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Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with her WTA Tour World Number 1 trophy in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel on October 12, 2010 in Beijing, China.

First quarter:  Battered by Gajdosova and banished by Kanepi in Tokyo last week, Wozniacki hopes that this week’s title defense fares better than its predecessor.  Remarkably, she could face the same pair of opponents again in her first two matches, although the booming serve of Lisicki might disrupt that odd serendipity.  Absent from action since the US Open, the 17th-ranked German suffered a slight dip in form following her Wimbledon semifinal appearance and will engage in a bruising second-round battle of first-strike bombs.  Lisicki resoundingly defeated Wozniacki twice in 2009, so the world #1 certainly will have earned a quarterfinal berth should she navigate her Viking vessel around such a dangerous reef.  Less dangerous are her potential quarterfinal opponents, headlined by Schiavone and home hope Peng Shuai.  A quarterfinalist in Beijing two years ago with wins over Jankovic and Sharapova, the Chinese double-fister will aim to steal a bit of the spotlight from newly crowned Slam champion Li Na.  Meanwhile, Schiavone lost her first-round match in Seoul and has looked shaky for most of the second half.  Perhaps more intriguing than the bold-faced names, therefore, are two of Wozniacki’s Slam nemeses this year:  the flamboyant Hantuchova (Roland Garros) and the gritty Cibulkova (Wimbledon), who has struggled lately with an abdominal strain.  In a section with ample talent but plenty of questions hovering over its leading combatants, the hour seems ripe for an unexpected heroine to make a statement.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Second quarter:  Spiked with three Slam champions, this quarter could feature a second-round clash between fellow Roland Garros titlist Ivanovic (2008) and Kuznetsova (2009), should the Serb defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm for the fourth time in less than a year.  Although she displayed flashes of her vintage brilliance in a Wimbledon epic against Venus, 2011 has proved much less kind to the aging Japanese legend than 2010.  Last year’s runner-up Zvonareva should arrive either determined to win one more match than she did in Tokyo or deflated from still another loss to Radwanska, an opponent whom she formerly had dominated.  Should she arrange a third-round clash with the winner of Ivanovic-Kuznetsova, however, one would fancy the steady Russian’s chances to outlast either of those erratic opponents in an encounter of oscillating momentum.  What reward would Zvonareva gain for such an achievement?  As she did in Cincinnati, she could confront the challenge of defeating Radwanska less than a week after losing a final to the Pole, a challenge to which she could not rise this summer.  Inadvertently positioned to rescue Zvonareva is her semifinal victim last week, Kvitova, who delivered a generally reassuring series of performances in Tokyo.  On the other hand, her unsightly meltdown against a player infamous for such meltdowns herself continues to trigger concerns surrounding her maturity.  Kvitova can ill afford such a lapse when she meets the stingy Radwanska in the third round, for the Tokyo champion will magnify and exploit the flaws in her still-raw style.  At Eastbourne this year, they dueled into a third-set tiebreak before the Czech’s power prevailed.  She could profit from the dip in performance that one expects from both Tokyo finalists.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:   A member of the Wozniacki “déjà vu” club, Stosur likely will reprise her second-round meeting with Kirilenko in Tokyo should she neutralize Pironkova, who tested Zvonareva for a set last week.  To the surprise of some, the Aussie’s competitive experience proved no shield to the hangover suffered by all three of the WTA’s first-time Slam champions this season.  Just weeks after stunning Serena in such spectacular fashion, she should aim to reassemble her motivation before the year-end championships in Istanbul but may fall victim to one of her steady opponents here.  Nevertheless, Stosur will enjoy a distinct serving advantage over most early opponents except Julia Goerges, an enigmatic German who extended Sharapova to two tiebreaks in Tokyo following an indifferent summer.  If this ambitious German rediscovers her spring prowess, a path to the quarterfinals might lie open.  Among the most compelling questions surrounding this tournament is the tennis with which Li Na will either dazzle or dismay her compatriots.  Although she left little imprint upon Beijing in recent years, the reigning French Open champion reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics in her nation’s capital, vanquishing Venus and Kuznetsova en route.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in their vicinity, Li should feel relatively sanguine about a draw that she will tackle with the guidance of her coach-husband rather than Michal Mortensen.  That new arrangement might infuse the Chinese superstar with fresh energy, valuable against Guangzhou champion Scheepers or the persistent Dulko.  Should she reach a quarterfinal with Stosur, though, Li somehow must solve an opponent who has dispatched her in all five of their meetings while conceding one total set.  Slightly less likely is a rematch with New Haven nemesis Cetkovska in the quarterfinals.  Like a volcano that quietly accumulates lava before exploding, Li has spent a career alternating between long dormant periods and abrupt, ephemeral explosions of greatness.  She has accomplished almost nothing in the last four months, so…

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter:  A tight two-set encounter, Petkovic’s victory over Safarova determined one of the week’s most intriguing first-round matches.  By dispatching the WTA’s second most dangerous Czech lefty, the WTA’s most dangerous German moved a step closer to an Istanbul berth and showed little sign of sliding into complacency after a US Open quarterfinal.  Two rounds ahead, Petkovic might encounter the third most dangerous Czech lefty in Benesova but more plausibly would encounter Bartoli or Christina McHale.  The rising teenager ambushed the double-fisted Frenchwoman in New York, although that task will prove more daunting without the vociferous American fans to exhort her.  Not at her most impressive in Tokyo, US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova faces recent Quebec champion and fellow serpentine surname Zahlavova Strycova.  Either the 20-year-old Russian or Seoul titlist Martinez Sanchez could pose a stern test for Azarenka, who might meet the equally feisty Laura Robson in her first match.  While the second seed has struggled with lefties before, including Martinez Sanchez, Vika twice has lost sets to Pavlyuchenkova and probably would prefer to avoid her on the court where “Nastia” once defeated Venus.  Rather than a predictable second straight quarterfinal against Bartoli, an encounter between the brash Belarussian and the pugnacious Petkovic would offer the scintillation of the uncertain.  Only once have they clashed before, in a Moscow three-setter, and their relatively even strengths should intertwine for a blazing battle from the baseline as well as a fiery clash of personalities.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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.)

