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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

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

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Agnieszka Radwanska - 2011 China Open - Day 9

Invited to predict which woman stood in the best position to accomplish the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing, tennis analysts might have suggested Sharapova, Azarenka, Kvitova, or perhaps Wozniacki, who accomplished the same feat a year ago.  But we’d wager that few outside Poland expected Radwanska to claim the most significant title of her career one week before relegating it to second-most-significant status the next.  Only with an exceptional degree of focus, timing, and anticipation can a player impose her own style and vision of the game upon much more powerful foes.  Claiming her second straight title, Radwanska dulled the sting of her opponent’s shots and meticulously outmaneuvered them in rallies until they resembled cobras swaying harmlessly under the spell of a snake-charmer.  Skeptics will note that she faced neither Sharapova, Kvitova, nor Serena, whose high-octane offenses have shattered her spells before.  Nevertheless, the Pole befuddled two elite opponents in Azarenka and Zvonareva en route to the Tokyo title, while her gritty performance in outlasting Petkovic revealed resilience impressive for a player seeking the most significant victory of her career.  Moreover, she regularly found a deeper first serve or a riskier backhand when the moment demanded it, showing a capacity for modulation rare in the modern era.  The return of this deft, clever craftswoman to the top 10 travels some distance towards refuting the widespread criticism of the WTA as a leviathan comprised of fundamentally identical, interchangeable parts.   And, considering Radwanska’s success after distancing herself from her father, Wozniacki fans should feel reassured that their heroine made the correct decision this summer.  The Pole monopolized the hardware but not the headlines, though, and we cast our mind back to a few other storylines of the Asian double  as well.

Radwanska’s final victim in Tokyo, Zvonareva collected the runner-up trophy there following a commendable display of perseverance in the semifinals against Kvitova.  Rather than dissolve in frustration when the Czech started the match in scorching form, Vera dug into the trenches late in the first set, waited for a crack to emerge in her opponent’s self-belief, and then chipped away at that crack until Kvitova’s game crashed down around her.  In the final and against an inspired Ivanovic in Beijing, Zvonareva reverted to rubble herself under pressure.  Those debacles highlighted her career-long struggles in title matches and when defending huge quantities of points, critical flaws to be sure but not flaws that should diminish her overall improvements as a competitor.  Also impressive in a more modest way were the achievements of Kirilenko, who overcame a massive power differential to win two epics from Stosur and reach quarterfinals at both tournaments.  Doomed by her limited talents to remain in the second tier, she still has shown an opportunistic streak on several notable occasions, although the correlation of her elevated grunt with her elevated form may draw raised eyebrows from spectators (or rather listeners).  Most observers expected to hear a certain more famous shriek ricocheting through the air of Tokyo and Beijing, but an untimely ankle injury to Sharapova halted such hopes early in a Tokyo quarterfinal with Kvitova that already had become compelling.  On a brighter note, the new world #2 far surpassed the quality of her US Open performance in a fiercely contested two-tiebreak victory over Goerges that showcased her competitive ferocity.

After a disastrous US Open Series, Goerges showed signs of snapping that skid when she won consecutive matches at Tokyo and severely tested Sharapova throughout their ruthless slugfest.  The erratic brunette achieved the odd distinction of losing three consecutive sets in tiebreaks, however, as she failed to solve Kirilenko in her Beijing opener.  As 2011 fades, one will continue to wonder whether the real Goerges lies closer to the Goerges of the first half or the Goerges of the second half.  No such questions surround her countrywoman Petkovic, who more than compensated for her absence from Tokyo with a superb run in Beijing that brought her within two games of victory.  Rallying from a set-and-break deficit against Bartoli, she played relentlessly focused, intelligent tennis against Pavlyuchenkova in the quarterfinals and tournament upset artist Niculescu a round later.  Few players have matured more quickly than Petkovic in the last few years, and fewer still have matured on court while remaining their quirky, engaging selves without racket in hand.  In the most important match of her career so far, she thought nothing of either the occasion or her winless record against Radwanska but played without fear or reservation, especially when she recovered from an 84-minute first set to bagel the Pole in act two.  Although the curtain didn’t descend on this marvelous three-act drama as Petkovic had hoped, she danced during the trophy ceremony with charming abandon and a smile on her face.  Less able to flash her trademark smile was Lisicki, who withdrew yet again from a tournament as injuries continue to blight her young career.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a shot to Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 5, 2011 in Beijing, China.

