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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.

 

 

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Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 5

Nadal vs. Murray:  As he seeks to capture his first 2011 title on a surface other than clay, the Tokyo top seed perhaps can empathize with the plight faced by his opponent.  While Nadal has failed all season to solve the challenges posed by Djokovic, Murray has suffered a parallel futility in his four meetings with Nadal, including semifinals at every major except the Australian Open.  Just as the Spaniard has enjoyed fleeting moments of supremacy over the Serb this year, the Scot has won sets from his nemesis on three of four occasions and played three highly competitive sets on the fourth.  Just as Nadal has experimented with nearly everything imaginable in the effort to trouble Djokovic, moreover, Murray has veered from the ultra-aggressive to the ultra-conservative in his attempts to crack the seemingly impenetrable conundrum before him.  Although the world #4 never dominated Nadal as Nadal had dominated Djokovic, he accompanies Djokovic as the only player to defeat Rafa at multiple majors.

Perhaps the most recent turning point in their rivalry, or non-rivalry considering the Spaniard’s 13-4 advantage, came at the World Tour Finals on Murray’s home court in London. Breaking Nadal when he served for the match, the Scot then held a lead in the third-set tiebreak and came within two points of mounting a spectacular comeback in this semifinal classic, by far the best match of the tournament.  But Murray missed first serves late in the tiebreak and lacked clarity in his shot selection, confused as in their other encounters about the appropriate moments to pull the trigger in rallies. Burdened with such uncertainties only against Djokovic, Nadal has mounted in confidence throughout his current five-match winning streak over this rival.  Intimidated by Murray’s two-handed backhand during the first half of 2010, he looked alarmingly comfortable during much of their US Open semifinal in 2011, when he anticipated and retrieved most of his opponent’s offensive gambits with ease while rarely conceding control over a point once he had gained it.  The Scot attained an outstanding level of performance during the third set and early in the fourth, casting aside his fatalism and momentarily disconcerting Nadal with fearless and unpredictable aggression.  Much like the Spaniard’s performance in the third set of the US Open final, though, one hardly could imagine Murray playing a higher level of tennis—and yet he still lost, unable to sustain it throughout the course of an entire match.  This week, he has looked slightly the sharper player of the two rivals after surviving an opening-round threat from Baghdatis.  Demolishing the dangerous Ferrer on Saturday, he rarely looked ruffled as he struck both groundstrokes early and moved inside the baseline in a demonstration of confidence and commitment to offense.

In order to threaten Nadal on this slow hard court, Murray will need not only the first serve that has betrayed him this year against the Spaniard but the forehand that initially dazzled at Wimbledon before crumbling.  Throughout his semifinal, he repeatedly startled Ferrer with crackling forehands down the line, far from the risk-averse forehands that he normally directs cross court.  Seeking his third title in four tournaments, Murray hasn’t lost a match at a non-major since an opening-round defeat to Kevin Anderson at the Rogers Cup.  Perhaps the momentum from this streak has inspired him with the confidence necessary to trample his nemesis, and the goal of reaching #3 by the end of the season should add further motivation.  But Nadal has won every final that he has played this year against opponents other than Djokovic, responsible for more than half of his 2011 losses, while his frustration from those six setbacks may inspire him to redouble his determination when an opportunity beckons to claim a title without facing his nemesis.  In the absence of Djokovic and Federer from the Tour, the Tokyo final likely will foreshadow the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai next week.  After Nadal defends this week, Murray defends that title.  Can each man protect his 2010 conquest from the other?

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Winless in four intersections with the Pole, including two this summer, Petkovic augmented her already growing Internet notoriety with a frantic dash off court to vomit during their San Diego semifinal.  Although she blamed food poisoning, Radwanska’s multifaceted arsenal often proves an adequate source of vertigo itself.  Dominant in a semifinal against a resurgent Pennetta, her returning precision continually subjected her opponent to pressure in service games that eventually bore fruit when the Italian served for the set and the match.  Once content to retrieve and rally in neutral positions, the Tokyo champion has developed more comfort with offensive shots such as a backhand down the line with which she thrust Pennetta out of position.  While Radwanska never will become an elite shot-maker, her willingness to accept more risk more often would complicate the task of her rivals, who formerly could relax in the expectation of an offensive monopoly.  In contrast to the elongated strokes of Petkovic, the Pole’s crisp, compact swings perhaps deny her a little explosiveness but also enable her talent for deception by masking direction and pace until the last moment.

Nevertheless, Petkovic has impressed throughout her route through the Beijing draw, vanquishing a variety of opponents throughout the spectrum from power to finesse.  Heavily favored in her semifinal with Niculescu, she handled that situation with composure despite her lack of experience in these late stages of key tournaments.  With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Petkovic permitted the overmatched Romanian no ray of hope in an effort focused and methodical from start to finish.  As a result of its depleted field, this Premier Mandatory tournament often has seemed neither Premier nor Mandatory in most senses, providing neither premier-level tennis nor must-watch entertainment. But it remains the most important match in the careers of both women to date, causing one to wonder how both will handle the situation.  The more battle-hardened Radwanska would appear to enjoy the advantage in intangibles as she pursues her eleventh straight victory and first pair of consecutive titles.  On the other hand, Petkovic has embraced much more intimidating challenges and overcome much sterner odds several times this year.  The most distinctive personality in a Tour filled with distinctive personalities dominated Sharapova in a Slam night session and halted Wozniacki’s five-tournament winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments.  If she can accomplish those breakthroughs, Petkovic certainly can vault the Pole as well.