Rafael Nadal - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Nadal vs. Fish:  Having spent nearly five hours on court the day before, the second seed will find his powers of recovery severely tested if he seeks to continue his mastery over the top-ranked American. Burdened with a similar task in Chennai after an epic victory over Moya three years ago, Rafa faded quickly against Youzhny a day later.  Uncharacteristically erratic during much of his twelfth straight victory over Verdasco, Nadal now targets his seventh consecutive victory over Wimbledon quarterfinal victim Fish.  A finalist at his last three tournaments, the American regrouped swiftly from his Rogers Cup disappointment to conquer Davydenko and Gasquet without losing his serve in either match.  Failing to serve out a match against Benneteau, Nadal’s service frailty extended into his grinding battle with Verdasco.  In few other departments does Fish surpass the Spaniard, however, while the latter’s crackling passing shots will challenge him on approaches or serve-volley gambits.  Despite his improved stamina, he still cannot attempt to outrun or outmaneuver the Spaniard, as he should have learned in his Wimbledon loss.  Strikingly, though, the American’s most successful Masters 1000 tournament has proven Nadal’s least successful, the only event of this stature where he has not reached the final.  An unexpected loss to Baghdatis in a 2010 quarterfinal extended that futility and snapped an unbeaten streak against that distinctly inferior foe, whereas Fish’s second finals appearance here followed from victories over Murray and Roddick.  Nowhere else would he seem more likely to ambush Rafa, moreover, than on a fast hard court in his home nation with the ten-time major champion still searching for confidence.

Federer vs. Berdych:  Into their first meeting this year, both men will bring memories of their three notable collisions in 2010.  Bookending Berdych’s upset of Federer at Wimbledon, their two Masters Series encounters ended in third-set tiebreaks that they split in Miami and Toronto.  The two-time defending champion has looked arguably the most formidable player in the men’s draw this week, exacting revenge for his 2009 losses to Del Potro with superb serving.  Less remarkable was a predictably comprehensive victory over Blake that left the GOAT’s energies minimally depleted for Friday.  Yet Berdych also impressed by losing just four games in his last three sets, two of them against world #11 Almagro.  Still seeking his first Masters 1000 semifinal of the season, the Czech may feel liberated by the prospect of a second half in which he defends relatively few points.  Both players often rely on running around their backhands to strike inside-out forehands to the opponent’s backhand, so the battle for the middle of the baseline will prove critical.  Despite the Cincinnati humidity, Federer has looked especially agile and keen of instincts this week, while his effective returning of Del Potro’s serve bodes ill for Berdych.  Relying on that shot to set up his heavy groundstrokes, the eighth seed needs to assert himself early in rallies before Federer outmaneuvers him and disrupts his rhythm.

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Precisely a week ago, they met in a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup that scarcely felt like a battle between two top-10 players.  A battle it was not, in fact, for Djokovic won ten of the last eleven games from the disengaged Frenchman and improved his record against him to 7-0.  While the world #1 pockmarked the baseline with his groundstrokes, Monfils focused on entertaining the crowd the occasional improbable retrieval or dramatic, leaping smash.  Even more unpredictable than his compatriot Tsonga, he has begun to win the matches that he should win more often but continues to lose almost all of the matches that he should lose.  Clearly intimidated by Djokovic’s almost error-free play, Monfils lamented after last week’s debacle that he had no weapons with which to challenge the Serb.  A more accurate account would ascribe that outcome not to his lack of weapons but to his reluctance to use them.  Noted by former coach Roger Rasheed, Monfils’ curious passivity has prevented him from exploiting his offensive potential to the utmost, necessary against elite foes.  A casual, loose-limbed eccentric, he enjoys rallying endlessly from behind the baseline too much to finish points at the first opportunity or in a manner less than artistic.  Although still a pleasure to watch, Djokovic’s more functional, efficient style requires opponents to adopt a similarly determined, gritty mentality in order to challenge him—something of which Monfils rarely seems capable.

Simon vs. Murray:  Both preferring to defend rather than attack, these quarterfinalists display similarly symmetrical groundstrokes and an aversion to risk.  Relying on high-percentage shot selection and stingy consistency to frustrate Ferrer, Simon has vaulted into the threshold of the top 10 as he has distanced himself from the injuries that hampered him last season.  Quarterfinals in Dubai and Miami have accompanied two minor titles, telegraphing the Frenchman’s renewed presence just outside the elite group of contenders.  Losing his last six encounters with Murray, however, Simon has suffered from the disparity between their first serves.  When the Scot gains at least a modest success rate on that shot, he can prevent his service games from developing into the wars of attrition that the Frenchman’s service games often become.  When the percentage dips, the rest of his game can spiral downwards, as his opening win over Nalbandian illustrated.  Surely relieved to have avenged his Miami loss to Bogomolov, Jr. with a 12-ace barrage on Thursday, Murray needs a sturdy week in Cincinnati before the next Slam arrives.  He has much more to lose than to gain in this match, which suggests that tentative ball-striking might define it.  On the other hand, his nemeses typically overpower rather than outlast him, and Simon’s legs may have grown weary following consecutive three-setters filled with epic rallies.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  Winless in eight clashes with the statuesque Siberian, Stosur has found her indifferent backhand exposed and her kick serve neutralized by this opponent.  Normally jumping above the comfort level of most WTA returners, the latter shot leaps into Sharapova’s strike zone and allows her to hit down on the ball, flattening it into a powerful point-starting blow.  The three-time major champion has won the last nine sets that they have played by exploiting the asymmetry in Stosur’s groundstrokes, which contrasts with her weaponry on both wings.  After a third-round exit in Toronto, Sharapova recaptured glimpses of her spring form with a resounding victory over Kuznetsova, who has the innate athleticism and elastic movement that has troubled programmatic shot-makers like Maria.  Like that Roland Garros champion, the former Roland Garros finalist will hope to hit as many forehands as possible but must avoiding exposing too much court to her opponent’s lasers.  Unlike Kuznetsova, Stosur can create significant pressure with her opening shot, finishing points as swiftly and decisively as Sharapova does when she has the opportunity.  Since neither player wishes to spend the morning patrolling the baseline, most exchanges should end with an aggressive blow from one player or the other that permits her slow-footed opponent no time to restart the rally.  In two relatively uneventful victories this year, Sharapova delivered that terminal blow much more often than did Stosur, and decided the clear majority of points on her own terms.  On the fast surface where she reached the final last year, the WTA’s most fearsome returner will aim to assault both first and second serves, requiring the Aussie to summon all of the confidence accumulated during her run to the Rogers Cup final.

