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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

First quarter:  Still clinging to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki warily arrives into Melbourne after a wrist injury and attempts to shed her inconsistency of the past several months.  These slow courts will benefit her defensive style, especially since she faces no overwhelming shot-maker in the first week.  Even when the Dane reaches the fourth round, she would face only her counterpunching counterpart Jankovic, who compiled respectable but not remarkable results in Brisbane and Sydney.  If Safaraova can capitalize upon a fine week in Sydney to upset Jankovic, a more intriguing test might await for Wozniacki in the Czech lefty’s assertive serve-forehand combinations.  As her 24th seed would suggest, though, Safarova likely lacks the consistency to outhit the world #1 for an entire match.  Offering more intrigue is the lower part of this section, where both Clijsters and Li Na reside.  After a series of consistently solid performances at preparatory tournaments, last year’s runner-up looks sharper than she has since winning Roland Garros.  More questions surround the defending champion, forced to withdraw from her last tournament with a minor injury but now ostensibly recovered.  Often vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments, Clijsters could meet Hantuchova for the second time in four matches, having struggled with her before retiring from their Brisbane semifinal.  No similar obstacle could intercept Li, who might replay last year’s semifinal and final in reverse order should she reach the second week.  Last year, she defeated Wozniacki and probably should have finished off Clijsters.  This year, she has acquitted herself much more convincingly than both rivals and, for once, seems physically healthier.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  The champion at Sydney in 2011, Li built upon that momentum to reach the Melbourne final two weeks later.  As she searches for her first major final, Azarenka will hope to follow that example, but her draw could prove somewhat thorny.  In the first week, clashes with Bolletieri pupil Heather Watson and rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski would prepare Vika effectively for the challenges ahead.  Capable counterpunchers Pennetta and Peng might vie in the third round for the honor of withstanding Azarenka’s offense.  When they met at the US Open, their two-set match lasted over two hours as they fiercely contested every game and point with protracted rally after protracted rally.  Bookending the lower part of this quarter are two artful practitioners of a finesse rare in the current WTA, Schiavone and Radwanska.  Although she withdrew from Sydney, Julia Goerges returns in Melbourne to eye a third-round meeting with Schiavone that would contrast the German’s penetrating serve and groundstrokes with the Italian’s biting slice and uncanny placement.  Playing for the Hobart title on Saturday, Yanina Wickmayer seeks to reassert her relevance in the aftermath of a disappointing 2011 campaign.  As she showed against Henin two years ago on Rod Laver Arena, the Belgian #2 possesses natural athleticism, crisp technique, and a generally balanced game.  Sometimes too emotional at the wrong moments, Wickmayer could find Pironkova’s deceptively vanilla style frustrating in the second round and likely would come unglued when she meets Radwanska a round later.  Reaching the second week last year, the eighth seed would aim for a quarterfinal rematch with Azarenka of their Sydney semifinal, a match that she controlled for a set and a half before fading.  While neither of these Generation Next stars has broken through at a major, the third seed Vika has accomplished somewhat more on these stages and has grown slightly more patient with age.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  When the draw first appeared, many who awaited it scanned to see where Serena had appeared.  Still an intimidating presence in any player field, the 13-time major champion lies embedded in this quarter near Cibulkova, who has played three sets in all three of her matches this year and lost two of them.  The imposing serve of Canadian Rebecca Marino, praised by Serena’s sister, might test the American should she meet her in the third round.  Yet the most serious challenge that she will face during the first week concerns her ankle, severely twisted in Brisbane and not quite recovered.  Early in her comeback last year, Serena sustained a loss in Eastbourne to Vera Zvonareva, projected to meet her when the second week begins.  Considering the Russian’s ongoing slump, though, Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi might offer more plausible resistance with her overwhelming serve and improved footwork.  Even if Zvonareva stumbles in the first week, this section still might feature a Russian quarterfinalist, since it includes 2008 champion Sharapova as well as two-time major titlist Kuznetsova.  A nagging ankle injury forestalled Sharapova’s tournament preparation and may leave her rusty for a dangerous first-round encounter with steady Argentine Gisela Dulko, who defeated her at Wimbledon in 2009.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova’s primary challenge should emerge from the chronically injured Lisicki, seeking to recover from a back injury in Auckland.  While she has not reached a semifinal at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova upset Henin and competed with unexpected tenacity throughout her epic against Schiavone last year.  The mercurial Russian defeated Serena at a major and once served for the match against her here before another of the American’s patented comebacks.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Fourth quarter:  Perhaps a little less deep than the other sections, this quarter lies at the mercy of second seed and probable future #1 Kvitova.  Losing to Li in Sydney after leading by a set and a break illustrated some remaining vestiges of immaturity, costly against elite opponents.  Aligned to face Kirilenko in the third round, Kvitova will need to cultivate her patience as she attempts to repeat her Fed Cup dominance over the Russian on slower, hotter courts.  On paper, her fourth-round encounter with either Ivanovic or Pavlyuchenkova should confront her with a hard-hitting adversary worthy of her steel.  Nevertheless, the still youthful Russian crashed out of both Brisbane and Sydney ignominiously, constantly beleaguered on serve.  While Ivanovic’s serve has improved, her overall confidence level falls well below the heights recently attained by Kvitova, who exudes purpose with each stride when at her best.  Australian fans should take confidence of their own from Stosur’s comfortable early draw, although the US Open champion nearly fell to third-round opponent Petrova early in her championship run.  Dangerous but not quite dominant in the last two weeks, Bartoli will open against her compatriot Razzano, with whom she has crossed verbal swords before.  Among the non-boldfaced names to note is Zheng Jie, the improbable Auckland champion and 2010 semifinalist.  Her opener against rising American Madison Keys ranks as one of the more intriguing first-round WTA matches.  Nor should one neglect former top-5 resident Anna Chakvetadze, who stirred from her long-dormant state in Hobart and will start against another comeback artist in Jelena Dokic.  All of these storylines feel like subplots, though, in the presence of Kvitova.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark reacts to a point against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wozniacki:  About three months into the season, the world #1 looked poised to either finally break through at a major or at least continue her dominance at the most significant non-majors.  At that stage, Wozniacki not only had continued a winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments that extended back to the 2010 Rogers Cup but had recorded her best result to date at the Australian Open, where only a prodigious effort by Li Na halted her.  Then, without warning, her game unraveled on a sultry afternoon in Miami against Petkovic, and she never quite collected herself for the rest of the season.  Over the rest of the spring and summer, Wozniacki would lose matches to Goerges (twice), Hantuchova, Cibulkova, Vinci, and Christina McHale as her impressive consistency deserted her.  Especially troubling was the Wimbledon loss to Cibulkova, in which the Dane won the first set 6-1 before growing progressively more flustered as the match slipped away.  Downed by Kanepi and Pennetta in her Asian title defenses, Wozniacki trailed by a set and a break in the only match that she won at the year-end championships.  Although she did reach the US Open semifinal for the third straight year, she mustered little resistance to Serena and found herself fortunate to escape Kuznetsova two rounds before.  Undeterred by her declining fortunes on court, Wozniacki also engaged in some odd off-court behavior throughout 2011, most notably mocking the cramping spasms of a certain 10-time major champion.  Her accomplishment of holding the year-end #1 ranking for two straight years reflects much less on her than on the ranking system.

