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Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Within minutes of Djokovic’s final forehand, viewers around the world began to wonder whether the epic that we had witnessed had become the new “greatest match ever,” thrusting aside the Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon in 2008.  We view each match through eight separate lenses to consider whether the older match retains its crown.  Take note, though, that not all carry equal weight.

Time:  The most obvious measure of comparison, time represents the least significant when one considers the numerous five-set exercises in boredom that populate the early rounds of majors.  And few would argue that Isner-Mahut, despite its gluttonous excess, ranks as the best match of all time.  All the same, the 65 additional minutes of the Melbourne final impressed not in themselves but in the ability of both players to continue displaying their fearless, physical brand of tennis long after anyone had thought possible.  The less brutal points played for a shorter time at Wimbledon four years ago never tested the endurance of both adversaries to that extent, while two rain delays offered a welcome respite in that roofless arena.  Advantage, Rafole

Place:  Unique in the reverent hush of its pristine lawn, the Centre Court at Wimbledon towers above all of the world’s other tennis venues, no matter how much larger or newer.  When one watches a final there, the specter of history hovers portentously and sometimes oppressively above the players.  Termed the Happy Slam by Federer, who won it four times, the Australian Open does not summon the same majestic aura.  Even when filled to capacity under the lights, it remains a tournament rather than a temple.  Advantage, Fedal

Magnitude:  Just two majors away from equaling Sampras, Federer also strode onto Centre Court in 2008 one victory from a record-setting sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.  Across the net, Nadal sought to cast aside the label of clay-court specialist by conquering a major other than Roland Garros for the first time.  Not since Manolo Santana had one of his countrymen won Wimbledon, and members of the Spanish royal family watched their champion.  By contrast, Djokovic’s fifth major title represented no historic moment in itself but merely the next chapter in his mounting dominance.  An eleventh major title would have tied Nadal with Rod Laver on the all-time list but have improved his status as potential GOAT contender only incrementally.  Advantage, Fedal

Context:  Framed within their rivalry, the conclusion of the Wimbledon trilogy between Federer and Nadal marked a crossroads in their rivalry.  On one hand, Roger had left Rafa in tears a year before when he won another classic five-setter in Part II of the trilogy.  On the other hand, Nadal had routed the Swiss superstar barely a month earlier in the Roland Garros final, losing just four games and triggering murmurs that he had eclipsed Federer for good.  (He had, as it turned out, but we wouldn’t know until they met in Melbourne two majors later.)  As Djokovic and Nadal braced for their thirtieth meeting, no sense of a crossroads loomed.  Having won their last six meetings, including consecutive major finals, the Serb stood higher in the rankings and enjoyed the surface advantage.  On the eve of the final, Nadal’s only edge seemed to come from Djokovic’s depleted fitness after a five-set semifinal, a tenuous thread on which to hang one’s hopes.  Advantage, Fedal

Complexity:  After a grinding, 80-minute first set tilted in Nadal’s favor, Djokovic seemed in serious trouble.  Then, he charged to an early lead in the second set and generally held that momentum until midway through the fourth set.  Almost with an air of inevitability approached the finish line as the second seed served at triple break point in the eighth game of the fourth set, defeat lurking five points away.  With several impressive serves, Nadal appeared to save himself—until he fell behind 5-3 in the tiebreak.  Dodging that bullet as well, he seized all of the momentum from his rival and never looked back until he led 4-2, 30-15 in the final set.  Six points from defeat himself now, Djokovic exploited an uncharacteristic backhand error to reverse the narrative one more time.  Much more straightforward was the narrative of the Wimbledon final, which divided neatly into halves.  Nadal won the first two sets rather routinely and held triple break in the seventh game of the third set, at which point Federer mounted a comeback that brought him within five points of the title before Rafa narrowly survived the deluge of serves and forehands.  To be sure, the Swiss did save a match point on Nadal’s serve in the fourth-set tiebreak, but the broader narrative remained relatively simple.  Advantage, Rafole

Drama:  Falling just short of completion, Federer’s accelerating comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit captured the imagination as an aging lion mustering one last effort to defend his territory from a younger rival.  Moreover, each of the last three sets reached 6-6 and hinged upon a handful of points; few situations can trump the drama of an advantage set to decide a major final.  Without that clash of generations or unified narrative, the Melbourne final still posed the question of whether Nadal could solve the man who had harried him around the globe last year.  The last two sets ended by the narrowest of margins, like the Wimbledon final, and the player who won the fourth-set tiebreak similarly rallied from a 5-3 deficit.  Moreover, the fifth set compensated for its fewer games with the internal plot twist provided by the exchange of breaks near its midpoint.  Deuce

Entertainment:  For sheer visual pleasure, little could trump the spectacle of the top two players in the world hurling 100-mph thunderbolts at each other from behind the baseline.  Nor was the Melbourne final oriented entirely around such savage groundstrokes, for both men covered the court expertly to collaborate on repeated rallies of 20 shots or more.  By those breathtaking standards, the Wimbledon final looks austere and restrained in retrospect.  The older match featured clinical precision in its serves, approach shots, and passing shots, but it showcased many fewer lung-burning exchanges and blinding blasts flung towards corners with spine-tingling courage.  Advantage, Rafole

Climax:  In this department, the Melbourne final clearly surpassed its predecessor.  After losing his serve at 7-7 in the fifth set with a forehand unforced error, Federer tapped another forehand meekly into the net to end the Wimbledon epic with abrupt anticlimax.  While a feeble netted backhand by Nadal handed Djokovic the decisive break, the final game offered scintillating drama.  Trailing 30-0, Rafa later reached break point with a penetrating backhand, only to see the Serb erase it with an explosive two-hander of his own.  After doing all that he could to invoke divine aid, Djokovic then delivered an outstanding first serve on championship point, followed by a decisive inside-out forehand winner.  That authoritative point ended this match in a manner worthy of its magnificence.  Advantage, Rafole

Verdict:  A thrilling epic in its own right, Rafole remained almost entirely a story of two players on one court during one, seemingly endless night.  On the other hand, Fedal sprawled beyond those confines to assert its place in the sport’s history even as we watched, which earns it a stature still unsurpassed.