The German found herself far from alone in succumbing to a foe other than an opponent, for Beijing witnessed such departures from Azarenka and Ivanovic.  In both cases, this most recent walkover and retirement extended a prevailing theme in a year littered with injuries for the two glamorous women.  For the raven-haired Serb, her injury ended the strongest week of her season so far, built upon the bones of fellow Slam champion Kuznetsova and top-5 opponent Zvonareva.  Not since winning Roland Garros in 2008 had Ivanovic scored consecutive victories over champions with the pedigrees of those two Russians, a feat that bolstered her confidence even as she admitted with artless honesty that it surprised her.  Probably regretting the opportunity to extend the momentum from her Tokyo semifinal, meanwhile, Azarenka likely surrendered any chance to overtake Wozniacki for the year-end #1 ranking at Istanbul.

Assigned strangely identical draws in both weeks, the current inhabitant of the WTA penthouse fell on her face once more.  Two of her three total wins came against the hard-hitting but one-dimensional Gajdosova, while three-set losses to Kanepi and Pennetta continued her summer embarrassments at the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory events that she had dominated in the second half of 2010.  Radiating much less confidence and poise than she did a year ago, Wozniacki failed to serve out the match in Beijing that she eventually lost—a lapse against a second-tier opponent inexcusable in a #1, notwithstanding the Italian’s gritty effort.  The Dane’s misery found plenty of notable company, however, amongst the season’s three first-time Slam champions.  Despite reaching the semifinals in Tokyo, courtesy of Sharapova’s retirement, Kvitova’s meltdown at that stage overshadowed her preceding victories over anonymous foes; moreover, it presaged her opening-round Beijing defeat to the equally anonymous Arvidsson.  Yet neither the Czech nor Stosur (one total win, two losses to Kirilenko) matched the catastrophe of Li Na, excruciatingly feckless before her home fans as she absorbed a first-round bagel against Niculescu.  As Istanbul approaches, observers will wonder whether any of these four players can challenge for the season’s last significant title, which promises a fascinating collection of veterans and novices.

That tournament still lies a few weeks in the future, though, and for now the spotlight returns to the ATP with previews of the later rounds in Shanghai.  A week from now, we will publish a similar article that reflects on the men’s passage through Asia.

 

 

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.

Vera Zvonareva - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Starting with her mid-career breakthrough last summer, Zvonareva reached the concluding stages of several pivotal tournaments:  Wimbledon, the US Open, Beijing, and the Australian Open.  Yet the intelligent, volatile Russian settled for best supporting actress at the first three of those events and succumbed in the semifinals of the fourth, continuing a habit of falling just short when a momentous triumph seemed within her grasp.  On the other hand, Zvonareva bowed only to the elite on those occasions, losing all four times to players who have held the #1 ranking and to Slam champions in three of the four defeats.  Her highly documented struggles in finals thus may stem in part from the opposition with which ill fortune has confronted the former #2, who could regain that lofty ranking if she wins Tokyo.  Amidst titles in such minor bastions of the WTA as Pattaya City and Baku, the Russian has claimed few noteworthy laurels since Indian Wells in 2009.

At first glance, Zvonareva’s opponent would seem a comparatively comfortable challenge far from her more formidable nemeses.  Upon closer examination, though, Radwanska has won their last two meetings this summer with the sort of gritty tenacity that can trouble emotionally fraught competitors like Zvonareva.  In the San Diego final, the Pole’s much-critiqued serve never deserted her as she never conceded a single break while capitalizing upon the few opportunities that she earned.  Unlike ferocious shot-makers who can afford to drift mentally or grow negative at times, Radwanska can defeat elite opponents and maximize her potential only by maintaining her keen focus and her confidence.  When she struggled during the first half of the season, a slump exacerbated by injuries, her lack of confidence prevented her from unfolding her distinctive style effectively late in close sets and matches.  Like Wozniacki, her decision to distance herself somewhat from her father has breathed new life into her game and her appetite for competition.  Snapping a three-year drought without a title at San Diego, she rebounded impressively from a US Open disappointment to win three-setters over Jankovic and Azarenka here.  Much as with the Belarussian, she can fluster Zvonareva by exploring not only the lateral but the vertical dimensions of the court.  Although more multifaceted and more consistent than Azarenka, the fourth seed still prefers to wage war from the baseline with a similar pace and spin on most strokes.  Exposed in her losses to Radwanska this summer were her reluctance to improvise and adjust in unfamiliar positions or situations, where she often looked marooned as the Pole outmaneuvered her.

