battling until the final point.

On the other hand:  A first-round loser to Kirilenko at last year’s Australian Open, the Russian found the medium-speed hard courts somewhat too slow for a game that has eroded in consistency.  She has reached only one Slam quarterfinal since her 2008 title run here, and her injury has drained away some of her confidence.  In Auckland, Sharapova fell to world #88 Greta Arn after a generally indifferent week, so she carries little momentum to Melbourne.  Also like Venus, she might struggle to control her massive arsenal throughout an entire fortnight against a diverse range of opponents.

Outer circleWhile they may need a few of the stars to align in their favor, these players possess more than sufficient talent to ambush the favorites.

Zvonareva:  Seeking a third consecutive Slam final, the world #2 stunned Clijsters and Wozniacki at the last two majors of 2010 before falling to the defending champion at both of them.  Her versatile, tactically subtle style should find fluent expression on the medium-speed surface of Rod Laver Arena, where her rallying skills will amply compensate for her lack of an overpowering serve.  Even before her 2010 breakthrough, Vera achieved her strongest Slam performance with a semifinal at the 2009 Australian Open.  Not quite bulletproof psychologically, she finally has learned how to channel her perfectionist streak and no longer permits momentary lapses to fluster her.  In a Hong Kong exhibition last week, she thrashed leading contenders Venus and Wozniacki in an imposing statement of intent.

On the other hand:  In both of her Slam finals, Zvonareva’s latent negativity resurfaced to hamper her performance.  Last year at the Australian Open, she dissolved against Azarenka in predictably tearful fashion after holding a commanding lead.  After the Russian played so far above expectations in 2010, one expects a slight relapse early in 2011 as expectations mount.  Despite her victories over Clijsters and Wozniacki at majors, she has not yet proven herself against the other members of the inner circle.

Stosur:  Similar to Zvonareva, she delivered distinctly the best performance of her career last year, reaching the Roland Garros final with victories over Henin and Serena.  The best server in the WTA outside the Williams sisters, Stosur will find her kick serve ideally suited to the high-bouncing surface in Melbourne.  She extended her success from clay to hard courts during the second half of 2010, when she pushed Clijsters to three sets in the US Open quarterfinal and reached the semifinal in Doha before falling to the Belgian again.  An asymmetrical baseliner who aims to hit as many forehands as possible, Stosur will have more time to run around her backhand on the medium-speed surface than she did in New York.

On the other hand:  Carrying the mantle of home hope once held by Hewitt, the understated Aussie bears the pressure of her nation’s thirst for a Slam champion at its own major.  Since Stosur relies more heavily on a single shot (her serve) than most contenders, she has a mechanical, relatively one-dimensional style and thus becomes a vulnerable target for aggressive baseliners if her serve falters.  Shaky in Brisbane last week, the world #6 mustered just six games against compatriot Jarmila Groth; Sydney started much more promisingly for her, however.

Ivanovic:  Bursting back into relevance by winning 13 of her last 15 matches in 2010, the Serb romped through a sprightly start to 2011 at the Hopman Cup despite another loss to Henin.  The 2008 runner-up in Melbourne found her heavy forehand ideally suited to the surface there, and the high bounce lifts an opponent’s groundstrokes into her high strike zone.  Now winning the close matches that she regularly lost during her slump, Ivanovic has largely curbed her wayward ball toss and started to swing through her backhand more confidently, thereby turning her forehand into an even more dangerous weapon.  Always at home in Australia, she enjoys fervent crowd support there that will boost her confidence in tense situations.

On the other hand:  Believing that she must develop more consistency before contending for majors again, Ivanovic has set realistic expectations for herself that prioritize reaching the second week at each Slam this season.  The Serb will have a relatively low seed in the Melbourne draw, so she could face one of the leading contenders as early as the third round.  Early in a partnership with Azarenka guru Antonio van Grichen, she may need more time to incorporate his contributions to her game.  Withdrawing from the Hopman Cup with an abdominal strain, she heads to Melbourne with a bit less court time than she would have preferred.

Kuznetsova:  One of the finest natural athletes in the WTA, Sveta already has captured two of the four jewels in the sport’s crown.  Her 2009 title run at Roland Garros followed a memorable quarterfinal against Serena at the Australian Open that season, during which she had nearly toppled the eventual champion before a heat delay allowed the American to regroup.  Parallel to Stosur and Ivanovic, her forehand-centric groundstroke game theoretically should prosper on this surface more than at the US Open.  Most lethal when least trumpeted, Kuznetsova has far too much talent to meander low in the top 30 for much longer and surely will explode soon.  Or will she?

