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Rafael Nadal - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Nadal vs. Tsonga:  Besieged by nagging ailments, the world #2 looked a step sluggish in his movement and not always crisp in his footwork during a terse loss to his archrival on Tuesday.  That match continued a concerning trend in which Nadal has lost his last three matches against top-five opponents in emphatic fashion, from a fourth-set breadstick against Djokovic in New York to a final-set bagel against Murray in Tokyo and now a second-set bagel against Federer here.  Of greater significance for this tournament, though, is the pressure to which Fish and Federer subjected the Spaniard on his serve.  Although he escaped many tightly contested games, the energy expended in holding serve can drain even a competitor like Nadal who does not rely heavily upon that shot.  On a brighter note, he managed to blunt Fish’s serve efficiently throughout his opening victory despite a surface friendlier to the American’s style than to his own.  A similar challenge will loom when Rafa faces a Frenchman who has scored some of his greatest triumphs during the fall season.

Twice a champion since the US Open, Tsonga exploited an accommodating draw to reach his second final at the Paris Indoors.  Carrying that momentum into this week, he regrouped from yet another slow start against Federer to threaten the clear favorite for the title and then dispatch Fish more comfortably than in their US Open meeting.  As he seeks his first career semifinal at the year-end championships, Tsonga might learn from the example of Federer and one of the keys to his stunningly emphatic victory.  Stretching Nadal to his backhand with wide serves into the deuce court, the Swiss master almost invariably opened the court for a penetrating first groundstroke that in turn allowed him to finish the point in the forecourt (if it hadn’t ended before then).  Considering the Spaniard’s slightly diminished movement, Tsonga might consider a similar tactic despite his general preference for serving down the center on important points.  Any way to shorten points and take time away from a depleted Nadal would enhance his opponent’s chances of repeating his monumental upset at the 2008 Australian Open.  For his part, Rafa will sharpen his returns and passing shots in order to deter his opponent from venturing towards the net.  Against Fish, those shots dipped low over the net and veered towards the sideline at improbable angles, forcing the net-rusher into awkward positions.

Largely unfamiliar to most spectators, Tsonga ambushed the heavily favored Nadal in straight sets on that Melbourne evening with a ferocious barrage of serve-forehand combinations mingled with uncannily delicate volleys.  That breakthrough still ranks among the most impressive performances of his career, followed closely by his comeback over Federer at Wimbledon this summer.  Since that nearly flawless display, however, the world #6 has fallen short in all four of his hard-court collisions with the world #2, including two on the indoor courts that would seem to showcase his style.  Even when Nadal struggled with physical and personal turmoil in 2009, he still registered a generally convincing victory over the Frenchman at the Paris Indoors.  For us, the most emblematic match of their rivalry remains a 2008 meeting at Indian Wells, which Tsonga controlled for most of the first two and a half sets.  Offered a chance to deliver the coup de grace in the second-set tiebreak and when he served for the match in the third set, his focus deserted him as Nadal’s determination reached its summit.  Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Tsonga showed both why he could challenge the most accomplished players in the ATP and why he probably would not rival their brilliance.

Still oscillating in fascinating fashion between the magnificent and the maddening, the Frenchman has established himself as one of the most entertaining players of his generation.  “Entertaining” probably does not describe Nadal’s rigorous, almost obsessive pursuit not of greatness (like Federer) but of surviving to fight another day.  If Tsonga bombards him with staccato bursts of serves and forehands, the Spaniard will have a full week to prepare for the Davis Cup final.  If Nadal can stay within range and retain his optimism, he can dig into trenches where the Frenchman might not follow him.