Hantuchova vs. Zvonareva:  Aided by Bartoli’s 16 double faults, Hantuchova nevertheless deserved credit for outlasting the tenacious double-fister in a match that lasted exactly three hours.  Dazzling in her two 2011 meetings with Zvonareva, the elegant Slovak halted the Russian’s title defense in Pattaya City before nearly forestalling her title run in Doha.  On both of those occasions, her clever angles tested Zvonareva’s lateral movement and drew her away from her safe haven along the baseline into uncomfortable positions.  Notoriously fragile in close matches, Hantuchova predictably faded late in the third set of their Doha thriller, and fatigue from Thursday might compromise her energy.  Meanwhile, the second seed has continued an encouraging post-Wimbledon surge with a pair of routine victories.  As she prepares to defend her US Open final, Zvonareva would benefit immensely from an impressive week in Cincinnati, where the fast courts would seem to undermine her naturally counterpunching style.  On the other hand, the relaxed atmosphere of the American Midwest may soothe her easily ruffled emotions, deflating whatever pressure she encounters.

Petrova vs. Petkovic:  Saturated with drama was their only previous encounter, which thundered into a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open.  Although her prime lies several years behind her, Petrova remains an occasionally formidable force on serve and at the net, skills that have aided her in doubles as well as singles.  Overcoming Ivanovic in the second round, the College Park champion can feel fortunate to have avoided Wozniacki a round later, dispatching the Dane’s latest nemesis with scant difficulty.  Unlike her opponent, Petkovic fought her way to this quarterfinal over compelling opposition in Gajdosova and Wimbledon champion Kvitova, whom she has defeated in consecutive weeks after struggling against her early in 2011.  Neither the Russian nor the German plays with much margin for error, suggesting that viewers will see significant quantities of unforced errors if their timing falters.  While Petkovic rarely has earned the opportunity to reach a semifinal at an event of this significance, Petrova will realize that she can expect few more such chances as her career wanes.  More dominant from her forehand than her backhand, the world #11 will aim to target her opponent’s forehand, less reliable than her two-hander.  The stolid veteran and the cheeky upstart should offer an intriguing contrast of personalities in a match that should prove well-contested and compelling, if not star-studded or aesthetically picturesque.

Peng vs. Jankovic:  Doubtless buoyed by her three-set triumph over Schiavone, Jankovic showcased some of her finest tennis this season, including imaginatively angled passing shots, alert anticipation, and timely serving (although facing 19 break points).  Although she twice failed to serve out the match against the indomitable Italian, the former #1 ultimately reveled in avenging her reverse at this opponent’s hands in Roland Garros.  More revenge might lie ahead with Australian Open conqueror Peng aligned to intercept the Serb, but Jankovic has lost their only two meetings since 2008.  Victorious in their six preceding encounters, however, she smothered Peng with her balanced groundstrokes and a court coverage that comfortably withstood the Chinese star’s meager power.  Amidst the most impressive season of her career, the world #15 has achieved that career-high ranking by winning nearly 50 matches not long after the year’s midpoint.  Peng typically bombards the center of the baseline with her groundstrokes, attempting to elicit errors from opponents pressed into a position that prevents them from creating angles.   Not likely to succumb to such a tactic when at her best, though, Jankovic more often relies upon similarly heavy north-south hitting that wears down the durability and patience of her victims.  Once again flashing her signature smile towards the end of her hard-earned Schiavone victory, the 2009 Cincinnati champion has not won a title this year after having won at least one notable tournament in each of the previous four seasons.  Can Jankovic muster just enough momentum to unleash an unexpected charge here?

For the first time, the Rogers Cup events will occur concurrently rather than consecutively.  Unlike the other concurrent ATP / WTA events, however, this veritable smorgasbord of tennis will unfold in two cities five hundred kilometers apart.  This dubious decision may benefit television audiences but hinders those who enjoy attending the two Rogers Cups in consecutive week.  While concurrent events generally succeed when held at the same venue, the same-time-but-not-same-place concept strikes us as exceedingly foolish.  Just like the fans in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, and other tennis capitals, the fans in Canada should not have to choose between the two outstanding draws that we discuss below.

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain poses for photographers after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during the final of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 15, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

