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Having shed these shimmering robes and braced herself for 2012, Ivanovic confronts many a daunting challenge in the dense Brisbane draw.  We glance across it in our first  tournament preview of the season to come.

Top half:  After a triumphant homecoming as the US Open champion, Stosur shoulders the unfamiliar burden of holding the top seed amongst a group that includes Serena and Clijsters.  At the 2011 Australian Open, among other occasions, the Aussie #1 has appeared ruffled by the expectations of her compatriots.  One wonders whether her major breakthrough will allow her to handle those situations with greater composure, for surely expectations will have risen even higher following her victory over Serena in New York.  Destined to face one of two streaky Czech lefties in the second round, Stosur must establish herself early in the tournament so that she can build confidence for the marquee clashes from the quarterfinals onwards.  First among those is a projected meeting with 2010 Brisbane champion Clijsters, who has played sparsely since early April but should shine in the relaxed atmosphere of this city near the sea.  Although rustiness might trouble this champion who relies on rhythm, she returned impressively from a far longer absence when she launched her second career.  Undefeated against both Stosur and Ivanovic, Clijsters will aim to exploit her more balanced game and far superior movement to outlast two players centered around first strikes and forehands.  If she survives a potentially intriguing opener against Paszek, the Serb can seek revenge for a loss to Belgian in Miami when she held five match points.  Nevertheless, the memories of that epic encounter should provide Clijsters with a significant psychological advantage in the sequel.

Much more accommodating than the top quarter is the section that houses Serena, who appears in Brisbane for the first time.  Inactive since the US Open, the 13-time major champion likely simmers with motivation to erase her disappointment there.  More successful at the Australian Open than at any other major, she claims to start the season in full physical health—ominous news for her rivals.  Third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski dazzled at this stage of 2011, reaching the Sydney quarterfinals and winning a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne.  But she mustered little resistance to Serena at the US Open and may struggle to overcome home hope Casey Dellacqua, always more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else.  Highlighting this quarter is the first-round meeting between Slovaks Hantuchova and Cibulkova, separated by eight inches and six years.  While Hantuchova lacks the athleticism to survive baseline rallies with Serena, Cibulkova lacks the wingspan to return many of her serves.  A semifinal against Stosur or Clijsters would elevate the level of competition substantially, though, testing the American’s patience and concentration more than she would prefer at an event of this magnitude.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

Bottom half:  Less imposing than the top half, this section features one of the least imposing Slam champions and least accomplished #1s in the history of the WTA.  Sharing a quarter, Jankovic and Schiavone collaborated on a pair of scintillating three-setters at Roland Garros and Cincinnati last year.  Probably spurred by momentum from that victory, the winner reached the final on both occasions.  After she received a retirement from Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak, she next sets her sights upon a second Kazakh in Voskoboeva.  Meanwhile, the diminutive Spaniard Suarez Navarro unfolds an elegant one-handed backhand that contrasts with the Serb’s more streamlined two-hander.  Neither Schiavone nor Jankovic ended 2011 in especially impressive fashion, so both should welcome the opportunity to collect morale-boosting victories against unremarkable opposition.  Should they meet in the quarterfinals, Jankovic would hold the surface advantage while Schiavone might hold a fitness edge, judging from her heroics in Melbourne a year ago.

A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, Petkovic compiled a consistently solid second half before succumbing to a knee injury.  More rested than many of her colleagues, she reached the final in Brisbane 2011 with a victory over Bartoli.  Opening her week is a first career meeting Peer, who hopes to elevate her ranking from a deceptive #37 to its position inside the top 20 from early last year.  While Petkovic appeared in quarterfinals at every major but Wimbledon, possible quarterfinal foe Pavlyuchenkova gained only a little less acclaim by reaching quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open.  Similar to the German in playing style, the 20-year-old Russian has compiled far more experience than her age would suggest and seems equally ready to move a tier higher in the WTA hierarchy, provided that she can improve her serve.  Although have faced each other only once, just a few months ago in Beijing, Pavlyuchenkova and Petkovic should intersect more and more often if their careers continue on such promising trajectories.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

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Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 2, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Less than two weeks after the US Open finals, the fall season ignites with a Premier Five tournament in Tokyo that features seven of the WTA top 10 although not two of the season’s four Slam champions or Serena Williams.  The top two in the world and the top two seeds, Wozniacki and Sharapova won the last two editions of this event, so they will hope to begin the march towards Istanbul with commanding performances here.