Federer vs. Fish:  Already having clinched victory in Group B, Federer can look forward to a Saturday semifinal against the Group A runner-up no matter what happens in his final round-robin match.  Therefore, the five-time champion of this event should approach this event with an attitude approximating an exhibition or a Davis Cup dead rubber.  Struggling with injuries over the last few months, Fish has acquitted himself creditably in two losses but has nothing meaningful to gain either with a victory.  Expect short points and frequent forays to the net from both players as they try to complete this match without undue exertion.  Unlikely to race across the baseline tracking down each other’s groundstrokes, they should produce a match high in winners and low in defense.  Previous such encounters at previous editions of the year-end championships have resulted in interminable three-setters between two players, neither of whom especially wants to win.  On this occasion, however, Federer should maintain his unblemished record after a pair of routine sets.  Creating the only suspense is the question of whether Federer will demonstrate his legendary between-the-legs stab again.  Or will Thursday witness the debut of something equally spectacular and unexpected?

Fish vs. Tsonga:  Only once have they met in their long careers, a five-setter at this year’s US Open that oscillated restlessly between them.  Through most of the first four sets, Fish matched Tsonga serve for serve and forecourt charge for forecourt charge.  But the American flinched when victory loomed, signaling his uncertainty with untimely unforced errors and setting the stage for an emphatic final set.  A similar fate befell Fish in his first round-robin match against Nadal.  Thoroughly outplayed in the first set, he nevertheless stayed alert and capitalized upon a dip in the Spaniard’s form to win the second set and establish a lead in the third.  At that stage, though, the first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals looked intimidated by the occasion as he lost his serve with poor tactics and worse execution.  Although he displayed courage in saving two match points on his serve, Fish missed all but one of his returns during the decisive tiebreak and ended in the match with a badly bungled smash.  Having played himself to the brink of an unexpected victory, he could not quell his nerves but allowed the pressure to envelop him.

Far from nervous on any occasion, Tsonga falls victim to complacency rather than from a lack of self-belief.  Whereas few fail to notice Fish’s intense desire to win, many have questioned the Frenchman’s competitive steel.  More of a showman than a strategist, he swings for lines and corners with the first forehand that he sees more often than organizing a point.  So dangerous a shot-maker is Tsonga, though, that his rudimentary shot selection skills have not hindered him against most players outside the elite.  Moving surprisingly well against Nadal, Fish will need to cover the court just as assiduously on Tuesday and will want to extend rallies whenever possible.  Gifted with an excellent two-hander himself, the eighth seed gained repeated success at the US Open when he stretched Tsonga into his backhand corner and invited him to run around that weaker shot to hit forehands.  But Fish will want to maintain better depth than he did against Nadal, whose style did not punish him for numerous medium-pace, mid-court groundstrokes.  If he feeds Tsonga a steady diet of balls like those, the Frenchman will not hesitate to pummel them and charge towards the net for an acrobatic volley.

Among the keys to this match is the first-serve percentage of both players, neither of whom aims to win a war of attrition and both of whom rely on their delivery to gain free points.  Through most of his career, Tsonga has earned renown for balancing pace and accuracy with consistency in his first serve, while Fish’s delivery has hovered in a more typical range.  Against Nadal, though, his kick serve proved especially effective in moving the Spaniard off the court from the outset.  Another key to watch lies in the court positioning of both players, who will want to cling closely to the baseline in order to exploit any opportunities to move forwards.  Inclined to passivity when not at their best, Tsonga and Fish should seek to exploit the indifferent passing shots of both opponents by forcing the issue as often and as soon as possible.

The loser of this match almost certainly faces elimination at the round-robin stage, while the winner will live to fight another day but will need to defeat either Nadal or Federer to advance.

Federer vs. Nadal:  Arriving at the same destination, the two former poles of the tennis universe took the divergent routes that have characterized their rivalry.  Littered with service winners, rapid holds, and brisk sallies into the forecourt, Federer’s three-set victory lasted just 88 minutes.  In just a few minutes short of three hours, by contrast, Nadal eked out a series of deuce games, salvaged strings of break points, and battled through rally after rally of a dozen strokes or more.  As with their previous 25 encounters, therefore, the player who imposes his tone and tempo upon the match should seize the initiative.  Winning all three of their meetings this year and nine of eleven since the start of 2008, Nadal has forced Federer into the prolonged groundstroke duels that he favors more and more over the years.  In the sets that the Swiss master has won from him recently, such as the third set of the Roland Garros final this spring, only the most ruthless aggression and pinpoint accuracy could frustrate the Spaniard.  Observers have wondered whether any player, even one of Federer’s spine-tingling genius, could maintain that level throughout an entire match.  And routs unworthy of their rivalry now can develop when the aging legend’s artillery misfires, such as in their Miami semifinal and the fourth set of their Roland Garros final.