On the other hand:  Often slow to find her strongest tennis early in the season, the two-time major champion never has reached a semifinal in Melbourne and fell to the fallible Petrova last year.  In 2010, she suffered one of her worst seasons since capturing the 2004 US Open, winning just one small title in San Diego and falling before the quarterfinals at every Slam and Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Having absorbed hard-court losses last year to players like Kulikova, Suarez Navarro, Vinci, and Cibulkova (twice), her confidence surely sank further after a deflating loss to Peng in Auckland.

Arctic CircleThree majors ago, Schiavone reminded the tennis world that not even the astonishing should astonish.  Meet the potential Schiavones of this year’s Australian Open.

Schiavone:  Once a Slam champion, always a Slam champion and a threat to win another major.  Fearless in the Roland Garros final, the Italian veteran followed Horace’s advice and carped the diem more boldly than most of her rivals.  After suffering a predictable hangover at Wimbledon, Schiavone charged to the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she tormented Venus through two tight sets before reluctantly succumbing.  Her inspired forecourt skills continue to frustrate the baseline-bound, rhythm-reliant younger generation of the WTA.

On the other hand:  Visibly weary towards the end of 2010, Schiavone withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a thigh injury and lost her Sydney opener to Kleybanova.   Although she has scored some success against Wozniacki, she has won just one of forty meetings against Clijsters, Henin, Venus, Sharapova, and Zvonareva.  Since she probably would need to defeat at least two of those opponents, one doubts that lightning can strike twice.

Jankovic:  A finalist at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked Serb reached the semifinals in Melbourne that year and the semifinals at Roland Garros last year.  Among the other accomplishments in Jankovic’s sparkling first half were the Indian Wells title, where she comfortably conquered Wozniacki, and consecutive victories over the Williams sisters in Rome.  She always open the season relatively fresh before her workaholic schedule exerts its toll.  Changing her coach over the offseason, Jankovic appears to have returned to the counterpunching tactics that brought her to the top after abandoning an ill-fated attempt to trade movement for power.

On the other hand:  Throughout the second half of 2010, Jankovic struggled to win any matches at all as she ceaselessly complained of injuries, illness, or most often both.  At Sydney, this trend continued with a three-set loss to Rezai during which she could not capitalize upon the Frenchwoman’s erratic serving.  In contrast to Schiavone, furthermore, she crumbled at Roland Garros when opportunity knocked loudly for her to snatch a maiden major from her fellow, similarly Slam-less semifinalists.  The Serb’s last two appearances in Melbourne ended with desultory losses to Bartoli and Alona Bondarenko.

Li:  A surprise semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Chinese star stunned Wozniacki and Venus consecutively before stretching Serena into two tiebreaks.  Unleashing her crisp, sometimes Davydenko-esque two-hander without mercy, Li demonstrated her mental tenacity by outlasting the elder Williams in a quarterfinal as tense as it was ragged.  She later reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and the semifinal at the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, showcasing her ability to deliver her best tennis on the most important occasions.  Deep in a major, Li surely wouldn’t wilt under pressure like so many of her contemporaries.

On the other hand:  Notoriously erratic, the 2010 semifinalist dropped three straight matches last season to Tatiana Malek, Elena Baltacha, and Timea Bacsinszky, while other nemeses included Dulgheru and Zakopalova.   Although we don’t doubt that she can stay mentally firm throughout the fortnight, she may struggle to reproduce the pinpoint timing on her groundstrokes through seven matches.  Brilliant at battling power with power, Li often falters against opponents who can disrupt her rhythm or offer her little pace.

Azarenka:  At the 2009 Australian Open, she seized the initiative from Serena before heat illness overtook her; at the 2010 Australian Open, she thrust Serena to the edge of the precipice before Serena overtook her.  Azarenka typically has performed at her highest level early in the season and especially in Melbourne, when she remains physically and psychologically fresh.  A bristling hybrid of power and movement, she already possesses all of the tools necessary to win a first major despite never having reached a semifinal.  Already endowed with a champion’s mentality, the Belarussian could break through all at once just as her ancestor Sharapova did at Wimbledon in 2004.

On the other hand:  Azarenka’s electrifying passion oscillates between an asset and a liability, undercutting her at untimely moments.  While the unrelenting Australian heat could trouble her, a more serious concern stems from the recurrent hamstring injury that resulted in no fewer than seven retirements last year.  Still searching for a more imposing serve, she toiled through her Sydney opener and must win more efficiently at Melbourne in order to conserve her energy for the crucial rounds.