First quarter:  After falling in the US Open semifinal last year, Wozniacki vaulted from that achievement to consecutive titles in Tokyo and Beijing.  Despite the relatively fast surface of the Ariake Colosseum, she eyes a comfortable route to the semifinals, far from the leading power-hitters who could topple her.  Thwarted in her openers at her last two Premier Five tournaments, the Dane can rely upon her familiar steadiness to withstand the erratic Gajdosova or the inexperienced Marino.  While US Open quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta might await in the third round, she has lost all five meetings with Wozniacki and twice on the clay that most favors her strengths against the top seed.  Aligned to face the defending champion in the quarterfinals is the former generation’s Wozniacki, Jankovic, who came within a few points of the Cincinnati title before suffering her sixth straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major.  Runner-up to Sharapova here two years ago, the Serb initially dominated the Dane before losing three times to her this spring in clashes between the WTA’s two premier counterpunchers.  Lurking to intercept Jankovic in the third round, US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber would need to repeat her New York upset over Radwanska.  In her opener, meanwhile, the loathsome Quebec champion Zahlavova Strycova aims to engage Jelena in a contentious catfight.  But the Serb should survive such distractions and the lefty style of Kerber before Wozniacki outlasts her again.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  An undeserving first-week loser in New York, Azarenka will fancy her chances of striking deep into the draw should she maintain the level that she showed during the second set against Serena there.   She has won all six sets that she has played against most probable third-round opponent Peer, although the Israeli has struggled this season following  a 2010 campaign that brought her to the verge of the year-end championships.  Among the intriguing players in this section is Radwanska’s sister Urszula, who qualified for the main draw after reaching the Tashkent semifinals and likewise qualifying for the US Open.  Considered a more offensive player than Aga, the younger Radwanska defeated first-round opponent Zakopalova earlier this year but probably could not threaten Azarenka.  In the lower section of this quarter, two double-fisters brace for collision in Peng and Bartoli, the former of whom has enjoyed a career season and perhaps the latter as well.  Inspired by an upset over Cibulkova in New York, Irina Falconi seeks to build upon a promising summer against home hope Ayumi Morita.  The most compelling first-round encounter in this section, however, pits rapidly rising American teenager Christina McHale against the former prodigy Tamira Paszek.  Known for epic matches against Jankovic and Schiavone at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Paszek rebounded from injuries to reach her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon this summer—defeating McHale resoundingly en route.  A combined 11-2 against Peng and Bartoli, Azarenka will find herself in a winnable quarterfinal no matter the opponent, able to rely upon her symmetrical groundstrokes and superior movement.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  Unaccountably frowning upon Zvonareva, the draw deities once again assigned her a likely quarterfinal meeting with Stosur, who has won their last eight encounters.  Even before that stage, the Russian might find her solid but not electrifying offense tested by Cibulkova, who gradually ground her down physically and emotionally at Indian Wells.  Amplifying her forehand while committing to greater aggression, the Slovak has registered two victories over Wozniacki this year despite disappointing for most of the summer as an abdominal strain hampered her.  Can countrywoman and Guangzhou finalist Magdalena Rybarikova ambush Cibulkova and trouble Zvonareva?  That possibility looks doubtful, which suggests that the 2011 US Open champion should meet the 2010 US Open runner-up once more.  The only serious threat to Stosur before the quarterfinals, Ivanovic plays a style strikingly similar to the Aussie with serve-forehand combinations masking an indifferent backhand.  While they have split their four previous meetings, all in uneventful fashion, one would favor the US Open champion over the former Roland Garros champion because of her recent serving superiority.  On the other hand, first-time Slam champions Li and Kvitova suffered post-breakthrough hangovers that continue to linger.  In the first match since stunning Serena on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stosur cannot afford such a lapse when she faces Kirilenko for the second straight tournament.  Collaborating on a 32-point tiebreak at the US Open, they might produce another scintillating encounter with their crisp net play, refined in doubles.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  From a champion in 2009 to a first-round victim in 2010, Sharapova has mirrored her career’s radical oscillations in her fortunes at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.  Two years ago, her unexpected title charge followed the ignominious 21-double fault loss to Oudin in New York, illustrating her talent for reinvigorating herself immediately after her setbacks.  In 2011, another dismal three-set loss in the third round of the US Open might perform the same function, inspiring Sharapova to visit retribution upon her next sequence of opponents.  As proved the case last year, though, she could face a challenging opening assignment in New Haven finalist Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon before defeating Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li Na consecutively at the Yale tournament.  Sharapova’s conqueror in 2010, Kimiko Date-Krumm, has fallen in the same quarter again but now will target Wimbledon champion Kvitova.  Since blazing 222 winners to capture her first Slam title, the Czech flamed out of the North American hard-court season with just two victories in three tournaments.  Although she should solve the fading Date-Krumm (perhaps not without difficulty), US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova poses a more formidable obstacle in the third round.  These budding rivals have split their four meetings, including two this year, and have reached third sets in all of them.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, therefore, the Russian’s accelerating momentum and their past history incline one to slightly favor an upset.  Sharapova certainly would prefer an upset, for she has won 14 of her last 15 matches against fellow Russians and her only meeting with Pavlyuchenkova, albeit in three sets.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open Tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 3, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.

We return to continue the stories of Tokyo by the quarterfinals or so, perhaps with an excursion to Bangkok beforehand.  (If the title reference whizzed past you like a Sharapova backhand, consider investigating the work of Yasujiro Ozu.)

Samantha Stosur - 2010 French Open - Day Fourteen

Benesova vs. Stosur:  Reinvigorated with a stirring week in Rome, last year’s finalist must recover swiftly from the illness that troubled her there.  Stosur recently defeated Benesova on clay, but the Czech lefty reached the second week at the Australian Open by upsetting a pair of seeded opponents.  Opening the fortnight’s action on Philippe Chatrier, the Aussie may feel some flickers of the pressure that hampered her play at the season’s first major.  While Beneosva almost certainly cannot outplay her for an entire match on this surface, we might gain a window into Stosur’s current confidence as she enters the scene of her most glorious victories and most painful defeat.

