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As the first week concludes, several of the top seeds confront intriguing obstacles that range from two Czech lefties to a feisty Aussie and an elephantine American.

Safarova vs. Zvonareva:  Despite a dazzling start to 2011 in Hong Kong, the world #2 did not justify her elevated position in Sydney and her second-round victory in Melbourne.  Barely extricating herself from an early predicament against Jovanovski, Zvonareva looked tentative during rallies and erratic on her serve, which had donated 11 double faults to Pennetta a week before.  Like Stosur, she now faces a quirky Czech lefty with the ability to oscillate between Jekyll and Hyde more than once during a single match. When the sets (and players) grow tight, Zvonareva must remember to carpe the diem with penetrating groundstrokes rather than allowing Safarova to step inside the baseline.  If the Russian can keep the Czech off balance, though, the world #2’s distinctly superior footwork will reap rewards against a less technically precise opponent. 

Stosur vs. Kvitova:  Defusing the sporadically dangerous Dushevina in the second round, the fifth seed has lost just seven games during her first two matches.  Much more convincing in Melbourne than in her preliminary tournaments, Stosur now braces her serve and her nerves for a battle with the inflammable Kvitova that should test her lateral movement.  The Brisbane champion should alternate between hammering her forehand down the line and curling it cross-court to expose the Australian’s indifferent backhand, although the medium-speed surface will allow the world #6 to run around her weaker wing relatively often.  As explosive as the Czech lefty’s game are her emotions, which contrast with Stosur’s unruffled demeanor.  The home hope might chip away at Kvitova’s brittle façade if she can hold serve comfortably and unsettle her foe with confident returns.  Across the net, the former Wimbledon semifinalist must keep Stosur pinned behind the baseline rather than permitting her to exercise her scintillating forecourt skills.

Nadal vs. Tomic:  Showing a precocious maturity, the highly anticipated teenager outlasted the far more experienced Lopez in two tiebreaks a round ago.  The second straight Spanish lefty to confront Tomic, Nadal has surrendered just four games in the five sets through which he has cruised here, threatened more by focus lapses than by his lackluster victims.  Despite his lanky stature, the Aussie projects less power behind his serve than one would expect, so Rafa can construct rallies at his leisure without fearing a terminal first strike from his opponent.  While the home crowd on Rod Laver Arena will champion their future star vociferously, Tomic should approach this match as a valuable learning experience upon which he can build, measuring himself against the gold standard of the game.

Pennetta vs. Peer:  For the second straight major, the balanced styles of the Israeli and the Italian collide in an encounter that should feature more elongated rallies than the ball-bruising clashes sketched above.  Since neither Pennetta nor Peer possesses thunderous serves or the raw power to hit her opponent off the court, they must construct points with their symmetrical groundstrokes and meticulous movement.  The routine scoreline that unfolded in their US Open encounter cloaked the intrigue that heightened through several deuce games late in the first set, even more excruciating because both lacked the means to swiftly terminate the suspense.  While Jovanovski abruptly halted Pennetta’s momentum in the second round of Sydney, Safarova ambushed Peer in an epic Brisbane encounter during which this second Czech lefty saved a match point.  Who will banish those recent disappointments by extending their week into a fortnight?

Melzer vs. Baghdatis:  Among the key breakthrough performers of 2010, the veteran lefty defied the inexorable march of time to record victories over Djokovic and Nadal.  Those startling upsets elevated him within sight of a coveted penthouse in the top 10, which he could reach with a creditable result at the season’s first major.  Mustering his Melbourne magic to halt Del Potro’s comeback bid in four sets, Baghdatis has notched his most memorable successes on a high-bouncing surface seemingly hostile to his low, lasered groundstrokes.  Firmly lodged in his corner, however, are legions of full-throated Cypriots, whose exhortations to their compatriot may unnerve the easily flustered Melzer just as they once rattled Soderling.  But the contrast between the baseline-moored Baghdatis  and the net-rushing Austrian should provide an entertaining counterpoint pitting the conventional modern style against its ebbing predecessor.

Halep vs. Radwanska:  Upsetting the potent Kleybanova in the second round, the rising Romanian perhaps has begun to outshine her off-court notoriety with her on-court accomplishments.  A contrasting challenge awaits against Radwanska, whose distinctively nuanced style has unhinged so many of the WTA’s monochromatic baseliners.  Narrowly eluding Date in a suspenseful opener, the Pole brushed off the rust that had gathered on her game during an injury-enforced period of inactivity.  With no massive ball-strikers in her section, Radwanska has become an improbable favorite to reach her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second in Melbourne.

Dolgopolov vs. Tsonga:  Already scarred by a five-setter in the first round, the world #13 hopes to avoid a reprise of his Wimbledon meeting with the Ukrainian if he seeks to surge deep into the draw.  At the All England Club, Dolgopolov fearlessly rallied from a two-set deficit against Tsonga before prolonging the fifth set well into tennis overtime.  Battling not only his opponents but a draining health condition, this reckless ball-striker rarely sees a forehand that he doesn’t seek to obliterate.  Only slightly more subtle, the Frenchman allowed untimely errors to infuse a routine match against Seppi with unnecessary suspense.  If his focus waxes and wanes again, he might not escape Dolgopolov in straight sets and conserve crucial energy for later rounds. 

Isner vs. Cilic:  Two players with a handful of notable first-half accomplishments hope to erase an unimpressive second half with a victory that would impressive for either of them.  Undeterred by a one-set deficit against Stepanek, the towering American displayed not only his serving talent but patient optimism as he comfortably collected the next three sets.  Since Cilic can (almost) equal him from the service notch, breaks of serve in this match will resemble oases in a desert of nondescript holds and truncated exchanges.  Although both players possess mighty forehands, questionable technique undermines the consistency of those weapons.  A semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Croat wallowed through a disappointing season thereafter but stirred occasional memories of his former self during a victory over the dangerous Giraldo.  Seemingly a calm, understated personality, Cilic will find his confidence tested by the stern challenge of breaking Isner’s serve.  The enormity of that task in turn will place pressure upon his own serve, especially if tiebreaks play a role, and further pressure flows from the rankings plunge that the Croat will suffer if he falls early here.  Will the American’s greater positivity overcome Cilic’s superior overall talent?

