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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

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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

Agnieszka Radwanska Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open at Ariake Colosseum on October 1, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan.

At first glance, Agnieszka Radwanska cuts an unremarkable figure far from the dazzling glitter of the celebrities who populate the upper echelons of the WTA.  Compact in physique and unassuming in manner, the Pole does not intimidate through her mere presence as do most Slam champions.  In fact, her outwardly unspectacular game has offered a foil for the offensive brilliance of her rivals as often as it has entangled them in snares of strategic confusion.  But now she stands as the favorite to win her first Premier Mandatory title, just a week after capturing the Premier Five crown in Tokyo.  While one should not confuse the Tokyo-Beijing double with the Indian Wells-Miami double or similarly formidable accomplishments, a sweep of the premier fall tournaments would propel Radwanska into the conversation of contenders for early 2012, at a moment when the WTA hierarchy looks especially vulnerable.

Her penultimate obstacle takes the form of a tenacious Italian veteran with whom she has split her two previous hard-court meetings.  Not deterred by her 0-5 record against Wozniacki, Pennetta astonished us by rallying from a one-set deficit in her quarterfinal to bagel the world #1 en route to a stirring comeback.  Lacking composure on such occasions before, the Fed Cup heroine found the courage to rebound after squandering a third-set lead amidst a series of unsightly unforced errors.  When Wozniacki served for the match at 6-5, 30-0, Pennetta halted the Dane’s momentum in its tracks with a discipline and confidence rarely witnessed from her.  Attempting to build upon that success, she possesses the versatility to gradually outmaneuver Radwanska from the baseline but will find her inflammable temper tested once again.  More familiar as a counterpuncher than an aggressor, Pennetta adapted effectively to a more offensive mentality against Wozniacki and will need to retain that degree of focus when she meets a player who has won nine straight matches.  Meanwhile, Radwanska will relish the opportunity to face an adversary less likely to maul her second serve or attempt to end points quickly than many of her recurrent nemeses.  In her recent victories over foes such as Zvonareva and Ivanovic, she has protected her serve exceptionally well by saving break point after break point while swiftly exploiting any chinks in her opponent’s armor.  The product of her notable intelligence and focus, this opportunism could carry her past many of her more muscular, less imaginative peers as long as her body can withstand the weight of their blows.  This summer, Radwanska overcame a painful shoulder injury to win the San Diego title and reach the Rogers Cup semifinal.  Without a massive ball-striker like Stosur, Serena, or Sharapova awaiting her over the weekend, she should not feel compelled to leave her artistic comfort zone, a dangerous prospect for her fellow semifinalists.

Much less competitive than the first semifinal in terms of ranking and accomplishments, the clash between Petkovic and Niculescu would seem to scarcely test the German.  Against top-20 opponents Bartoli and Pavlyuchenkova, the German impressed with her command of her game and emotions at key points when the momentum of the match threatened to spin away from her.  Just as she had snuffed out the Frenchwoman’s third-set comeback, she prevented the mighty Russian from charging into a final set by winning the match-ending tiebreak decisively.  The only woman to reach three major quarterfinals this year, Petkovic has managed to balance the competitive demands of the Tour with her plethora of outside interests while maintaining a consistency superior to most rising stars.  Her upward mobility springs from this ability to blend diversity in life with consistency on the court, and a Premier Mandatory title would lie well within reach until one recollects her 0-4 record against Radwanska.