Ferrer vs. Nieminen:  Like Stosur, the second-ranked Spaniard suffered from illness in Rome that may have filtered into an unimpressive performance in Nice.  After reaching a Masters 1000 final on clay and another semifinal last season, Ferrer fell meekly to Melzer in the third round at the major where he should prosper the most.  If he has not fully recovered his energy, the aging lefty Nieminen could trouble him as he did a few months ago in Rotterdam.  Nevertheless, Ferrer’s far superior fitness should bolster him in the best-of-five format against his occasional doubles partner, whom he overcame in a Melbourne four-setter.

Hewitt vs. Montanes:  Receding into the mists of tennis history, Hewitt has battled gallantly through multiple surgeries as he attempts to resist the evolution of the game.  The valiant Aussie’s counterpunching tactics no longer can frustrate the ATP elite, and repeated injuries have slowed his once formidable movement.  Against the offensively challenged Montanes, however, he might find one more opportunity to thrill his devoted Aussie fans in a match certain to feature grueling rally after grueling rally.  Armed with the competitive willpower of a champion, Hewitt may ambush a player who relies just as much upon high-percentage point construction and stingy defense.  But the surface edge swings the advantage clearly towards Montanes, who has defeated even Federer on clay.

Jankovic vs. A. Bondarenko:  Fourteen meetings normally suggest a hard-fought rivalry between two players near the peak of the game.  In this case, by contrast, the frequency of this non-rivalry tells nothing about the relative strengths of its components.  Jankovic has won twelve of their thirteen meetings, with eleven of the wins coming in straight sets.  After recording three bagels and four breadsticks against the unfortunate Ukrainian, perhaps she can expand the menu to croissants.

Rybarikova vs. Kuznetsova:  When Kvitova abandoned the Rome tournament to play her local challenger in Prague, she surely expected to cruise to an uneventful title.  Such proved not the case, for Rybarikova squashed the Czech’s dreams of hometown heroics.  A Birmingham champion two years ago, the Slovak possesses the flat strokes and limited movement more suited to grass or the indoor hard-court in Memphis where she won another title this year.  Her Prague ambush might have meant nothing at all in the larger picture, but she now faces a highly vulnerable opponent who has lost four opening-round matches in 2011 and four to players outside the top 50.  On the other hand, Kuznetsova also has defeated three top-10 players this year, in addition to Henin, as she continues to translate unpredictability into Russian.

Peer vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Hailed as a genuine threat when she won Rome in 2010, Martinez Sanchez has proven those proclamations unfounded as she has sunk below the top 75.  Not as dazzling as she was during that championship run, she remains a more compelling adversary than her ranking suggests.  Against a baseliner like Peer who moves better laterally than forwards and prefers longer rallies, the Spaniard’s drop shots and serve-volley tactics could pose complicated questions.  On the brink of the top 10 earlier this year, the Israeli has slumped to the edge of the top 20 as she has struggled to integrate timely aggression into her naturally counterpunching style.  Like Jankovic, she may prefer to return to what she does best and accept her limitations rather than attempting to have her pain au chocolat and eat it too.

Shvedova vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Both reaching the second week of Roland Garros last year, they stood as monuments to either the current dearth of WTA clay specialists (viewed pessimistically) or the ability of two heavy hitters to project their power onto a hostile surface (viewed optimistically).  Both the Russian and the pseudo-Kazakh have suffered from a concerning quantity of injuries that have hampered their attempts to establish momentum.  Absent from the Australian Open, Shvedova may require a few months to regain her shot-making precision, which often placed her atop the WTA power rankings in a measure of sheer velocity.  The highest-ranked teenager in the sport, Pavlyuchenkova must develop a sturdier serve to complement her penetrating groundstrokes before taking the next step forward.  The narrow confines of the outer court where they collide should illuminate their first-strike power by creating more opportunities to strike terminal blows early in the rally.

Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

Caroline Wozniacki - BNP Paribas Open

First quarter:  Tested occasionally but not intensely during her Indian Wells title run, Wozniacki should have the physical reserves and mental focus to launch a deep run at this second Premier Mandatory tournament.  On the other hand, the top seed often has looked invincible for extended stretches before a sudden stumble, such as her losses to Zvonareva at the US Open last fall and in Doha last month.  Although Petkovic can outhit Wozniacki in forehand-to-forehand exchanges, she probably lacks the consistency to score the upset.  Meanwhile, Pennetta never has defeated the world #1 even on the clay surfaces that tilt so markedly in the Italian’s favor.  Unable to seize the elusive double herself last year, Jankovic will have an opportunity to spoil the Dane’s attempt should they meet in the quarterfinals.  Unlikely to encounter much resistance until the fourth round, the Serb may find herself tested there by Indian Wells surprise semifinalist Wickmayer.  A 2010 quarterfinalist in Miami, the Belgian #2 first would need to reprise last week’s comfortable victory over Peer, who soon could become the first Israeli to reach the top 10.  After a stinging early defeat in the desert, Jankovic may arrive additionally motivated to recapture the form that lifted her to the 2008 final here.  During a February loss to Wozniacki, she held three set points in the first set and might have scripted a different outcome had she converted one of them.  Should a quarterfinal between the stylistically similar Dane and Serb unfold, we will discover whether the apprentice has surpassed the sorceress.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Jankovic