From her performance against Kvitova in the semifinals, by contrast, emerge promising omens for Zvonareva’s fortunes in this final.  When she slipped deep into a first-set deficit, Vera did not disintegrate as she has in so many earlier encounters, petulantly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Perhaps aware of her adversary’s inexperience and chronic inconsistency, she instead stayed calm and forced her opponent to earn what seemed a predestined first-set victory.  After saving several points and reversing the tide, Zvonareva then offered the volatile Czech no second chances but rather accelerated her meltdown by subtly applying pressure.  A thoughtful and sensitive tactician at her best, she carefully exposed Kvitova’s (few) weaknesses, such as her movement towards her backhand or her haste in creating nonexistent angles on deep balls near the center of the baseline.  Despite her counterpunching instincts, she interwove her standard game with timely bursts of aggression—a pummeled backhand second-serve return here, an unexpected net approach there—to keep her victim uneasy and reeling.  Zvonareva certainly will need to return more aggressively than in her two previous 2011 encounters with Radwanska, but otherwise she should remain mostly inside her low-risk comfort zone.  While the Pole possesses slight advantages in footwork and speed, the Russian should neutralize those edges on most occasions with her superior power, especially on the serve, and equal consistency.  If this match stays competitive, as it should, each player must carefully decide when to cast aside her habitual aversion to risk and when to wait patiently for a misstep from across the net.  Against Radwanska’s spontaneity stands Zvonareva’s programmatic style, but both favor the elongated rallies that require multiple shot combinations to win.  Moreover, both have developed a talent for uncovering an opponent’s most significant flaws and scraping away at them like a shoe on a blister.  Will the Russian become the third Tokyo titlist from her nation in the last seven years, or will the Pole record the most remarkable accomplishment of her career to date?

As Tokyo prepares to crown a first-time champion, Beijing beckons with the final WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of 2011.  We return to preview that draw tomorrow before discussing the two ATP 500 events on Sunday.

Victoria Azarenka - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

In the final Premier Five tournament of 2011, all four semifinalists spring from the same, richly talented region of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Despite sharing these cultural origins, though, the quartet represents a range of distinctive playing styles from a towering lefty to an artist of finesse.

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  In a likely WTA rivalry of the future, this pair will meet for the eighth occasion and second time this year.  At Indian Wells, their first 2011 collision climaxed in a third-set tiebreak after Azarenka saved multiple match points before breaking Radwanska when she served for the match.  After she split her first four encounters with the Pole, including two three-setters, the Belarussian more recently has appeared to overcome the multifaceted challenge that she poses with three consecutive victories on fast surfaces.  Extending her dominance over Bartoli with a second-set bagel, Azarenka has looked progressively sharper with each match that she has played, raising her level of performance with the simultaneously elevating competition.  In the quarterfinal, she reversed the direction of her groundstrokes almost at will despite the pace generated by the Frenchwoman, and her serve rarely betrayed her at meaningful moments.  While she aimed for lines and corners with her characteristic aggression, her shot selection bore the signs of calculation and commitment more often than recklessness or indecision.  Still uncertain is Vika’s second serve, the shot that has impeded her progress at majors and upon which Radwanska will hope to capitalize with her pinpoint returns.

Although one might expect the fast surface to showcase Azarenka’s strengths, especially if the roof stays closed, Radwanska paradoxically has delivered some of her best tennis on the sport’s faster courts.  A two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, she benefits from the extra jolt that they add to her relatively gentle groundstrokes.  In this duel between an inveterate baseliner and an all-court player, expect Radwanska to utilize her finesse to draw Azarenka into the forecourt on uncomfortable terms, for conventional volleys remain the least impressive feature of the Belarussian’s game.  By contrast, Azarenka will aim to take time away from the crafty Pole with penetrating groundstrokes that force her into defensive mode throughout.  If the match drifts deep into a third set once again, we should get a glimpse of Vika’s improved but still questionable fitness late in the season.  One must favor Radwanska in a war of attrition, on both physical and mental grounds, but lately Azarenka has combined her offense with consistency and composure.  Feasting upon the erratic or the temperamental, the Pole specializes in applying death by paper-cut to her opponent’s psyche and thence to her game.  When she faces a foe who can both outhit her and survive in extended rallies, her options dwindle significantly.