On the other hand, Petkovic hasn’t entirely quelled the specter of the unpredictable, inexplicable defeat that has plagued nearly all WTA prodigies.  Recent examples of that genre on her record include a loss to Arantxa Parra Santonja at the last Premier Mandatory event, in Madrid, and a strangely desultory effort against Ksenia Pervak at Wimbledon.  During the second half, though, Petkovic has fallen only to Radwanska (twice), Jankovic, and Wozniacki while reaching the quarterfinals or better at five straight tournaments.  Projected to reach the top 30 with one more victory, Niculescu already has won six matches this week—one more than Radwanska would win should she collect the title.  Progressing from the qualifying draw to the semifinals, the quirky Romanian deserves credit for never yielding to the superior reputation and talents of her opponents.  Like Radwanska, she has dared to diverge from the WTA blueprint for success, a style that Azarenka succinctly described as “hard, harder, and hardest.”  Although Petkovic fits largely inside that mold, she also has acquired a more sophisticated tactical sense with which she constructed a thoughtful, coherent plan in her victories over Sharapova and Wozniacki, among others.  If she can combine that dimension of the game with her far superior weight of shot, the idiosyncratic German should reach her third final of 2011.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 China Open - Day 5

As the action in the last WTA Premier Mandatory event of 2011 approaches the weekend, the action shifts inwards from Beijing’s poetically named Moon Court to the National Tennis Stadium and Lotus Court.  We consider the quarterfinals of an upset-riddled week in Beijing that saw seven of the top eight seeds exit before this stage.

Wozniacki vs. Pennetta:  Handed a script virtually identical to last week in Tokyo, the world #1 managed to craft a happier ending in Beijing.  Faltering against Groth and succumbing to Kanepi at the Premier Five event, Wozniacki atoned for that embarrassment by dominating the former and edging the latter at key moments late in the second set.  The Dane’s path now grows smoother in the quarterfinals against an opponent who never has defeated her in five meetings, including two encounters on clay most suited to Pennetta’s strengths and hostile to Wozniacki’s style.  Victorious in a grinding three-setter against Cibulkova, the Italian veteran will need her legs to recover quickly for what promises to become another match of extended rallies.  Struggling to win any matches at all for much of 2011, Pennetta reinvigorated her career with a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open, highlighted not only by an upset over Sharapova but a gritty, tense victory over Peng in which she overcame heat sickness and several set points.  That level of fortitude, often absent from her matches, could add intrigue to an encore of a Doha collision in which Wozniacki lost only two games.

But Pennetta lacks the power to hit through the Dane from the baseline, and the depth of the defending champion’s groundstrokes will prevent her from stepping inside it.  Her average offense has forced her into attempting to outlast Wozniacki, not a promising strategy on a hard court against such a consistent opponent.  Even if Pennetta stays positive, one struggles to imagine this match extending beyond two competitive sets unless the world #1 plays well below her abilities.  While not negligible, that possibility grows less prominent as the tournament progresses, for Wozniacki generally settles more deeply into her comfort zone from one round to the next.

Ivanovic vs. Radwanska:  Whereas the other three quarterfinals showcase pairs of opponents with distinct similarities, few styles diverge more strikingly than the first-strike weapons of Ivanovic and the subtlety of Radwanska.  Evenly matched on most occasions, they have split their six previous meetings and have contested a third set in three of their last five.  Although their last two encounters ended in straight sets, three of the four sets played lasted 12 or 13 games; rarely have they decided a set by a margin of more than one break.  Concealed by their deadlocked record is the momentum shift in which Radwanska has won their last three meetings after Ivanovic collected the first three.  Crucially, though, that shift coincided with the Serb’s precipitous descent from glory in 2009, suggesting that the outcomes of their matches hinge upon her performance much more than upon the Pole’s ripostes.  Parrying the thrusts of Azarenka and Zvonareva in impressive Tokyo victories, Radwanska won the most important title of her career to date last week and enters this quarterfinal on an eight-match winning streak.  Despite a somewhat frustrating Slam campaign, 2011 may ultimately become the year in which she graduates from intriguing dark horse to a genuine threat at the most significant tournaments.  Few players have maximized their potential more meticulously than the Pole, who has made far more than many of her peers from far fewer raw materials.