In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

And so they meet again, the two best players in the world, on yet another grand stage.  After a fortnight of largely predictable tennis in the men’s draw arrives a match that nearly everyone had expected, at least outside Switzerland and Great Britain.  Those who followed the 2011 season in detail might consider this final battle just as foreseeable as everything that has preceded it this fortnight.  Nevertheless, every season offers an opportunity to turn a page on the past and create a new narrative.

Doubtless hoping desperately to dull the memories of six painful defeats by Djokovic, Nadal should have gained some optimism from his victories over Berdych and Federer.  Although he lost the first set to each of those opponents, the world #2 played progressively more inspired tennis through the rest of those matches, scrambling implausibly on defense to produce vintage retrievals while stepping inside the court on backhands as well as forehands.  In contrast, Djokovic sagged through significant stretches of arduous victories over Ferrer and Murray after unexpectedly conceding a set to Hewitt.  Struggling with his breathing during his last two matches, the world #1 needed every ounce of energy to escape a Scot far more determined than in last year’s final.  In a thrillingly physical match that stretched just ten minutes short of five hours, Murray forced the Serb to grind through rally after rally that probed the contours of the court, often leaving one or both men gasping for air.  After such exertions of mind and body, surely Djokovic will enter the final too drained to outlast Rafa in a best-of-five format?

And yet…

When Murray extended Djokovic to a final-set tiebreak in Rome, most observers made much the same comment as they looked forward to his championship tilt against Nadal.  Less than 24 hours later, the Serb had registered his most resounding victory of the season against his most notable victim, repeatedly triumphing in the endlessly prolonged rallies that the Spaniard has used to chip away at the minds and bodies of his opponents.  In the US Open final, moreover, the world #1 trumped the man ranked immediately below him despite having survived a psychologically exhausting five-setter against Federer in the previous round, and despite nursing a shoulder injury throughout the fortnight.  When Djokovic has looked his most beleaguered in New York and here, he has become oddly more dangerous by adding additional urgency to his shots and somehow finding the lines even more precisely.  At the US Open, he rampaged through his most dominant set of the day after limping through a tiebreak and requesting the trainer.  Having defeated Federer in the 2009 final after winning a similarly nerve-jangling semifinal with Verdasco, Nadal knows well not to underestimate the recovery potential of the only player in the ATP who can equal his own fitness.

All the same, the 2009 champion took measures to enhance his serve over the offseason in order to avoid the dismal effectiveness of that shot against Djokovic at the US Open. Broken a career-high eleven times in that match, Rafa repeatedly lost his serve after breaking his opponent and thus rarely could consolidate a momentum shift.  In two of the match’s longest games, his inability to collect free points from his delivery represented key turning points.  Addressing this problem with determination and some imagination, Nadal added three grams of weight to the top of his racket in the expectation that the pace of his serve would increase.  Through his first several matches, he indeed has appeared to crack higher velocities with that shot more often.  Cleverly varying its placement against Federer, the Spaniard did earn a greater percentage of free points than usual.  Surely such a key improvement to his arsenal will play a critical role in the Melbourne title match?

And yet…

Long a better returner than Federer or Berdych, Djokovic possesses better reflexes than the former and greater agility than the latter.  Despite the amplified pace on his serve, Nadal has not always held serve in key games with as much ease as one might expect.  Broken when he served for the second set against Berdych, he later let a mini-break slip away in the ensuing tiebreak.  Extended through three deuces in the final game of his semifinal, Rafa struggled mightily to finish the match as his first serve misfired.  Meanwhile, Djokovic’s clear mental edge in his rivalry with the Spaniard may undermine Nadal’s confidence and indirectly dull a shot that relies upon confidence as much as any technical prowess.

Sooner or later, of course, the 2009 champion will halt his streak of futility against the title holder in 2008 and 2011.  Following an offseason during which he likely reviewed their matches in detail, Nadal may have developed new strategies to combat a rival who frustrated him so relentlessly.  Beyond the additional pace on his serve, for example, he may have realized that he must hit through his backhand more forcefully in cross-court rallies against the Djokovic forehand.  Able to survive exchanges from his own two-hander to the Nadal forehand, the Serb has enjoyed his most notable success by targeting the Spaniard’s backhand until he receives a more tentative reply that he can redirect down the line to his opponent’s forehand corner.  If that tactic proves less effective on Sunday, Djokovic may struggle to find new patterns that unsettle his opponent without earning time of his own to formulate a response.

And yet…

In a similar position to Djokovic now, Nadal gradually overtook Federer largely by means of hooking his lefty forehand into the Swiss master’s one-handed backhand, a shot exquisitely graceful but relatively lacking in resilience.  While Rafa simply adhered to this reliable strategy, his rival experimented with one potential parry after another but never quite found the response that would undo this straightforward balance of power.  To some extent, then, the narrative of the Federer-Nadal rivalry ultimately developed into the older man’s quest to overcome an inherent limitation in a game that had seemed bulletproof until the arrival of his nemesis.  Perhaps one should not assume that the Spaniard will find answers to similar inherent shortcomings more easily than the man whom he supplanted at the summit of the sport.  At this stage of his career, Nadal likely will not change his style any more dramatically than Federer has as he ages.

***

In both of their two previous major finals, Djokovic seized a commanding early lead before Rafa snatched away the third set.  Just when Nadal threatened to launch a courageous comeback, however, the Serb stamped out resistance with an imposing fourth set.  During the early stages of this final, therefore, the second seed should attempt to assert himself against the world #1 more forcefully than he did against Berdych and Federer.  Edgy to start those matches, Nadal positioned himself too far behind the baseline and only gradually crept closer as his confidence rose.  If he lets Djokovic seize the early initiative, however, the psychological obstacle posed by the events of 2011 will tower ever higher in his mind.  On the other hand, a firm statement of purpose in the first set would signal to a possibly weary Serb that he must prepare for a challenge even more formidable than their US Open encounter.  Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

 

Although we normally approximate the order of play in our daily previews, we diverge from it today to start with the match that many eagerly awaited since the draws appeared.  (Scroll further down for the Battles of the Blondes, equally delicious in our opinion.)