Second quarter:  Hovering around the beleaguered top seeds here like vultures around carrion, two-time finalist Sharapova and 2006 champion Kuznetsova aim to break through a relatively weak section.  Oscillating between unremarkable and unsightly during the last several months, fourth-seeded Stosur has rarely resembled the player who dazzled us last spring.  Winless since the Australian Open, seventh-seeded Li Na could not have arranged for an easier draw in the first few rounds but then could collide with Kuznetsova.  Sparring with the Russian in Sydney this year, the world #6 narrowly survived a three-setter that proved her most severe challenge en route to that title.  Situated amidst several seismic servers, Sharapova must protect her own service games more effectively than she did while marching to the semifinals at Indian Wells.  Nevertheless, she has achieved almost immaculate mastery over Stosur and Petrova, the two highest-ranked players whom she could face before the quarterfinals.  Posing a perhaps more stubborn obstacle is Czech lefty Safarova, a mercurial player who should discomfit Stosur in the third round and has won her only meeting with Maria.  Elsewhere, a pair of youthful prodigies, Lisicki and Halep, seek to state (or restate) their relevance with creditable efforts against seeded players.  Nor should one neglect the presence of Peng, who seemingly has upset at least one notable player in each tournament that she has played this season.  The Chinese star might derail Kuznetsova for the second time in three months should they meet in the third round.  Unless someone in this section unexpectedly catches fire, though, one suspects that Sharapova will not allow anyone to block her probable ascent to the top 10.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Third quarter:  After a three-hour duel with Cibulkova turned against her in Indian Wells, Zvonareva may bring little positive energy to a tournament where she has reached the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances.  And the Russian may not thrill to the task of confronting compatriot Safina in her opener, although she dispatched Dinara last fall in a tight two-setter.  Progressing beyond that meeting, however, the road could become much smoother for the world #3.  Vera has dominated her two most likely opponents in the fourth round and the quarterfinals, compiling an 8-2 record against Bartoli and winning all ten of her meetings with fifth-seeded Schiavone.  While Bartoli did capture her last clash with the Russian last fall, the 2010 Miami semifinalist may enter this tournament a bit enervated by her exploits of the preceding fortnight.  Perhaps the most powerful ball-striker in the section, Kleybanova defeated Zvonareva last month but remains disappointingly inconsistent from one tournament to the next.  Thus, one should not project too boldly from an encouraging week at Indian Wells during which she conquered longtime nemesis Pennetta and snatched a set from Wozniacki.  Likely to meet Kirilenko for the second straight tournament, Radwanska must quickly dispel the memories of her four squandered match points against Azarenka in the desert.  The Pole may have the opportunity to pit her wits against the equally crafty Schiavone in an idiosyncratic fourth-round encounter.  Can this sorceress extend her dominance over her apprentice more effectively than Jankovic did over Wozniacki?

Quarterfinal:  Radwanska vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Sore in more ways than one after Indian Wells, Clijsters sounded defensive and sour when she retrospectively denigrated the event from which she retired.  Less distant from home, the defending champion has sounded tentative about her condition over the last few days, claiming that she will withdraw at the moment that she experiences the first twinge in her shoulder.  Consequently, the players uncomfortably situated in her vicinity may progress further into the draw than they had expected.  Poised to profit from the Belgian’s frailties is potential fourth-round opponent Ivanovic, perhaps destined to face Date-Krumm for the second straight tournament.  The muscular but recently dormant Kanepi could threaten the Serb, who has not reached the quarterfinals in Miami since her first appearance there in 2005.  Personifying the WTA’s unpredictability, the streaking star Kvitova has won two titles in 2011 and lost two opening matches.  The bane of a bookie’s existence, she will seek to repeat her Wimbledon triumph over Azarenka in a fourth-round collision of brash, fist-pumping blondes.  Yet Pavlyuchenkova could intercept Kvitova if the Monterrey champion can recover psychologically from squandering multiple leads against Peer in Indian Wells.  A champion at this event in 2009, Azarenka has honed a more refined game and accumulated much more experience than either the Russian or the Czech.  Nevertheless, a hamstring strain at Indian Wells raises concern for her ever-fragile health, while her lackluster results this year inspire scant confidence even if the injury does not trouble her.  Sagging dismally against Clijsters in Miami a year ago, Azarenka will face a daunting mental challenge if the Belgian bars her path again.  Question marks cluster around this section, however, bookended by competitors in uncertain condition.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka vs. Clijsters, if healthy; otherwise vs. Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

We return tomorrow to forecast the men’s draw.  Federer and Nadal in the same half?  Djokovic and Murray in the same quarter?  Brace yourselves for suspense!