Petrova vs. Makarova:  Not content with an epic first-round victory over Ivanovic, the Russian lefty advanced less eventfully to the third round and now eyes a recently formidable but historically fallible compatriot.  After dropping their first two meetings in 2008, Makarova comfortably upset Petrova once in each of the past two seasons, conceding just three games in the last three sets that they have played.   These two volatile Russians share a tendency of erupting for remarkable triumphs while struggling to maintain their momentum throughout an entire week or fortnight.  Unlike the baseline juggernauts who largely populate the WTA, both Petrova and Makarova capitalize upon opportunities to approach the net even when a complicated volley awaits them.  Perhaps a product of their inconsistent technique, their rush to finish points inflates their winners and unforced error totals while preventing opponents from settling into a rhythm.  If Makarova can craft the clever angles with which she wearied Ivanovic, her fellow Russian might seethe with ill-concealed frustration.

***

As always, we welcome your suggestions for matches to preview, already having answered two of your requests.  During the second week, however, we generally share our thoughts on the vast majority of the contests that develop.

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In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


 

Storming past Sharapova, Wickmayer, and two other seeded opponents, the unheralded Hungarian Greta Arn etched her name upon the Auckland trophy during the first week of the WTA season.  Although one can discard her improbable title run  as evidence of the Tour’s current chaos (glass half-empty), one also can celebrate her achievement as a testimony to the Tour’s parity (glass half-full).  We favor the latter interpretation and doff our hat to the world #88, who displayed poise under pressure as she closed in upon the second title of a 14-year odyssey through outer courts and qualifying draws.  In Brisbane, meanwhile, another unseeded champion emerged in 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Petra Kvitova.  The Czech lefty battled past Petrova and Pavlyuchenkova en route to a reassuring statement of intent after a tepid second half raised concerns about her durability as a prominent threat.  Also impressive in the Queensland capital was German runner-up Petkovic, who progressed smoothly past Bartoli and the surging Groth.  While Stosur, Sharapova, Wickmayer, Peer, and other top seeds floundered, therefore, a trio of unseeded players bravely seized the spotlight with opportunistic tennis.

Will this trend continue in Sydney?  With seven of the WTA top ten participating in the most prestigious Australian non-major, the underdogs must battle even more vigorously to leave an impact.

Top half:

Pulverized by Zvonareva in a Hong Kong exhibition, Wozniacki would benefit immensely from a confidence boost before her first Slam as the world #1.  Her opening match pits her against Kirilenko or Cibulkova, both of whom she defeated convincingly on hard courts last season.  Since neither of those opponents can outduel her from the baseline, the Dane should advance to an equally winnable quarterfinal against Schiavone.  Nursing an injured thigh at the Hopman Cup, however, the Roland Garros champion might succumb to Kleybanova in her opener.  Yet the mighty Russian fell in her Brisbane opener to Sally Peers, suggesting that she has not carried her momentum from last fall to the new season.  The most entertaining match in this quarter might occur between the enigmatic Martinez Sanchez and the stylish Hantuchova, juxtaposing the Spaniard’s arrhythmic assault upon the forecourt assault with the Slovak’s rhythmic baseline style.

Unflustered in her first-round victory over Dulgheru, 2007 champion Clijsters eyes an intriguing encore with 2010 Australian Open nemesis Petrova.  Handing the Belgian the most devastating loss of her career on that occasion, Nadia lost her first Brisbane match in straight sets to eventual champion Kvitova but opens against a qualifier here.  Among the most intriguing questions of 2011 concerns whether Azarenka can rebound from a generally deflating 2010 to regain the promise of 2009; her path also opens against a qualifier before colliding with the tenacious Peer.  Struggling to hold serve throughout a Brisbane loss to Safarova, the Israeli star unleashed an eye-opening campaign last season.  She has not relished her two previous meetings with Vika, who generally has basked under the Australian sun.  In a potential quarterfinal with the Clijsters, Azarenka will aim to reverse a three-match hard-court losing streak against Belgian that has featured a bagel and two breadsticks.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Wozniacki

Bottom half:

Leaping out from the draw is a first-round clash between Auckland finalist Wickmayer and home hope Stosur, who collaborated on a hard-fought clash at Stanford last year.  The Belgian #3 wobbled rather than rolled through last week, navigating around three three-setters and a recalcitrant serve.  On the other hand, the Aussie did not impress during a sporadically shaky victory over a qualifier and a routine loss to Groth.  Elsewhere in this section lurks 2010 Australian Open semifinalist Li Na, who defeated Venus last week in Hong Kong; currently free of injuries, she could ambush any of the equally streaky opponents in her section.  Unseeded after a protracted slump, Kuznetsova hopes to follow in the footsteps of Arn and Kvitova after an imposing victory over Dokic in her opener.  Suffering a listless loss to Peng in Auckland, the two-time major champion probably lacks the confidence to venture deeply into the jungle of the overstuffed Sydney draw.

Aligned to intersect in the bottom quarter are Jankovic and Rezai, both of whom soared in the clay season before sagging in the second half.  The pugnacious Frenchwoman dispatched the equally pugnacious Serb in Madrid amidst a war of words that often overshadowed their tennis.  Can Jankovic exact her revenge at a tournament where she once came within a tiebreak of the title but fell in the first round last year?  Even if she survives Rezai, though, 2010 nemesis Kanepi lurks to intercept her once again.  Confronting a potentially challenging opener against Pennetta, world #2 Zvonareva hopes to reverse a streak in which she has lost three of four matches to the Italian Fed Cup heroine.  The Russian laid waste to Venus and Wozniacki in Hong Kong last week, so she carries considerable momentum to Sydney—much more than anyone in her vicinity here.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva d. Li

Final:  Clijsters d. Zvonareva

***

We return shortly with a preview of the leading WTA contenders at the Australian Open, a companion to the ATP article below.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates a point during her match against Greta Arn of Hungary during day four of the ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 6, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Having unfolded our first 2011 preview with our Hopman Cup article, we return to pop the cork on each of the season’s opening ATP and WTA events.  A mirror image of our (TW)2 series, this article offers not a reflection upon the week that was but a guide to the week that will be.