***

We return in two days with an article on potential ambush artists from both the ATP and WTA.  Who hopes to spring a surprise at the first major of 2011?

 

Often compared to a butterfly-bee hybrid a la Muhammad Ali, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reminds us of an electrifying fusion between thunder and lightning.  While his percussive groundstrokes crash through the court like thunder, he flashes around the court with the dizzying speed and brilliance of lightning flashes.  The French translation for “inclement weather” forms the subject of our fourth player profile, which will break down five achievements, five disappointments, three strengths, and three weaknesses,  much as have our earlier articles on Radwanska, Li, and Youzhny.  Happy reading!  🙂

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2010 Australian Open:  Rebounding from a wrist injury and experimenting with a new racket, Tsonga didn’t dominate in Melbourne as he had two years earlier, but he displayed impressive willpower in a pair of five-set wins over challenging opponents.  Before his fourth-round clash with Nicolas Almagro, he had never played a five-set match in his career, and one might not have expected his draining game to adapt well to such marathons.  On the contrary, Tsonga not only dispatched Almagro with thrilling tennis late in the final set but returned a round later to win another epic over Djokovic by steadfastly wearing down the Serb until his fragile fitness crumbled.  In the wake of those exhausting victories, his lopsided loss to Federer represented neither a surprise nor an embarrassment for the Frenchman.

4) 2008 Bangkok:  His first career title, the Thailand tournament started inauspiciously with a nail-biting win over Lukas Dlouhy.  Gradually playing himself into the tournament, however, Tsonga ultimately crushed his compatriot Monfils in the semifinals (never underestimate the emotional significance of a victory over a top compatriot) and defeated Djokovic in a competitive but not overly tense final.  Less than a year after his loss to the Serb in the Melbourne championship match, this win signaled a momentum shift in their head-to-head, which has swung distinctly in the Frenchman’s favor.  Halting several months of injury-hampered and erratic play, his achievements here illustrated his recovery from summer knee surgery and set the stage for #2 on our list.

3)  2009 Rogers Cup:  We’re thrilled to say that we witnessed this highlight in person, both the systematic third-round demolition of Simon and the quarterfinal comeback against Federer.  Another win over a fellow Frenchman, the Simon match showcased Tsonga’s ability to slash through even the most obdurate defensive armor with his explosive offense.  Even more impressive, the Federer upset revealed his capacity to rally from a seemingly terminal deficit (1-5 in the third set against the world #1) with a combination of intelligent point construction and electric shotmaking.  Certainly, Federer allowed Tsonga to regain his footing with passive, error-strewn play, but Jo-Wilfried deserves substantial credit for staying positive and focused in adversity.  He remains the only player other than Nadal on clay to erase a 1-5 deficit against the 16-time Slam champion.

2)  2008 Paris Masters:  Soaking up the home pressure admirably, Tsonga won his first and so far only Masters shield at this fall indoor event, where he endured three three-setters against dangerous foes.  Overcoming Djokovic again in the third round, the Frenchman found himself embroiled in a razor-sharp serving duel with Roddick; despite losing the first set, he found a way to break the American’s delivery before squeaking through a suspenseful third-set tiebreak.  Although one might think him a little weary after this delicious affair, he retained sufficient energy to prevail over David Nalbandian in a high-quality final.  Serving for the title at 5-4 in the third set, disaster loomed when he lost the first three points.  Unruffled by the triple break point threat, Tsonga connected with five crushing serves in a row to close out the formidable Argentine and secure a last-minute slot in the year-end championship.  For once, the French crowd’s rabid support of “les bleus” seemed justified. 

1)  2008 Australian Open:  Ousting a flustered Murray in the opening round, Tsonga capitalized upon the momentum surge of that upset to rumble past a series of equally imposing opponents.  Much more imposing then than he is now, Gasquet succumbed to Jo-Wilfried’s barrage in a scintillating four-setter before the streaking Youzhny’s challenge subsided in straight sets.  Yet the climax of Tsonga’s spectacular run was still to come:  a breathtaking demolition of world #2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, which represented the most lopsided loss of the Spaniard’s Slam career to that date.  Clubbing serves and forehands while angling off feathery volleys, the Frenchman remained relentless from the first point to the last.  His game predictably came back to earth in a final against Djokovic, but not before he had dismayed the Serb by capturing the first set (and the hearts of the Melbourne fans).