Transmission reference: CADC102

Serbs:

Ivanovic vs. Bartoli:  Skipping to the net after a comprehensive victory over compatriot, rival, and defending champion Jankovic, Serbia’s merry maiden exuded delight with her most impressive performance of the season so far.  Now, Ivanovic must prevent her charmingly giddy mood from spilling into a winnable match against not Clijsters, her anticipated opponent, but Bartoli.  If she can preserve the focus that she displayed in her first three matches, the Serb should earn the opportunity to take control of this encounter.  Once dominant against the double-fisted Frenchwoman, Ivanovic suffered a pair of defeats against her last season before rebounding to vanquish her en route to the Beijing quarterfinals.  In a match between two players with exceptional returns, the ability to find first serves at pivotal moments will prove essential.  While Bartoli built a victory over Petkovic upon timely serving, Ana relied upon her delivery to deny several break points and propel her through multiple deuce games against Jankovic.

Perhaps a little fortunate to receive a retirement from Clijsters, Bartoli will hope to stretch Ivanovic out of position with her symmetrical groundstrokes.  The similarly flat, low, and heavy groundstrokes of Kleybanova baffled Wozniacki for a set on the same court, so the Frenchwoman could enjoy parallel success if she takes control of the points from the outset.  By contrast, Ivanovic will aim to establish early dominance over their exchanges with a mighty first blow of her own, from either the serve or the return.  Since neither player fancies elongated, grinding rallies, we should witness a sequence of relatively short, sharp exchanges that the Frenchwoman and the Serb will seek to terminate in the forecourt.  Will Ana rest content in the euphoria of Tuesday’s triumph, or will she soar from that success to another win on Wednesday?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  The second all-Serbian match in the last two days, this confrontation may test the apparent invincibility of the Australian Open champion.  Racing through a 16-match winning streak, Djokovic has lost only three sets this season—as many as he lost to Troicki in their four meetings last year.  Since the elder Serb won their first collision in 2007, his younger compatriot has reeled off seven consecutive victories but twice had to escape from predicaments against him last year.  Most notably, Troicki led the eventual US Open runner-up by two sets to one in New York before succumbing.  Denied a chance to atone for that disappointment when he retired against Djokovic in Melbourne, the world #18 will hope to capitalize upon his renewed self-belief after winning his first career title and the deciding Davis Cup rubber last fall.  On the other hand, he surpasses his compatriot in no area of the game when the world #3 produces his best tennis. Almost entirely bulletproof thus far, Djokovic may benefit from the incline in competition as the crucial rounds approach.

Serves:

Querrey vs. Robredo:  Dispatching the two highest-ranked players in their eighth of the draw, two Americans have found their paths barred by the evergreen Robredo.  Will Querrey founder on the shoals of the Spaniard’s unassuming game just as did Donald Young?  Unbroken on serve in victories over Tipsarevic and Verdasco, he possesses a far more formidable weapon in that tournament than his compatriot.  Robredo has struggled against the powerful serve of Roddick, unable to expose that American’s relative one-dimensionality.  Against Querrey, his principal advantage lies in his experience and his often more intelligent shot selection.  But he may not have the opportunity to construct rallies as carefully as he would prefer.

Roddick vs. Gasquet:  While Roddick may have won three of their four meetings, the clash that most fans remember tilted in the direction of the Frenchman.  Trailing the former US Open champion by two sets and a break in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Gasquet suddenly sprang to life to erase the arrears with his magical shot-making.  Almost before Roddick could catch his breath, it appeared, the last of the Frenchman’s exquisite backhands whistled past him to terminate his campaign at the All England Club.  In a far more prosaic encounter, however, lies the key to how this match might unfold.  After a scintillating first set accelerated into a tiebreak, Roddick’s superior serve collected crucial points as a deflated Gasquet faded anticlimactically.

And more:

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  Following the departure of most notable names from his section, the Argentine can become a surprise semifinalist if he overcomes a German who continued his dominance over Soderling in the previous round.  Increasingly more impressive in a three-set victory over Ljubicic, Del Potro then dismissed Dolgopolov with surprising ease.  He has not faced Kohlschreiber on a hard court since 2007, well before his breakthrough, and he must beware of targeting the German’s volatile backhand in cross-court exchanges.  A recurrent dark horse but rarely a champion, the world #35 generally scores no more than one upset per tournament.  Despite the disparity between their current rankings, a win over the 2009 US Open champion probably would rank in the upset category.

Berdych vs. Wawrinka:  Once again situated in Federer’s vicinity, the second Swiss aims to extend his two-match winning streak against the seventh seed, whom he routed in January at Chennai.  While Berdych has looked imperious against a pair of overmatched opponents, Wawrinka has labored harder to earn his victories.  Narrowly escaping Davydenko after the Russian served for the match in the second set, he later erased a first-set deficit against Cilic.  No longer content to idle in Federer’s shadow, the Swiss #2 has grown more willing to take the initiative in baseline exchanges rather than trudging through wars of attrition.  Just before his Miami breakthrough last year, Berdych reached the quarterfinal in the desert and valiantly tested Nadal through a pair of tight sets.  As he prepares to defend copious amounts of points through the spring and summer, a strong result at a major event like Indian Wells would buttress his confidence.