Zvonareva:  Looking back a few years from now, one wonders whether we will perceive her 2010 season as similar to Berdych’s 2010 campaign:  an unexpected mid-career surge of a highly talented but critically flawed competitor who then receded to a more familiar level of performance.   Zvonareva’s season started brightly with a third consecutive Slam semifinal appearance, built in part upon the bones of Kvitova.  With consecutive victories over top-six opponents in Doha, she displayed perhaps her most convincing tennis of the year, shifting seamlessly from defense to offense in one of the WTA’s most balanced styles.  Demolished by Azarenka in a Miami semifinal, the Russian faded during the European seasons and fell in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense.  After a nine-match winning streak in Baku and San Diego, she suffered the first of four second-half meltdowns against Radwanska that became one of the dominant narratives in her season.  Two of those losses came in finals, where the advantage of Zvonareva’s experience could not counterbalance her disadvantage in emotional composure.  Unlucky to draw Stosur in a US Open quarterfinal, she lost three of four matches at the year-end championships.  In short, Zvonareva’s season hovered around the boundary between respectability and mediocrity, judged by the standards that she set a year ago.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors, the former junior #1 showcased her brutal ball-striking on surfaces of all speeds.  Not intimidated by Serena in New York, she traded blows with the 13-time major champion as confidently as she dueled with defending champion Schiavone in Paris.  Pavlyuchenkova also displayed competitive courage on two other occasions:  when she defended her Monterrey title and when she turned the tables on Schiavone just two majors after losing their Roland Garros meeting.  Somewhat concerning is her struggle with double faults, however, which reached its apex (or nadir) in Baku when she struck 25 in one match and 52 across the course of three matches.  In a player so young, a serve so unreliable still could improve significantly, so Pavlyuchenkova should focus upon remedying that department of her game before such habits become rooted too deeply.  But the newest standard-bearer of Russian tennis should win plenty of matches next year based on her fierce groundstrokes alone

Peng:  In a memorable year for Asian sports, China’s #2 earned a modest breakthrough of her own as her compatriot Li Na thrilled a continent.  The double-fister of a disposition more pleasant than Bartoli reached five semifinals on three different surfaces in the first half alone before her results tapered in the second half.  Scoring 12 victories over higher-ranked opponents, she reached the second week of three majors and ambushed four players who ended the year in the top 15.  As her groundstrokes peppered the center of the baseline, opponents struggled to create angles or set their feet crisply.  Known mostly as a doubles specialist before 2011, Peng may want to balance her schedule more carefully in 2012 to protect herself from the injuries that accumulated this year.

Jankovic:  Title-less for the first year since 2006, this precursor to Wozniacki lost to her descendant three times after having won all of their previous meetings.  The reversal of their mini-rivalry illustrated Jankovic’s decline in consistency, essential for her counterpunching style and likely a terminal condition.  Winning two total matches at the three non-clay majors, the former #1 fell outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.  All the same, she collaborated with several of her conquerors in compelling matches from Doha and Miami (Zvonareva and Petkovic) to Roland Garros and Cincinnati (Schiavone and Sharapova).  Filled with oscillating momentum, those melodramatic three-setters will have satisfied her trademark appetite for drama.  While her hopes of winning a major will remain a mirage, Jankovic’s sporadic flashes of feistiness still adds spice to matches that otherwise might seem bland.

Kuznetsova:  As with several of the other players on this list, the best came first for Kuznetsova in 2011.  Thwarted as relentlessly by Henin as Roddich by Federer, she gained the grim satisfaction of defeating the Belgian in the last match of her career.  One round later, Sveta contested the most memorable women’s match of 2011 in a thriller with Schiavone that lasted nearly five hours and during which she held five match points.  Following that spectacle, Kuznetsova reached the final in Dubai but then almost totally evaporated with opening-match losses in five of her next six tournaments.  Bursting back into relevance with a Roland Garros quarterfinal, she nearly repeated that feat at the US Open against a hapless Wozniacki.  In that late-night comedy of errors, the Russian led by a set and 4-1 before the tide turned inexorably against here.  Littered with stunning winners and absurd errors from every corner of the court, that sprawling encounter offered a metaphor for everything that Kuznetsova could have achieved—in this season and in her career—and everything that she has not.

Cibulkova:  Proving that stature does not always correlate to success, the plucky Slovak toppled Wozniacki twice as well as four other members of the year-end top 10.  Ever willing to engage in wars of attrition, she outlasted Zvonareva in an epic Indian Wells three-setter and threatened eventual champion Azarenka more than any of her other opponents in Miami.  Despite the inherent limitations on her power, Cibulkova clubbed forehands with remarkable pace throughout her Wimbledon quarterfinal run.  Assisting her in constructing points around that shot as much as possible, her coach Zelkjo Krajan has burnished his reputation by succeeding with two such different pupils in Cibulkova and Safina.  His disciple ended 2011 in the most satisfying fashion imaginable by winning her first career title at the Kremlin Cup after twice rallying from one-set deficits, including a dramatic comeback in the final.

Hantuchova:  Nine times out of ten, the elegant Slovak crumbles under the pressure of facing elite opposition and contributes to her own demise.  On the tenth time, Hantuchova unleashes a virtually unplayable barrage of acutely angled groundstrokes and expertly placed volleys.  That inspired version of the Slovak appeared against Zvonareva when she raced to the Pattaya City title without dropping a set, and then again for extended spans of their Doha quarterfinal, one of the most thrilling and relentless explosions of shot-making that the WTA witnessed all year.  Over the next few months, Hantuchova would stifle Wozniacki, Li, and Venus by defying the odds of her low-percentage shots for longer than one would believe possible.  Frustrating to watch when her shots misfire, Hantuchova embodies the ebbing but still stunning aesthetic dimension of tennis at a time when the sport’s physicality has captured the spotlight.

Pironkova:  Many players perform far above their normal level at a certain tournament, having developed comfort with the surface or the setting.  For examples of such anomalies, consider Hantuchova’s two Indian Wells titles or Schiavone’s consecutive Roland Garros finals.  Or consider the nine wins that Tsevtana Pironkova has registered in her last two Wimbledon appearances, including two over five-time champion Venus (by eerily identical scores) and two more over finalists Bartoli and Zvonareva.  The willowy brunette even extended Kvitova to a third set this year with a seemingly unremarkable game.  If Pironkova signed some Faustian bargain that allowed her to excel at exactly one tournament on the calendar, she certainly chose well.

Kerber:  Thoroughly anonymous until the US Open, the German lefty carved through the section of the draw vacated by Kvitova and Sharapova to reach the semifinals, where she temporarily struck fear into Stosur.  For now, her suddenly exalted station in the WTA testifies less to her talents than to the extreme unpredictability of women’s tennis, similar to Greta Arn’s year-opening title in Auckland.  But Kerber can revise our interpretation of that narrative in 2012, and she owns the lefty weapons to make a legitimate attempt at consolidating her momentum.

Ivanovic:  In a season rather similar to 2010, the former #1 enjoyed her second half much more than a first half filled with the indignities of first-round losses at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and elsewhere.  Long fond of Indian Wells, Ivanovic must have relished a quarterfinal appearance there, especially a commanding victory over countrywoman and bitter rival Jankovic.  Within a point of scoring a spectacular upset over defending champion Clijsters in Miami, she let slip away a thrilling encounter from which she needed a few months to recover.  Lacking an exclusive, full-time coach for much of her post-2008 tribulations, Ivanovic found stability in a partnership with Nigel Sears.  That stability ultimately translated into a confidence that she had lacked while compiling a dismal record in three-setters and tiebreaks, the areas that most test a player’s fortitude.  Reaching the second week of the US Open, Ana delivered consecutive victories over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in Beijing before extending her reign over Bali.  Defending a title for the first time, she ended 2011 with her seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope restored once more.