Nevertheless, three of Federer’s eight victories over his nemesis have occurred at the calendar’s final tournament.  Although fast indoor courts have played a role, his dominance over Nadal here stems less from the surface from the season.  While Federer has flourished in the fall with 19 career post-US Open titles, Rafa has collected just three such crowns (one since 2005) as he normally limps towards the end of an exhausting season.  This year has proved no exception but rather has accentuated the trend, with the Swiss sweeping through a Basel/Paris double and the Spaniard skidding to a Florian Mayer loss in Shanghai before withdrawing from Paris.  Within the broader narrative of Nadal’s dominance in their rivalry, therefore, lies this oasis of relative safety for Federer—so far.  In last year’s final, his title defense grew perilous when Nadal extended him to a final set, but then fatigue from a protracted semifinal contributed to the emphatic restoration of the ancien regime.

Especially notable from that match, though, was the unexpected boldness of Federer’s backhand, which so often betrayed him against Rafa.  Delivering for him on key points, that elegant shot crackled with a venom that seemed to surprise the Spaniard and made the Swiss forehand even more lethal.  If he can recapture that confidence in his weaker groundstroke, Federer likely will prevail once more on a surface that blunts the notorious Nadal topspin.  Still, he lapsed into an erratic passage after opening his first round-robin match with authority, although timely serving allowed him to recover.  More likely to capitalize upon a momentum shift than Tsonga, Nadal withstood steady pressure on his serve throughout the second half of his more arduous victory.  His level of execution may have suffered from a lack of tournament preparation, but his shot selection remained keen and his backhand fiercer than for much of the second half.  Unless Federer enjoys a spectacular serving performance, not a totally implausible prospect, their 26th meeting should hinge upon which backhand buckles sooner under the pressure of the opponent’s forehand.  A key question to ask:  which player will run around their backhand to hit forehands more often, a dangerous strategy on this fast surface?  And will Nadal gain more comfort from his dominance over Federer than he loses from his lack of dominance on this type of surface at this time of year?

 

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

Nadal vs. Fish:  At first glance, the Spaniard’s overwhelming supremacy in their head-to-head record suggests that his London campaign will open uneventfully.  Even on the fast courts of Wimbledon and the US Open, Nadal ruthlessly exploited Fish’s inconsistency from the baseline and any ebbs in his first-serve percentage.  An ambitious but erratic returner, the eighth seed has struggled to crack the second seed’s serve and never even earned a break point when they collided in Tokyo two months ago.  Confirming this impression from their head-to-head are other factors, such as the injuries that have afflicted the American this fall and his inexperience at the year-end championships.  (On the other hand, Del Potro reached the final in his debut there two years ago.)  Before the question turns from whether Fish can win to whether he can stay competitive, though, one should note that Nadal nearly lost to a similar opponent in the round-robin stage last year.  Against the mighty serve of Roddick, he trailed by a set and a break before escaping a second-set tiebreak with a pair of opportunistic second-serve returns.  Much more skilled at the net than his compatriot, Fish should embrace the serve-volley style frequently both to minimize the impact of his lingering injuries and to take time away from Nadal.  Having played only sparsely—and largely unimpressively—since the US Open, the Spaniard often needs a round or two to settle into a tournament.  If Fish denies him the opportunity to settle, Nadal may not respond with the stabbing returns and pinpoint passing shots that have bedeviled net-rushers before.  Deployed by Dodig, the net-rushing, point-shortening style troubled Nadal in his first match after the Wimbledon final and a similarly long hiatus.  In order to entertain even a faint hope of an upset, though, Fish must strike at least two of every three first serves and vary the placement of that shot.  Even if he does, his hopes remain faint.