First quarter:  Often troubled by Davydenko before, Djokovic likely will contest his 50th match of 2011 against the quirky Russian who has declined so steeply since wrist surgery last year.  When Kolya now appears in headlines, he generally has functioned as the foil for the breakthrough of a youngster or home hope.  Far more formidable is the challenge posed a round later by Del Potro, despite his disappointing loss to Gulbis in Los Angeles.  Winning a set from the Serb at Roland Garros this year, the Tower of Tandil never has toppled the world #1 but might approach their match with greater motivation.  A contrast to his repeated successes against Nadal and Federer, Del Potro’s futility against Djokovic suggests that he must leave his comfort zone to conquer him.  Barring such an extraordinary performance, the top seed would encounter a much more comfortable quarterfinal against his compatriot Troicki or perhaps Monfils, distinctly inferior in competitive will.  After his conquest of the All England Club and rise to #1, one wonders how much motivation Djokovic will bring to his quest for a fifth Masters 1000 crown of 2011.  Still, he has not lost before the semifinals since the Paris Indoors last year and should have refreshed his energies during the midsummer break.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  In this section proliferate the ATP’s most notable one-handed backhands, from Federer and Gasquet to Kohlschreiber and Almagro.  Just a month after falling to Tsonga at Wimbledon, the third seed may have the opportunity to exact revenge from the Frenchman in the stadium where he lost a third-set tiebreak to him two years ago after holding a 5-1 lead.  Seeking to intercept that tantalizing collision, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Tomic hopes to rival Ryan Harrison’s summer surge rather than suffering the post-Wimbledon slump of Grigor Dimitrov.  The quarter’s other side features a first-round encounter between look-alikes Stakhovsky and Kohlschreiber but no real contenders.  Like the winner of the Djokovic-Del Potro clash, the winner of a potential Federer-Tsonga meeting would fancy his chances against either of the bold-faced names here.  Fusing grace with power in their one-handed backhands, Gasquet and Almagro should offer an exuberant shot-making display in the third round.  Both players climbed unexpectedly into the top 10 or its immediate environs this season, as the Frenchman recorded second-week runs at two majors and a Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome.  Unlikely to repeat that feat here, he did defeat Federer during the aforementioned Rome run and has a winning record against Tsonga.  Comment se dit “dark horse” en français?

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Eclipsed this year by the other members in the Gang of Four, the two-time defending champion defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days at last year’s Toronto event.  Also conquering Del Potro in the 2009 final, Murray typically has showcased his finest tennis on North American hard courts and finds himself in the weakest section of the draw, allowing him to preserve energy for the weekend climax.  Littering his section is the detritus of yesteryear like Ferrero and Nalbandian or clay specialists like Montanes and Andujar.  In the third round, Murray might encounter Federer’s understudy Wawrinka, who defeated him at last year’s US Open en route to consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Since the Australian Open, the Swiss #2 has shown little confidence and less consistency against not just the elite but the ATP journeymen.  A more compelling test might come in the quarterfinals, where Murray might encounter either the Los Angeles titlist Gulbis or Los Angeles runner-up Fish.  Wisely withdrawing from Washington to rest his ankle, the American will rely on his experience to conquer his recent nemesis.  Spurred by consecutive finals appearance in the first two US Open Series events, Fish also can recall his Cincinnati victory over Murray last year should he face him in a quarterfinal.  If Judy Murray has her hopes answered, though, Feliciano Lopez will carve his way through this flaccid section to set up a second consecutive quarterfinal with her son.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Fourth quarter:  Lost in the scrutiny of his struggles against Djokovic were Nadal’s achievements between Indian Wells and Wimbledon.  Falling just a win short of his third Channel Slam, the new #2 has lost only once since the Australian Open to an opponent other than Djokovic, while recording seven victories over other top-5 opponents.  Aligned to meet Nadal in the third round is his compatriot Verdasco, who challenged him so memorably at the 2009 Australian Open but never has defeated him.  If the seventh-seeded Berdych can escape a Dolgopolov fresh from his debut title, he would attempt to halt a prolonged drought against Rafa during which he once lost 19 consecutive sets.  Solid but unremarkable this season, the Czech has evinced few flickers of the form that carried him to the Wimbledon final last summer, and he has not won a title at any level since 2009.  Towering over his surroundings is the perpetually dangerous Karlovic, who came within two points of defeating Nadal on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But perhaps the most vigorous test for the second seed might come from Gilles Simon, an indefatigable competitor with earlier success against Rafa and a crowd favorite in this Francophone city before.  Only if his lingering foot injury hampers the Spaniard’s explosive athleticism, however, will he become vulnerable for a pre-semifinal upset.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final: Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Djokovic

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses for photographers after defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the final of the  Rogers Cup at Stade Uniprix on August 23, 2010 in Montreal, Canada.