Zvonareva vs. Kvitova:  Sadly aborted after just seven games, Kvitova’s quarterfinal with Sharapova nevertheless may have steeled her for the stern tests in the semifinal and final.  Less known for her serve than the Czech, Zvonareva surprisingly has dropped only one service games across her three matches this week and faced only two break points in her last two matches.  On the other hand, her competition has ranged from mild to feckless, not subjecting her to any significant pressure after the first set of her first match.  Never have the Russian and the Czech contested a suspenseful match, although they have evenly divided their four meetings since 2009.  Conquered on clay by Kvitova in Rome and Madrid, Zvonareva has dismissed her comfortably at the Australian Open at the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  The surface edge suggested by that record provides insights mitigated significantly by the stunning rise of both players during the last two seasons.  Whereas Kvitova has evolved into a more versatile and skillful athlete, Zvonareva has continued to practice largely the same style but has enhanced her emotional fortitude.  Nevertheless, her tempestuous personality has receded rather than entirely vanished, and Kvitova’s serve certainly can frustrate Vera as have the similarly potent deliveries of Serena, Venus, Stosur, or Sharapova.

Attempting to become the seventh Russian finalist in the last seven years of this event, Zvonareva must have felt relieved to have dodged the Stosur bullet when her compatriot Kirilenko conveniently upset the Aussie.  Even more dangerous when granted second chances, the Russian has not won a tournament of this magnitude since Indian Wells 2009, where she defeated Kvitova en route to the title.  Six years her junior, the Czech has accumulated more experience this year in the latter rounds of key events from Wimbledon to Madrid, where she defeated Zvonareva en route to the title.  Against such a smooth mover and adroit counterpuncher, though, Kvitova will need to stay patient in rallies rather than flinging forehands towards corners with the impetuousness that proves most effective on grass.  Despite swerving into Zvonareva’s excellent backhand, her swerving ad-court lefty serve should assist her in opening the court from the outset.  A returner often aggressive to a fault, the Czech should carefully consider the degree of risk that she wishes to assume in her opponent’s service games.  Unlike the other semifinal, a break-fest in the making, service holds should set the tone in a meeting between two deliveries that rarely disintegrate.   As Kvitova hopes to erase the memories of her abject mid-summer swoon, Zvonareva aims to extend her impetus from an encouraging second half.

Petra Kvitova Maria Sharapova of Russia (L) and Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic pose before their Ladies' final round match on Day Twelve of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 2, 2011 in London, England.

Kanepi vs. Radwanska:  Hailing from nearly adjacent countries, these Eastern European women could not represent more divergent attitudes to the sport.  While Mats Wilander surely would include the Estonian among the “mindless bashers” of the WTA, he could have little but praise for the crafty Pole who has won both of their previous meetings.  Just 16-16 when this tournament began, Kanepi has resurfaced impressively with victories over US Open quarterfinalist Pennetta and world #1 Wozniacki, the Tokyo defending champion.  Fitness typically has troubled a player more burly than many, but she rallied impressively from a one-set deficit against the Italian and outlasted the Dane in another extended encounter.  Better known for her physical and mental resilience is Radwanska, the author of a one-set comeback as well against Jankovic, whom she bageled in the final set.  Nevertheless, her nearly total lack of offense proved no impediment when she faced a Serb just as comfortable with counterpunching and reluctant to seize the initiative.  Since Wimbledon, Radwanska’s star has risen steadily with a title in San Diego and semifinal at the Rogers Cup.  She avenged her US Open loss to Kerber in yet another three-setter this week and has accumulated so much momentum over the last few months that only an outstanding serving and returning performance from Kanepi can stop her.  Once the rally shifts into neutral terms, the Estonian’s raw talent will struggle to overcome the Pole’s expert ball placement and point construction.