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Rarely do two players face each other in consecutive matches, and even more rarely do two top-10 players face each other in consecutive matches.  Yet such is the situation when the Paris Indoors champion meets the Paris Indoors runner-up in the opening encounter of the 2011 World Tour Finals.  Having lost twice to Tsonga this year, Federer may bring greater confidence into this most recent encounter than he would have without last weekend’s triumph, although he had won their next-most-recent meeting at the US Open.  Memories of the defeat might not trouble the Frenchman, however, for he appears to approach not only each match but each game and even each point with the same carefree attitude.  While that insouciance has undermined his efforts to sustain leads and seal victories, it conversely enhances his danger to an opponent who feels secure in a lead of his own.  At the Rogers Cup two years ago and at Wimbledon this year, Federer learned that lesson in ignominious fashion as he squandered a 5-1 stranglehold in a final set and a two-set lead, both for the first time in the Swiss legend’s career.  Notwithstanding his comeback potential, Tsonga should strive to avoid the lackluster start that he suffered in Paris and that has characterized five of his six meetings with Federer this year.  The lopsided first set last weekend in fact featured an early opportunity for the Frenchman to seize an advantage, but his failure to capitalize set the tone for what followed.  Spurning a chance to reverse the momentum midway through the second set as well, Tsonga must realize that he can ill afford to offer Federer second lives.

Roger Federer - Federer Wins BNP Parabis Masters

Long after the year’s final major, 2011 concludes with the second premier tournament hosted by London.  As the city on the Thames sinks into winter, which of the year’s eight leading stars will rise to the occasion?

Group A:

Djokovic:  Tied closely to the world #1’s last three tournament exits were the injuries that have emerged to sting him in the second half.  While he retired against Del Potro and issued a walkover to Tsonga, Djokovic surely would not have suffered a third-set bagel by Nishikori if he had contested their Basel semifinal at full strength.  But he has limped into London rather than choosing discretion over valor and extending his offseason.  Like Sharapova in Istanbul, Djokovic might suffer an uncharacteristic defeat or two unless his battered back and shoulder somehow have recovered since Paris.  When he last began the year with a flourish by winning the Australian Open, though, the Serb secured the season-ending event as well.  More importantly, he possesses a 12-1 record on hard courts against Berdych and Ferrer, although his only loss came to the Spaniard at the 2007 edition of this tournament.  If he can extend that impressive statistic, Djokovic would accumulate the two wins likely sufficient to earn a semifinal berth.  Still, he enters this tournament with a fall campaign less accomplished than any of his three rivals.  Clearly the player of 2011 no matter who wins London, the year-end #1 probably will lack the willpower that he displayed when overcoming an injury at the US Open.  A title here would offer him nothing that he doesn’t have already.

Murray:  Sweeping through three Asian tournaments without a loss, the Scot fulfilled his goal of surpassing Federer for the #3 ranking.  When he reached Paris, Murray looked weary after a peripatetic autumn as his sporadic struggles against Berdych continued.  After a dreary debut at the O2 Arena in 2009, he battled to the brink of the 2010 final in a duel with Nadal that remained one of the season’s most memorable matches.  Frustrated by the Spaniard at major after major this year, Murray would not meet him until the weekend here.  The new #3 has stifled Ferrer away from the clay, including a pair of straight-sets victories following the US Open, and he likely seethes to avenge his recent loss to Berdych.  One even would fancy his chances against a depleted Djokovic, against whom Murray could patiently chip away as he did in the Cincinnati final.  Fortunately and unfortunately for him, the London crowd will raise the stakes of each match that he plays.  At Wimbledon, their intensity has inspired especially fierce performances from Murray but also has appeared to weigh upon him in marquee matches.  As he attempts to end the season on an auspicious note for 2012, he must beware of expending too much emotional energy in each match.