We join Ana in wishing you a Happy Holiday.

After clicking the WTA website’s link for the Bali draw, one might struggle to locate the bracket in what appears a mostly blank sheet of paper.  The only event in the sport that starts with the quarterfinals, the Tournament of Champions doesn’t quite live up to its name.  After all, the real “Tournament of Champions” just ended last weekend in Istanbul with a series of compelling encounters among top-eight opponents.  Absent from this idyllic island resort is any woman in that category, but the coda to the 2011 season does feature a curious assortment of rising stars, setting stars, supernovas, and black holes.  To paraphrase Larry Scott’s marketing campaign for the actual year-end championships, we look for a heroine in this heterogeneous octet.

Rising stars:

Lisicki:  The best server in the draw, her signature shot should earn her shoals of free points on this slick indoor surface.  Winning two International titles this summer, Lisicki recorded the most notable accomplishment of her career so far by reaching the Wimbledon semifinal with victories over Li and Bartoli, the latter of whom she might face in a semifinal here.  By the US Open, though, her torrid streak had subsided as untimely double faults and impatient shot selection increased.  One can imagine Lisicki developing into the next Stosur, armed with massive serve-forehand combinations and a perennial threat at Wimbledon.  For now, she remains a talent more raw and rough-hewn than those of her compatriots Petkovic and Goerges.  Having recovered from excruciating, career-threatening injuries more than once, though, this German gains underrated strength from her natural optimism.

Peng:  One of two double-fisters here, the Chinese #2 had gained little renown outside her home nation for her skills in singles.  Better known for her exploits in doubles, she accumulated more than 50 victories in 2011 (more than Li Na, in fact) when she occupied one side of the court by herself.  During the first half alone, Peng knocked off two Slam champions in Kuznetsova and Schiavone as well as Zvonareva, Li, and former #1 Jankovic.  Reaching five semifinals before Wimbledon, she still searches for her first career singles crown, an accomplishment that seems long overdue.  Like Lisicki, the Chinese double-fister has traced a steady downward arc over the past few months, probably the inevitable result of a season during which she played far more matches than she expected.  Facing Petrova for the third time this year, she faces a sterner task than in her two preceding three-set wins on slower surfaces.

Setting stars:

Hantuchova:  Just when one thinks that the willowy Slovak has wandered into the mists of history, she bursts back into relevance with a scintillating performance reminiscent of her top-5 days.  Although she collected her fourth title in Pattaya City after a win over Zvonareva, Hantuchova struck her richest vein of form during the clay and grass seasons.  Slashing Wozniacki to ribbons at Roland Garros, she raced to the Birmingham final and challenged eventual semifinalist Azarenka at Wimbledon before succumbing in three sets.  Hantuchova’s audacious angles and the pinpoint control that they require should dazzle on an indoor court, but she lost her opener here last year to an even more inspired Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Shortly Bali shifted from an ordinary event to the Tournament of Champions, she reached a final in this relaxed atmosphere that suits her personality.  Nevertheless, she will struggle to tame Lisicki’s serve in a rematch of the Birmingham final that she lost resoundingly.

Petrova:  The inaugural champion in College Park, this aging Russian lost her first match at nine of twenty tournaments this year while finishing just four wins over .500.  On days when her serve and reflexes remain crisp, Petrova still can compete with most players outside the top five or six.  While the surface will reward those strengths, it also may expose her ungainly movement as with Hantuchova.  In order to advance past the first round, Petrova must find a way to rediscover the mastery over Peng that slipped away from her in their last two meetings.  No matter how she performs in the sense of forehands and backhands, however, she rarely fails to entertain with her expressions of exaggerated disdain, caustic soliloquies to herself in Russian, or idiosyncratic outfits.  When she shifts from tennis into a career as a Russian television commentator, viewers should relish her piquant insights.

Supernovas:

Bartoli:  Resting atop the truncated draw, Bartoli would seem the clear title favorite based upon her 2011 resume.  Whereas most of her rivals captured their laurels at lesser tournaments, this second double-fister not only defeated Serena—an event memorable in itself—but halted the 13-time major champion’s title defense at Wimbledon.  At the previous major, the Frenchwoman delighted her compatriots by reaching an unexpected semifinal.  The runner-up at the first edition of the Tournament of Champions, Bartoli should feast upon the second serves of opponents with her rapier-like returns.  In fact, she could feast upon the first serve of her initial opponent, Medina Garrigues, before arranging a rematch of her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Lisicki.  Will the first strike of the event’s premier server or of the event’s premier returner prove more deadly?  Fresh from a three-set upset over Azarenka at Istanbul, Bartoli won Osaka two weeks before and nearly overcome Petkovic in Beijing, so she arrives in perhaps the most impressive form of all entrants.

Ivanovic:  For the first time since Roland Garros 2009, the former #1 attempts to defend a title.  Spurning the opportunity to protect her Linz crown, Ivanovic enjoyed one of her finest weeks this season two tournaments ago in Beijing, where she defeated Kuznetsova and Zvonareva while yielding just eight total games.  Under the guidance of new coach Nigel Sears, she has survived the first round at seven consecutive tournaments, her longest such streak since winning the French Open.  But the Serb’s luminous smile turned into a grimace when a back injury curtailed her Beijing surge.  Either the injury or the competitive rust that it caused likely contributed to her disappointing defeat to Keothavong in Luxembourg, and Ivanovic continues to nurse that back as she approaches this tournament.  A title defense looks implausible, although a return to these tranquil surroundings offers an excellent endpoint to another turbulent season for the Serb.

Black holes:

Vinci:  After dropping her first four career meetings to Ivanovic, the Italian exacted revenge upon the former #1 twice this year.  Her oddly veering backhand slice should stay low on this surface, like the quirky strokes of Date-Krumm last year, and disrupt her opponent’s rhythm.  But one wonders whether Vinci can display her artful counterpunching to its fullest on a court designed for offense.  Among Wozniacki’s second-half nemeses, she should appreciate her position in the weaker half of the draw and conceivably could reach the final if fortune smiles upon her.

Medina Garrigues:  When she won Estoril this spring, the Spanish veteran surely did not anticipate that her prowess on the dusty battlefields of Portugal would lead her to the beaches of Indonesia.  Accomplishing little outside clay throughout her career, Medina Garrigues enjoyed the most impressive week of her season when she mustered three straight wins in Miami.  Aligned to face Bartoli, she has scant cause for confidence against an opponent who has collected all four of their hard-court matches without conceding a set.  Nevertheless, a quarterfinal berth seems assured.

***

After Istanbul, you may have thought that the seasons of Kvitova and Zvonareva ended.  (Momentarily, they may have thought so too.)  But in fact they will meet once again this year next Sunday with a Fed Cup title at stake.  We return with a preview on Friday.