Over the last three years, the opposite argument has applied to Ivanovic, unable to harness her natural talents as she searched for stability in her emotions and in her supporting cast.  While the former issue remains unresolved, the latter situation finally crystallized after Wimbledon with a team compiled from the new (Nigel Sears) and the old (Scott Byrnes).  The author of consecutive upsets over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva, Ivanovic thumped not just her famous forehand but her less potent backhand with authority this week—a key to her confidence and ultimately her success.  Still searching for a more reliable serve, however, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage against Radwanska to win the short points where she holds an advantage.  Designed to undermine the frail of mind, the Tokyo champion will hope to distract Ivanovic from her straightforward, rhythmic baseline assault and maneuver the Serb into uncomfortable positions on the court and in her mind.  Unlike the volatile Russians whom the former #1 swept aside before, Radwanska will not collaborate on her own demise.

Kirilenko vs. Niculescu:  Among the hallmarks of the fall season is at least one quarterfinal at its major tournaments between unseeded players who profited from opportunities offered by ailing or listless contenders.  (Of course, cynics might argue that we always can expect at least one such quarterfinal at a WTA event in the age of “paranarchy,” or parity/anarchy.)  Nevertheless, Kirilenko’s accomplishment does not entirely surprise, considering her quarterfinal appearance at Tokyo last week and second-week charge at the US Open.  Previously able to excel only sporadically, such as a quarterfinal at the 2010 Australian Open, she has sustained this sequence of impressive singles results perhaps longer than at any other time in her career.  Long dangerous on the doubles court, Kirilenko has channeled some of her skills there into singles, volleying as well as anyone in the WTA lately and unleashing sparkling passing shots.  These evolutions in her game have helped to compensate for her unexceptional groundstrokes, which display neither the explosive racket acceleration nor the ability to target lines and corners of the WTA elite.

Against Monica Niculescu, though, those shortcomings might not hinder the Russian’s hopes.  The closest counterpart to the magical Fabrice Santoro in the women’s game, this eccentric Romanian outwits rather than outhits the opposition, exploiting her uncanny instincts and sensitive hands.  Projected to reach the top 50 next week, she exploited Li Na’s puzzling malaise to the fullest before routing Guangzhou champion Scheepers.  In a WTA filled with ball-bruising, generally straightforward offenses, this quarterfinal represents a rare opportunity to contemplate two diversified games simultaneously.  Their styles contrast not with each other but with the power-oriented brand of women’s tennis ubiquitous in this era.

Petkovic vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Combining for five Slam quarterfinals between them this year, the futures of women’s tennis in Germany and Russia never have raised their rackets against each other with malice in their hearts.  This first career meeting thus may prove the most meaningful of the Beijing quarterfinals, perhaps foreshadowing Slam quarterfinals or semifinals a few years ahead.  Typical of most Russians in her hit-first, think-later approach to the sport, Pavlyuchenkova possesses sufficient firepower from both groundstroke wings to overcome movers much more adept than Petkovic.  Her two-handed backhand should expose her opponent’s less reliable two-hander, while her return will punish meek second serves.  Hampered by injuries throughout her still-nascent career, Pavlyuchenkova also has struggled with double faults, a concerning sign at such a young age.  If Petkovic loses serve, therefore, she can remain confident in the knowledge that plenty of opportunities to equalize will emerge.  Central to the German’s fortunes is the task of taking time away from Pavlyuchenkova, who does not impose herself when kept in motion and who has not yet learned how to restart a point from a defensive position.

In an epic collision with Bartoli, Petkovic excelled in denying the double-fister chances to plant and fire her lethal groundstrokes.  Less encouraging was the near-disaster that saw her squander a 5-1 lead in the third set, which continued her previously observed tendency towards uncertainty when she needs to deliver the coup de grace.  A flaw perhaps springing from Petkovic’s competitive inexperience, it has afflicted Pavlyuchenkova as well in episodes like her Roland Garros loss to Schiavone.  But the former junior #1 avenged that reverse convincingly with a three-set victory in New York, suggesting that she can thrust disheartening setbacks behind her.  Since both women play with so little margin for error, barely skimming their flat groundstrokes across the net, their games can catch fire or freeze without warning.  We expect an entertaining, emotional rollercoaster of service breaks that might unwind into a third set.