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning the men's final match during day fourteen of the 2009 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on  February 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

When one glances back across the tapestry woven together by the two great rivals of their generation, one cannot fail to see the central role of clay and grass in this narrative.  Only once have they met at a hard-court major in a memorable but not quite classic five-set final, more notable for the tears of the loser than the triumph of the victor.  During the three long years since then, much has happened to both of our protagonists, each of whom completed a career Grand Slam and one of whom established himself firmly as the greatest of all time.  Despite those accomplishments, their collisions have waned inexorably with time.  Perhaps one should not regret the attenuation of this rivalry, however, for the imperfections of the present cannot cast too long a shadow upon the glories of the past.

Not since Wimbledon five years ago has Federer defeated Nadal at a major, and not since Madrid in 2009 has he defeated the Spaniard at a tournament other than Rafa’s bête noire, the year-end championships.  To be sure, he will gain confidence from a resounding victory in their clash there last year, but a similarly emphatic triumph at the 2007 year-end championships preceded the turning point in their rivalry:  consecutive victories by Nadal in the 2008 Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals.  When they met on the Miami hard courts last spring, Federer looked passive and resigned almost as soon as the match began, notwithstanding his perceived superiority on this surface.  Rarely threatening Rafa on his serve, Roger struggled with his serve and approach shots throughout a match that felt even more lopsided than its scoreline.  Curiously, Federer acquitted himself much more creditably in two clay losses to Nadal at Madrid and Roland Garros, both times winning a set and finding ways to unsettle his nemesis for extended stretches.  At this stage in their careers, each man can hide few secrets from the other as their games have hardened into crystals that will resist significant alteration.  The second seed’s amplified serve might trigger concern in Federer fans, but that shot has not dazzled at pivotal moments throughout this fortnight, such as when Nadal served for the second set against Berdych.  On the contrary, Roger-Rafa XXVII should hinge once again upon the mental dimension, which the Spaniard gradually wrested away from the Swiss star as their rivalry unfolded.

While one might think that recapturing that advantage would lie beyond the powers of a 30-year-old legend, perhaps one should not jump to conclusions prematurely.  In his quiet, methodical way, Federer has compiled a perfect record since the US Open and has looked the more poised player throughout this fortnight.  Beset by nagging knees, festering concerns over the schedule, and the looming specter of Djokovic, Nadal has displayed less competitive appetite and relentless focus than one has grown accustomed to observing from him.  All the same, his four-set quarterfinal victory over Berdych rekindled that familiar spark at the most auspicious moment.  Uninspired for much of the first two sets, Nadal erupted into his fiercely physical, fiery self during the last two sets as he swung with more predatory purpose than he had shown in any of his previous matches.  If that determination replaces his diffident edginess from the first week, Federer will find himself under pressure once again.  As he attempts to summon his own positive energy, he should reflect back upon his virtuoso performance against Del Potro, during which he struck nearly every shot with conviction from his forehand drop shots to his down-the-line backhands.  That latter shot must penetrate the court to prevent Nadal from targeting it and waiting patiently for a mid-court reply to hammer with an inside-in or inside-out forehand.  Since each man knows how to probe the weaknesses of the other, expect a chess match in each point and game from these two masters of their craft.  While they will not scorch rockets like a Djokovic or a Soderling, Roger and Rafa complement each other’s styles and personalities more symmetrically than any other pair of gladiators.

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  From their head-to-head spring few memorable matches and fewer lessons, other than the Belgian’s superiority in three-setters.  Winning both of her final stanzas against Azarenka, Clijsters benefited from her opponent’s emotional immaturity in their early meetings.  The two women rarely have displayed their finest tennis against each other at the same time, a pity considering their evenly matched talents.  Having reached her second semifinal just two majors after her first, Azarenka has evolved into a more poised competitor over the past year who now believes more deeply in her right to play on the grand stage.  To be sure, she still can veer off course without warning at inopportune moments, but Vika now recovers more courageously from those lapses to reverse the momentum.  An eloquent example of this trend, her quarterfinal against Radwanska witnessed a disastrous tiebreak bagel in the first set, which previously would have unlocked the frantic, feckless Azarenka of years past.   Instead, she held her ground during two close games early in the second set and abruptly stopped a tenacious opponent in her tracks.  After four victories over thoroughly outclassed opponents, her comeback should inspire confidence in her should this semifinal prove as tight as expected.

A round after she launched a comeback of her own, the defending champion squelched a putative comeback from Wozniacki in a match that she dominated until the threshold of victory.  Like Azarenka, who has struggled to finish matches this week, Clijsters grew increasingly tense as she thrust the world #1 towards the brink of the precipice.  With a third set on the horizon, though, she collected herself impressively to deliver some of her best shot-making and most imposing serves of the encounter.  During the second-set tiebreak, Clijsters did not miss a single first serve or lose a point on her serve, finding the same lines that she had missed as her lead had evaporated.  Probably the two best players in the WTA at transitioning from defense to offense, these semifinalists often will force each other to restart rallies and hit multiple shots to finish points.  Although she does not sprawl across the court in flamboyant splits like the Belgian, Azarenka possesses keen instincts and anticipation that allow her to return offensive shots with depth.  Gifted with especially crisp backhands, both women can lose their timing on their powerful but less reliable forehands for games at a time, so watch that wing for symptoms of pressure.  The Melbourne crowd, firmly in the Belgian’s corner so far, may ruffle Azarenka as a similar pro-Clijsters crowd did in Miami, but she has grown somewhat more skillful at turning hostility into renewed willpower rather than self-defeating frustration.

In her final Australian Open, the defending champion surely will not depart without a valiant struggle.  Nevertheless, Azarenka may bring greater ambition and intensity to a match that means far more to her career than it does to the waning Belgian.  Having won one set in her first Slam semifinal last year, an impressive effort for a debutante at that level, she should fancy her chances to double that total on her second visit to the penultimate round.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Through the minds of both statuesque blondes will wander the memories of their meeting on the most prestigious stage in the sport last year.  Whereas one woman will seek continuity, the other will focus on plotting her revenge.  Not expected to reach the semifinals when the tournament began, Sharapova has demonstrated once more that she can stride into a tournament with minimal preparation and immediately plow deep into the draw.  Abetted by a gentle draw during the early stages, she nevertheless has impressed while losing only a handful of games in each round with the exception of a three-set comeback against Lisicki.  Well below her best form in the quarterfinals, Sharapova surrendered just five games to a dangerous dark horse while missing swarms of routine shots and sometimes hesitating when presented with an open court.  Refusing to retreat, the 2008 champion seemed to strike the ball even harder and even closer to the lines after every error.  After three backhand errors cost the Russian her first three match points, a backhand bullet scorched a sideline to convert her fourth. Throughout the uneven but courageous display, though, her serve and return rarely abandoned her.  Those key shots proved the difference in the Wimbledon final and offer her the greatest hope of reversing its outcome here.