 

Rafael Nadal - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Nalbandian vs. Nadal:  Splitting his four previous meetings with the Argentine, Nadal has lost at least one set to him in each of their encounters.  After Nalbandian overwhelmed him at two indoor events in 2007, Rafa rallied from one-set deficits against him at the North American Masters tournaments more recently.  Even in his decline, therefore, the former Wimbledon finalist continues to threaten the far superior Spaniard with a two-handed backhand pounded into the forehand corner towards which Nadal moves less naturally.  Already ill at ease since losing the Wimbledon final, the world #2 lost his serve six times in his opener and escaped a four- or five-setter largely through the profligacy of an erratic opponent.  Similar generosity may flow from the racket of Nalbandian, who has struggled with injuries and overall fitness throughout a career beset by questions concerning his commitment.  By reaching the third round with a four-set triumph over Ljubicic, however, he has demonstrated his most compelling form of the season so far.  Inclined to waxing as the season wanes, the Argentine has feasted before on opponents weary from first-half successes.  Since he wins relatively few free points on his serve, one struggles to imagine him winning this match, and the early start time may find him sluggish.  But a test of Nadal’s confidence will loom if Nalbandian can assert himself immediately as he has without fail in each of their earlier collisions.

Roddick vs. Benneteau:  Amidst a formidable year for French tennis, this doubles specialist with a brisk down-the-line backhand and superb net skills has lain relatively dormant.  Shouldering a losing record in 2011 before the US Open began, Benneteau won renown by defeating Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago and then holding a match point against Nadal less than a year later.  At first glance, Roddick’s much steadier game would seem to offer him few loopholes, yet the Frenchman’s doubles prowess should allow him to unleash some cleverly angled reflex returns.  In order to silence the American crowd, meanwhile, Benneteau should focus on projecting positive energy and pulling the trigger early in rallies.  Roddick’s strange mixture of explosive serves and passive groundstrokes will allow him to outlast the impulsive French shot-maker in most neutral points.  Unimpressive in his first match, the 2003 champion rose in intensity during a potentially dangerous second-round encounter with the intriguing Jack Sock.  Having played night sessions in each of his previous two rounds, how will Roddick adjust to daytime conditions?  Since both players venture to the net more frequently than their average ATP peers, entertaining cat-and-mouse exchanges might unfold in addition to some vintage serve-volley and chip-charge tactics.

Lopez vs. Murray:  Conquering the third-ranked Spanish lefty with ease at Wimbledon, Murray has won 11 of the 12 sets that they have played.  Lopez’s net-rushing style plays into the hands of the fourth seed’s key strengths, return and passing shots, while his wayward backhand offers an obvious target for the intelligent Scotsman to strike.  Content to rally from the baseline until the Spaniard concedes an error, Murray should not need to leave his comfort zone unless his opponent delivers well-placed first serves at key moments.  Nevertheless, Lopez has played some of his more impressive tennis this year, ranging from that Wimbledon quarterfinal to a heroic victory over Fish in Davis Cup on a fast hard court.  Unlike most Spaniards, this lefty has scored greater exploits on grass and hard courts than on clay.  Thrust into a two-set deficit against Haase in the third round, Murray regrouped on that occasion to outmaneuver in an opponent with more potent weapons but a far less complete game.  The heavy ball-striking of Cilic and Wawrinka ended his last two US Opens at this stage, while Lopez should shine under the lights of Arthur Ashe as he did during a scintillating four-setter against Federer four Opens ago.  If Murray stays alert and showcases his characteristically crisp timing on his groundstrokes, though, he should suffer less suspense than in his previous round.  A trend throughout this tournament, the mundane men’s matches on Arthur Ashe may continue into the second week.

Sabine Lisicki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Lisicki vs. Zvonareva:  For the third time this year and for the second straight US Open, the top-ranked Russian faces the WTA’s heaviest serve outside Serena.  Overwhelming when she finds corners and lines with her first serve, Lisicki becomes vulnerable when forced to resort to her unremarkable second delivery.  In edgy three-set victories at Roland Garros and San Diego, Zvonareva capitalized opportunistically whenever the German’s first-serve percentage sagged, while her consistency allowed her to capture the majority of the extended rallies.  In the effort to exert ever more first-strike power, Lisicki donated too many double faults and return errors late in those losses, so she should seek to lean slightly further towards the side of restraint on this occasion.  Illustrated by her struggles against Stosur, Zvonareva often has faltered both physically and mentally against players who can hold serve more easily than she can.  A tepid 2011 campaign has witnessed an occasional highlight but few sequences of sustained brilliance, whereas Lisicki has suffered only one serious stutter (Cincinnati) since exploding into relevance in the grass season.  Tilted in the Russian’s favor, though, is the late-night atmosphere in which they will battle.  Zvonareva has played many more night matches in her career and should profit from the experience of playing in their distinctive atmosphere.  Favored to reach the final is the winner of this match, ready to exploit a decimated half of the draw without any Slam champions or former #1s.

Peng vs. Pennetta:  In a quarter that will produce a first-time Slam semifinalist, Peng seems the most plausible candidate.  Pressing towards the threshold of the top 10, this understated double-fister displayed her compact strokes and competitive resilience in a tight two-set victory over the far more powerful Goerges.  Similarly streamlined in playing style if not in emotions, Pennetta capitalized upon a fallible Russian here for the second time in three years by upsetting trendy finalist choice Sharapova.  The tempestuous Italian rarely thrills with her shot-making talents or hustles opponents off the court, but she rarely succumbs without a creditable effort.  Adding interest to this encounter is the fact that one could say the same about Peng.  When steady meets steady, who will stay steadier?  Probably fatigued by her elating but draining victory over Sharapova, Pennetta may descend from that emotional height into a flat, unfocused performance.  One wonders whether the inviting prospect of a quarterfinal against Niculescu or Kerber will infuse the competitors with additional motivation or weigh upon them as an additional burden.

Del Potro vs. Simon:  At Wimbledon this year and the US Open three years ago, they engaged in nine total sets of grinding baseline rallies.  Equally assured with both groundstrokes, the Argentine and the Frenchman shine on a surface that rewards their symmetrical games.  Although Del Potro can flatten his forehand into instantly terminal strikes, Simon’s agile movement has dragged the Tower of Tandil into longer exchanges.  In contrast, Gilles lacks the power to end points without first constructing them, but he can generate surprising depth of shot from his abbreviated swings.  A prominent weapon in Del Potro’s arsenal, the serve has played an underestimated role in Simon’s successes, but both men have experienced chronic lapses into double faults.  Whereas the Argentine has advanced comfortably to this stage, the Frenchman dropped three sets in his first two matches to unremarkable opponents.  Can Simon halt the nine-match US Open winning streak of the 2009 champion?  In order to sustain the necessary level, he must focus on redirecting the ball to keep the gawky Del Potro off balance, not an easy task against a player who moves more crisply than most of the ATP giants.  Covering the baseline with a few vast strides, the Argentine does not move forward as effectively.  But luring opponents towards the net does not conform to Simon’s strengths either, so this contest will rest in Del Potro’s hands as a test of whether he can consistently execute his offensive combinations.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 3

Sharapova vs. Pennetta:  In each of their three matches, a similar script has witnessed a player win the first set, sag in losing the second set, and then rebound to capture the third.  Not only undefeated when she wins the first set this year, Sharapova has compiled a stunning 12-0 record in three-setters, including eight comebacks from one-set deficits.  One thus would favor her should she engage in another epic with Pennetta, an emotional competitor with few clear weaknesses but few overpowering weapons.  Rarely does the Italian undermine herself, instead compelling opponents to sustain a solid if not spectacular level in order to conquer her.  Despite a poor first half, the 29-year-old veteran has shown flickers of improvement on the summer hard courts with triumphs over Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova.  Seeking her eighth straight victory, meanwhile, Sharapova surged forward from a shaky three-setter in her opener here to a commanding double-breadstick win under the Arthur Ashe lights.  The daytime breezes may trouble the 2006 champion’s ball toss and serve as they have in previous US Opens, while Pennetta’s high-percentage style should suffer less from the elements.  Toppled in the third round at two of her last three US Opens, Sharapova expects considerably more from herself this year and finally has the confidence to achieve it.  All the same, Pennetta probably will force her to hit an additional shot or two to finish points, a challenge to which the Russian has risen courageously in recent months.