Azarenka vs. Bartoli:  Unlike the previous match, this quarterfinal features two opponents with the same set of offensively oriented goals.  In most of their previous meetings, Bartoli’s double-fisted groundstrokes have placed her at a disadvantage when she confronts Azarenka’s symmetrical baseline game.  An efficient mover who covers the court better than most aggressors, the third seed has exploited the Frenchwoman’s less assured lateral movement and sometimes forced her to take one of her hands off the racket.  On fast surfaces like grass and indoor hard courts, however, Bartoli will have as great an opportunity as she ever will to topple Vika, who will have a little less time to counter her opponent’s first strike.  Inspiring the Frenchwoman with further hope is her impressive victory over fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, one of the WTA’s most improved players in 2011.  Meanwhile, Azarenka slogged through an erratic victory over the unremarkable Klara Zakopalova during which she fell behind early in both sets.  Since both players possess outstanding power and precision on their returns, their first-serve percentages will play a vital role in the outcome.  On the other hand, Bartoli may wish to strike bold returns even on Azarenka’s first serve, normally a consistent shot but not a weapon.  By contrast, the Frenchwoman’s serve can deliver point-ending shots or double faults in equal abundance, a consequence of her idiosyncratic rhythm and motion.  Both women exited the US Open in the first week, Azarenka predictably and Bartoli unexpectedly, so both may consider this tournament an opportunity to reassert themselves after a generally uplifting summer.

Kirilenko vs. Zvonareva:  Winless in five previous clashes with her compatriot, Russia’s other Maria nevertheless has thrust Zvonareva deep into two tense encounters last year, one of which culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The WTA’s Russians often bring out the worst in each other’s games, a pattern that should apply with no less force to the fragile Zvonareva.  Scoring consecutive victories over Slam champions Stosur and Ivanovic, Kirilenko may have benefited from the post-championship malaise of the former and a back injury to the latter, but she has developed an increasingly proficient net game in recent months that carried her to the second week of the US Open.  Less susceptible to pressure than some of her countrywomen, she saved several match points against Stosur there before winning the longest women’s tiebreak in tournament history.  Not seriously tested by either of her first two opponents, Zvonareva has dropped just three games in her last three sets while dispatching Pironkova and Benesova.  While mighty servers can rattle the second-ranked Russian, she can settle into her balanced baseline style when she faces an opponent without that level of power.  Her penetrating groundstrokes may hamper Kirilenko’s efforts to close off angles at the net or finish points, suggesting that she will need an error-prone night from Vera to advance.  In falls past, Zvonareva has enjoyed notable successes such as reaching the finals last year at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing and coming within a set of the year-end championships title in 2008.  Appearing to thrive in the less intense atmosphere of these events, she can focus calmly upon playing tennis—something that she does as well as anyone in the WTA on any given day.

Sharapova vs. Kvitova:  Since their collision in the Wimbledon final, its protagonists have traced divergent routes through the summer.  As Kvitova sputtered and fizzled during early, one-sided losses in both Canada and Cincinnati, Sharapova pounded her way to the title at the latter Premier Five event.  At the US Open, though, their paths drew parallel once more in error-strewn early losses that bore scant resemblance to their mastery of the grass.  On the faster courts of fall, the first-strike tennis that they practice should reap rewards, as it has for 2009 Tokyo champion and former year-end championships titlist Sharapova.  Discomfited by Kvitova’s sliding lefty serve on grass, she may find that shot less frustrating on the somewhat higher-bouncing courts here.  Yet Sharapova also will need to avoid the double digits in double faults that she reached during her otherwise scintillating third-round, two-tiebreak victory over Julia Goerges.  At the All England Club, Kvitova struck her shots with superior depth although not closer to the lines, thus pinning her opponent behind the baseline without embracing excessive risk.  Consequently, Sharapova will seek to win the crucial battle of north-south court positioning before showcasing her more familiar ability to stretch an opponent laterally with angles.  The Czech moves slightly more effectively than her fellow Wimbledon champion and has slightly more variety in her arsenal, although she will win far fewer matches through subtlety and nuance than through the muscular imposition of her authority.  Most intriguing of the Tokyo quarterfinals, this match pits the season’s most impressive resurgence on the women’s side against its most impressive breakthrough artist.  They have met only twice in their careers, but the WTA can only hope that such intriguing intersections between stars of different generations occur more frequently in the future.  Even in the depleted significance of this setting, these matches make the fall more meaningful.

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.)