The Russians are coming (Auckland): A month before pulverizing an overmatched French Fed Cup team, three members of the Russian squad assemble in formerly tranquil Auckland.  Thrusting defending champion Wickmayer into the shadows is Sharapova, who arrives with a new coach, new equipment, and new shoes.  Together with these adjustments, Maria has eschewed her familiar Hong Kong exhibition and enlisted in a pre-Australian Open WTA event for the first time in her career.  A champion at two International tournaments last year, the three-time Slam titlist remains the clear favorite, but compatriot Kuznetsova plans to challenge that narrative.  Buried below the top 50, the once-controversial #1 Safina simply hopes to establish consistency and confidence after overcoming a career-threatening back injury.  But will concern over a relapse hang over her like the sword of Damocles, crippling her confidence in a challenging opener against Wickmayer?  Far from their best in 2010, all of these champions would profit from a sprightly beginning to 2011. Whenever three Russians converge upon one small tournament, though, intrigue hastens to join them.  Days before the first ball, sparks already started to fly as the New Zealand press pointedly contrasted Sharapova’s icy reticence with Safina’s availability for interviews.  Lurking beneath the Russian roulette, meanwhile, is Kimiko Date Krumm, who defeated both Sharapova and Safina last year.  Armed with a crackling serve, German talent Julia Goerges might test the Japanese icon in a quarterfinal that pits youthful exuberance against veteran…exuberance.

Best men and bridesmaids (Brisbane): While the top four prepare for Melbourne elsewhere, this sun-drenched Australian city hosts a player field that has combined for one Slam title and ten Slam runner-up trophies, including at least one from every major.  Since Federer extinguished six of those championship bids, Brisbane opens a window onto what the ATP might have been without the Swiss legend.  Poised to snatch the vital fourth seed in Melbourne with a title here, Soderling might extend what has become a contentious, compelling mini-rivalry with defending champion Roddick.   But neither of them can underestimate Verdasco, who came within a set of the Melbourne final in 2009 and troubled the top two seeds in 2010 before fading in the second half.  Vying with a rejuvenated Mardy Fish for dark horse honors is 2006 Australian Open finalist Baghdatis, who grappled during the offseason with fitness issues similar to those that the American conquered last year.  Atop the simultaneous WTA event, Stosur braces herself to shoulder the burdens of national expectations in the post-Hewitt era of Australian tennis.  Brisbane also features four players who won debut titles in 2010, including rising Russian stars Kleybanova and Pavlyuchenkova.  After Clijsters and Henin declined to pursue an encore of last year’s final, opportunity also might beckon for the highly talented, habitually underachieving Petrova or the less talented but more resilient Peer.  Nor should one discount surprise Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova, most dangerous when least heralded.

Appetizer for Australia? (Doha):  Meeting in three exhibitions over the offseason as well as the last final of 2010, Federer and Nadal could clash in one of the first finals of 2011.  Curiously, however, neither of them has won this Persian Gulf tournament in recent years, falling to opponents like Monfils and Davydenko.  Perhaps preoccupied with the Grand Slam just a fortnight ahead, the top two may not bring their highest level of focus to a relatively minor event.  Consequently, an opportunity could open for 2008 Australian Open finalist Tsonga, although the Frenchman looked only sporadically menacing during an Abu Dhabi loss to Soderling.  Forcing Federer to a third set here last year, Gulbis remains wildly unpredictable but could spring an ambush upon an unwary top seed.  Yet perhaps the most intriguing narrative here belongs to defending champion Davydenko, who turned the ultimate double play on Federer and Nadal in this event’s 2010 edition.  Struggling to regain his momentum after a wrist injury last year, the Russian would benefit immensely from an sprightly start to 2011; confidence plays an especially essential role in his high-risk, high-precision game.  Not to be overlooked either is the often forgotten Serb Troicki, who burst from the shadows to win his first career title last fall and the decisive rubber in the Davis Cup final.  His unassuming veneer conceals an imposing serve and a crisp backhand, which carried him to match point against Nadal in Tokyo last fall.

Mystery men (Chennai):  Upon the ATP’s only tournament in India converge several players who puzzled last year and others who have puzzled throughout their careers.  After a promising beginning to 2010, defending champion Cilic played well below his abilities from Indian Wells onward despite no external factors that would have hampered his performance.  The top-seeded Berdych seemed to have solved his own conundrum midway through the season with finals at Miami and Wimbledon as well as a semifinal at Roland Garros—but then he returned to his familiar head-scratching self in the second half.   Before he sinks under the pressure of defending his summer points, the Czech desperately needs to assert himself early in 2011.  Perhaps the most idiosyncratic Serb of all, the aging Tipsarevic continues to play to the level of his competition, often tormenting top-10 opponents and often struggling against foes outside the top 50.   And we hadn’t yet mentioned Gasquet or Malisse, two immensely talented shotmakers who seem destined to perpetually wear the mantle of underachiever.  Amidst all of this uncertainty, the relatively steady Wawrinka might fancy his chances of returning to the final.  Early in a headline-seizing partnership with Brad Gilbert, Kei Nishikori seeks to unlock the promise that he showed fleetingly before injuries derailed him.  Less evolved than the Japanese sensation, home hope Somdeev Devvarman aims to take the next step forward towards becoming India’s first great champion.

***

We return shortly with an article on several key reasons to appreciate the Australian Open, our favorite major on the calendar.

As a lull in both calendars approaches, we rewind the week in Shanghai and two WTA International events…

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1) Nadal is still human on hard courts…somewhat: Unnoticed by all but the most ardent fans, Rafa’s bizarre loss to compatriot Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok presaged his upset by Melzer in Shanghai.  Struggling to break his opponent’s serve on both occasions, the Spaniard fell to two players well beyond the orbit of his typical nemeses.  Before he acquired the Tokyo title a week ago, an unexpectedly inspired Troicki came within a point of ousting him from their semifinal there.  (What an excellent fall it’s proved for Serbia!) These two losses and one near-loss restore a bit of reality to Nadal’s situation, reminding us of his fallibility on this surface when he falls short of his electrifying best.  But it’s difficult to imagine Garcia-Lopez or Melzer defeating the world #1 at a hard-court Slam, so perhaps his precarious Asian performances suggest that Rafa has begun to peak at the majors more perceptibly than he did earlier in his career.  Like Federer a few years ago, Nadal soon will compete less with his colleagues than with history, and history enters exactly four events each year.