McHale vs. Kirilenko:  As the year’s final major approached, hopes for American players focused mostly around surging men’s players like Harrison and Bogomolov, but the home nation’s women have stolen the spotlight from them.  Triggering memories of the US Open two years ago, Christina McHale aims to become the Oudin of the 2011 tournament after defeating eighth-seeded Bartoli in the second round.  Like her compatriot, this rising American thrives more when she can exploit the pace or placement of her opponent than when she must generate her own offense.  A smart counterpuncher with more power than Oudin, McHale benefited from the intimate confines of the Grandstand in her upset two days ago, for the home crowd clustered around that stadium to exhort her.  In the more intimidating atmosphere of Arthur Ashe, she must hold together her nerves better than she did two years ago in a night session here against Sharapova.   Moreover, the consistent but not powerful Kirilenko will force McHale to take the initiative in creating opportunities to take control of rallies.  Just as Oudin failed to solve the steady defense of Wozniacki two years ago, her successor may struggle to strike a balance between aggression and judicious shot selection—a skill that comes with experience.

Roddick vs. Sock:  Seemingly more and more defensive as he ages, the 2003 champion failed to catch fire from the spark of playing under the Arthur Ashe lights in the first round.  Still recovering from an abdominal injury this summer, Roddick has not recaptured the sting on his serve and has double-faulted with increasing frequency.  A combination of solid groundstrokes and occasional net forays sufficed to edge him past the unremarkable Russell in four sets, but one couldn’t escape the thought that this match would have ended much more emphatically a few years ago.  Likely to suffice against the untested Sock is a similarly solid performance from the veteran.  A fellow Nebraskan, Sock won his first career match at a major two days ago against Marc Gicquel, demonstrating explosive serve-forehand combinations.  The teenager can extract valuable lessons from his Arthur Ashe debut, and this match should become more competitive than their rankings would suggest.  While it seems implausible to expect him to win three sets from Roddick, Sock could capitalize upon the lulls in the older American’s fading game.  Known for a volatile temper, he should learn from his opponent’s example and curb his emotions in tense moments.

Haase vs. Murray:  Three years ago, the Dutchman defeated Murray at the former’s home tournament in Rotterdam.  Now elevated to #41 in the rankings, Haase has won 10 of his last 11 matches while capturing his first career title in Kitzbuhel and reaching the semifinals in Winston-Salem.  Defeating Verdasco at Wimbledon, he came within a few points of a two-set lead against Roddick in Melbourne this year before succumbing to injury.  This 24-year-old possesses effortless power with his serve and forehand but can lose the rhythm on both shots as a result of fluctuating technique.  More streamlined in his strokes and more versatile in his options, Murray sometimes can out-think himself against relatively straightforward opponents like Haase.  Yet the Scot, who also collected a (much more prestigious) title this summer, struck his much-maligned forehand with authority in an opening-round victory that grew more convincing as it progressed.  Efforts to flatten out that groundstroke has produced mixed results for Murray in recent months, so his refusal to retreat from that tactic illustrates a positive product of his trademark stubbornness.  Like the women’s #1, the men’s #4 can use such strategies to progress more smoothly through early rounds, conserving energy for the second week.

Peng vs. Goerges:  Steady meets streaky in this match between two top-20 stars who have recorded the finest seasons of their careers to date.  Whereas Peng has built her breakthrough upon reaching semifinal after semifinal, Goerges soared into instant notoriety by twice conquering Wozniacki on clay and winning the moderately notable Stuttgart title.  Congruent with those results are their personalities and playing styles, for the Chinese double-fister generally plays percentages and competes relentlessly throughout the match while the German can veer in and out of focus as she impetuously targets lines and corners early in rallies.  In their first career encounter, Peng will attempt to pepper the center of the baseline with penetrating groundstrokes that prevent Goerges from creating angles without too much risk.  The German owns far more firepower with both her groundstrokes and her serve, although the Chinese star has improved the latter stroke this year.  Hoping to take time away from her agile opponent, Goerges seeks to dictate points from inside the baseline and cannot recover easily from a defensive position.  Court positioning thus should offer a key to who holds the edge in this evenly matched encounter.

James Blake - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ferrer vs. Blake:  In the twilight of his career, the battered American shot-maker clings to the tenuous hope of leaving one last glowing memory behind him.  Such an accomplishment seems relatively plausible against Ferrer, whom Blake has defeated in both of their previous meetings and whose underpowered serve would seem to play into the hands of his crackling return.  A contrast to the Spaniard’s methodical style, the American’s breakneck pace could rush the fifth seed out of his comfort zone as it has with Nadal.  Nevertheless, Ferrer demonstrated his prowess even on these fast hard courts by reaching the 2007 semifinal, a feat that Blake at his best never could achieve.  Repeatedly raising the hopes of his fans only to disappoint them, this serial Slam quarterfinalist has gained most acclaim for gallant defeats such as his 2005 quarterfinal epic against Agassi.  Blake’s career may have suffered from the omnipresence of the more accomplished Roddick, a predicament with which Ferrer could empathize in the Nadal era of Spanish tennis.  When the two understudies collide, their returns of serve will mirror their conflicting perceptions of the game.  A personification of first-strike tennis, Blake takes massive swings at second serves and even first serves, whereas grinder par excellence Ferrer forces his opponent to play every point rather than attempt an outright winner.

Ljubicic vs. Nalbandian:  The history between these venerable bastions of the ATP extends back to 2004 across meetings at five different Masters tournaments, the year-end championships, and Davis Cup.  Never have they met at a major, however, where one would expect the injury struggles and fitness issues of the Argentine to hamper his performance.  Winning four of their last five meetings, the Croat possesses the superior serve and forecourt ability but less reliable groundstrokes.  Often at his best in the second half and especially the fall, Nalbandian still impresses sporadically with a two-handed backhand that creates shallow angles, drawing opponents far from the center of the court.  Although his timing has declined with age, the “grouchy gaucho” continues to challenge net-rushers like Ljubicic with pinpointed passing shots whenever his ailing legs permit.  Several years ago, they might have met in the quarterfinal or even semifinal of a major.  With physicality and raw power increasingly central to this sport, however, they meet in a second-round glimpse of how tennis might have developed in the absence of Federer and Nadal.   After a trip to the outer court, few will feel nostalgic for what might have been.