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

In a suspenseful three-set encounter, not all points are created equal.  Few players recognize and exploit this truth more than Sharapova, who survived 11 double faults and 64 unforced errors to collect the title that painfully eluded her a year ago.  Trailing Jankovic by a set and a break in a final that resembled the nearby rollercoaster, the 2010 Cincinnati finalist sank her teeth into the match midway through the second set, holding serve twice to stay alive.  In the ensuing tiebreak, the serves and groundstrokes that had sprayed throughout the court suddenly found lines and corners with vintage precision.  Three times trailing by a break in the final set, Sharapova pinpointed her returns to erase each of the deficits in a final during which each player rarely led by more than one game or by more than one point in a game.  Never ahead between the seventh game of the first set and the seventh game of the third set, she allowed her sprightly opponent no room for recovery once she gained the initiative.   Amidst the unsightly statistics of double faults and unforced errors, another statistic proved the most relevant:  a stunning 11-0 record in third sets this season that testifies to her unsurpassed resolve when matches hang in the balance, as well as to her ability to overcome imperfections in a game designed for the pursuit of perfection.  Crushing Kuznetsova and Stosur earlier in the week, the three-time major champion scored a similarly valiant victory over Zvonareva after a dismal beginning to their semifinal.  With disappointments in Stanford and Toronto placed firmly behind her, she will travel to New York armed with a timely injection of confidence.

An even more dramatic confidence boost will have propelled the Cincinnati runner-up into the season’s final major.  A first-round loser at both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Jankovic had drifted beyond the edge of relevance this year as her 2010 slump on non-clay surfaces had deepened.  Although she profited from a walkover and an injured semifinal opponent (see below), the Serb seemed to recapture her affection for the sport this week.  Compensating for reduced foot speed with smarter anticipation, she showcased not only her lithe movement and keen instincts but the smile that accompanied her exploits during her ascent to #1.  On several occasions throughout the final and her third-round victory over Schiavone, Jankovic sprawled across the court to produce passing shots or unexpected retrievals, demonstrating her natural athleticism and racket-head control.  A potential narrative of the final would cast it as a potentially uneventful straight-set win that she let escape her, like Sharapova in last year’s final, but she battled an increasingly determined Sharapova with courage and concentration until the last two games.  Whatever one’s response to the polarizing Serb, one still can appreciate the player if not the person.  Not realistically a genuine contender at the US Open, she might provide a fascinating foil for the power-hitters atop the WTA if she can build upon this result.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

As desperate as Sharapova to forget the foibles of the previous week, Murray had not won a match at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this year—until he won all of his matches this week.  An opening-round exit had terminated his Montreal title defense, appearing to distance him further from the top three.  Had he suffered another early loss, he would have struggled to acquire the optimism necessary for surviving the intense fortnight in New York.  By capturing the Cincinnati trophy, however, the world #4 reestablished himself as a serious contender in what has become a US Open men’s field surrounded by questions, none more notable than those concerning Djokovic’s shoulder.  Unable to compete effectively against the Scot, the world #1 already had played more matches than he did all of last season and may have suffered merely a case of aggravated fatigue as he did after Miami.  Nevertheless, the injury arrived at an inauspicious moment, offering a breath of hope for the other 127 players in the draw.  Despite an uneven performance in the semifinal, Murray also outlasted the most successful player of the summer in Mardy Fish, who has assumed the mantle of leading American with unexpected speed and ease.  That encouraging victory illustrated the Scot’s skill in defusing imposing servers, the type of player that normally profits from the fastest Slam surface of all.

In a week that witnessed the withdrawal of one former champion from the US Open, Cincinnati proved relatively unkind to most of the others.  Perhaps hampered by burned fingers, Nadal struggled with his first serve and forehand throughout his two victories before succumbing to Fish for the first time in his career.  In his three-tiebreak, 217-minute victory over Verdasco, the defending champion failed to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes for prolonged periods, a rare sight even on hard courts.  His confidence shaken by losses to Djokovic, Nadal’s abbreviated US Open Series left him additional time for much-needed preparation in New York.  Less surprising was Del Potro’s loss to Federer, for the Argentine had not defeated a top-three opponent since his return from wrist surgery and had grown oddly passive since Wimbledon.  The five-time US Open champion avenged his loss in the 2009 final with a performance as sparkling as any of his hard-court matches this year but found little of that form three days later against Berdych.  After his third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals or earlier, Federer will face a severe test in stringing together seven consecutive quality performances.  Not since February in Dubai has he reached a non-clay final.  To be sure, the Swiss won the US Open after losing early in Cincinnati three years ago, while the Czech defeated Federer twice and nearly a third time last year.