Berdych:  In his debut at the World Tour Finals last year, the then-Wimbledon finalist admitted to nerves that hampered his performance, despite generally competitive efforts against Nadal and Djokovic.  That debut dizziness behind him, he should approach this second appearance with a stronger mind, typically not one of his salient traits.  Having played Ferrer only once in the last four years, Berdych enters that contest with a poor record against the Spaniard but a game far superior on this surface.  The Czech has defeated Murray on three different surfaces, including at the 2010 French Open and Paris barely a week ago, where his bold commitment to finishing points in the forecourt reaped dividends.  On the other hand, the court’s low bounce may trouble the sometimes wooden Berdych, who prefers a relatively high contact point.  A similarly low bounce at Wimbledon did not prevent him from notching his only career win over Djokovic, however, while his post-US Open campaign represented his best tennis of 2011.  Relishing the indoor conditions, Berdych won the most important title of his career under a roof six years ago in Paris.  He probably acquired momentum from snapping a 28-month title drought in Beijing, and his indifferent season ironically may have left him fresher for London than most contenders.

Ferrer:  Regardless of his result this year, the world #5 could not fare worse than in his 0-3 London week last year, during which he failed to win a single set.  Ferrer’s third appearance here testifies to his prowess on slower surfaces and indirectly to the gradual reduction in speed of most tournament courts.  On the fast, skidding surface of the O2 Arena, his lack of offensive power and especially a commanding serve should lie bare once more.  In Tokyo and Shanghai, even the famously counterpunching Murray looked startlingly aggressive by contrast with the Spaniard’s understated blend of fitness and sturdy technique.  One could imagine Ferrer toppling a weary Djokovic after one grinding rally at a time, but an upset over the Scot seems remote considering his inability to either outhit or outlast that opponent.  The Spanish veteran twice has felled Berdych on hard courts, surely trusting in his superior versatility and focus.  Unless he strikes a serving streak like his run in Shanghai (eight straight sets without a break), though, Ferrer faces a daunting challenge.

Semifinalists:  Murray, Berdych

Group B:

Nadal:  Rarely resembling his intimidating best after the US Open, the world #2 came within a set of his first title at the most important tournament still absent from his sparkling resume.  Since his sixth straight loss to Djokovic, Nadal has played only one ATP tournament and lost uneventfully there to Florian Mayer.  As the Davis Cup final looms on the horizon, the flagship of the Spanish Armada may aim to conserve his energy as Djokovic did last year before his memorable weekend in Belgrade.  By withdrawing from Paris, a useful preparatory event, Nadal may have signaled his priorities for the end of a bittersweet season fulfilling and frustrating at once.  Outside his encounters with the man who has deposed him, however, Rafa’s competitive instincts have risen to the occasion whenever he faces his principal rivals.  No player has suffered from that trait more than Federer, who once again will face the challenge of overcoming his historic nemesis.  Likely to feast on the ailing Fish, Nadal also has won both of his indoor meetings with Tsonga, so none of his round-robin matches seems beyond his grasp.

Federer:  As the quest for a record sixth title at the year-end championships begins, Federer finds himself in his most scintillating form sine he captured last year’s title.  During a ten-match winning streak, he coupled an emotional victory at his home tournament in Basel with his first career title at the Paris Indoors.  In his last two matches under the Bercy roof, Federer demonstrated that he still can withstand the more muscular force projected by the thunderbolt-hurling Berdych and Tsonga.  When he meets the Frenchman again, the memory of that triumph surely will simmer in both of their minds, providing the Swiss star with a vital mental edge.  Less likely to provide such an advantage is his victory over Nadal in last year’s final, in part the product of the Spaniard’s fatigue following the Murray melodrama.  But Federer should collect a second round-robin win from Fish, so this episode in his rivalry with Rafa likely will prove immaterial.  Dwarfed by the top two this year, he can gain more from this tournament than perhaps anyone else.

Tsonga:  Always eager to enliven proceedings, the Paris runner-up should enjoy the billowing smoke, swirling lights, and other diversions that this tournament offers.  Appearing at the year-end championships for just the second time, Tsonga enjoyed perhaps the most consistent season of his career and has equaled his career-high ranking of #6.  A gulf in determination if not in talent still seems to separate him from the top four on most occasions, and he probably must solve two of them to reach the semifinals.  While he has lost 12 of 17 matches to Nadal and Federer, Tsonga has toppled both of them at majors and will pose a threat at any indoor tournament with an explosive serve complemented by pinpoint volleys.  Not for nothing have five of his seven titles come at tournaments that protect their courts from the elements.  Almost as notably, five of his seven titles (a different group of five) have come during the fall season, when those ranked above him often dwindle in competitive vigor.  Like Berdych, Tsonga remains an enigma who could win or lose any of his matches.