2) Federer has become predictably unpredictable: For the second straight tournament, he unleashed a stunning display of dominance in one round and an equally stunning display of frailty a round later.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far superior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger had slipped into an inevitable spiral of decline.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far inferior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger no longer could muster the motivation to dispatch adversaries unworthy of his steel.  Since Soderling, Djokovic, and Murray occupy roughly the same level, however, neither of those explanations apply.  Quite simply, one doesn’t know what to expect from Federer on any given day or even in any given set, which lends his matches an aura of intrigue absent from the clinical demolitions that he once delivered.  For those who relish dramatic suspense, the mighty one has become more engaging—and more sympathetic—now that he has become a little less mighty.

3) Tall men stand short:  When Soderling reached the Roland Garros final and Del Potro won the US Open a year ago, the towers of power seemed about to swallow up the ATP.  This trend gathered impetus when Berdych finally broke through on clay and grass this year, but the baseline behemoths have stumbled in the last several tournaments.  At an event where they should have prospered, Soderling mustered just two games against Federer, Tsonga collected just two games against Murray, Berdych crumbled against the aforementioned Garcia-Lopez, and Del Potro never appeared.  Viscerally thrilling to watch, their games may prove less durable and consistent than those of their more versatile, more modestly proportioned peers.

4) Time can stand still for some:  Still charging up the rankings into the top 50, Kimiko Date Krumm continues to baffle the WTA elite with her distinctive, arrhythmic style.  In Osaka, she battled past both Stosur and Peer before succumbing to fellow senior citizen (well, virtually) Tanasugarn after a ferociously contested final; Tanasugarn herself had ambushed Bartoli in the semifinals.  Perhaps the most remarkable element in Date’s implausible comeback is her physical and mental stamina, which more than once this year has enabled this intrepid 40-year-old to outlast far younger opponents in three-hour matches.  The results of this week included, she has accumulated a winning record against the top 20 since her return.  Far from a harmless, endearing anomaly, she constitutes a legitimate threat to almost anyone on any occasion.  Halfway around the world, moreover, the evergreen “Peppermint Patty” Schnyder reached her second final of 2010 with victories over Hantuchova and the burgeoning Petkovic at her home tournament in Linz.

5) The Sleeping Beauty awakens: When Serena’s withdrawal opened a wildcard for Ivanovic, the eager Serb seized her opportunity with both hands and romped to her first title since…Linz two years ago.  Building upon encouraging efforts in Cincinnati, New York, and Beijing, Ana unleashed a commanding performance behind her serve that featured 25 aces and plentiful service winners—several on key points—while surrendering just five breaks in five matches.  The engine of her post-2008 misfortunes, that shot fittingly has become the platform of her resurgence, testifying to her renewed confidence.  Undeterred by adversity this week, Ivanovic maneuvered around undigested yogurt in the second round and three squandered set points in her quarterfinal with her glowing smile intact.  While Linz featured few familiar names, the experience of winning a title again will rekindle the Serb’s self-belief and determination over the off-season by reminding her of what she can still accomplish.  After the shortest WTA final of 2010, the moment that Ana’s fans had feared might never come finally arrived:

Transmission reference: XKJ110

***

We return in a few days with an article on the new WTA #1, who may be less unworthy of her position than some would suppose.

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As the twin tournaments in Beijing escalate towards a climax, the action shifts from Moon Court to Lotus Court.  Which two men and two women will blossom in the Chinese capital?  Semifinal previews ahead…

Djokovic vs. Isner:  Maintaining the intensity that he displayed at the US Open, the defending champion here cruised past a Chinese qualifier and then easily overcame Simon, who had flustered him in four of their five previous meetings.  More motivated and purposeful than during the first half, Djokovic unleashed suffocating groundstrokes on both wings that pinned his victims well behind the baseline while regularly threatening them on their service games.  The latter objective probably lies beyond the Serb’s grasp when he confronts a towering American who nearly toppled him in a memorable Davis Cup clash this year.  Even on the Belgrade clay, Isner tested Djokovic’s resolve by relentlessly holding serve and exploiting openings with penetrating forehands.  Saving all six break points against Davydenko a round ago, he benefits from an especially effective wide serve in the ad court, where almost all break points are decided.  Generally sturdy on serve this week, the defending champion did suffer occasional lapses such as his attempt to serve out the first set against Simon, a game that witnessed seven deuces and several break points.  In order to destabilize Djokovic’s fluid, rhythmic style, Isner must serve aggressively on second balls as well as first balls, vigorously attack the Serb’s own second serve, and shield his indifferent backhand.  A threat to upset almost anyone when at his best, the distinctive challenge posed by the American will compel the top seed to sharpen his focus and guard his patience.  Most of Isner’s matches are decided by a few key points, adding a layer of dramatic suspense that compensates in part for his stylistic monotony.  In these encounters of short points and comfortable holds, very few significant moments will arrive, but those that do will be extremely significant.

Ferrer vs. Ljubicic:  Although the Spaniard has won all but one of their previous meetings, they have met just once on a surface other than Ferrer’s beloved clay.  The diminutive David did win that Dubai clash in three sets, but Ljubicic’s crackling serve has dispatched two top-10 players already this week in echoes of his implausible fortnight at Indian Wells.  Mellow and leisurely while Ferrer is fiery and frenzied, the Croat overcame both US Open semifinalist Youzhny and a rather tepid Murray, probably still pondering his New York demise.  Also limp this week was the Spaniard’s most recent victim, Soderling, who normally excels on this surface and during this stage of the season.  One of the finest returners in the ATP, Ferrer’s sparkling reflexes and compact strokes will force Ljubicic into more rallies than he would prefer.  Possessing a serve vastly inferior to his opponent’s delivery, the Spaniard proved equal to a similar dynamic in his victory over the world #5.  Despite his limited power, he continues to compete with an unflinching tenacity matched by few opponents—and certainly not by this particular opponent.  Far from feckless on fast surfaces, Ferrer recorded his best Slam performance at the swiftest major of all when he reached a semifinal at the 2007 US Open.  But will his admirable willpower outweigh the avalanche of aces that Ljubicic can casually unleash?  The amiable Croat ultimately holds the key to his own destiny, for a stellar serve generally trumps a stellar return game in the ATP.