First quarter:  Following an indifferent European spring, Wozniacki will need to right her Viking vessel immediately in order to survive a section that includes two of the three players who have defeated her at majors in 2011 .  As early as the third round, the defending champion could face San Diego semifinalist Ivanovic, who tested her in Beijing last fall and dragged world #3 Zvonareva through three tense sets on Saturday.  The survivor from this battle of current and former #1s next might duel with Roland Garros champion Li Na, although Li has proved erratic in the past following her greatest accomplishments and will not fancy the prospect of facing Peng Shuai in the second round.  Defeating her compatriot earlier in 2011, Peng has compiled a consistent season during which she has regularly challenged elite opponents.  One can say the same of Cibulkova, who has defeated Wozniacki twice this year and notched a victory over Ivanovic in Fed Cup (albeit on clay).  The new prototype for players who aim to transcend their diminutive stature, the Slovak excels at covering all but the fastest courts and generates deceptive pace from her forehand.  A less imposing rival for Wozniacki in this section, Stosur seems likely to fall well outside the top 10 by the end of the US Open if the level of her performances continues its inverse correlation with the magnitude of events.  Yet she too has troubled the Dane before, so the world #1 certainly will have earned her semifinal berth if she does arrive there.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Having fallen to Radwanska in the San Diego final on Sunday, Zvonareva could meet the cunning Pole again on Thursday.  Wedged into her section also is inaugural College Park champion Petrova, far from a title threat at significant tournaments but as much of a potential dark horse as her first-round opponent Gajdosova.  An encore of the Brisbane final could unfold in this section should seeds Petkovic and Kvitova progress to the third round, yet one suspects that the Czech lefty’s first tournament since winning Wimbledon may not inspire her competitive energies.  A competitor as volatile and erratic as Li, Kvitova likely will suffer a lapse in form until at least the US Open. Reaching the semifinals in San Diego to secure her top-10 debut, Petkovic remains too raw and plays with too little margin for error to topple Zvonareva’s consistent, versatile baseline arsenal.  The Russian’s consecutive finals should infuse her with confidence, as should her memories of a run to the Canada final last year.    Courageously overcoming a shoulder injury to win San Diego, Radwanska probably cannot sustain her artistry for a second straight week.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter:  Lurking here is Roland Garros semifinalist and Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova, who must lose little time in rebounding from a dismal loss to Serena at Stanford.  An intriguing potential opener with rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski could precede a clash with Stanford finalist Bartoli, back in the top 10 after winning nine matches at the last two majors.  Often at her finest on the North American hard courts, the double-fister has struggled to protect her serve against Sharapova’s scorching return and, in her father’s opinion, lacks the belief that she can threaten her.  If Bartoli can find that belief, though, her own penetrating returns could test the Russian’s confidence in her serve following a four-match stretch in which it has chronically disappeared.  Disappearing as well in the opening match of her Stanford title defense, Azarenka should halt her losing streak at two in a comfortable section of the draw.  Barring her path to the quarterfinal is Pavlyuchenkova, who twice has won sets from her this year but, like Sharapova, has suffered severe albeit sporadic serving disruptions.  The WTA’s top-ranked teenager donated more than 50 double faults during three matches at her last tournament (Baku) while failing to build upon the momentum of her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Stopped by Sharapova at Stanford and Radwanska in San Diego, Hantuchova won a set from Azarenka at Wimbledon and could take advantage of any lapse.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  No fewer than four Slam champions reside in this elite district, of which the lowest ranked may prove the most dangerous.  Fierce and focused as she charged to the Stanford title, Serena may bring slightly less motivation now that she has dispelled her post-Wimbledon uncertainties.  Nevertheless, one’s imagination falters at the thought of a dormant and dispirited Jankovic finding a way to overcome even a tepid Serena, despite their history of thrilling encounters.  Having played only one tournament since Miami, Clijsters pursues a similar mission to Serena’s objective during the US Open Series:  accumulating sufficient matches to mount a credible charge at a major that suits their strengths.  These US Open champions would collide on Thursday as Djokovic and Del Potro do battle in Montreal, forcing television viewers to hold onto their remotes and internet viewers like us to use multiple streaming windows.  In the first meeting since their famous “foot fault” clash of 2009, one expects a scintillating encounter between two competitors who will want to deliver a key pre-Open statement.  Unlikely to leave an impact upon the summer hard courts are the two bold-faced names higher in the quarter.  Just six months removed from their 4-hour, 44-minute Australian Open epic, Schiavone and Kuznetsova will hope for a swifter decision on this occasion.  Balancing their hard-court resumes against those of Serena and Clijsters, one nourishes little optimism for their chances in a quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Final:  Zvonareva vs. S. Williams

Champion:  S. Williams

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.

Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

Ad-in:

Wozarenka:  When the surface changed, the champions stayed the same.  While she didn’t quite tower over the Charleston draw, Wozniacki elevated her performance as the week progressed and satisfyingly erased the memory of her ankle sprain here last year.  Challenged more than expected by Zahlavova Strycova and Wickmayer, the world #1 should draw confidence from her ability to capture crucial points even when she couldn’t find her best form.  Wozniacki’s comfortable victory over Jankovic, one of her generation’s finest clay players, augurs well for the Dane’s chances at Roland Garros.  Armed with sufficient consistency, concentration, and fitness to prevail on clay, she could finally legitimize her top ranking in a draw without clear favorites.  On the other hand, Caro’s best friend might ruin that storyline.  Spanning the hard courts of Miami and the red clay of Marbella, the longest winning streak of Azarenka’s career has vaulted her into the top 5 for the first time.  In the relatively toothless Andalusian draw, Vika did not succumb to complacency but instead marched through the week without surrendering a set.  A somewhat more natural mover on the crushed brick, Azarenka shares Wozniacki’s hope that injuries will not cripple her clay campaign as happened last year.  If they remain healthy, this budding rivalry could blossom during the European spring.  Stay tuned for Stuttgart, where they compete for a Porsche.

First-time champions: While Begu and Vesnina fell a round short of their maiden titles, Pablo Andujar and Ryan Sweeting completed most improbable weeks by defeating distinctly favored opponents in the final.  Prognosticators should not extrapolate too boldly from these peripheral tournaments, far removed in geography and significance from the battlefields of Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Nevertheless, Andujar deserves credit for capitalizing upon his victory over Verdasco in Miami, which itself extended promising portents such as a win over Robredo and a competitive three-set loss to Wawrinka.  And Sweeting will have claimed the attention of hopeful American fans with aggressive ball-striking and a confident demeanor that belied his inexperience in finals.  That confidence assisted him in a victory over the recently resurgent Karlovic, who has flustered many a more notable foe.  Under pressure from Nishikori late in the second set, Sweeting found the courage to take his fate into his own hands during the championship-clinching tiebreak—not an easy feat for a first-time finalist.

Nishikori:  Unfortunate to draw Nadal in his Miami opener, he acquitted himself impressively throughout a match more complex than the scoreline suggested and built upon that encouraging performance in Houston.  Still early in his partnership with Brad Gilbert, Nishikori has climbed to a position within range of his ambition to become the highest-ranked Japanese player in ATP history.  He should aim to bolster his second serve and refine his down-the-line forehand, but this week provided a desperately needed flicker of positive news for his beleaguered compatriots.  (Nishikori also has started an auction and a Facebook fund-raising drive for tsunami relief in which anyone interested should participate.)

Peng:  Despite Li Na’s post-Australian collapse, Chinese tennis continues to enjoy an outstanding 2011.  A paragon of consistency amidst the tumultuous WTA, China’s #2 surrounded an Indian Wells quarterfinal with fourth-round surges in Melbourne and Miami during which she defeated Jankovic and Kuznetsova, respectively.  The double-fister once known largely for her doubles skills plowed into the Charleston semifinals despite a style seemingly unsuited for the clay.  Firmly embedded in the top 30, Peng soon can look forward to seeded status at Grand Slams and perhaps even byes at some of the smaller tournaments.