When this pair clashed in the grassy confines of the All England Club, untimely double faults and wayward service returns cost her at crucial moments, while Kvitova unleashed a nearly flawless display of first-strike tennis that kept her opponent pinned helplessly behind the baseline.  Through her first five matches, the world #2 has continued to win as many points with sheer depth as with ruthless angles, challenging her foes to absorb her pace.  Like Sharapova, though, she has not advanced without occasional glimpses of frailty, sharing the Russian’s tendency towards second-set lapses.  Also like Sharapova, Kvitova rarely settles into lengthy cross-court exchanges but instead redirects the ball whenever possible to stretch the contours of the court.  Since neither woman moves especially well and will struggle to recover from a defensive position, this semifinal will contrast with its counterpart in the length of its points.  Although the surface at the Australian Open plays more slowly than does Centre Court at Wimbledon, the power of each woman’s weapons and the deficiencies of their defense should combine to produce a match of relatively short, explosive points.  Curiously, though, the most overlooked or underestimated element in an arsenal often proves the very weapon that secures a crucial victory.  One semifinalist’s desperate retrieval might well take the other by surprise at a turning point in the match.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue to their encounter is the succession struggle over the world #1 ranking among Kvitova, Azarenka, and Sharapova.  If Clijsters wins the first semifinal, Kvitova would earn a ticket to the penthouse with a victory.  Otherwise, the winner of this semifinal would play Azarenka for both the title and the #1 ranking.  Don’t look too far ahead too soon, though, for the duel of these two Wimbledon champions promises a scintillating smorgasbord of shot-making that any admirer of offensively oriented tennis should relish.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 7

We preview the first day of quarterfinals at the Australian Open:

Azarenka vs. Radwanska:  Offering a greater contrast in styles than the evening encounter, this match opposes two players who have combined to win just one of nine quarterfinals at majors.  Throughout her career, Radwanska has experienced the frustration of navigating her way through early-round matches with her cunning and clean ball-striking, only to crash into the impenetrable obstacle of a far more powerful offensive player.  Azarenka lacks the overwhelming force of a Serena or a Sharapova, although her twelve games lost in four matches suggests a display of unrelenting dominance.  While Vika has won six of their nine previous meetings and four of the last five, she has found Radwanska a worthy opponent on almost every occasion.  Unable to hammer balls past the Pole from the start of the rally, she must construct points more carefully in a test of her patience, long one of the flaws that has retarded her progress.  When they met in a Sydney semifinal this month, Radwanska’s defense and precise shot placement drove Azarenka to distraction for more than a set before she found the composure necessary to outlast her tormentor.  Once she finds her range with her groundstrokes and strings together several penetrating balls, she leaves the eighth seed helplessly searching for answers.

For both women, the key to success lies in a shot not commonly considered one of their greatest assets:  the serve.  In Radwanska’s case, she must maximize her first-serve percentage to minimize the opportunities that Azarenka earns to wreak havoc on her second serve with her scintillating return.  If she aims to outmaneuver Vika, she cannot afford to start the point scrambling in whatever direction her opponent dictates.  The serve could help Azarenka’s cause in a different way by setting up more free points if she trades some percentage for power.  At key moments late in her victories over Barthel and Benesova, when the rest of her game grew shaky, the serve did not desert her.  That trend augurs well for her fortunes in this match and beyond.

Wozniacki vs. Clijsters:  With her place in the penthouse at stake in every Melbourne match, the world #1 has played with increasing conviction during each round, although she has not yet encountered an opponent equipped to seriously challenge her throughout the course of an entire match.  All the same, Wozniacki seemed to take the ball a little earlier when she has had the opportunity during her first four matches and curl cross-court groundstrokes at somewhat sharper angles.  Her collision with Jankovic again showcased her familiar strengths of endurance and groundstroke depth, at least on the few occasions when the Serb didn’t spray shots into the middle of the net, between the tramlines, or beyond the baseline.  While her resounding victory against that former #1 should have inspired confidence in Wozniacki’s fans, although her failure to sustain a double-break lead in the second set causes some concern and illustrated her inability to win free points on serve.

Widespread among the women here, that struggle to finish matches may hamper her against a woman who rallied from the brink of defeat to overcome Li Na a round ago.  Wozniacki has lost to Clijsters in arguably the two most important matches of her career, the finals of the 2009 US Open and 2010 year-end championships, so the pressure rests on her sturdy shoulders to reverse those outcomes, assuming that the defending champion can recover from her ankle injury.  Much as Wozniacki could do everything that Jankovic could and more, Clijsters can do everything that Wozniacki can and more, covering the court just as effectively, producing just as much depth, and transitioning more smoothly from defense to offense.   Kim continues to suffer the occasional mid-match lull, an endemic syndrome of aging champions that the Dane exploited when they played for the last title of 2010.  In her final Australian Open, though, she seems unlikely to succumb without a struggle, and sometimes a narrow escape can catalyze motivation while sharpening focus.  To keep her position in the penthouse for another day, Wozniacki may need to play one of her most complete matches in many months.  Beyond her familiar retrieving, she should redirect the ball more often, return more assertively, and stretch Kim along the baseline, tactics that brought Li within a point of victory but that will force the world #1 to leave her comfort zone.  Generally unsuccessful against the WTA veterans, the Dane should grasp a valuable chance to prove herself.

Del Potro vs. Federer:  Look beyond the 7-2 record, tilted towards the Swiss by the twelve consecutive sets that he won when their rivalry began.  Just a few months after he won three games from Federer in a quarterfinal at this tournament, Del Potro extended the 16-time major champion to five sets at Roland Garros.  A few more months afterwards came one of the more memorable ATP major finals of the last decade, in which the Tower of Tandil toppled Federer in five sets at the US Open.  Ending the year with another victory over the Swiss master at the year-end championships, Del Potro looked likely to become one of the thorns in Roger’s side for the foreseeable future.  Derailed by an untimely wrist injury, though, he scarcely resembled his former self in a desultory loss to Federer at Cincinnati last year, during which he consistently struggled with his serve and rarely subjected his opponent to any pressure on his own delivery.