Serena Williams Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after winning championship point against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during the women's singles finals on Day 14 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Unlike Djokovic atop the men’s draw, Wozniacki does not tower but rather totters above her rivals.  But a fourth consecutive title in New Haven will have elevated her confidence at a critical moment following opening-round losses at the two Premier Five events, while the type of player who typically challenges the Dane does not lie in her immediate vicinity.  Looking more like her comfortably counterpunching self last week, the top seed should find that understated style sufficient to outlast erratic competition like Gajdosova, whom she defeated routinely at Wimbledon.  Potentially aligned to meet her in the fourth round, however, is one of two volatile dark horses.  Amidst a noteworthy clay-grass season, Hantuchova terminated Wozniacki’s Roland Garros campaign in startlingly emphatic fashion.  An enigma for most of the last two years, 2004 champion Kuznetsova compiled a pair of wins in Cincinnati before crumbling against Sharapova and dropping her New Haven opener to the underpowered Christina McHale.  Nevertheless, Sveta extended Wozniacki to a third-set tiebreak when they met two years ago at the US Open, so she could trouble the world #1 if she manages to avoid a stumble herself beforehand.  At the base of this section lies reigning Roland Garros champion Li Na, who has struggled to win consecutive matches since that fortnight until she came within a tiebreak of the New Haven final.  Her decision to take a wildcard into that minor tournament suggests a renewed level of commitment that bodes well for her fortunes in New York.  So does her tranquil draw, which could feature an entertaining third-round meeting with Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Much more consistent than Li this summer, Petkovic would await her early in the second week.  As we learned in Melbourne, though, the Chinese veteran’s more balanced style offers few holes for the less disciplined German.

Quarterfinal:  Li d. Wozniacki

Second quarter:  While Azarenka and Schiavone may bookend the draw, the most prominent name here would intersect with the Belarussian in the third round.  Sensibly withdrawing from Cincinnati, Serena will arrive in New York with a 12-0 hard-court record this season as she seeks a third consecutive title.  Rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski might prove an entertaining challenge for a set or so in her opener, but the three-time US Open champion never has lost her first match at a major.  Tasked with sterner resistance in the heavy serve of Canada’s Rebecca Marino, Azarenka will need to keep her composure and focus on holding serve.  Nearly falling to the Belarussian at the 2010 Australian Open, Serena must raise her intensity immediately for a challenge that should prepare her well for the rest of the fortnight.  A fellow former #1 and Slam champion might intersect with the American in the fourth round, should Ivanovic extend her encouraging upward trend from the summer hard courts and build confidence from her partnership with Nigel Sears.  In order to reach Serena, however, the Serb might need to overcome Wimbledon nemesis Cetkovska, who charged to the New Haven final with consecutive victories over Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li.  Positioned near Schiavone once again is the other Serb, Cincinnati runner-up and 2008 US Open runner-up Jankovic.  Falling in the first round at three of her last four tournaments, “JJ” should survive through at least her first two matches before meeting Pavlyuchenkova, who conquered her in the Monterrey final and earned her first Slam breakthrough by reaching a Roland Garros quarterfinal.  In that quarterfinal, the former top-ranked junior fell to Schiavone after squandering an immense lead.  She should gain an opportunity for revenge here, although the Italian has fared better than one would expect in recent visits to New York.

Quarterfinal:  Serena d. Schiavone

Third quarter:  Headlined by the two Wimbledon finalists, this section features an intriguing first-round battle between the two Radwanskas.  Recapturing her form with a San Diego title and Toronto semifinal, the more famous sister hopes to rebound from a nagging shoulder injury to reverse past defeats against the less famous sister.  As did Li Na following her first major title, Kvitova has accomplished little since winning Wimbledon while playing only two tournaments.  Winning just one match at each of them, she showed little motivation in straight-sets losses to Petkovic.  Sometimes susceptible to fellow Czhecs, she would confront left-handed compatriot Safarova in the third round before progressing to a meeting with Radwanska, who regularly punishes the unmotivated.  Anchoring the lower half of the section, Sharapova will clash with a British youngster for the second straight major after vanquishing Robson at Wimbledon.  After Heather Watson, the 2006 champion’s route remains uneventful except for a possible but highly unlikely third-round collision with Oudin.  As the second week begins, Sharapova could test her precision against one of two players whom she defeated at majors earlier this season.  Mounting a formidable challenge in their three-set Melbourne encounter, Goerges attempts to awaken from a summer swoon after breakthrough performances in the clay season.  Armed with a crackling serve and forehand, the second-ranked German twice hit through Wozniacki this spring but will find her consistency tested once more by Peng Shuai.  In the shadow of Li’s brilliance, the Chinese double-fister has compiled the finest season of her career but will struggle to survive Sharapova unless the Russian’s accuracy deserts her.  One could say the same about Radwanska, winless in their meetings since her 2007 victory over the then-defending champion in New York.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova d. Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  In the absence of Clijsters, Zvonareva has become the player with the greatest pressure upon her to repeat last year’s accomplishments.  Succumbing to Pironkova early in her Wimbledon final defense, the second seed could face an intriguing early test in the form of Laura Robson, a lefty unflustered by her elite peers.  A champion in Dallas last week, Lisicki has reached the semifinals in four of her last five tournaments as she has surged forward from her Wimbledon success.  En route to her first notable title in Charleston two years ago, the German overcame Venus in a match filled with booming serves and bereft of extended rallies.  They could clash again in the second round, just the 12th match of the 31-year-old American’s season and her second since Wimbledon.  Often troubled by potent servers, Zvonareva has won two three-setters from Lisicki during the last few months, so she could bring more confidence into that match than into a potential fourth-round encounter with Cibulkova.  A quarterfinalist in New York last year, the diminutive Slovak has amplified her deceptively powerful groundstrokes during a season that has witnessed victories over Wozniacki, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Likely to proceed through the less impressive upper half of this section is two-time 2011 Slam quarterfinalist Bartoli, who suffered a few unexpected losses during the US Open Series after reaching the Stanford final.  Embedded near the Frenchwoman, Christina McHale aims to register a promising victory or two to consolidate her status as the leading American women’s hope of the future.  College Park champion Petrova and 2010 US Open quarterfinalist Stosur should duel in a third-round match of veterans with similarly traditional styles, after which the victor should contrast with Bartoli’s eccentricities.  Long feckless against Stosur, Zvonareva will hope to gain an opportunity to extend her long-time dominance against the Frenchwoman.

Quarterfinal:  Zvonareva d. Bartoli

Semifinals:  S. Williams d. Li; Sharapova d. Zvonareva

Final:  S. Williams d. Sharapova

***

We return shortly with a preview of Day 1 at the US Open, which features action from the top half of the men’s draw and the bottom half of the women’s draw.

Sabine Lisicki - Bank of the West Classic - Day 2

Tucked unobtrusively into the week before consecutive Premier Five tournaments, the reinstated San Diego event has become a shadow of its former Tier I self.  Nevertheless, the La Costa Resort might host some intriguing if not star-studded collisions in its peaceful precincts.  We look ahead to the next week of the US Open Series….

Top half:  After demoralizing defeats at the European Slams, Zvonareva urgently needs a confidence injection before attempting to defend another Slam final appearance.  Unlikely to suffer an Erakovic-like setback, she should overcome her initial, unimpressive opponents through her consistency alone, but the plot could thicken in the quarterfinals.  At that stage, the Russian might encounter near-Roland Garros nemesis and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki, who translated her grass success to hard courts with a third straight semifinal at Stanford.  As her record against Stosur demonstrates, Zvonareva often finds powerful servers unnerving and has struggled in the rare WTA matches when service breaks actually mean something.  In a fascinating contrast of styles similar to her battle with Venus, Date-Krumm might encounter the German’s massive serve in the second round.  Her status uncertain following an abdominal injury at Stanford, Cibulkova also might challenge Zvonareva should she defuse Lisicki.  The Indian Wells clash between the Slovak and the Russian developed into a gritty, suspenseful epic, so a sequel certainly would enliven this draw.  Nor should one forget 2010 quarterfinalist Coco Vandeweghe, who defeated Zvonareva at her home tournament and continues to unleash thunderous serve-forehand combinations, albeit little else.

