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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

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.

 

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.

Rafael Nadal - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

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

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

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

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

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

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

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

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

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

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.

Venus Williams Venus Williams of the United States in action during her first round match Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 20, 2011 in London, England.

Date-Krumm vs. V. Williams:  Commonly considered one of the WTA’s most seasoned veterans, Venus resembles a mere novice compared to her second-round opponents.  Still thirsty for competition into her fifth decade, Date-Krumm unleashed a stirring sequence of successes last year highlighted by victories over former #1s Safina and Sharapova.  In 2011, her miraculous rejuvenation waned as foes grew more familiar with her distinctive style and perhaps a bit less respectful of her age.  The Japanese star certainly cannot match Venus hold for hold, so her prospects for mustering a credible threat look slim indeed.  If she can embed herself in rallies, though, her short, flat, sharply angled strokes could test the five-time champion’s instincts and movement.  Kudos to the All England Club for featuring this classy pair of competitors on Centre Court.

Benneteau vs. Berdych:  Most dangerous on the fastest surfaces, the mercurial Frenchman defeated Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago behind opportunistic forecourt attacks coupled with stinging down-the-line backhands.  Last summer, Benneteau held a match point against Nadal at the Rogers Cup, reminding spectators that this doubles specialist still can threaten the ATP elite in their mortal moments.  Surprisingly convincing in his opening win, Berdych eyes a reasonably comfortable draw en route to a quarterfinal with Nadal yet has struggled to capitalize on such situations before.  The 2010 finalist has not recaptured the form that earned consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic here last year, although Wimbledon’s calm atmosphere may help settle his nerves.   Dour and somewhat laborious, the Czech must forestall the Frenchman from rushing him out of his comfort zone on a wave of positive energy as another Frenchman did against Berdych at Roland Garros.

Del Potro vs. Rochus:  Dwarfed by the lanky Argentine, the Belgian struck fear into an adversary as lofty as Djokovic in the opening round of Wimbledon 2010.  Leading by two sets to one on that occasion, Rochus ultimately could not overcome the Serb’s superiority on serve and sheer pace of shot.  While a similar task confronts him against Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion rarely has imprinted his presence onto a significant grass draw.  In fact, Hewitt’s compact, far from overpowering style comfortably overcame the Argentine in straight sets during his last appearance here.  Normally an above-average mover among the ATP giants, Del Potro arranges his lanky limbs less naturally on grass, as a Queens Club loss to Mannarino illustrated.  With no points to defend through the rest of 2011, though, he can focus on accumulating points and momentum for the summer hard courts where his weapons have proved most lethal.

Dulgheru vs. Kuznetsova:  Far from top-10 quality for most of this season, Sveta could return to the top 10 with a second-week run here following her quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros.  Always fonder of clay than grass, she still reached the quarterfinal here in 2007 and plausibly could repeat that feat in a section with no rival more imposing than Kvitova.  Kuznetsova has entertained audiences with a rollercoaster career built upon momentum surges and sputters, so one wonders whether that Paris accomplishment will remain an anomaly or ignite another upward climb.  Suggesting the former was an unnecessarily complicated opener, and the Russian has faltered against non-threatening but persistent opponents like Dulgheru for much of 2011.

Muller vs. Raonic:  If at first you don’t succeed, serve, serve, and serve again.  Such a motto has defined the careers of Muller and Raonic, two monumental ace machines with compromised movement but reasonable skills at the net.  When the Luxembourg lefty meets Canada’s Ancic-like prodigy, few points should extend past three or four shots in a contest that resembles less a tennis match than a dart-throwing competition.  Nevertheless, Wimbledon still offers the best possible venue in which to observe this curious manner of playing the sport, which led to Isner-Mahut here last year.  Viewed as a future Wimbledon champion by bolder prognosticators, Raonic thus far resembles Isner more than Sampras.  Whether or not such glory lies in his future, he can only profit from the experience of playing an opponent with a game so parallel to his own.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Petrova:  As one Russian wanes, another emerges to supplant her.  A former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Petrova possesses the heavy serve and aggressive mentality designed for success on grass.  Well past the apex of her abilities, however, she enters this match as an underdog against the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA.  Pavlyuchenkova reached her first Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros, where she thoroughly dominated Schiavone for a set and a half.  A baseliner with little affinity for the net except regarding swing volleys, her laterally oriented style may not adapt as impressively to grass as to clay, while her serve remains a work in progress.  From a breakthrough as significant as her Paris performance, though, she may have gained the confidence to believe in herself as a genuine contender and a threat to emerge from the weakest quarter of the draw.

Marino vs. Vinci:  Not unlike Raonic, his female compatriot can release a thunderous serve that Venus once compared to her own.  Also not unlike Raonic, Marino has a rough-hewn, raw game that requires considerable refinement before she can vault much higher in the rankings.  The WTA rewards the exercise of unbridled power more handsomely than does the ATP, however, especially on faster surfaces.  By winning the Dutch Open title last week against the heavy-hitting Dokic, Vinci demonstrated a different way to win on grass:  with sharply carved slices, artistic volleys, and swift reflexes.  But will any of those skills matter against Marino’s one overpowering weapon?

Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

Victoria Azarenka - BNP Paribas Open

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

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

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

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

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

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

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

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

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

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

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

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