Peer vs. Wickmayer:  A round after clawing herself past Pavlyuchenkova 7-5 in the third set, the gritty Israeli once again found herself in a marathon encounter.  Extending her uncanny hard-court dominance over Schiavone, Peer battled past the Italian in a third-set tiebreak with a dogged resilience to which her victim herself would have doffed her cap.   Yet one wonders how much energy will she bring to this quarterfinal against an opponent who can outhit her from the baseline and out-serve her from the notch.  Across the net, Wickmayer squandered a 5-1 lead in the first set against Cibulkova and proceeded through the second set less efficiently than she could have.  On the other hand, the Belgian won the two games at the end of each set and, like Peer, refused to let the points that mattered most slip away from her.  Armed with combative mentalities, neither the Israeli nor the Belgian should concede an inch with so much at stake:  a berth in a Premier Mandatory semifinal, which does not often drift in their direction.

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

Ivanovic vs. Jankovic:  Seeking her second straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, Ana eyes a tenth confrontation with her compatriot and fellow Indian Wells champion.  The Serbian stars share parallel career trajectories, having emerged almost simultaneously, crested during the same season, and receded swiftly from the circle of contenders within months of completing their meteoric rise.  While Ana rose to a higher pinnacle of accomplishments, she tumbled much more precipitously thereafter.  Victorious in six of her first seven meetings with Jankovic, Ivanovic has lost their last two encounters during a slump from which she finally emerged in the second half of 2010 with a pair of titles.  Outside their memorable meeting in a Roland Garros semifinal three years ago, both Serbs have struggled to showcase their finest tennis when they meet, perhaps because they hold so few secrets from each other.  Last year in Madrid, they contested an unsightly, break-strewn match that illustrated their uneasiness in these internecine skirmishes.

After an injury-blighted start to her 2011 campaign, Ivanovic may have restored a measure of confidence with two crisp victories in the desert where she lifted the trophy in 2008 and reached the final a year later.  Escaping from a swoon of her own that extended from last Wimbledon through the Australian Open, Jankovic has crept back into contention (or at least its environs) with three successive tournaments in which she has reached the semifinals or better.  She thus will enter this encounter with greater momentum than her compatriot, a potentially decisive factor.  On the other hand, Ana defeated her compatriot at this tournament three years ago, when both Serbs ranked in the top five.  Although Ivanovic’s best surpasses Jankovic’s best, one expects to see a level less than the best from both players on Monday.

Bartoli vs. Clijsters:  Sweeping all three of her encounters with the Frenchwoman, the four-time Slam champion ignited her second career by dispatching Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Somewhat greater drama developed when they met in New York a few weeks later, as the eventual US Open titlist rallied from a one-set deficit in emphatic fashion.  In theory, Clijsters should cruise smoothly into the quarterfinals of an event that she has won more often than any player remaining in the draw.  Compared to her double-fisted foe, the Belgian moves more smoothly, penetrates the court more consistently with her groundstrokes, and serves more effectively.  But warning bells rang when Kim conceded 13 double faults during her three-set win over Errani, suffering from shoulder pain that she revealed afterwards.  Since Clijsters noted that her discomfort increases when she reaches for high forehands, Bartoli should consider interweaving some high-bouncing groundstrokes with her trademark flat lasers.  Although one struggles to imagine her winning two sets from a healthy Clijsters on a slow hard court, the Frenchwoman reached the Doha semifinal and extended that momentum to a commanding victory over Petkovic here.

Wozniacki vs. Kleybanova:  Author of a sensational upset on this court a year ago, the Russian seeks to rekindle the magic of that victory over Clijsters.  While she won just nine games in the four previous sets that she has contested with Wozniacki, they have met only on clay and grass rather than on the surface that best suits both of their games.  Curiously, both players claimed their first career victories over opponents who previously had dominated them, Martinez Sanchez and Pennetta; Kleybanova’s victory looked especially impressive considering her crushing defeat to the Italian last month.  In the daytime conditions, Wozniacki’s high-percentage style should trump the Russian’s net-brushing groundstrokes, which rely upon more precise timing.  Unless Kleybanova can seize command of points with her imposing first serve, the Dane’s counterpunching should gradually wear down her challenger on this especially slow surface.   Instead of waging war from the baseline, Alisa should consider closing points with her notable net skills, but the penetrating groundstrokes of Wozniacki probably will keep her pinned behind the baseline.  Watching the Dane, one learns that depth can become as effective a weapon as angle construction.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Safina vs. Sharapova:  On the bright side, the two-time Roland Garros finalist scored her first victory over a top-10 opponent since her back injury, a moment that will have revitalized her confidence barely a month after she contemplated retirement.  On the less bright side, she donated 16 double faults during that match and profited immensely from Stosur’s abject incompetence on even the most routine groundstrokes.  Although her head-to-head with Sharapova stands level at three wins apiece, they have not met on a hard court since Maria’s two comprehensive triumphs in 2005-06.  One can glean little from such distant history, especially because their two most memorable encounters unfolded at Roland Garros, where Safina erased imposing deficits on both occasions to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Surely eager to fasten her own jaws around her compatriot, Sharapova must beware of sinking to the level of her opponent if Dinara struggles again with her serve.  A spasmodic, unpredictable rhythm across the net could spell trouble for the 2006 champion, who has struggled with her own timing since returning from shoulder surgery.  Bedeviled for much of two sets by Medina Garrigues in her opener, Sharapova slipped gratefully into her preferred brand of tennis against Rezai.  More imposing than Safina are the memories of those earlier losses to her, so Maria may find the mental challenge more daunting than any physical test that she confronts on Monday.