Dogged by a back injury during his preparation for Melbourne, Federer has brushed any rumors of fallibility aside by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Especially impressive was his mastery over Australian home hope Tomic, who entered that match with momentum, vociferous crowd support, and confidence from having challenged Federer in their first encounter last fall.  But the four-time champion here dismissed the teenager with wave after wave of all-court brilliance, highlighted by pinpoint backhands.  When that less reliable shot follows Federer’s commands so faithfully, the rest of his game rises to vintage heights.   Across the net, Del Potro’s cross-court forehand offers the best guide to his confidence, which has must have risen after a series of progressively more emphatic victories.  When that explosive groundstroke crackles through the court rather than functioning as a rally shot, he can thrust opponents well behind the baseline and find short angles at his leisure.  One round before a projected semifinal with Nadal, Federer should benefit from such a test.

Berdych vs. Nadal:  Central to this quarterfinal are two statistics involving the Czech:  his six-tiebreak winning streak this tournament and his nine-match losing streak against the world #2.  Winning three successive tiebreaks to erase a one-set deficit against Almagro, Berdych will feel confident in his serve whenever a set reaches its climax.  On the other hand, Nadal may feel more confident in his serve than he often does, considering that he has used a heavier racket to add pace to the shot that cost him dearly during the US Open final last year.  But the more compelling statistic is the Spaniard’s uncanny dominance over a rivalry that initially rested on rather even terms.  Betrayed by his one-dimensional game and ungainly footwork, Berdych rarely has even threatened Rafa in matches on every surface, most notably a straight-sets defeat in the 2010 Wimbledon final.  During that tournament, the seventh seed had delivered the best tennis of his career with consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic, and yet Nadal dissected him with ease in a match thoroughly bereft of suspense.

In addition  to the suffocating and not entirely explicable mastery of the Spaniard over the Czech, the spotlight of majors often has unnerved the easily flustered Berdych with the exception of those two surges at Roland Garros and Wimbledon two years ago.  As though the seventh seed did not have so many cards stacked against him already, his dubious behavior at the end of his victory over Almagro in the previous round likely will have turned the Rod Laver crowd against him before the match begins.  Ever the epitome of sportsmanship himself, Nadal may gain additional motivation from Berdych’s slight to one of his countrymen.  Moreover, he surely will spare no energy in avoiding a third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals of what has proven his least productive major to date.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

In a WTA rife with comebacks, injuries, and opportunists, the middle weekend often offers tennis as scintillating as the tournament’s climax.  That theme may continue with a fourth-round rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final, which will feature two of the three most impressive performers in this half of the draw.  Dropping just seven games in her last five sets, Clijsters has played herself into the fortnight and has survived the early meltdowns that have ambushed her at occasional Slams during her second career.  In a commanding victory over Hantuchova, who had troubled her in Brisbane this month, the defending champion retrieved and redirected balls with her familiar aplomb while showing no sign of her recent hip injury.  When healthy, Clijsters can transition from defense to offense more effectively than any woman in the WTA, except perhaps her opponent on Sunday.  Two victories from a third straight semifinal in Melbourne, Li has looked crisp as she once again has extended her momentum from a fine week in Sydney.  The Roland Garros champion owns the single most explosive weapon in this match with her forehand, although her two-hander has not failed to impress.  Overlooked amidst their excellent groundstrokes and movement are the serves of both women, which have functioned effectively this week.  Both Clijsters and Li possess very complete games and clean technique but can misfire for extended stretches, either through the presence of nerves or the absence of focus.  Unless they find their rhythms at the same time, a rollercoaster encounter could result, decided by who can finish points more effectively once they seize the initiative.

We preview each of the other singles matches as the second week begins.

Azarenka vs. Benesova:  Perhaps catalyzed by her Brisbane upset of Stosur, the least famous of the three Czech lefties extended her success here by comfortably defeating Peng.  Benesova exploited an open section of the draw, vacated by Schiavone, by swinging her hook serve and forehand to jerk less powerful opponents around the court.   But now the competition jolts upward abruptly against the third seed, who has looked one of the leading three or four title contenders here despite a wobble in her previous match.  As match point after match point slipped away against Barthel, Azarenka’s carefully managed nerves started to fray visibly until she unleashed a concluding burst of petulance mixed with relief.  Maintaining outstanding depth on her groundstrokes throughout the first week, she should succeed against Benesova simply by staying steady in both playing style and emotions.  Perhaps the most balanced player of her generation, Azarenka treads a middle path between the dogged counterpunching of Wozniacki and the fearless, sometimes reckless assaults of Kvitova.  Her serve remains the weakest component of her game, but she has protected it well here and has not yet encountered an elite returner.  Against Benesova, her backhand down the line should prove especially lethal as Azarenka aims to reach her second Melbourne quarterfinal with minimal difficulty.

Lopez vs. Nadal:  As the tournament began, Nadal generated news related to the ATP schedule, his opinion of Federer, and another injury to his knee.  To the relief of  his fans, he generated little news related to his tennis during an uneventful first week of straight-sets victories.  Experimenting with a heavier racket, his serve has looked clearly more formidable although still not at its level when he won the US Open.  Outside an occasional sloppy service game against Haas and Lacko, Nadal has provided his critics with scant ground for complaint so far.  With the exception of a Queens Club upset, he has suffocated Lopez throughout their careers by relying upon his far superior baseline consistency to erode his fellow lefty.  The older Spaniard impressed by conquering Isner in a five-setter during which her broke the American’s towering serve six times while losing his own serve only once.  But he struggled with double faults throughout that match, committing four during one crucial game that exposed his nerves.  Always high in winners and high in unforced errors, Lopez must record an outstanding first-serve percentage to threaten his compatriot on a sticky surface that blunts serves and rewards baseliners.  Not until the semifinal, perhaps, will Nadal find an adversary worthy of his steel.