Fish:  Injured recurrently throughout the fall, the American poses little realistic threat.  In theory, his serve and prowess in the forecourt could rush a baseliner like Nadal out of his comfort zone, and Fish in fact did when they met in Cincinnati this summer.  The only first-timer in this year’s octet, he replaces the perennial American entrant Roddick and should focus on enjoying the aura of the exalted surroundings to which his hard-earned accomplishments have raised him.

Semifinalists:  Federer, Nadal

Semifinals:  Murray d. Nadal, Federer d. Berdych

Final:  Federer d. Murray

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

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

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

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

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

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

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

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

 

Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 5

Nadal vs. Murray:  As he seeks to capture his first 2011 title on a surface other than clay, the Tokyo top seed perhaps can empathize with the plight faced by his opponent.  While Nadal has failed all season to solve the challenges posed by Djokovic, Murray has suffered a parallel futility in his four meetings with Nadal, including semifinals at every major except the Australian Open.  Just as the Spaniard has enjoyed fleeting moments of supremacy over the Serb this year, the Scot has won sets from his nemesis on three of four occasions and played three highly competitive sets on the fourth.  Just as Nadal has experimented with nearly everything imaginable in the effort to trouble Djokovic, moreover, Murray has veered from the ultra-aggressive to the ultra-conservative in his attempts to crack the seemingly impenetrable conundrum before him.  Although the world #4 never dominated Nadal as Nadal had dominated Djokovic, he accompanies Djokovic as the only player to defeat Rafa at multiple majors.

Perhaps the most recent turning point in their rivalry, or non-rivalry considering the Spaniard’s 13-4 advantage, came at the World Tour Finals on Murray’s home court in London. Breaking Nadal when he served for the match, the Scot then held a lead in the third-set tiebreak and came within two points of mounting a spectacular comeback in this semifinal classic, by far the best match of the tournament.  But Murray missed first serves late in the tiebreak and lacked clarity in his shot selection, confused as in their other encounters about the appropriate moments to pull the trigger in rallies. Burdened with such uncertainties only against Djokovic, Nadal has mounted in confidence throughout his current five-match winning streak over this rival.  Intimidated by Murray’s two-handed backhand during the first half of 2010, he looked alarmingly comfortable during much of their US Open semifinal in 2011, when he anticipated and retrieved most of his opponent’s offensive gambits with ease while rarely conceding control over a point once he had gained it.  The Scot attained an outstanding level of performance during the third set and early in the fourth, casting aside his fatalism and momentarily disconcerting Nadal with fearless and unpredictable aggression.  Much like the Spaniard’s performance in the third set of the US Open final, though, one hardly could imagine Murray playing a higher level of tennis—and yet he still lost, unable to sustain it throughout the course of an entire match.  This week, he has looked slightly the sharper player of the two rivals after surviving an opening-round threat from Baghdatis.  Demolishing the dangerous Ferrer on Saturday, he rarely looked ruffled as he struck both groundstrokes early and moved inside the baseline in a demonstration of confidence and commitment to offense.

In order to threaten Nadal on this slow hard court, Murray will need not only the first serve that has betrayed him this year against the Spaniard but the forehand that initially dazzled at Wimbledon before crumbling.  Throughout his semifinal, he repeatedly startled Ferrer with crackling forehands down the line, far from the risk-averse forehands that he normally directs cross court.  Seeking his third title in four tournaments, Murray hasn’t lost a match at a non-major since an opening-round defeat to Kevin Anderson at the Rogers Cup.  Perhaps the momentum from this streak has inspired him with the confidence necessary to trample his nemesis, and the goal of reaching #3 by the end of the season should add further motivation.  But Nadal has won every final that he has played this year against opponents other than Djokovic, responsible for more than half of his 2011 losses, while his frustration from those six setbacks may inspire him to redouble his determination when an opportunity beckons to claim a title without facing his nemesis.  In the absence of Djokovic and Federer from the Tour, the Tokyo final likely will foreshadow the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai next week.  After Nadal defends this week, Murray defends that title.  Can each man protect his 2010 conquest from the other?