Lisicki:  Sweeping to the Charleston title in 2009, the German with the infectious smile looked on the verge of a breakthrough that could catapult her to the top of the WTA.  Injuries (probably permanently) thwarted those aspirations, but Lisicki proved with a resounding victory over Bartoli that she still can threaten top-20 opponents.  To be sure, the Frenchwoman has suffered her share of head-scratching losses.  Still, this triumph must have delighted a player who spent months on crutches learning how to walk again one step at a time.

Deuce:

Jankovic:  Inching back towards her former reliability, she has reached the quarterfinals or better in six of seven tournaments since a second-round Melbourne loss to the aforementioned Peng.  This stretch represents a significant step forward from a disastrous second half of 2010, and Jankovic’s most productive time of year lies just over the horizon.  But one expected more from the Serb than a routine straight-sets loss when she faced a fallible Wozniacki.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has begun to struggle against the stars of the next generation (Pavyluchenkova, Petkovic, Wozniacki), never an auspicious sign.

Safina:  Whether or not one supports Marat’s controversial sister, only the hardest hearts could lack at least a tremor of compassion for her frustrating, chronically aborted return from a back injury.  Two creditable victories in Marbella set up an intriguing clash with Azarenka, at which stage her body failed her again.  Few players deserve a shift in karma more than Safina.

Green clay:  On the one hand, the slow-but-not-too-slow courts in Charleston offered a pleasant transition in color and texture between the blue/purple of the North American hard courts and the red of the European clay.  On the other hand, how relevant is a surface when only one tournament in either the ATP or WTA calendar uses it?  Even more ominously, Charleston’s move to the week immediately after the Indian Wells-Miami marathon does not bode well for its future viability. While Wimbledon could survive as the season’s only grass tournament, if necessary, Charleston might struggle to lift the banner of green clay on its own.

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

Ad-out:

Stosur:  For last year’s Roland Garros finalist, her past accomplishments weigh upon her as a burden rather than buttressing her as a source of confidence.  Considering her 2011 form, though, one could not have expected her to defend her title, and her defeat to Vesnina looked less embarrassing after the Russian reached the final.  Can a return to the red clay reverse her spiral before it imperils her top-10 status?

Kuznetsova:  Fortunate to escape a qualifier ranked outside the top 100 in her opener, the 2009 Roland Garros champion wasn’t so lucky when the same situation recurred in her semifinal.  While conquering Henin and three top-10 opponents this year, Sveta has suffered four of her nine defeats against players ranked outside the top 60.

Rezai:  Another hideous loss for the pugnacious Frenchwoman as time ticks towards April 30, the day when her Madrid title defense begins.  It may end then as well, judging from recent evidence.

 

Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  More accustomed to late nights than early mornings, the three-time major champion opens proceedings against a player whom she has dominated but has faced just once since shoulder surgery and the Aussie’s renaissance.  On that occasion, Stosur secured just one game against Sharapova in a Tokyo tournament that the Russian eventually won.  Among the most notable weapons in the Australian’s game is her kicking second serve, one of the finest in the WTA.  Against the statuesque Sharapova, however, that shot does not jolt as high above her comfortable strike zone or as far outside her vast wingspan.  Less auspicious for Maria is her reliance on breaking serve throughout this month, which has generally compensated for chronic wobbles in her own service games.  Winning 58% of her return games since the start of Indian Wells, Sharapova cannot expect to break as regularly against a server as imposing as Stosur.  If the world #5 can compile some comfortable holds, the Russian might shoulder elevated pressure as she attempts to circumvent the inevitable her double faults.  Outside her serve, Stosur has few clear advantages over the three-time major champion.  Sharapova will seek to expose her puny backhand and prevent the Aussie from frequently showcasing her net skills with a withering barrage of groundstrokes that thrust her behind the baseline.  Since neither player excels when rushed, both should hasten to attack on the first mid-court ball that they see in order to take time away from the opponent.

While she enters this match in scintillating form, the Russian also dazzled in a few of her Indian Wells matches before crumbling against Wozniacki in the semifinals.  A test of Stosur’s confidence and Sharapova’s consistency, this clash represents an immense opportunity for the winner, who will face either Peng or Dulgheru in a quarterfinal.  Who can carpe the diem?  Sharapova in three

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  In the same round at Indian Wells, the Dane stumbled for a set against the heavy-hitting Kleybanova before outlasting her less durable opponent.  A parallel narrative could unfold against Petkovic, physically fit but mentally a bit suspect.  Squandering a cavalcade of match points against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, the German almost let Sharapova escape from a massive deficit in Melbourne and nearly let another commanding lead slip away against Benesova in the previous round.  If she maneuvers herself into position to halt the world #1’s winning streak at these top-tier events, one wonders whether Petkovic will find the nerve to deliver the coup de grace.  Vulnerable in the second set of her victories over Mattek-Sands and Hantuchova, Wozniacki nearly let the Slovak drag her into a third set but ultimately found a way to win the points that she needed to win.  Nevertheless, her strategy in that match boded well for her future more broadly.  Attempting to infuse her game with greater aggression, the world #1 courageously approached the forecourt for swing volleys and struck a series of crackling backhand winners down the line.  Although these unaccustomed tactics did not always reap rewards, the Dane will further her bid for the Indian Wells-Miami double if she can expend less exertion in finishing each point.  Wozniacki in three

Medina Garrigues vs. Jankovic:  Perhaps girding herself for the clay season where she thrives most often, the many-syllabled Spaniard has dispatched three creditable opponents of Dulko, world #11 Peer, and Vesnina without dropping a set.  Yet her implausible run surely will conclude at the hands of the sixth seed, who has rebounded from a stinging Indian Wells defeat with a pair of solid victories.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has won all six of her meetings with her fourth-round opponent while dropping just two total sets.  Unlike Stosur, Medina Garrigues has done nothing to suggest that her fortunes against a recurrent nemesis could change.  Although the Serb has faded since losing the #1 ranking, opponents without baseline weapons still struggle to overcome her.  Unless Jankovic suffers one of the inexplicable collapses that haunted her in the second half of last year, this match should feature little suspense.  Jankovic in two