Tomic vs. Federer:  In all three of his first-week matches, the home hope lost the first set as Melbourne heart rates accelerated.  Buoyed by the fervent Rod Laver crowds, Tomic demonstrated stamina remarkable for a teenager as he outlasted both Verdasco and Dolgopolov in five sets.  All the same, he cannot afford to allow Federer an early lead as he settles into the match, for the Swiss legend has proven himself an outstanding front-runner against heavy underdogs throughout his career.  After playing 14 sets in three matches and running for four miles on Friday night, Tomic will need to recover quickly for a match that will require crisp footwork, keen instincts, and a clear mind.  When he faced Federer in a Davis Cup playoff last fall, the teenager won a set and competed valiantly in the others.  The difference in that collision, the contrast between their serves could play a crucial role again as the 16-time major champion holds much more comfortably, while Tomic expends more effort on each service game.  Severely tested for nearly two full sets by Karlovic’s serve, Federer should feel less inconvenienced by the veering slices and spins of the Australian’s distinctive style.  As his career wanes, muscular ball-bruisers like Soderling, Tsonga, and Berdych have unsettled him, but the crafty artists of the court have enjoyed little more success against him on hard courts than they ever have.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  After losing the first four meetings to her fellow counterpuncher and stylistic ancestor, the world #1 defeated Jankovic three times last year in a striking momentum shift.  Many are the similarities between these women, who rely upon their movement more than their serving and project greater power from their backhands than their forehands.  Outside a shaky second set in the second round, Wozniacki has acquitted herself creditably throughout the first week, showing few signs of crumbling under the pressure of her ranking.  In the Dane’s position three Australian Opens ago, Jankovic succumbed in the fourth round and would not capture the top spot again.  With the opportunity to strip it from her opponent, she may bring more motivation than she has shown for much of her steady decline.  Overwhelming a trio of young challengers, such as the promising Christina McHale, Jankovic displayed few traces of her vintage self but did maintain her focus consistently as she waited for the raw teenagers across the net to falter.  The Serb saved break point after break point against McHale in a match that looked extremely tight early before developing into a rout.  Considering their stylistic parallels, this encounter of current and former #1s should hinge mostly upon execution.  Jankovic would seem to hold the edge in power and experience, while Wozniacki enjoys the advantage in mobility, consistency, and (arguably) composure, but each could surpass the other in any of these dimensions on any given day.  Expect a lung-burning series of rallies along the baseline as both women aim to win points than invite the opponent to lose them.

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  One of two Germans to reach the second week at the Australian Open, Goerges enjoyed a promising first half to 2011 before fading dramatically—even evaporating—in the second half.  When she retired against Jankovic in Sydney, one harbored few hopes for her Melbourne campaign despite a resilient performance in a three-set loss to Sharapova last year.  Again showcasing her bold brand of tennis on these courts, she has recorded the strongest Slam effort of her still budding career and should not underestimate her chances to progress further.  Never more than a quarterfinalist at majors, Radwanska has demonstrated her ability to score a key upset here or there but has not produced a deep run, regularly undone by a player who overpowers her from the baseline and from the service notch.  During a stirring Asian fall, however, the Pole suggested that she might have enhanced her readiness to take risks, even if her puny serve may have no remedy.  She nearly stumbled against Mattek-Sands in her opening match but used her survival instincts to escape an opponent who cracked 80 winners.  Clearly superior to Radwanska on serve, Goerges will need to earn plentiful free points from that shot if she seeks to subdue her exceptionally nuanced, clever, and tenacious foe.  Once rallies begin, the eighth seed will hope to expose the German’s deficiencies in mobility and point construction, perhaps dragging her forwards at inconvenient moments.  To become a truly premier contender, Radwanska must overcome the second tier of ball-bruisers like Goerges more regularly.

Berdych vs. Almagro:  The match most likely to feature a fifth set, this meeting of the world #7 and world #10 seems academic in a sense because the winner will have only a negligible chance of upsetting Nadal.  A quarterfinal appearance still would represent a significant accomplishment for Almagro, whose game aligns just as well with hard courts as with clay.  But he has not excelled at the most prestigious events, managing just two Roland Garros quarterfinal amidst a host of first-week exits to far less talented opponents.  In stark contrast to the functional two-handed backhand of Berdych, Almagro’s elegant one-hander exemplifies his elongated swings, which can cost him time on faster surface.  These medium-speed hard courts should allow him to set up his elaborate swings without slowing the Czech’s serve too significantly.  Winning all three of his tiebreaks this fortnight, Berdych has relied upon his most formidable shot to set up his inside-out and inside-in forehands.  To reach his second straight Australian Open quarterfinal, he should keep Almagro pinned well behind the baseline, where he will struggle to penetrate the court and may attempt low-percentage shots from frustrated impatience.  Since they lack the ability to transition smoothly from defense to offense, the player who can assert himself early in the point usually will emerge victorious.  In their only previous hard-court meeting, at Cincinnati last year, Berdych delivered the terminal blow earlier and more often, winning with ease.

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  In all four of their previous meetings, the US Open champion has emerged triumphant, but their two 2011 clashes hint at intrigue ahead.  Since an opening five-setter, Kohlschreiber has played only four and a half sets in two rounds, so he should bring plenty of energy to track down the Argentine’s lasers.  Following an indifferent beginning to the tournament, Del Potro has looked more authoritative with each match and almost each set that he has seized.  As he completed his demolition of a helpless Yen-Hsun Lu on Friday night, his forehands rocketed through the court with an ominous explosiveness.  Nevertheless, Kohlschreiber can trade baseline bombs with the Argentine on both groundstroke wings, relishing the opportunity to redirect balls down the line.  The product of a particularly fluid motion, his serve sets up points almost as well as does Del Potro’s mightier delivery.  Content to decide points from the baseline, the Tower of Tandil rarely ventures towards the net, whereas the German will test his opponent’s passing shots by approaching opportunistically.  That strategy could help Kohlschreiber destabilize Del Potro’s timing, uneven since his wrist surgery.  In a best-of-five format, though, the Argentine’s heavier weight of shot and suffocating court coverage should frustrate a thrilling shot-maker who plays with much less margin for error.

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Looming less than a week ahead, the Australian Open arrives not a moment too soon for tennis fans awaiting the next episode in the ATP’s scintillating trivalry.  Will the dominance of the top three continue, or will one of their challenges steal the show?  We discuss the five title favorites in Melbourne.