Having accomplished little of significance so far in 2011, Berdych overcame the 16-time major champion without facing a break point.  This achievement might have positioned him to threaten a fallible Djokovic on Saturday, had not an injury-caused retirement intervened.  When Djokovic himself fell victim to a shoulder injury a day later, the men’s tournament concluded with consecutive retirements.  From the women’s draw withdrew Serena and Azarenka, while Petkovic suffered a knee injury in her quarterfinal that impeded her perceptibly during her semifinal loss to Jankovic.  As the US Open approaches, one expects that some of these injuries will disappear (see S for Serena and A for Azarenka), but this rising trend on both Tours should cause them to investigate this issue further.  Despite the Roadmap, the post-Wimbledon break, and more intelligent scheduling by the players themselves, too many outcomes continue to hinge upon physical condition rather than tactics and execution.  The sport’s sprawling calendar thus remains a topic of concern.

***

We will return very shortly with capsules on the leading men’s contenders at the US Open, followed by a similar sketch of the women’s contenders.

 

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Murray:  Divided into three distinct acts is the mini-rivalry between the heirs apparent to the thrones of Federer and Nadal.  In Act I, from 2006 to early 2008, Djokovic won all four of his meetings against the man exactly a week younger than him while losing only one set.  A whiplash-inducing Act II began at the 2008 Rogers Cup and extended through three consecutive victories by Murray until the end of 2010.  At this year’s Australian Open, Act III signaled Djokovic’s burgeoning ascendancy with an emphatic, barely competitive straight-sets victory for the Serb.  In arguably his best match of the season so far, the Scot thrust the world #1 to the brink of defeat during their Rome semifinal before failing to serve out the match and succumbing in a third-set tiebreak.  Will this Act continue, or will the curtain rise on Act IV in Cincinnati?

Throughout this narrative arc, its contours have depended on the state of Djokovic’s game and mind rather than Murray.  The more assertive figure in both playing style and personality, the world #1 dominated the fourth seed during his initial breakthrough period, struggled against him during what now seems a sophomore slump, and restored his mastery during a second, more sustained, and much more spectacular assault upon the sport’s pinnacle.  One scarcely can imagine Murray playing even more brilliantly than during the last two sets of that Rome semifinal, yet still he faltered at the encounter’s climax, a pattern repeated from a similarly outstanding performance against Nadal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Against an opponent bursting with confidence, the Scot must quell the latent negativity that has hindered him from winning a major or from consistently threatening the top three at majors.  Having not won a Masters 1000 hard-court match until this week, though, he now has an opportunity to deliver an imposing statement in a situation when he has little to lose and much to gain.  Not quite sensational in the earlier rounds, Murray nevertheless will have gained momentum from overcoming sweltering heat and patches of erratic form to overcome summer sensation Fish.  Probably the only rival who can match Djokovic backhand for backhand, the Scot also shares his talent for returning serves with depth and precision.  At the net, he surpasses the Serb for deftness and placement, although perhaps not in agility.  While few players defend more effectively than Murray, he also has shown an increased readiness to finish points when presented with a meek mid-court reply.

Separating Djokovic from his challenger, however, is his superiority in the two most critical shots of modern men’s tennis:  the serve and the forehand.  In the former area, he has balanced power with percentage more reliably and has developed a sense for when risks will reward, exposing his second serve less often than does the Scot.  In the latter department, the Serb has developed a long-time weapon into a more consistent, technically solid shot over the past year.  Unlike Murray, Djokovic can strike effortless winners from that wing without massaging the rally as meticulously beforehand.  Once infamous but now famous, his fitness rises nearly to a level that matches the Scot’s rigorous training program, which has proven a central ingredient in the latter’s 2009 title.  Nevertheless, the top seed will have felt relieved to have received a semifinal retirement for the second straight week, since Monfils had depleted his reserves of energy on Friday evening.  Scheduled for shortly after noon in Cincinnati’s August torpor, this final should test Djokovic’s fitness as much as did the Miami final this spring.