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Winless in four intersections with the Pole, including two this summer, Petkovic augmented her already growing Internet notoriety with a frantic dash off court to vomit during their San Diego semifinal.  Although she blamed food poisoning, Radwanska’s multifaceted arsenal often proves an adequate source of vertigo itself.  Dominant in a semifinal against a resurgent Pennetta, her returning precision continually subjected her opponent to pressure in service games that eventually bore fruit when the Italian served for the set and the match.  Once content to retrieve and rally in neutral positions, the Tokyo champion has developed more comfort with offensive shots such as a backhand down the line with which she thrust Pennetta out of position.  While Radwanska never will become an elite shot-maker, her willingness to accept more risk more often would complicate the task of her rivals, who formerly could relax in the expectation of an offensive monopoly.  In contrast to the elongated strokes of Petkovic, the Pole’s crisp, compact swings perhaps deny her a little explosiveness but also enable her talent for deception by masking direction and pace until the last moment.

Nevertheless, Petkovic has impressed throughout her route through the Beijing draw, vanquishing a variety of opponents throughout the spectrum from power to finesse.  Heavily favored in her semifinal with Niculescu, she handled that situation with composure despite her lack of experience in these late stages of key tournaments.  With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Petkovic permitted the overmatched Romanian no ray of hope in an effort focused and methodical from start to finish.  As a result of its depleted field, this Premier Mandatory tournament often has seemed neither Premier nor Mandatory in most senses, providing neither premier-level tennis nor must-watch entertainment. But it remains the most important match in the careers of both women to date, causing one to wonder how both will handle the situation.  The more battle-hardened Radwanska would appear to enjoy the advantage in intangibles as she pursues her eleventh straight victory and first pair of consecutive titles.  On the other hand, Petkovic has embraced much more intimidating challenges and overcome much sterner odds several times this year.  The most distinctive personality in a Tour filled with distinctive personalities dominated Sharapova in a Slam night session and halted Wozniacki’s five-tournament winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments.  If she can accomplish those breakthroughs, Petkovic certainly can vault the Pole as well.

Berdych vs. Cilic:  Like Radwanska, the Croat has reached his second final in Bejing after falling one match short of the 2009 title.  Also like Radwanska, Cilic has benefited from a benign draw in which he has not faced a seeded opponent but instead fellow giants Anderson and Ljubicic.  Those victories will have prepared for a third straight serving shootout with the third-seeded Berdych, who has not won a title since seizing Munich over two years ago.  The longest current drought in either top 10, that stretch has featured a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final as well as victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Soderling, but Berdych repeatedly has failed to string together victories or capitalize upon brackets that open for him.  This year, for example, he lost semifinals to Petzschner in Halle and Wawrinka in Chennai—both winnable matches that his superiority in overall talent should have tilted in his favor.  Also among the Czech’s four semifinal disappointments at minor tournaments was a defeat to none other than Cilic in Marseille, the Croat’s first victory over Berdych following two losses in 2009.  Equal to his opponent with five career titles, Cilic hasn’t collected a trophy since Zagreb in February 2010, so this Sunday in Beijing will bring long-awaited relief to one participant while extending the late-tournament frustrations of the other.  Whereas the Croat enjoys a more balanced groundstroke repertoire with a smooth two-hander, the Czech probably can unleash more potent first strikes from his first serve and forehand.  Not uncommon in the fall season, this final between second-tier threats will have few if any broad repercussions for the next season or those ranked above them.  Depleted by injuries and withdrawals, the ATP event in Beijing stands in the shadow of the Tokyo tournament rather than claiming equal status in the crescendo towards Shanghai, which we preview tomorrow.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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