Schiavone vs. Peer:  Maneuvered to the edge of the precipice by a relentless Pavlyuchenkova, the Israeli saved multiple match points deep in the third set and later erased break points that would have forced a decisive tiebreak.  This narrative diverged from a few of Peer’s matches early this year, in which she squandered opportunities to deliver the coup de grace before finding herself on the wrong side of a stirring comeback.  Once again dominant in the Middle East, she scored victories over Wickmayer and Kuznetsova that presaged her performance in the California desert, where she reached the quarterfinals in 2007.  Although Peer has not faced Schiavone since the latter’s Roland Garros heroics, she won all three of their hard-court meetings and three of their four tiebreaks.  The fifth seed has looked sharper than expected at a tournament where she never has reached the elite eight, comfortably dismissing a revitalized Cornet.  In this clash between resilient competitors, one expects epic rallies, multiple breaks, and plenty of feisty emotion from both sides of the net.  If Peer can pin Schiavone behind the baseline, she could continue her success against the Italian by neutralizing the latter’s multifaceted forecourt weapons.  Nevertheless, she lacks the offensive artillery to take time away from the Roland Garros champion as she devises her clever combinations.

Wickmayer vs. Cibulkova:  Watching them battle at Stanford last year, we noticed that the nine inches separating them in height paralleled the gulf between their relative ball-striking ability.  With the arguable exception of Cibulkova’s inside-out forehand, the Belgian hammered every shot more vigorously than her diminutive opponent.  Despite the mismatch on that afternoon, the Slovak has won her other two clashes with Wickmayer while feeding her a pair of bagels.  Both women scored impressive upsets in the previous round, of which Cibulkova’s epic win over Zvonareva (justly) garnered more acclaim because of her opponent’s pedigree.  From Wickmayer’s perspective, though, the triumph over US Open nemesis Kanepi may have provided just as substantial an emotional boost.  Dominating the Estonian through the first set and a half in New York, Yanina let the match slip away after a disappointing second-set tiebreak; the collapse poisoned the rest of her 2010 campaign.  This time, Wickmayer rallied from a one-set deficit and watched Kanepi unravel with grim satisfaction.  A quarterfinalist in Miami last year, the Belgian could equal or even surpass that feat here if she can quell the charging Cibulkova, who has maximized her potential under the guidance of Zeljko Krajan.  Who can build upon Sunday’s achievements?

Petrova vs. Peng:  Previously felled by Petrova at her home tournament in Beijing, the Chinese star has enjoyed the brightest season of her career thus far with wins over Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Li, and nearly Radwanska.  After that succession of triumphs, she should approach her former conqueror with ample self-belief.  Erratic early in her clash with American wildcard Christina McHale, Petrova grimaced, carved the air with her racket, and barked at herself even when the tide turned early in the second set.  Such negative body language jarred with her generally crisp performance when she put her racket to its more familiar function, connecting with some startling winners off both groundstrokes against an opponent who played well above her usual level.  Tested but ultimately unscathed in each of her first two matches, Petrova faces an opponent who survived a pair of three-setters herself and also has rallied from a one-set deficit here.  Whereas the Russian clearly holds the edge in power, the Chinese star holds the emotional advantage and rarely signals discomfiture to her opponent.  In order for that dimension to become relevant, however, the match must stay somewhat close.  Otherwise, Petrova will feel little of the pressure that has undermined her potential throughout her career.

Victoria Azarenka - BNP Paribas Open

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  On the distant battlefield of Court 7, this match between two top-10 talents should surpass its humble setting.  Dominating their head-to-head record after losing their first meeting in 2006, Azarenka holds the keys to victory but often has let them dangle too loosely from her finger in similar situations before.  Despite their high first-serve percentages, neither player wins many free points with her delivery, so one envisions repeated breaks and a series of extended service games.   Faced with a stern test of her fragile patience, Azarenka must maneuver herself into position to unleash the winning blow rather than pulling the trigger with her trademark impetuosity.  On her side of the net, Radwanska will seek to feed the Belarussian a variety of paces, spins, and perhaps heights; in the past, Vika has struggled with slow, high-bouncing groundstrokes.  While the eighth seed clearly has the mightier weapons and greater potential to win majors, the ninth seed has established herself as one of the WTA’s most consistent competitors.  Currently mired in the longest title drought among top-10 players, the Pole must find a way to more regularly solve fallible firecrackers like Azarenka in order to contend for the elite tournaments.  These ultra-slow hard courts offer the best possible surface (other than clay) for the 2010 semifinalist to crack the code.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Caroline Wozniacki - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Four

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Seeking her 13th consecutive victory at a Premier Five tournament, the top seed hopes to avenge her defeat to the Israeli at this Persian Gulf event in 2010.  Spurred to unexpected feats by the controversy swirling around her, Peer swept to the semifinals a year ago with victories over three top-20 players.  That burst of resolute defiance ignited her resurgence last season, during which she reached a career-high ranking and two Premier Mandatory semifinals.  On the latter of those two occasions, though, Peer fell to Wozniacki a round after the Dane had claimed the #1 ranking for the first time.  Unlikely to supply an obliging doormat for a second coronation, the Israeli competed courageously throughout the first set of a Beijing encounter riddled with service breaks.  As set point after set point slid past, Wozniacki grew increasingly frustrated against an opponent whose focus matched her own.  But, once a few rash groundstrokes decided the first set, the Israeli faded sharply.