Perfect in his first nine finals of 2011, the world #1 aims to record his third pair of consecutive Masters 1000 titles this year.  In his last three North American hard-court finals, Djokovic battled through a tense three-set final against an inspired opponent.  Spectators should anticipate similarly stern resistance from an opponent seeking his most significant title in over a year.  While one finalist has gorged himself on trophies and glory in 2011, the other finalist has starved by his normally sparkling standards.  Against the virtually irresistible wave of momentum that has deluged the ATP this season, therefore, stands a competitor with the appetite and Masters 1000 pedigree to impede or perhaps bar the Serb’s path.   If he does, the ATP top three might become a Gang of Four once again.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 6

Sharapova vs. Jankovic:  Amidst perhaps the best odd-numbered year of her career to date, Sharapova eyes a fourth final at the tournament where she fell just a point short of the title last year.  Reaching consecutive finals in the 2007-08 Australian Opens, she erased her disappointment on the first occasion by capitalizing on her second opportunity against a much less intimidating opponent.  Despite losing five of her last six finals, including her last three in the United States, the three-time major champion will bring considerable confidence from her dominance over Jankovic.  Only once victorious over Sharapova, the Serb has lost all four of their hard-court meetings and retired from two of them, including the 2009 Tokyo final.  On the other hand, Jankovic has spent much of her week settling old scores against Schiavone (her conqueror at Roland Garros) and Petkovic (her conqueror in Miami and Stuttgart).  Generally at her best when she has something to prove, this former #1 has not won a title since Indian Wells 2010 but seemingly manages to win at least one significant tournament each season.  Her preceding breakthrough occurred in Cincinnati two years ago, indicating that the fast courts relished by Sharapova do not trouble the counterpunching Serb.

Once the most supple mover in the WTA, Jankovic has declined in that salient strength while improving her most notable flaw, her serve.  In the semifinal against Petkovic, she saved seven of eight break points, while her third-round victory over Schiavone featured several serves that effectively spun wide to open the court for her first groundstroke.  Not having played the Serb for nearly two years, the Tour’s leading returner may need to adjust to the improved pace of this stroke that she formerly devoured with impunity.  Breaking her opponents in more than half of their service games this season, Sharapova has relied upon an even more staggering rate (over 60%) in Cincinnati to compensate for the occasional stumble on serve.  Such stumbles usually have occurred at inconsequential moments during her victories over Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Zvonareva, whereas the unceasing pressure from her returns drew untimely double faults from the last two adversaries.  Encountering minimal adversity as she thundered through her first three matches, Sharapova suffered another of her inexplicable lulls in the first set of the semifinal but recovered immediately after consulting with her coach.  Buoyed by both his advice and his reassuring presence during his visits all season, this fiercely independent figure in fact may have gained as much from the WTA’s coaching experiment-turned-reality as any of her rivals.

Less impressive in finals than Sharapova, Jankovic reeled off eight of her twelve titles in 2007-08 during the stretch that witnessed her rise from outside the top 10 to year-end #1.  Although she has declined sharply since then, the Indian Wells and Cincinnati championship runs testify to her continued viability as a dark horse just outside the central corps of contenders.  One should not forget that the Serb with the glittering smile reached her only Slam final at the US Open three years ago, confirming her affinity for North American hard courts.  Almost as fond of fashion and glamor as her opponent on Sunday, the less intense Cincinnati atmosphere may have allowed her to focus upon tennis.  For much of the season, Jankovic looked disenchanted and lethargic during her matches, but that suspenseful triumph over Schiavone appeared to have reawakened some of her appetite for competition.  Like Sharapova, her most impressive and most reliable stroke remains her backhand, unleashed down the line and cross-court with equal vigor.  Both finalists thus will face a decision between constructing rallies around their stronger groundstroke or their opponent’s weaker wing, which mirrors their own.  More likely to redirect balls early in the point, Sharapova will seek to temper her aggression with a judicious sense of timing.  Maneuvered out of position more easily than in former years, Jankovic still covers the court more adeptly than any of the Russian’s earlier opponents.  Those defensive skills will test the consistency of Sharapova’s offensive barrage much as Sharapova’s penetrating blows will challenge the Serb’s counterpunching abilities, offering a valuable test for two divergent players as they prepare for New York.  While the 2006 US Open champion has bolstered her already legitimate status as a contender this year, the 2008 finalist has renewed her relevance at an unexpected moment.  When the scene shifts to the season’s last major, both will encounter elevated expectations and the attention that accompanies them.

***

We return to review the events in Cincinnati before launching the US Open preview series during the coming week.

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