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur

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

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

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

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

Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Young vs. Murray:  One of four American men to reach the second week, the USTA’s prodigal son has delivered the most surprising sequence of victories.  Inciting a sudden surge of hope, the formerly discarded Young upset Wawrinka in a fifth-set-tiebreak encounter that may have represented a crossroads in his career.  Just as important was his ability to follow up that potential breakthrough with a convincing victory over Chela, a veteran who could have exploited a novice’s hangover.  But Young has tantalized fans before by launching putative breakthroughs before slipping back into frustrating underachievement.  At Indian Wells this spring, for example, he stunned a listless Murray in straight sets with opportunistic play and deft touch in the forecourt.  Then, he won just three games from the pedestrian Robredo.

When he enters Arthur Ashe for the first time in his career, this charismatic American will gain courage from the enthusiastic support of his compatriots.  A similar dynamic could not vault either Christina McHale or Sloane Stephens to unexpected victories, however, while Murray will relish the prospect of revenge.  Reversing his Miami defeat to Bogomolov during the US Open Series, the Scot will fancy his chances of halting Young’s aspirations with the same steady, stingy game that has proved impregnable against all but the most volatile shot-makers.  Still without an imposing serve, Young will not win many free points from his delivery and thus will engage in rally after rally during his service games.  Few players can outmaneuver or outlast Murray when at his best, for the Scot displayed his unsurpassed fitness once again in a five-set comeback against Robin Haase.  As his victory over Lopez proved, the fourth seed does not struggle with the distinctive traits of a lefty style, and Young cannot trouble him from behind the baseline.

Muller vs. Nadal:  Extending the world #2 to two tiebreaks at Wimbledon, the pride of Luxembourg even held set points against the Spaniard in the first set.  His wickedly slicing lefty serve threw Nadal off balance on the skidding grass, yet Muller has spent much of the season at the challenger level upgrading his ranking inside the top 70.  A quarterfinalist in his last appearance at the US Open, three years ago, he has found these fast hard courts suited to his serve-volley tactics in upsets over baseliners like Almagro and Davydenko.  Recovering from a one-set deficit against Los Angeles champion Gulbis, Muller has won all three of his tiebreaks at this year’s US Open and probably will concentrate upon holding his serve until he reaches the thirteenth game.  This (very) poor man’s Karlovic should not threaten Nadal in most return games, allowing the Spaniard to settle into a rhythm that will elevate his confidence.

Short of confidence for most of the summer, Rafa will have mounted in self-belief after a victory over Nalbandian that included a pair of tightly contested sets.  After he fell behind almost immediately, the second seed unleashed some of his vintage passing shots to recoup his losses.  His signature shot at many of his victories over Federer, those passing shots will prove vital to his efforts in dispatching this opponent without undue drama.   If the breeze continues to whip around Arthur Ashe, the conditions should favor the player who strikes balls with greater margin and relies less upon a single point-ending blow.  Often most vulnerable in the early rounds of majors, Nadal has benefited from a comfortable draw that has enabled him to settle into the tournament.   Unless Muller serves at an exceptionally high percentage, the defending champion will chip away at his questionable fitness and even more questionable consistency until his rough-hewn game crumbles.

Ferrer vs. Roddick:  When they collided in a Davis Cup quarterfinal this year, neither the home crowd nor the fast indoor surface could salvage a set for Roddick against the ATP’s most notable grinder.  Back in the top 5 as Soderling staggers, Ferrer left scant impact upon the US Open Series but rolled through the first week while conceding only a solitary set.  Even on hard courts, the Spaniard has earned repeated success against the American with two 2007 victories at Masters 1000 tournaments.  His expert returning skills should defuse Roddick’s dwindling serve, no longer the mighty juggernaut that intimidated all but Federer.  Despite the serve-friendly surface in New York, the 2003 champion has won his first three matches more through consistency and court coverage than by immense serving.