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2009 Cincinnati:  Just days after his memorable win over Federer, Tsonga suffered a startling loss to the Australian journeyman Chris Guccione in the opening round of this pre-US Open Masters Series.  Losing the first set in a tense tiebreak, he mustered little resistance or effort in the second set.  This dispirited performance hinted at his struggle to maintain momentum from one week to the next over the course of the ATP’s grueling calendar; his physically exhausting style of quick-strike tennis renders him less durable than many of his peers.  Furthermoe, observers questioned his competitive willpower when confronting adversity, a trait essential to establish oneself among the game’s elite.

4)  2009 Indian Wells / Miami:  Following two titles the previous month in South Africa and Marseille, Tsonga surely expected more from himself than a premature loss to Andreev in the California desert and a listless defeat in Miami against Djokovic, whom he had defeated in their previous four clashes.  Perhaps his Davis Cup exertions the previous weekend in Europe took a toll, but these two matches still raised eyebrows among those (including us) who expected him to excel at top events in the wake of a sterling 2008. 

3)  2009 Australian Open:  A year removed from his thrilling charge to the Melbourne final, Tsonga fell well short of his own lofty standards during a four-set quarterfinal loss to Verdasco just two days after a dominant performance against Blake.  Although the Spaniard enjoyed the best tournament of his career that fortnight, the Frenchman visibly faded after the first two sets, inciting observers to question both his physical fitness and his mental focus.  Like many of his compatriots, said some commentators, Tsonga preferred style over substance and strove to entertain the audience rather than simply win matches as efficiently as possible.  Dramatic but inefficient, two early-round matches against Ljubicic and Sela may have siphoned away the energy that he would have needed to defuse the smoldering Verdasco.

2)  2009 Wimbledon:  We expected that Tsonga’s blistering serves and deft volleys would allow him to enjoy an extended sojourn at Wimbledon, where the grass rewards players who move forward to finish points.  Falling to Ivo Karlovic in a fourth-set tiebreak before the middle weekend, the Frenchman lacked the composure to cope with the Croat’s idiosyncratic style, which consistently troubles top-10 stars.  Rather than seizing his opportunities to exploit Karlovic’s second serve during the inevitable tiebreaks, Tsonga donated unfocused, half-hearted returns that telegraphed his frustration while lifting pressure from his opponent.

1)  2008 Indian Wells:  A nerve-jangling, three-set epic against Nadal might not appear a major disappointment at first glance.  Still, Tsonga held a one-set lead and eventually a 5-2 lead in the final set before dropping the last five games to the Spaniard.  In addition to wasting this opportunity to score another eye-catching win, he surrended the momentum in his mini-rivalry with Rafa, who predictably has consolidated his edge since that afternoon.  The stark contrast with his overwhelming victory over Nadal in the Australian Open semifinal just a few months before this match suggested that Tsonga may be a player who achieves spectacular but sporadic success but lacks the consistency to capitalize on those accomplishments.

Best of Three:  Strengths:

1)  Serve-forehand combination:  Probably the most rhythmic element of Tsonga’s game, his service motion rarely deserts him at critical stages in a match.  As a result, his first-serve percentage often has been startlingly high (75-80% or better) for entire matches against top competition, despite the prodigious power with which he strikes the shot.  When the Frenchman is serving at such levels, few foes can string together points on his service games but must instead channel their energies towards the essential task of holding their own serve.  Should the ball float back towards Tsonga, moreover, his bone-crushing forehand swiftly dispatches it towards a line or corner.  Although he can hit this shot cross-court, down-the-line, inside-out, or inside-in, the direction often doesn’t matter greatly because the sheer weight of the ball drives it past his flustered opponent or puts him in a hopelessly defensive position.  Since merely punching the ball back into play usually doesn’t suffice, therefore, the opponent confronts the challenge of striking it cleanly in order to pre-empt the inevitable forehand missile.  When Tsonga’s game is clicking on a fast surface, only the most adept returners can solve that conundrum.

2)  Net play:  Despite his football-like physique, Tsonga displays the grace of a dancer during his forays to the net, where he angles delicate volleys towards the sidelines and creates imaginative drop shots.  Defying even Nadal’s lithe movement, the latter weapons left the Spaniard frozen at the baseline or hopelessly mired in mid-court during their Australian Open meeting.  Combined with an automatic, Sampras-esque overhead, these volleys provide Tsonga with yet another way to finish points quickly without permitting his adversary to settle into a rhythm.  Occasionally serving and volleying in a vintage tactic, the sight of his massive frame hurtling forwards with unbridled aggression has unnerved opponents into routine errors.  In an era saturated with baseline bashers, this staccato play (if properly executed) can produce manifold rewards, especially against the less experienced and the easily intimidated.