Although Peer has forced herself to hit through her groundstrokes with greater conviction, she still lacks the baseline firepower to puncture her opponent’s Viking-worthy shield.  Nearly forced to a third set by Chakvetadze in her opener, Wozniacki pulverized Kvitova’s nemesis Morita a round later and should adapt to the medium-speed surface as smoothly as Peer.  The Dane comfortably shouldered the pressure of gaining the #1 ranking for the first time last fall, so nerves should not derail her from slipping back into shoes that have fitted her better than some had expected.

Stosur vs. Jankovic:  Soon to turn 26, Jankovic appeared a spent force throughout the second half of 2010, when she defeated no seeded opponents and mustered only a single pair of consecutive victories.  While 2011 began only slightly more auspiciously, the Serb should have accumulated confidence from a victory over recurrent hard-court nemesis Kanepi, who conquered her here a year ago.  Despite donating a disastrous first set, the sixth seed persevered and gradually settled into a rhythm rather than descending into petulance.  One suspected that she might crumble when she lost consecutive multiple-deuce games deep in the third set that featured multiple break points and game points.  To the contrary, Jankovic collected herself immediately to reel off the next four games, triggering memories of her prime when no deficit daunted her.

Justifiably weary from an Indian Wells title run, the Serb succumbed to Stosur in Miami during a match blighted by wind and questionable line calls (the latter a frequent feature in JJ extravaganzas).  Far less excusable was Jankovic’s listless performance against the Australian at Roland Garros, when she collected just three games on the surface most suitable to her style.  Early in 2011, the 2010 French Open finalist has displayed only slightly sharper form than the three-time French Open semifinalist.  On the other hand, she has progressed more smoothly this week and should hold serve much more easily than Jankovic, constantly under pressure from the Estonian on Thursday.  Curbing her defensive instincts, the Serb should hope to keep Stosur off balance by hitting behind her in rallies, a tactic that confounded the equally slow-footed Kanepi.  The Australian possesses both the strongest groundstroke of either player (her lethal forehand) and the weakest groundstroke of either player (her backhand); which shot will play a greater role?

Radwanska vs. Kuznetsova:  Perhaps buoyed by her Fed Cup heroics, Kuznetsova washed away the stains of her gallant, demoralizing loss to Schiavone at the Australian Open by conquering the Italian in another suspenseful third set.  Yet another Dubai quarterfinalist who aims to rebound from a disappointing slump, the Russian signaled her renewed intent with a Melbourne victory over Henin in which she overcame her nerves as much as the Belgian.  Outside the majors, Sveta has won five of her six meetings with Radwanska but has battled through third sets in five of her eight overall victories over the Pole.  These encounters often follow a script familiar to the famously flighty Russian, who has looked poised to proceed without ado after a capable first set before drifting out of focus in the second set and then resuming control in the decider.

Watching the Pole’s exertions at the Australian Open, spectators soon forgot about her foot injury and marveled again at her breathtaking array of spins, slices, and cunning angles.  Eager to extend the impetus from that implausible quarterfinal run, Radwanska dispatched a pair of divergent opponents in the first two rounds.  Neither the pacelessness of Sevastova nor the double-fisted probes of Bartoli unsettled a player who specializes in unsettling her rivals.  In order to fluster Kuznetsova, she must avoid a ball-bruising battle from the baseline while maintaining a high first-serve percentage.  Across the net, the two-time major champion should aim to step inside the baseline in order to take time away from the Pole, whose scintillating mind operates less clearly when rushed.  Like Stosur in the match above, Kuznetsova probably will dictate her destiny for better or for worse.

Pennetta vs. Kleybanova:  Facing scant resistance from world #3 Zvonareva, the underestimated Kleybanova spearheads the next generation of Russian stars together with Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the first round after trailing by a set and 4-2.  Unusual among her compatriots, the 21-year-old complements her characteristically Russian groundstroke might and shot-making prowess with a serve not only imposing but generally reliable.  From her doubles experience emerge an imaginative court sense in addition to forecourt skills that somehow translate graceless technique into sparkling results.  None of these advantages have aided Kleybanova against the Italian veteran, however, who won all three of their 2010 hard-court meetings in straight sets.

Extended deep into the final set against the volatile Azarenka, the equally volatile Pennetta quelled Dokic’s first-round challenge with impressive ease considering the Australian’s Paris accomplishments.  At both Sydney and the Australian Open, her tendency to veer between emotional peaks and valleys emerged.  Following a nervy, break-strewn, yet still notable victory over Zvonareva in the second round of the former event, she stumbled haplessly through a one-sided loss to Bojana Jovanovski in the quarterfinals.  Two days after a majestic rally from the brink of defeat against Peer, her Melbourne campaign ended on an angst-ridden afternoon when she squandered a one-set lead and multiple second-set opportunities against Kvitova.  One never quite knows which Pennetta will appear on any given day, but the Italian’s better self seems in the ascendancy lately with two victories over a formidable Australian squad in Fed Cup.  Can she translate her momentum from her patriotic exploits to individual competition?

 

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2