Having played only two matches since Wimbledon, Roddick seemed relieved to have reached the second week at the US Open for the first time in three years.  He has progressed to this stage past a pair of Americans and the erratic Benneteau, competition much less challenging than the tenacity with which Ferrer assaults his opponents.  Although his serve remains arguably the worst in the top 20, this fearless Spaniard will reap rewards by pounding his inside-out forehand into the American’s backhand corner, which produces few penetrating shots and virtually no offense.  In order to impose himself upon Ferrer, Roddick must flatten his forehand to add the additional jolt of pace that can carry it past this dogged retriever.  Outside his serve, he will struggle to either outhit or outlast the Spaniard without adopting a more aggressive attitude and striking the ball earlier than he has shown for most of this season.  On the stadium where he lifted the trophy eight long years ago, can Roddick recapture the explosive hitting that won him his greatest achievements?

Kerber vs. Pennetta:  One of these lucky women will become a Slam semifinalist for the first time.  On the other hand, Pennetta has earned this opportunity not just with luck but with an unexpected level of determination that caused a major upset over Sharapova and a minor upset over Peng.  Overcoming bouts of fallibility and a wobbly stomach in the latter match, the Italian now eyes a formerly anonymous lefty in her first Slam quarterfinal.   Unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated fans, Kerber has spent most of her career toiling on outer courts, in qualifying draws, and in tiny events scattered around the world.  Yet she has plowed through a section once inhabited by Kvitova and Radwanska, defeating the latter opponent in three sets.  The German lefty’s serve and cross-court forehand curl effectively towards a right-hander’s backhand corner, but Pennetta moves smoothly in that direction and should withstand that modest pressure comfortably.  A former quarterfinalist in New York, she has tasted victory against both of her potential semifinal opponents in important match, but she cannot afford to think too far ahead against an adversary who defines the cliché “nothing to lose.”  Unlike her previous two victories, Pennetta enters this match as the clear favorite.  How will she respond to this different dynamic?

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Zvonareva vs. Stosur:  In one of the oddest head-to-head records among the WTA top 10, Stosur has won her last seven meetings with the 2010 US Open finalist.  Seemingly unnerved by the Australian’s heavy serve, Zvonareva mastered a similar test with aplomb when she dismissed the equally imposing serve of Lisicki.  Striking her groundstrokes more confidently than she has since the Australian Open, the world #2 pinned her opponent behind the baseline with suffocating depth.  Although Lisicki did little to ruffle Zvonareva’s fragile nerves, she responded calmly to a potential turning point when she faced triple break point early in the second set.  In contrast to her flustered exit at Wimbledon, her US Open performance to date has not suggested that she feels undue pressure to repeat last year’s result.

Finally relevant again after a dismal first half, Stosur built upon reaching the Rogers Cup final to record inspired victories over a pair of Russians, Petrova and Kirilenko.  Able to run around her meek backhand with surprising success on this fast surface, the former Roland Garros runner-up has inspired comparisons to the leading men with her serve-forehand combinations.  Once she gains the ascendancy in a rally, her opponents have struggled to survive more than a few of her explosive forehands.  In Zvonareva, however, she confronts a mover more agile and a ball-striker more solid than either of her two previous victims.  Likely to test Stosur’s lateral movement, the Russian should display the pace and placement necessary to expose that well-concealed backhand.  By contrast, the Australian should attempt to close off points at the net whenever she gains the opportunity, preventing Zvonareva from restarting the rally.  If their exchanges last more than a few shots, the Russian’s superior footwork and consistency should snap her seven-match losing streak against Stosur, who may lack energy after enduring consecutive marathons in the previous two rounds.  If this match also escalates into a final set, however, one might hand the psychological advantage to the Australian.

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.

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