Among the few players in the second quarter not in an extended slump or terminal decline is the fourth seed Peng Shuai, who has reached semifinal after semifinal en route to a career-high ranking.  China’s #2 has defeated Li, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva this year while taking sets from four of the current five.  Hardly an electrifying shot-maker, Peng generally wins by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible, posing questions with her penetrating double-fisted groundstrokes down the center of the court that they struggle to answer.   If the fading Mirza finds forehands at critical moments, she could solve the Peng conundrum, as could the fifth-seeded Ivanovic.  Before she reaches the quarterfinals, however, the Serbian former #1 must overcome either last week’s Anapest, Morita, or the ever-dangerous Dokic in an opener.  Far from impressive at Stanford, Ivanovic looks unready for a deep run with her new coach.  But who else around her does?  After a promising beginning to 2011, Pennetta’s season quickly turned sour when she passed winless through the European clay, and her appearances at two post-Wimbledon clay tournaments suggest scant commitment to the summer hard courts.

Semifinal:  Lisicki d. Peng

Bottom half:  Stronger than the upper section, it could feature a quarterfinal that reprises last year’s semifinal between Hantuchova and Radwanska.  During a three-set loss to Sharapova at Stanford, the Slovak showed flashes of her brilliance this spring that illustrated her renewed confidence against even the more illustrious opponents.  Vanquished by the feisty Zahlavova Strycova at an earlier Wimbledon, she will need that confidence to retain her composure and advance to a potential meeting with third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski.  A sudden sensation in Australia this year, Jovanovski has generated fewer headlines over the last several months, and Italian veteran Vinci will hope to unnerve the youngster with her nuanced array of spins and slices.  Nuance certainly defines the third-seeded Radwanska, a finalist in San Diego last year during an impressive US Open Series.  Less convincing lately, she failed to withstand the pressure of Lisicki’s serve at Stanford and might encounter similar difficulty against Gajdosova.  Also in the third quarter are home hopes Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin, heading in opposite directions since their appearances at the 2009 US Open.  Unable to overcome the disadvantage of her height, Oudin has not evolved into the balanced, opportunistic baseliner that McHale aims to become.

Bookended by two Germans, the lowest quarter also features a pair of streaky dark horses and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist.  Perplexing many an elite rival with her swerving lefty serve, Makarova should test Petkovic’s resilience in her opener rather than courteously ushering her into the top 10.  Meanwhile, Petkorazzi’s compatriot Goerges must contend with the heavy-serving Canadian Rebecca Marino, who threatened Venus at last year’s US Open.  After an unexpected four-match winning streak at the All England Club, former prodigy Tamira Paszek extended her momentum with a semifinal appearance in College Park.  Considering the fallibility displayed by Goerges at Stanford, the Austrian might fancy her chances of reversing the Anschluss.  The only player to win a set from Serena last week, Kirilenko also captured the Stanford doubles title and thus will have carried considerable confidence with her down Interstate 5.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Hantuchova

Final:  Lisicki d. Petkovic

***

Mardy Fish - Farmers Classic presented by Mercedes-Benz - Day 6

Having collected a championship trophy in Atlanta and a runner-up trophy in Los Angeles, Mardy Fish returns to the East Coast as the leading magnet for American ambitions this summer.  Expected to face him in the quarterfinals is one of two formerly renowned, recently feckless players.  Despite a finals appearance on clay in Umag, Verdasco has suffered a disappointing 2011 during which his ranking has receded to the edges of the top 20.  His collaborator in a memorably horrific Australian Open encounter last year, Davydenko has struggled to win consecutive matches since wrist surgery and now usually appears in headlines as the foil for enterprising newcomers.  Once considered potential Slam champions, neither of these players likely will regain their former glory, but one still wonders whether they can score the occasional surprise.  A pair of lefties might vie for the honor of meeting Fish in the semifinals, for Bellucci looks likely to collide with Melzer if he can escape a rusty Gonzalez.  Despite a victory over Federer on the European clay, the Austrian has fallen far short of his 2010 exploits and might find his brittle composure challenged by the unnerving Karlovic.

The only other top-10 player in the Washington draw, Gael Monfils, remains an enigmatic competitor although certainly a superior athlete with more explosive groundstrokes.  In his section also lurk Los Angeles semifinalist Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Grigor Dimitrov, who frustratingly followed his Wimbledon accomplishments with momentum-halting losses to two players outside the top 200.  Ever a thorny task for higher-ranked opponents, Serbian #3 Tipsarevic might await Monfils in a quarterfinal rematch of their battle in the Davis Cup final, where the Frenchman comfortably handled the bespectacled eccentric.  Of note elsewhere in this half is Djokovic’s other understudy, the third-seeded Troicki, who seems to have internalized a keen sense of his position in the ATP food chain inside and outside his country.  Riding his towering serve to the Newport title and Atlanta final, Isner could confront Troicki in the quarterfinals and Monfils a round later should he repeat his tense Atlanta victory over aging countryman Blake.  Somewhat rejuvenating his fortunes during the hard-court summer, as he often has before, Blake temporarily has vindicated his decision to postpone retirement.  But second-round opponent Nalbandian hopes to craft a few closing highlights of his own before dusk settles on his career.

***

We return shortly with reflections on last week’s action in California.

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Five

Murray vs. Gasquet:  If history offers a reliable guide, this opening clash of Centre Court’s second week should tie Judy Murray’s stomach into knots.  At two previous majors, Gasquet led the British home hope by two sets to none before the latter turned the tide at the eleventh hour.  One of the signature moments in Murray’s early career, his five-set victory over the Frenchman at Wimbledon 2008 revealed a fiery competitor behind his sometimes dour façade.  Gasquet has arrived at the second week of consecutive majors for the first time in three years and has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since this tournament four years ago.  Noted for breathtaking grace, timing, and spontaneity, his effortlessly fluid brand of tennis contrasts with Murray’s more mechanized, functional style.  Despite his lack of overwhelming first-strike power, Gasquet has delivered many of his finest performances on grass, but the Scot also habitually rises to the occasion on the shoulders of his enraptured compatriots.  Through the first week, the Frenchman has sparkled more brightly than Murray, who nearly entered a fifth set against the aging Ljubicic.  If the fourth seed can weather Gasquet’s sporadic barrages of inspired shot-making, though, the best-of-five format should assist him in outlasting an opponent with inferior stamina on both physical and emotional levels.  Still struggling to convince himself that he can challenge the elite, the Frenchman defeated an erratic Federer in Rome but mustered scant resistance to Djokovic at Indian Wells or Roland Garros.