Schiavone vs. Radwanska:  As mighty baseliners trade missiles elsewhere on Monday, these subtle shot-makers will dance around each other with artful grace.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Italian and the Pole compensate for their lack of first-strike power with brilliant shot selection and generally unerring instincts.  While Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings, Radwanska has looked equally impressive in recent weeks; both came within a third-set tiebreak of reaching the Indian Wells quarterfinals after sturdy Melbourne performances.  More inclined to generate offense from their backhands than their forehands, they offer a compelling contrast between the Italian’s flowing one-handed stroke and the Pole’s compact two-handed jab.  But neither player relies exclusively upon finishing points from the baseline, instead creeping towards the net for a deft volley or drop shot.  Unimposing on serve, they will punish each other’s second deliveries with precisely placed albeit not overwhelming returns.  One expects a draining test of endurance with prolonged rallies, precarious service games, and plenty of mini-tennis near the net.  Whereas the action in most matches slides along the baseline, points here may unfold vertically as well as horizontally.  Radwanska in three

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Russia reacts after she won the second set against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Azarenka vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two years ago, the Belarussian collided with the former junior #1 en route to the most significant title of her career.  Still struggling to assert herself among the WTA elite, Azarenka has regressed since that breakthrough moment while retaining the core of crisp movement, balanced power, and steady technique that earned her the 2009 Miami crown.  The likely future of Russian tennis, Pavlyuchenkova ominously has endured several injuries already but showed her competitive maturity by rallying from a one-set deficit against Jankovic to defend her Monterrey title this year.  Also on display at this tournament is the Russian’s resilience, which allowed her to survive the disappointment of twice failing to serve out a match against Kvitova in the second set.  Whereas many WTA journeywomen would have crumbled at that stage, “Nastia” proved a nasty foe for the dangerous 12th seed as she fired back with a third-set bagel.  The momentum from that victory could propel Pavlyuchenkova to an only slightly more remarkable victory over the 2009 champion.  During a gripping third-round three-setter of her own, however, Azarenka demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of durability and focus.  Struggling to hold serve during the first half of the match, the eighth seed did not despair as Cibulkova raced across the court to retrieve every dart that she could throw at her.  One expected that Azarenka might shrug and pout her way to a routine loss when she trailed by a set and a break, but instead she remained confident in her weapons and steadily chipped away at the Slovak.  More comfortable against a player who shares her unreliable serve and penetrating groundstrokes but not her agility, Vika would take a significant step forward if she could reach consecutive quarterfinals at these Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Azarenka in two

Peng vs. Dulgheru:  Almost as deeply rooted in clay as Medina Garrigues, Dulgheru won just one of seven 2011 matches before this week and won consecutive matches just once between the US Open and Miami.  Although she has lost just eight games en route to the final 16, the Romanian will meet a player more than her match in the feisty Peng Shuai, fresh from a second upset over Kuznetsova.  A prosperous month for double-fisters looks likely to continue as this Chinese star has filled the void left by Li in her quarter.  Only four places lower in the rankings than Dulgheru, Peng soon will find herself with seeds, byes, and the other trappings of a legitimate contender if her ascent continues.  Peng in two

Bartoli vs. Zvonareva:  Before the Frenchwoman’s three-set victory in Beijing 2009, the world #3 had collected eight of their nine previous meetings in devastating fashion.  In ten of the fourteen completed sets that Zvonareva won before that loss to Bartoli, she dropped two or fewer games.  The events of March might suggest a change in script, however, for the Frenchwoman built upon a Doha semifinal to reach the final at Indian Wells.  By contrast, the Russian did not capitalize upon her momentum from a Doha title but instead slumped to an epic yet early exit from the desert.  Extended to three sets in their openers, both players advanced less eventfully on Sunday.  A semifinalist at this tournament last year, Bartoli must seize the initiative early in rallies by lashing her double-fisted lasers behind Zvonareva and forcing her to reverse direction.  In order to execute that strategy, though, she must step inside the baseline as often as possible and stay close to the center of the court, a goal that the Russian will aim to thwart by stretching her from side to side with deep groundstrokes.  Pounding ten aces against Groth in the third round, Zvonareva can nullify the Frenchwoman’s formidable return if she maintains a high first-serve percentage. The world #3 has not enjoyed her previous sojourns in Miami, attaining the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances, but unkind draws (like Henin in the fourth round last year) have played a role in her underachievement.  Zvonareva in two

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts against Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 25, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Ivanovic vs. Clijsters:  Seeking her third straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, the Serb confronts the defending champion in the fourth round for the second straight tournament.  A quarterfinalist in her first appearance here, Ivanovic typically has suffered a lull in Miami between strong results at Indian Wells and during the clay season.  Traces of this pattern have emerged in her first two matches, during which she confronted 23 break points on her serve.  Tiptoeing around 18 of those threats, Ana cannot depend upon preserving this ratio against another former #1 who has quelled her comfortably in their two previous completed meetings.  On the other hand, Clijsters did not dazzle during her three-set triumph over Martinez Sanchez, during which she uncorked 10 double faults and 39 unforced errors amidst numerous edgy service games.