3)  Athleticism:  Leaping, lunging, dashing, and diving, Tsonga ranks among the most natural athletes in tennis and probably could have excelled in almost any sport.  Few players can levitate to smash an overhead, then sprawl across the court to stab a volley…and win the point.  At 6-5 in the first-set tiebreak against Federer at the Rogers Cup, Tsonga thundered into the net behind a massive serve and dispatched a commanding overhead.  Since Federer is Federer, the ball found its way back over the net and in a highly awkward position that would have stymied most average net rushers.  Crashing onto the court with the full weight of his body, however, Tsonga barely flicked the volley over the net with the edge of his racket.  Visibly disconcerted by this display, the rarely ruffled Swiss legend slashed a backhand pass into the net and trudged to his chair, surely still struggling to grasp what had happened.  In addition to winning points for Tsonga, such moments can leave a lingering psychological impact upon his opponents, causing them to play tentatively and nervously as though bracing themselves for the unthinkable.

Worst of Three:  Weaknesses:

1)  Backhand:  Typically a neutral shot with little purpose, Tsonga’s two-hander possesses none of his forehand’s intensity and frequently is shielded by the Frenchman by running around it.  The backhand is a valuable meter of his confidence, for he’ll guide passive slices towards the middle of the court when he’s nervous or unfocused while swinging through it forcefully only at his motivated best.  Players with superior backhands like Murray, Del Potro, or Soderling can expose this side in crosscourt rallies that push him progressively further into his backhand corner.  When he confronts opponents who can hit winners off both groundstrokes, Tsonga’s asymmetry becomes a liability and sometimes forces him into overly aggressive forehands as he seeks to protect his lopsided court positioning.  The additional movement and footwork involved in regularly running around his backhand, even on hard courts, combine with his already exhausting style to drain energy and render him susceptible to injury.

2)  Return of serve:  As Federer once said of Tsonga, he can wander through games at a time without making a return before suddenly raining a series of savage blows.  Perhaps more demanding of a player’s focus than any other shot, the return has exposed Tsonga’s struggles to maintain his concentration throughout the match.  Rarely do Djokovic’s infinite ball bounces reap greater rewards than when he plays the Frenchman, whose mind has long since drifted four bounces before the serve.  On the physical level, Tsonga’s generally less-than-crisp footwork looks especially unsightly on the return, for which he relies heavily upon his arm to steer the ball.   Beyond subjecting the shoulder and elbow joints to unnecessary stress, stiff, exaggerated arm motions permit less control on the return than does a balanced, firmly grounded stance. 

3)  Shot selection / point construction:  We’re not sure how to translate “point construction” into French, but neither is Tsonga if one can judge from his impetuous, instinctive style.  Rather than engaging in the chess matches crafted by the subject of our third profile, Mikhail Youzhny, the Frenchman invariably lets fly with a forehand at the earliest opportunity when in an aggressive mood; when in a passive mood, he merely pokes the ball lethargically and aimlessly around the court until he misses or his opponent takes a risk.  This quick-strike brand of tennis results in barrages of flamboyant, inspiring winners if his artillery is striking its targets with precision.  When his radar is a shade or two off, however, his reluctance (or inability) to modulate his aggression impedes his efforts to readjust his range and rediscover his rhythm.  Embedded deep in Tsonga’s character, a contempt for compromise has defined both his most stunning and his most hideous performances.

Recap:   In order to establish himself as a perennial threat at all grass and hard-court tournaments, Tsonga must find a way to reduce his extended injury absences, which have hampered his efforts to consolidate momentum and climb upwards through the rankings.  Nevertheless, his serve-based, quick-strike style generally ages as well as a French wine, for players such as Sampras and Roddick have remained dangerous deep into their 20s.  If he can learn to problem-solve more effectively on court, he’ll suffer fewer of the bizarre clunkers that have punctuated his rollercoaster career.  When he’s in the mood, the sky is the limit for his accomplishments.  The challenge that he and his coach, Eric Winogradsky, must confront is to turn that mood into a permanent state of being.  We’d give him probably a little less than a 50% chance at winning a Slam, but he might well capture trophies at the most significant best-of-three tournaments, such as the North American Masters events.

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We hope that you enjoyed this fourth profile in our series on players who cross and recross the boundary between contender and pretender.  Any ideas for a fifth topic?  🙂  There should be time for us to explore someone new during the week of Strasbourg and Warsaw.  Meanwhile, we’ll be returning tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Rome quarterfinals.  Keep those ajdes flowing!  😉