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Li vs. Zvonareva:  Splitting their six previous meetings, all on hard courts, the Chinese and the Russian should engage in a scintillating battle of backhands.  Li strikes her groundstrokes a little earlier than Zvonareva, creating bolder angles but allowing herself less margin for error.  Delighting her compatriot fans, the ninth seed rampaged through her first few rounds before a less dominant victory in her quarterfinal against Sevastova.  By contrast, Zvonareva recorded her most emphatic win of the week in her preceding match, a stunningly one-sided demolition of fellow top-10 resident Schiavone.  Both players can fall prey to their nerves as often as their opponents and can donate perplexing gaffes when seemingly in a commanding position.  When they dueled for the bronze medal in Beijing two years ago, Li staggered through a ghastly first set but then nearly snatched the second set from a visibly tightening Zvonareva before crumbling in its final moments.  With two such volatile and unpredictable competitors, any outcome could result from a 50-minute rout to a third-set tiebreak.  If the Chinese and the Russian display their impressive talents at the same time, however, captivating rallies and tensely contested service games should ensue.  And no lead will be safe.

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Now 22-1 at non-majors since Wimbledon, the Great Dane seeks revenge for an unexpected loss to the Israeli in Dubai.  To the chagrin of Ivanovic fans worldwide, Wozniacki suffered no wobble after clinching the #1 ranking with a victory over Kvitova.  On the other hand, she did suffer a second-set tumble that didn’t hamper her movement for the rest of that match but might return to haunt her a day later.  Having not dropped a set through four rounds, Peer has equaled her best career performance at an event of this magnitude, a 2007 semifinal at Indian Wells.  Dormant until Dubai, she had lost both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki that had reached completion (a third meeting ended in a retirement).  Breaking down their games one shot at a time, one can’t discern any area in which she enjoys a discernible advantage over the Dane.  When they met in the Middle East, Wozniacki’s game had sagged to a particularly low ebb, underscored by an Australian Open loss to Li Na that featured just three winners from the then-teenager.  Unless Wozniacki delivers an inexplicably hapless performance like her US Open semifinal, she should ease through to a Tour-leading seventh final of 2010. Since Peer can’t outhit her from the baseline, the new #1 should consider elevating her own aggression in order to gain experience that could aid her against more formidable opponents ahead.

***

The lights may have dimmed on the Moon Court, but several stars remain upon which to gaze in thoughtful contemplation.

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On the lyrically entitled Lotus Court and Moon Court, eight opportunistic competitors have advanced to the quarterfinals at the WTA’s last significant event outside the year-end championships.  Not all stars glow with equal luminosity, though.  We organize them below from supernovas to Sevastovas.

Wozniacki:  Having swiped the #1 ranking from the world’s most famous manicurist, the Great Dane now has won 21 of her last 22 matches and 16 consecutive matches at non-majors.  Few players who can blunt her momentum remain in the draw, which includes none of the storied Slam champions against whom she typically struggles.  During her first two rounds, Wozniacki rebounded from a stomach complaint to dispatch the often tricky Errani and exact satisfying revenge from her Wimbledon conqueror, Kvitova.  Although the Dane fell to Ivanovic on the medium-speed hard courts of Melbourne two years ago, the Wozniacki of 2010 has evolved far beyond the Wozniacki of 2008 and will bring a much sturdier degree of self-belief to their encounter.  Having won her last five finals, the top seed displays none of the nerves that cripple so many of her rivals in championship matches.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki’s vaunted consistency has wobbled occasionally during her last two tournaments; in Tokyo, she escaped these lapses, but she couldn’t escape them in New York.  And how sharply will her motivation dwindle after capturing the top spot?  To her credit, Wozniacki seems more focused upon winning matches than wooing the computer, and the inevitable controversy over her rise to #1 won’t escalate to a maelstrom until after the event.

Zvonareva:  Probably a bit dazed from her US Open heroics, the most successful Russian of 2010 trudged to an uninspired exit in Tokyo last week.  Sturdier at this tournament, Zvonareva posted two tight wins over talented compatriots en route to a quarterfinal with Schiavone.  Although Safina remains far beneath her former heights, she had defeated Vera at prestigious events and thus posed the sort of psychological test that often has flustered the world #4.  After routing Petkovic for the second time in three tournaments, Zvonareva weathered the tenacious Kirilenko and displayed her best tennis in the match’s culminating stages, always an encouraging omen.  Her head-to-head record against the reigning Roland Garros champion looms at an intimidating 9-0, including five consecutive hard-court victories since early 2008.  (Oddly, they meet in the Chinese capital for the fourth time in just over two years; Schiavone has not won a set in the three previous Beijing meetings.)  In the semifinals, Zvonareva probably will clash with another of her victims during that bronze-medal run in the 2008 Olympics, Li Na.  Likely to prevail in that meeting, the second seed would seek to improve upon her dismal 2010 record in finals.  During four straight defeats in title tilts this year, Zvonareva has won five or fewer games on all of those occasions.

Li:  Vociferously exhorted by her compatriots, the flamboyant Chinese hope has shown few signs of the illness that forced her to withdraw from Tokyo.  Emphatic against the inflammable Kleybanova, Li has trampled upon her first three foes with the smooth relentlessness that characterizes her game at its best, a level that she reached during the Olympics two years ago here.  Implacable when focused, she should dismiss Sevastova’ pedestrian game as briskly as she dispatched the unheralded Kerber.  Considering the Chinese star’s shot-making talent and crisp ball-striking, one suspects that she could have won many more titles had injuries not derailed her at inopportune moments.  On the other hand, Li ultimately crumbled under the pressure of China’s expectations when she faced Zvonareva for the Olympic bronze medal.  If she faces the Russian again in parallel circumstances, those memories might return.  A Slam semifinalist this year, Li has yet to acquire a title as prestigious as her home tournament, but no player remains in the draw against whom she would find herself clearly overmatched.  Demoralizing at the time, her underwhelming summer may have positioned her for an explosive fall, since she enters these events fresher than her more renowned rivals.