While Ivanovic should gain confidence from that frailty, she does not possess the quirkiness and versatility of Martinez Sanchez that can fluster a rhythm-oriented player like the Belgian with unpredictable shot selection and placement.  Unless the Serb leaves her comfort zone to attempt high-bouncing, heavy-spinning loopers, drop shots, and slices, the counterpunching Clijsters should thrive on a steady diet of smoothly struck groundstrokes that she can absorb and redirect.  Since the defending champion struggled on her serve against Martinez Sanchez, Ivanovic should swing aggressively on her returns in order to instill a few flickers of doubt in her opponent’s mind.  Just as she did against Jankovic, the Serb will seek to pound the first forehand that she sees, while Clijsters will hope to feed her a steady diet of backhands.  On court for three total hours on Sunday, Ivanovic has struggled to recover from such exertions after streamlining her figure during the offseason.  Clijsters in two

Continuing our Indian Wells daily preview series, we separate the four favorites on Thursday into the punchers and the counterpunchers.  Or, in a more picturesque phrase, swords and shields.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia pumps her fist following her victory over Dinara Safina of Russia during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 15, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Swords:

Sharapova:  After an uncertain opening game against Safina, the 2006 champion sharpened her focus and methodically snuffed out any ray of hope that her former nemesis might have nurtured.  Even as she marched inexorably towards the quarterfinals, Sharapova continued to level her frosty glare before each serve and inspect each adverse call.  This mental relentlessness recalled her tenure at the peak of the game, when she played each point with the same single-minded intensity without regard to the scoreline.  Against a less notable but far more sprightly opponent, the Russian will need to maintain that level of concentration as well as the spine-tingling shot-making that characterized her 28 winners in the previous round.  The three-time major champion also altered her serving stance (although not her motion) before the tournament, and she generally has controlled that shot more effectively here than for much of her comeback.

In contrast to the less mobile Rezai and Safina, Peng possesses the agility to track down and Sharapova’s skidding rockets.  Like her compatriot Zheng, her low center of gravity enables her to retrieve them more comfortably than Maria’s statuesque Eastern European opponents.  Also like Zheng, however, Peng projects little power from the service notch and must hope to protect her second serve with a high first-serve percentage.  From their previous meetings emerge little useful evidence, for Sharapova’s victory came on red clay six years ago, while Peng upset an exhausted Russian a day after she battled Azarenka for three and a half hours.  Able to absorb the pace of Petrova and Li Na, the Chinese star certainly could capitalize upon an erratic afternoon from the 2006 champion.  But Sharapova will control her own destiny for better or for worse, just as this proud competitor prefers.

Del Potro:  Having equaled his best performance in the desert so far, the Argentine tower of power shares Sharapova’s capacity to hammer groundstrokes through even this exceptionally slow surface.  His comeback has accelerated with implausible speed from semifinals in San Jose and Memphis to a title in Delray Beach and four successive victories here.  Without the privilege of a bye, Del Potro nevertheless showed little sign of fatigue during a three-set victory over Ljubicic or a two-tiebreak triumph over Kohlschreiber, when he saved five successive set points.  Will his physical and mental exertions eventually weigh upon his lanky limbs, especially when he plays for the second straight day?  On the other hand, the rusty Argentine may benefit from an injury to projected opponent Tommy Robredo, who overcame a painful leg strain against Querrey on Wednesday.  The valiant Spaniard has dispatched both of the American Cinderellas in his section, eliminating not only Verdasco-killer Querrey but also Murray-killer Donald Young.  Should he dare to take the court, one suspects that the hunter will become the hunted, for Del Potro’s massive forehand has grown progressively more ominous from one victory to the next.

Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Shields:

Nadal:  Scarcely short of flawless in his first two victories, the world #1 displayed his mortal nature in a surprisingly complicated meeting with Indian qualifier Somdev Devvarman.  Since his draw nearly emptied of contenders within the first two rounds, Nadal could trace a tranquil route to the final.  Having slipped outside the top 200 with injuries and advancing age, Karlovic has risen from the catacombs of obscurity this week with victories over Ferrer, Simon, and Montanes.  Probably more remarkable than his unbroken sequence of service holds across eight sets was his ability to break his seeded opponents six times despite a normally woeful return game.  Nadal has likened returning the Croat’s serve to a soccer goalie receiving a kick in the stomach, and he has dropped sets to this intimidating opponent on more than one occasion.  Although the slow surface has denied Karlovic his customary avalanche of aces, he has found plentiful opportunities to stride to the net for a comfortably high volley.  Confronting the peerless passing shots of the Spaniard, that task grows significantly more difficult.  One could imagine Karlovic forcing a tiebreak or two, perhaps even slipping away a set with a little luck if Nadal fails to elevate his level from Wednesday.  When a match hinges upon a few key points, however, few players have a keener knack for capturing the moment than the world #1.

Wozniacki:  Seeking to tighten her grip upon the #1 ranking, last year’s finalist has become the clear favorite for the title following the early exodus of almost the entire top 10.  Alone among the other survivors is Wozniacki’s quarterfinal opponent, a close friend off the court and a fierce rival on it.  Perhaps as a result of their congenial relationship, their previous encounters have featured scintillating tennis only sporadically but have compensated for that flaw with dramatic suspense.  Last fall in Tokyo, for example, the world #1 thoroughly dominated Azarenka through a set and a half before the Belarussian awakened to play an inspired tiebreak and force a third set.  At that stage, Wozniacki rushed to a 5-0 lead, only to watch it nearly evaporate beneath her opponent’s assault.  Their rivalry looks likely to assume center stage after the current generation of WTA stars fade, mixing talent with glamor in the fusion beloved by the WTA’s marketing squad.

Diverging in personalities more than in playing styles, they arrived at this anticipated meeting only after rallying from one-set deficits in the previous round.  But he parallels between those comebacks stop at the surface.  Whereas Wozniacki progressively consolidated her control over a flagging Kleybanova and romped through the final set, Azarenka averted four match points against Radwanska during a match that lasted over three hours.  If the Belarussian has recovered physically from that ordeal, she may have gained psychological impetus through her brush with disaster.  Extremely fortunate to have remained in the desert for another round, she can attack her shots liberated from the tension of expectations.  In order to postpone a flight to Miami that looked imminent two days ago, however, Azarenka must curb her serving struggles and find a way to hold more comfortably than she did against Radwanska.  No serving leviathan, Wozniacki still maintains her equilibrium far more steadily than does her friend and can navigate through her service games more efficiently.  Azarenka can unveil her arguably greater potential only when she develops a similar ability.


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