Djokovic:  A clear but not overwhelming favorite, the world #1 seeks his third Melbourne crown and third consecutive major title, which would position him to claim a “Novak Slam” in Paris.  More than any of the other majors, the Australian Open suits Djokovic’s talent for transitioning from defense to offense with movement as explosive as any of his other weapons.  Although he chose not to play any preparatory ATP tournaments, he delivered a fierce opening statement by demolishing Federer and Ferrer in an Abu Dhabi exhibition.  Having won 10 of his last 11 meetings with his two leading rivals, Djokovic owns an especially keen psychological edge over Nadal and swept Federer in straight sets during their two most recent Australian encounters.  Less auspicious for a title defense is the heat of Melbourne, which undid him in 2009.  Meanwhile, the pressure of defending last year’s spectacular performance may weigh upon a player for whom perfection lately became commonplace.

Nadal:  At the last three majors, the Spaniard accumulated a 19-0 record against all opponents other than Djokovic, including four victories against the top five.  Having resolved to spare no effort in solving the riddle suddenly presented by the Serb, Nadal selected a heavier racket over the offseason to enhance his serve, unimpressive since the 2010 US Open.  But that critical change may need time to evolve, as the second seed mentioned when suggesting that he wanted to display his best tennis between Indian Wells and the Olympics.  A champion here in 2009 following a five-set victory over Federer, Nadal may wish to atone for his disappointing quarterfinal exits in his past two appearances.  Considering his perfect record against Federer and Murray through the US Open last year, nobody should bet against him if Djokovic falters before the final.

Federer:  Not since 2003 has Federer lost at the Australian Open to a player other than the eventual champion, winning four titles during that span.  The Swiss legend arrives in Melbourne with a 20-match winning streak that included yet another title at the year-end championships, but he has not won a major in two years and has lost to Djokovic in three straight hard-court Slam semifinals.  Still, Federer became the only player to overcome the Serb at a major during 2011, unleashing a nearly flawless display of shot-making at Roland Garros.  Falling just one point short of repeating the feat in New York, he showed remarkable resilience by rebounding during the fall.  Beyond a nagging back strain, Federer’s main challenge may surround his ability to deliver the coup de grace against talented opponents.  In both of his last two majors, his focus and game evaporated after he held a two-set lead.

Murray:  While he may prefer Wimbledon and the US Open, Murray has enjoyed his best results at the season’s first major, where he has reached two finals before losing in straight sets both times.  Following an encouraging fall season, the Scot astutely selected Ivan Lendl as the coach who could ignite the first the Slam title run of his career.  Healthier than Nadal and Federer at the moment, he competed courageously in his last two clashes with Djokovic.  Despite the lack of worthy opposition, a Brisbane title should have injected him with positivity on the eve of Melbourne.  As Murray edges into his mid-20s and towards the midpoint of his career, though, the expectations of his compatriots will grow ever more intense.  Can he handle them more confidently than in the past?  With his arduous playing style, consecutive collisions with two of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer would pose a supreme test of fitness.

Tsonga:  After the most consistently impressive season that he has recorded so far, the flamboyant Frenchman returns to the scene of his only previous Slam final, four years ago.  Sparked by a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, his momentum rarely slowed through the rest of the second half and would have carried him even further had he not lost four matches to Federer.  A Doha title consolidated his progress, which has brought him to the threshold of the top five.  On this medium-speed hard court, his relentlessly aggressive style leaves him more vulnerable to counterpunchers equipped with crisp passing shots, while his insouciant personality rarely stays in check for an entire fortnight.  Having constructed a less balanced game than the players ranked above him, Tsonga will need to serve exceptionally well and construct the vast majority of points around his forehand—not an easy effort to sustain on a medium-speed surface.

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We return tomorrow with the next article in our preview series on the first major of 2012.

 

 

 

 

Although Djokovic may have dominated the ATP throughout 2011, several other players recorded noteworthy achievements.  Beyond the world #1, who achieved the most in 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain, blue shirt) beats Roger Federer (Switzerland, red shirt) in 4 sets, 7/5, 7/6, 5/7, 6/1, in the final to win the French Open 2011. Nadal:  Rarely has one player’s season been so inextricably intertwined with another player’s season.  Had Djokovic not transformed his career this year, Nadal likely would have won three major titles for the second straight year, ripped through the clay season undefeated for the second straight year, completed the Indian Wells-Miami double, and positioned himself to overtake Federer as the true GOAT in the near future.  Instead, the towering expectations upon the Spaniard combined with the Serb’s brilliance left many observers—and seemingly Nadal himself—disappointed with 2011.  When they gain perspective, they should recognize accomplishments such as seizing a record-tying sixth Roland Garros crown and reaching the final of three Slams on three different surfaces, an underrated feat.  While the Dodigs and Mayers of the world scored an occasional ambush in the second half, Nadal lost only one match between the Australian Open and Wimbledon to an opponent other than Djokovic.  Masked by his lack of a non-clay title this year, that near-impenetrability illustrates how little ground he actually has surrendered.  Unaffected by his struggles against Djokovic was his mastery over his other leading rivals, Federer and Murray (7-1 combined, 5-0 in the first half).  In 2009, a Davis Cup title launched Nadal towards the strongest season of his career in 2010, and he earned a similar momentum boost in 2011.  If the Serb flickers at all in 2012, the bull held at bay this year should charge.

Murray:  While time continues to trickle away in his pursuit of his first major, the Scot reached the semifinals or better of every Slam for the first time.  As the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “almost means nothing.”  But Murray’s ability to weather the early rounds more consistently than he had in previous seasons will bring him more opportunities to conquer the elite, and mere probability suggests that fortune will smile on him sooner or later.  After a woeful beginning to his Masters 1000 season with opening-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, the world #4 showed unexpected courage in extending both Nadal and Djokovic to three sets on clay, his least hospitable surface.  Especially notable was his epic Rome semifinal against the Serb, who had crushed the Scot in Melbourne.  Demolished in a merciless first set, Murray rallied valiantly to within two points of victory.  His sweep through the Asian season probably looked more impressive on paper than in reality, considering the absences of Federer and Djokovic, although an emphatic victory over Nadal in the Tokyo final demonstrated the manifold challenges that he can pose when at his most confident.  Now he needs to translate that level of conviction to the majors, where his self-defeating fatalism surfaces most often.