Schiavone:  Following her spine-tingling Roland Garros fortnight, most commentators sensed that the Italian would spend the rest of her season in contented contemplation of her unexpected prize.  The feisty Schiavone confounded expectations again, however, by reaching three consecutive quarterfinals at the prestigious events in New York, Tokyo, and Beijing.  Overcoming talented Slovenian youngster Polona Hercog with ease, she rallied from a one-set deficit against fellow veteran and doubles expert Dushevina.  Despite her history of futility against Zvonareva, Schiavone probably enters their quarterfinal with greater motivation, incited by the goal of finishing a season in the top 10 for the first time.  Away from clay, the Roland Garros champion must rely upon an especially advantageous draw in order to win an elite tournament.  That said, the draw here has settled into a relatively benign condition after a fusillade of early upsets; last fall, Schiavone claimed the Kremlin Cup in a similarly opportunistic manner.  If the Italian can circumvent Zvonareva, she might ultimately find herself in another final, a situation where she has flourished as much as the Russian has floundered.

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Ivanovic:  Avenging two 2010 losses to Bartoli in the first round, the sensuous Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  Although her serving percentage has lagged below optimal levels, Ivanovic has dominated behind her first serve and unleashed forehands reminiscent of her 2008 glory.  Most importantly, Ana rediscovered her inner resolve when she captured two tiebreaks from Tokyo finalist Dementieva, a round after she erased a substantial second-set deficit against Govortsova.  Reversing a trend that characterized her slump, the former Roland Garros champion delivered her most impressive tennis at the most critical moments, including two aces in the match-ending tiebreak and a bold backhand winner on match point.  With no rankings points to defend this fall, Ivanovic has capitalized upon the opportunity to inch up the rankings in preparation for a 2011 return to relevance.  While she has won both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki, those matches occurred at the zenith of the Serb’s ascendancy in early 2008.  She should enter their quarterfinal free from pressure or expectations, allowing those factors to settle squarely upon the shoulders of the newly crowned #1.  At the US Open, however, Ivanovic proved emotionally unable to summon that insouciant attitude against the defending champion.  Having not captured a tournament since 2008, Ana remains far from reaffirming her status as an elite title contender.

Peer:  Experiencing a modest revival in 2010, the steely Israeli has delivered perhaps the most commanding performance of the tournament, during which she has surrendered more than two games in just one of the six sets that she has played.  Upon closer analysis, though, these lopsided scorelines may speak as much to the quality of her opposition as to her own brilliance.  Dispatching a Chinese wildcard in the first round and Serbian qualifier Jovanovski in the third round, Peer confronted only one foe with any experience on this stage, the seemingly ageless Schiavone.  Nevertheless, the road doesn’t become much more arduous in the quarterfinals, where another Swiss player lies ahead.  If Peer advances to a potential semifinal with Wozniacki, she should gain confidence from her victory over the Dane in Dubai, the tournament that triggered her renaissance.  But the newly minted #1 presents a much more imposing challenge now than she did in February.  Even in the area of her greatest strength, consistency, Peer can’t equal Wozniacki unless the latter’s breathless schedule exerts a toll upon her physical and mental reserves.

Bacsinszky:  Even dedicated fans know little about the wide-eyed Swiss upstart, who profited from a recurrence of Azarenka’s leg injury after barely edging Tokyo sensation Julia Goerges in a third-set tiebreak.  Presented by Vika with a second life, Bacsinszky capitalized with aplomb by ousting Sharapova-killer Vesnina in a much more comfortable affair.  Against Peer, she won’t find herself regularly overpowered or outmaneuvered, yet her inexperience and impetuosity probably will play into the Israeli’s hands.  While the WTA has unveiled numerous surprises throughout the year, the Beijing Premier Mandatory title seems even more remote from a player of Bacsinszky’s status than did the Madrid Premier Mandatory title from Rezai.

Sevastova:  A game away from defeat in her opener against Stosur, the Latvian somehow broke the Australian’s formidable serve on two straight occasions to record her third notable upset of the season.  On the similarly medium-speed hard courts in Indian Wells and Monterey, Sevastova downed first Ivanovic and then Jankovic in losses that seemed to illustrate the struggles of the Serbs more than her own talents.  Sharing a passport with Gulbis, she has crafted a vastly divergent game from Ernests that relies upon paceless, soporific groundstrokes to lull opponents into febrile errors.  Following a surprising three-set win over Cibulkova, Sevastova received a walkover from Petrova, who probably would have ended her run.  We expect Li Na to prove less accommodating than the Russian.

***

Look for further astronomical observations from the Chinese capital in the days ahead!

 

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In 56 sparkling minutes on Wednesday morning, Ivanovic not only avenged her previous losses to Zheng but demonstrated heightened confidence in all areas of her game.  Most notable was her belief in her backhand, a shot that had betrayed her during much of her slump and that had diminished into a benign slice when nerves overtook her.  Rather than striking tentative midcourt balls on her weaker wing, the Serb stepped into several two-handers with conviction and targeted the corners of the court.  While her fans will have been grateful for Bartoli’s premature demise, the other Frenchwoman whom Ana confronts in the third round has flustered her more than one might imagine.  Just two weeks before Ivanovic reached the 2008 Australian Open final, in fact, Razzano extended her into a third set at the Sydney tournament.  Granted a wildcard after a controversial injury hiatus, the Serb’s opponent shares Bartoli’s quirky service motion and arrhythmic groundstroke style; when we last saw her two years ago, her unimposing frame generated deceptive power, enhanced by above-average racket control.  While Ana certainly should feel heartened and enthusiastic about her progress, therefore, she can’t afford to relax against an experienced player who has defeated her in the past and conquered elite competitors such as Venus Williams.  A win for Ana would match the best performance of her career in New York and represent her first appearance in the second-week of a major since Wimbledon 2009, an uplifting conclusion to her Slam season and a foundation upon which to build her 2011 campaign.

Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Before Wimbledon this year, the flamboyant Czech lefty had accumulated a reputation as yet another outstanding shotmaker with vacant real estate above her neck.  Combining wins over Zheng, Azarenka, and Wozniacki with a surprisingly competitive semifinal against Serena, her fortnight at the All England Club hinted that Kvitova might capitalize upon her athletic potential after all.  Likewise encouraging was her victory over then-#1 and top seed in New York last year, which culminated in a nerve-jangling third-set tiebreak.  Although Kvitova has vanished from the radar since that stirring Wimbledon breakthrough, she might relish the opportunity of playing in the world’s largest tennis arena.  Quietly dismissing a pair of third-rate foes, meanwhile, Clijsters has displayed few traces of the hip injury that contributed to her premature exit from the Rogers Cup.  The turbulence projected to arrive in New York tomorrow should aid the defending champion against an adversary with less margin on her shots and less emotional tolerance for matters outside her control, such as the vagaries of weather.  Early in Clijsters’ second-round victory, however, she struggled with the timing on her serve and groundstrokes, so the Czech may glimpse some early opportunities.  If Kvitova can capitalize upon them, this match could become quite intriguing; if the Belgian finds the time to settle into her groove, her challenger could crumble.

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Hantuchova vs. Dementieva

Despite a heavily taped thigh, the Slovak relied on her improved fitness to outlast Vania King in the second round after an impressively routine victory over Safina in her opener.  The stylish Hantuchova relies more on placement and point construction than raw power, creating a slight variation from the WTA’s standard currency.  Steadily accumulating confidence and momentum after leg injuries interrupted her season, Dementieva has assembled a virtually bulletproof baseline game that has more than compensated for her limp serve…except at majors.  While one doesn’t expect the Russian to snap that career-long drought here, a second-week charge could provide consolation for her Roland Garros disappointment and propel her back into the conversation.  Having lost to Oudin in the second round here last year, Elena also could climb back towards the top 10 with an extended run in New York.  Much superior to Daniela in lateral movement, she can falter when brought out of her groundstroke comfort zone into the forecourt.  In addition to ambitious angles, therefore, Hantuchova should attempt to break the Russian’s metronomic regularity by integrating the variety and texture that she has accumulated from her doubles experience.

Peer vs. Pennetta

Early in 2010, both the tenacious Israeli and the inflammable Italian had receded to the periphery of the sport’s contenders, causing commentators to question whether they could return to their former level.  After a storybook semifinal run in Dubai, Peer consolidated that momentum with victories over Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Li Na, Bartoli, and Pennetta herself over the next few months.  Recently, however, her surge has stalled a bit as injuries have hobbled her.  Overshadowed (like everyone else) by her compatriot Schiavone during the clay season, Pennetta regrouped with aplomb on the summer hard courts, where she recorded triumphs over Zvonareva and Stosur while becoming the only player to win a set from Wozniacki at Montreal.  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian enjoys a more potent serve than the Israeli but a less gritty mentality.  Largely committed to remaining at the baseline except in extremely advantageous circumstances, the Israeli and the Italian possess balanced groundstrokes and fluid movement without the overwhelming power of the WTA’s elite.  Despite the slick courts at the US Open, some scintillating rallies should unfold in which both players gradually maneuver around each other like boxers waiting for the ideal moment to strike.

Simon vs. Kohlschreiber

As you might have suspected from our preview of Davydenko-Gasquet, we especially enjoy watching excellent backhands of both the one-handed and two-handed varieties.  Another contrast of this sort awaits in this trans-Rhine contest between a mercurial shotmaker and a sturdy counterpuncher that plays against both national stereotypes.  Although both players unleash their most dazzling shots from what analysts often consider “the weaker wing,” Simon relies upon the crisp, compact two-hander favored by Davydenko, while Kohlschreiber parallels Gasquet with his traditional one-handed flick.  After the French one-hander trumped the Russian two-hander on Day 4, will the trend continue on Day 5? Unprepossessing in physique, neither the Frenchman nor the German buttress their games upon overwhelming serves, which offers  a refreshing change from the bomb-a-thons that so often develop at the year’s final major.  Less reliable than their backhands are their forehands, flatter shots that can penetrate the court but that can desert both players for extended stretches.  This match lies largely in Kohlschreiber’s hands, for Simon will be content to travel laterally behind the baseline and force his opponent to hit as many shots as possible in the hope that his high-risk style will suffer an untimely lull.  Outside an injury that forced him to withdraw from Cincinnati, however, the German has been the superior player over the past several weeks and will be eager to set up another meeting with Nadal.

***

Also of note on Friday is Stosur’s collision with Errani, who held multiple match points against the Aussie in New Haven.  While American fans will look forward to discovering whether Ryan Harrison can continue his unexpected success this week against New Haven champion Stakhovsky, Nadal may need to shed his first-round rust in order to dispatch New Haven finalist Istomin without excessive ado.  Let’s hope that Episode III of Ana’s Adventures proves equally uneventful!

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Just two weeks remain until the final major of 2010, and the tournaments next week mark the final significant opportunity for players to hone their skills before entering the harsh New York spotlight.  While the men’s event in Cincinnati showcases all of the ATP elite, the skeletal draw in Montreal features only a handful of stars familiar to those outside the sport’s inner circle.  In the absence of marquee names Serena, Venus, Sharapova, and Henin, ample opportunities await for a dormant veteran or an ambitious youngster to pound and/or shriek themselves (see image above) into the conversation surrounding the upcoming Slam.  Quarter-by-quarter previews of Montreal and Cincinnati straight ahead:

First quarter

In this section are situated many of the WTA’s finest two-handed backhands, from Jankovic and Petrova to Azarenka and Li.  Although the terms “forehand” and “backhand” don’t quite apply to Bartoli’s double-fisted style, the Frenchwoman might upset the top-seeded Serb in a particularly bitter third-round clash, especially since Jankovic is struggling with an ankle injury.  A champion at Stanford and a first-round loser (albeit a doubles champion) at Cincinnati, Azarenka persists in defying expectation for better or for worse.  So does her scheduled third-round opponent, Li Na, who is most dangerous when discounted and most vulnerable when hyped.  After dispatching a Bondarenko apiece, the blazing-eyed Belarussian and the steely Chinese will contest perhaps the most intriguing midweek match.  Who will consolidate her position as a dark horse at the US Open?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:

Fortunately the recipient of a first-round bye, Clijsters must quickly regroup after the Cincinnati final but faces no intimidating opponents in her early rounds.  Neither Oudin nor Peer is equipped to outhit the defending US Open champion, despite the grim tenacity exhibited by the American and the Israeli.  On the other side, this weakest section of a weak draw features Clijsters’ compatriot Wickmayer, steadily approaching the limelight and the architect of Li’s demise in Cincinnati.  Seeking a potential rematch of a Wimbledon quarterfinal is the presence of Zvonareva, who defeated Kim for the first time at the All England Club.  Nevertheless, we expect Wickmayer to dispatch Vera beforehand and set up an all-Belgian quarterfinal; Clijsters is undefeated against her countrywomen during her comeback so far, crushing “Wickipedia” in Eastbourne this June.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Third quarter:

Filled with flamboyant personalities, distinctive playing styles, and existential angst, this section features both of the San Diego finalists as well as the tournament’s most intriguing first-round match:  Pavlyuchenkova-Kuznetsova.  On the other side lurk the aging, injury-addled Dementieva, the enigmatic Rezai, and equally enigmatic Wimbledon semifinalist Kvitova.  Both ranked among the top five in the US Open Series standings, Radwanska and Kuznetsova probably will clash for the second time in three tournaments.  This time, the Russian should win more comfortably without the additional pressure of playing for a title and armed with the confidence from her week in San Diego.  Since the other bold-faced names in this neighborhood have faltered miserably lately, Sveta should capitalize upon the momentum surge so curtly interrupted by Sharapova in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:

Defanged by the withdrawal of Sharapova, this section includes Roland Garros champion and quintessential one-Slam wonder, Francesca Schiavone.  Having won exactly one match since her magical fortnight in Paris, the Italian shouldn’t penetrate too deeply in this draw.  Consequently, a door might well open for the winner of the first-round confrontation between ball-bruising German Andrea Petkovic and the most maligned former #1 in WTA history, Dinara Safina.  Considering that the Russian hasn’t won consecutive matches since January, however, one suspects that the semifinalist will emerge from the lower section of this quarter.  Despite capturing the title at her home tournament in Copenhagen, Wozniacki has accomplished nothing of note since Miami and exited meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Yet her most substantial competition is San Diego semifinalist Pennetta, who enjoys the summer hardcourts more than one would imagine for a clay-loving Italian.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Moving on (or back) to Cincinnati…

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First quarter:

One match played, one seed gone as Baghdatis upset the floundering Cilic on Sunday night after the women’s final.  After a rather flat trip to Canada, Nadal probably will begin his tournament against one of only two players who have defeated him since April, compatriot Feliciano Lopez.  If Rafa is a little deflated or unfocused, the quirky serve-and-volleying veteran could spell trouble as he did for Murray in Los Angeles, but it’s hard to imagine Lopez upsetting the world #1 in consecutive meetings.  Representing another potential hurdle is the 14th-seeded Almagro, who held match points against Nadal last fall and became one of only two players (with Gulbis) to win a set from the five-time French Open champion during the clay season.  A likely rematch of the Wimbledon final looms in the quarters, for Berdych enjoys a rather smooth road through the early rounds and looked convincing in Canada.  Even when the Czech has displayed some of his best tennis, though, Nadal has ultimately solved his challenge.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:

Crisp and poised for most of his finals run in Toronto, Federer will have gained a significant injection of confidence by overcoming Wimbledon nemesis Berdych and retaking the #2 ranking from Djokovic.  Whether Blake, Monfils, Ferrer, or Davydenko, all of the marquee names in his vicinity have struggled mightily against the GOAT, so it’s his quarter to lose until proven otherwise.  Mediocre since returning from an injury, Davydenko might fall to the LA champion and winner of last year’s US Open Series, Querrey.  But note that the American thus far has failed to translate his success from the peripheral 250 and 500 events to a Masters Series; in Cincinnati, he crashed out early to the gawky Kevin Anderson.  Other than the potential task of solving Querrey’s serve, Federer’s goal here should be to win as efficiently as possible in order to conserve energy for a semifinal with the Mallorcan.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:

Tangling in a memorable opening-round encounter at the Australian Open, the scintillating one-handed backhands of Gasquet and Youzhny collide in the first round once again.  At the top of the quarter, Simon and Fish intersect in a meeting between Roddick’s two most recent nemeses that should feature a contrast of styles between the baseline-rooted Frenchman and the net-rushing American.  Trudging wearily through his last several events, eighth seed Verdasco looks ripe for an upset by one of the aforementioned players.  But the last laugh probably will belong to the Rogers Cup champion and 2008 Cincinnati champion, unless Gulbis can recapture his clay-season form to ambush Murray in the third round.  Considering the light balls and fast courts here, it’s not inconceivable although unlikely.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Clashing in the opening round are a pair of veterans who resuscitated their careers this year after prolonged sojourns in the tennis wilderness, Ljubicic and Nalbandian.  While the Croat’s title in Indian Wells increasingly resembles Schiavone’s conquest of Roland Garros, the Argentine seems more likely to build upon his summer success for a surprising run at the US Open.  Perhaps still reeling from a frustrating, blowout-turned-nailbiter semifinal loss to Federer, Djokovic should overcome compatriot Troicki in his opener but might fall to either Nalbandian or Isner in the third round.  Without the stabilizing influence of coach Magnus Norman, Soderling may struggle to overcome home favorite Roddick, who will enjoy vociferous crowd support as he nurses a lingering case of mono.  If Roddick collides with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, momentum in their mini-rivalry will rest squarely on his side.  If he confronts Isner or Nalbandian, expect his superior conditioning to outlast those opponents in the torrid Cincinnati heat.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

***

Perspiration will pour, fists will pump, and nerves will jangle.  Who will surmount the heat and the pressure to prance nimbly through these capacious but not overwhelming draws?

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