V. Williams vs. Pironkova:  Expected to meet Jankovic in the third round, the elder Williams faced Martinez Sanchez.  Projected to intersect with Zvonareva on the second Monday, she instead eyes the player who expelled her from Wimbledon last year.  After a narrow escape from Date-Krumm, Venus returned in the third round to the confident ball-striking of her opener.  Yet Pironkova has troubled her on more than one prior occasion, forcing her deep into the third set at an Australian Open. The reserved Bulgarian seems an improbable nemesis for Venus, considering her average serve and generally unremarkable groundstroke offense.  On grass, furthermore, the court coverage that assists her on slower surfaces should prove a less notable asset.  Startlingly emphatic was Pironkova’s victory over Venus on these lawns last year, however, and she upset the second-seeded Zvonareva a round ago in equally routine fashion.  Certain players do establish special, rationally inexplicable zones of comfort at specific tournament, as Venus herself could attest.  Even if she struggled at other tournaments throughout the calendar, the five-time champion always could expect to produce a memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  After Pironkova denied those expectations last year, Venus surely will bring an additional level of focus to the sequel.

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Until the former US Open champion completes his inexorable rise towards the top 10, contenders will face a towering challenge earlier than they would have preferred.  After the duty of defusing Del Potro fell to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal earned the least enviable pre-quarterfinal assignment at Wimbledon.  Although he defeated the Argentine at Indian Wells this year, that semifinal offered more compelling tennis than the scoreline suggested.  Still relatively early in his return, Del Potro already has defeated worthy opponents including Soderling and Verdasco as he regains the confidence to swing freely on his nearly unanswerable forehand.  Specializing in finding answers for the unanswerable, Nadal eked out two tiebreaks against Muller’s veering lefty serve to reach the second week at Wimbledon without losing a set for the first time.  While that match will have prepared the Spaniard for blunting the Argentine’s imposing delivery, Rafa may find his opponent’s baseline arsenal a sterner test.  Court positioning early in points should prove vital for both players and especially Del Potro, as Nadal attempts to restrain him from stepping inside the court to launch his forehands at penetrating angles.  After an indifferent serving performance at Roland Garros, the top seed elevated his serve during the first week to a weapon that won him several key points outright.  Perhaps drained by extended encounters in the first week, Del Potro must assert himself in the initial stages to open a crack in Nadal’s confidence.  Always uncomfortable against the ATP’s towers of power, the Spaniard has scored recent successes in that category that may help maintain his calm under pressure.

Bartoli vs. S. Williams:  Still scorching as spring turns to summer, the top-ranked Frenchwoman charged from a Roland Garros semifinal to the Eastbourne title and now aims for a quarterfinal at the major where she broke through four years ago.  On that occasion, Bartoli defeated reigning #1 Justine Henin in one of Wimbledon’s more spectacular upsets before falling uneventfully to Venus in the final.  Although she since avenged that loss, the idiosyncratic double-fister always confronts a severe obstacle when facing the Williams sisters:  the discrepancy between their serves.  Bartoli has improved that most unorthodox component of her unorthodox repertoire, but it remains a shot that can donate strings of double faults at awkward moments.  By contrast, Serena has relied heavily on her serve to survive tense situations, although it lately has not approached the heights of her past two Wimbledons.  Having met the Frenchwoman only once in the last seven years, the younger Williams will need to reacquaint herself with the distinctive combinations created by Bartoli.  Since both players punish second serves with ferocious returns, first-serve percentage may hold the key to victory for either woman.  After a pair of edgy victories in the first two rounds, Serena eased into the second week with a dominant performance.  Meanwhile, Bartoli’s momentum appeared to have slowed when she saved match points in the second round and then endured a marathon against the floundering Pennetta.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Six

Sharapova vs. Peng:  Perched in the top 20 and still climbing, the second-ranked Chinese star has unfolded a season more consistent albeit less spectacular than the exploits of her countrywoman.  After she toppled Sharapova in Beijing two years ago, Peng extended her to three sets at Indian Wells this year.  At the root of that unsightly rollercoaster lay the Russian’s erratic serving, exacerbated by the wind and an apparent lack of focus.  From Sharapova’s spring successes have flowed renewed focus that has translated to her serve, still subject to occasional wobbles but vastly improved from its waywardness throughout much of her comeback.  A resilient counterpuncher with a talent for redirecting the ball, Peng does not shrink from powerful opponents and can trade flat, deep lasers with anyone from behind the baseline.  Less impressive than her groundstrokes is her serve, into which Sharapova can sink her teeth at will.  Not especially sharp in the third round, Maria will seek to improve her timing and shot selection as she enters the second week, recognizing opportunities to finish points without rushing to end them prematurely.   In that balance lies the key to unlocking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal berth since 2006.

Fish vs. Berdych:  Justifying his elevated seeding, the top-ranked American man edged through his first three matches with little fanfare against unheralded opposition.  Almost as unnoticed amidst the scrutiny surrounding the top four is last year’s finalist, who has accomplished little of note since that time.  After imploding in his Roland Garros opener, Berdych has delivered a series of considerably more composed performances despite the pressure of defending his 2010 result.  In a match that opposes two thunderous serves, one expects few extended rallies or closely contested service games.  Neither player should gain frequent opportunities to break, so a tiebreak or two looks probable.  If Berdych can orient the rallies from forehand to forehand, he should break down Fish’s less technically reliable wing.  If the American can target the Czech’s vulnerable backhand with his own brisk two-hander, conversely, he could score the mini-upset.  His rise in the rankings notwithstanding, Fish has not yet scored a resounding statement win this year outside his Miami victory over Del Potro.  On the other hand, neither has Berdych.

Petrova vs. Azarenka:  Vertigo and other physical woes behind her, the 29-year-old Muscovite mounted an encouraging charge to the second week that included a victory over compatriot Pavlyuchenkova, a decade younger than her.  Opposing another youthful ball-bruiser in Azarenka, Petrova will hope to rely on her  superior forecourt play and much superior serving to overcome an adversary with a greater array of weapons at her disposal.  Both players will recognize the significance of this situation, for a highly winnable quarterfinal against Paszek or Pervak awaits the survivor.  Ruffled by Hantuchova for much of two sets, Azarenka appeared to refocus during the rain delay.  No less important for Petrova is the psychological dimension, since she bears the scars of multiple disappointments at majors and probably has underachieved considering her talents.  At this stage, though, greater pressure probably weighs upon the Belarussian, whose narrative remains unwritten and her potential untapped.  Which of these volatile Russian-speaking women can restrain their inflammable temper more successfully?

Ferrer vs. Tsonga:  Like his compatriot Gasquet, this Frenchman revels in flamboyant bursts of inspiration and can hit any shot from anywhere on the court to anywhere else the court.  His talents shone at their most brilliant during a comprehensive victory over Gonzalez but often can flicker from one round to the next.  Reaching the second week on his least comfortable surface, Ferrer fell to the similarly flamboyant Monfils at Roland Garros.  In a five-setter that stretched across two days, he required all of his veteran wiles to outlast burgeoning American Ryan Harrison.  While the grass exposes his serve and meager first-strike capacity, the Spaniard’s compact strokes and crisp footwork represent less obvious advantages.  Pitted against Soderling in the same round last year, Ferrer caused the mighty Swede far more exertion than one might have envisioned considering the fast court.  When the Frenchman approaches the net, the Spaniard’s expertly placed passing shots should challenge his volleying skills.  If Tsonga retains the rhythm on his first serve that he found against Gonzalez, however, even the seventh seed’s scintillating return should inflict few dents upon his service games, leaving him free to concentrate upon breaking his opponent’s more pedestrian delivery.

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