Federer:  Through the US Open, the Swiss legend had looked relatively mortal with just one minor title in Doha and two two-set leads squandered at Slams.  All the same, Federer showcased his vintage form in the Roland Garros semifinals, when he halted Djokovic’s winning streak with timely serving and immaculate point construction.  After that triumph, his stumble against Tsonga one major later seemed especially unexpected and indicative of this champion’s depleted desire.  Even more surprisingly, Federer’s nerve betrayed him late in the fifth set of his US Open semifinal against Djokovic, a match that he often had dominated.  Responding to that bitter disappointment much as he had in 2010, he once again surged through the fall season when his younger rivals faltered.  His record-setting sixth title at year-end championships should have soothed  the sting of those setbacks against Tsonga and Djokovic, while his title at the Paris Indoors left him the only active ATP player to reach the final of every Slam and Masters tournament in his career.  Unable to preserve his momentum during the 2010-11 offseason, Federer hopes to handle a similar task in 2011-12.

Ferrer:  To no surprise was his continued excellence on clay, which included consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as a three-setter against Djokovic in Madrid.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s accomplishments on hard courts in 2011 did raise an eyebrow or two, especially his Australian Open semifinal appearance in which he severely tested Murray.  Whereas most clay specialists fade in the fall, Ferrer scuttled along the baseline with intensity undimmed and found himself rewarded with a second Masters 1000 final in Shanghai.  En route to that match, the diminutive Spaniard rallied from saving match point in the third round and fearlessly protected his modest serve through consecutive three-setters against Roddick and Lopez, much more impressive from the service notch.  It felt fitting, then, that Ferrer’s tenacity earned him a semifinal berth at the World Tour Finals, a tournament where he had failed to win a match just a year before.  In an era of glamorous superstars with nearly supernatural shot-making skills, his arduous brand of tennis has entrenched him in the top 5 and serves as a reminder of how far effort and attitude can substitute for innate ability.

Tsonga:  Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year, the world #6 scarcely distinguished himself through May but then finished 2011 in sparkling style.  Within a single month, Tsonga scored comeback victories over both Nadal and Federer, holding his serve against the latter throughout the last four sets of their Wimbledon quarterfinal.  The charismatic Frenchman fused the past with the present during that classic encounter, interweaving vintage serve-volley tactics with ferocious forehands from behind the baseline.  Emboldened by that achievement, Tsonga repeated it at the Rogers Cup but could not at the US Open after an entertaining victory over Fish that extended his curious effectiveness in five-setters.  Two small titles in Metz and Vienna behind him, he surged into the last two tournaments of the year before losing to Federer three times in fifteen days.  That odd fact should not obscure a signature victory over a battered but determined Nadal in London, which vaulted Tsonga into the semifinals at the Spaniard’s expense.  Nor should it obscure his second appearance in the Paris Indoors final, where the expectations of his compatriots did not burden him but rather lifted his spirits.

Berdych:  Despite accomplishing little of note at the majors, he remained in the top eight after a steady second half that ended the longest title drought of any player in the ATP or WTA top 10.  Relatively bland in personality and playing style, Berdych recorded few memorable moments in 2011 but also generally avoided unsightly disasters, outside a loss to Stephane Robert at Roland Garros.  On only one other occasion did he lose his first match at a tournament (to Nishikori in Basel), while he registered sixteen quarterfinals or better.  At the year-end championships, Berdych might well have finished the round-robin stage undefeated had not his weapons deserted him in a third-set tiebreak against Djokovic.  He registered few other wins over top-10 opponents bud did overpower Federer in Cincinnati, and his lone title in Beijing followed a three-set victory over Tsonga.  When every element of Berdych’s unwieldy game fits together, he can conquer virtually any foe through his sheer ball-striking power. Yet his dearth of titles and meager success against the elite illustrates the rarity with which he can string together such matches, and his 2011 campaign fell well short of his 2010 breakthrough.

Fish:  Scanning the ATP rankings, it seems strange to see an American ranked higher than long-time flag bearer Roddick.  A first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals, Fish thoroughly deserved that distinction after an excellent campaign at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.  Buoyed by the American fans, he defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinals, while another semifinal appearance in Cincinnati featured his first career victory over Nadal.  Just as impressive was his performance the previous week in Canada, when he outplayed Djokovic for extended stretches of the Rogers Cup final before the Serb’s more balanced style prevailed.  Gifted with outstanding net-attacking skills, Fish poses his greatest threat when he seizes the initiative rather than rallying behind the baseline, as this relaxed competitor sometimes prefers.  Although he reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal, he did not distinguish himself at the hard-court majors in uneven losses to Robredo and Tsonga.  Leading the reeling Frenchman by two sets to one at his home major, Fish allowed one poor service game to derail his hopes for a second straight Slam quarterfinal.  Still, he represents American tennis with a poise and dignity absent from the man whom he supplanted as his nation’s #1.  Despite an injury, Fish competed with resolve during his three losses at the World Tour Finals, displaying a commendable professionalism in defeat.

Tipsarevic:  Cast into Djokovic’s shadow for most of his career, the second-ranked (and sometimes third-ranked) Serb had not won a tournament until this year despite scoring several notable upsets and near-upsets.   When his compatriot reached #1, though, Tipsarevic found the inspiration necessary to reach the top 10 for the first time while winning his first two titles and reaching five total finals.  Not aesthetically pleasing to watch, his functional style can produce a power belied by his compact physique on both his serve and his groundstrokes.  In contrast to Wawrinka and Troicki, moreover, his respect for the top-ranked player from his nation did not snuff out his competitive spark.  Before an injury halted him, Tipsarevic waged a fierce battle with Djokovic in a US Open quarterfinal and ended the world #1’s season in London.  His quirky personality will continue to fuel controversy, but it adds further texture to an already diverse top 10.

Nishikori:  Ranked well below the other players at a modest #25, Nishikori appears on the list as a result of becoming the highest-ranked man in Japanese history, a goal that he set for himself when his career began.  Moreover, he reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Shanghai, where he defeated Tsonga, and recorded his first victory over a reigning #1 in Basel.  Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert, Nishikori already has progressed further than many might have expected, and he finally has recovered from a series of injuries.  A counterpuncher in the mold of Ferrer, he now can set new ambitions for himself.

Kei Nishikori - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

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

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

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

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

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

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

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

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

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

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

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

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

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

***

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

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