Berdych vs. Cilic:  Like Radwanska, the Croat has reached his second final in Bejing after falling one match short of the 2009 title.  Also like Radwanska, Cilic has benefited from a benign draw in which he has not faced a seeded opponent but instead fellow giants Anderson and Ljubicic.  Those victories will have prepared for a third straight serving shootout with the third-seeded Berdych, who has not won a title since seizing Munich over two years ago.  The longest current drought in either top 10, that stretch has featured a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final as well as victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Soderling, but Berdych repeatedly has failed to string together victories or capitalize upon brackets that open for him.  This year, for example, he lost semifinals to Petzschner in Halle and Wawrinka in Chennai—both winnable matches that his superiority in overall talent should have tilted in his favor.  Also among the Czech’s four semifinal disappointments at minor tournaments was a defeat to none other than Cilic in Marseille, the Croat’s first victory over Berdych following two losses in 2009.  Equal to his opponent with five career titles, Cilic hasn’t collected a trophy since Zagreb in February 2010, so this Sunday in Beijing will bring long-awaited relief to one participant while extending the late-tournament frustrations of the other.  Whereas the Croat enjoys a more balanced groundstroke repertoire with a smooth two-hander, the Czech probably can unleash more potent first strikes from his first serve and forehand.  Not uncommon in the fall season, this final between second-tier threats will have few if any broad repercussions for the next season or those ranked above them.  Depleted by injuries and withdrawals, the ATP event in Beijing stands in the shadow of the Tokyo tournament rather than claiming equal status in the crescendo towards Shanghai, which we preview tomorrow.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 China Open - Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

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

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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.

 

Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Cilic:  One win away from securing the #1 ranking at least through Roland Garros, the Spaniard must conquer not only a Croatian tower of power but the illness that befell him this week.  Although Cilic defeated Nadal in Beijing 2009, the former task appears less imposing than the latter.  Stagnant for the past year and thoroughly uneasy on clay, the fading prodigy mustered just nine games when they met in Australia this January despite a relatively uneven performance by Rafa on that occasion.  At the root of his startling appearance at this stage lie the whimsical deities of the draw, which smiled upon Cilic by showering him with a retirement, a lucky loser after Ferrer’s withdrawal, and the equally clay-averse Fish.  Only another retirement or walkover, one suspects, would extend the world #23’s sojourn in the Eternal City, but Nadal’s uncertain condition brings that possibility within the realm of plausibility.  When ailing on a hard court far from home in Doha, though, the Spaniard gallantly battled through into the semifinals before succumbing to repeated nemesis Davydenko.  On European clay, his willpower surely will crystallize even more powerfully.

Gasquet vs. Berdych:  Scanning this quarter when the week began, few would have selected the Frenchman to survive until Friday.  But perhaps more of us should have, for Federer has struggled in Rome over the last several years, while Gasquet has enjoyed a miniature resurgence that started in Dubai and extended through an Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance.  Accessible to the casual fan as easily as to the aficionado, his breathtaking backhand and artistic shot-making continue to dazzle despite his slide outside the circle of contenders.  Now standing before the Frenchman is a dour Czech who opposes unvarnished baseline power to Gasquet’s mercurial all-court fluidity.  As one would expect considering the current trajectory of the ATP, unvarnished power prevailed in their two meetings since 2007, during which Berdych lost two or fewer games in four of the five sets.  With a famously frail opponent and perhaps a depleted Nadal blocking his path to the final, the world #7 should consider his draw a window of opportunity through which he can leap.  On the other hand, Berdych allowed the aging Nieminen to drag him into a needlessly prolonged three-setter today.  Which of these two chronic underachievers can carpe the diem in the nation of Horace?

Mayer vs. Murray:  Free from any member of the ATP’s reigning triumvirate, this section lay open for a player who once appeared more likely than Djokovic to challenge Nadal and Federer for supremacy.  Lowered expectations on clay may liberate Murray from the pressure that will oppress him at Wimbledon, but the Scot remains a reluctant dirt devil at best as shown in a rollercoaster three-set opener against Malisse.  To his credit, the fourth seed showed greater confidence in a potentially perilous bout with home hope Starace a round later, and he now will face a German who shares his preference for faster surfaces.  Like Cilic, Mayer profited from a key withdrawal in his section when 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist Melzer departed.  Also like Cilic, he relies upon heavy serve-forehand combinations that can penetrate any surface when effective but also can go astray without warning.  Not to be underestimated is a player who already has ambushed Youzhny, Almagro, Davydenko, and Del Potro this year.  Felled by dark horse Bellucci in Madrid, Murray hopes to avoid serving as a platform for a second straight arriviste.

Soderling vs. Djokovic:  The most intriguing of an otherwise plebeian quarterfinal menu, this duel will threaten the Serb’s streak more than any other match that he has played in the last month outside the Madrid final.  Soderling stands alone among the top five in escaping Djokovic’s wrath so far this year, and the Swede has developed an intimidating reputation for wrecking records on clay, including Nadal’s perfection at Roland Garros and Federer’s (probably permanently squelched) attempt to break the record for career weeks at #1.  A two-time finalist at Roland Garros, the fifth seed normally has not prospered  in Rome and famously won just a single game from Nadal here on the eve of the Greatest Upset Ever.  But he has responded to an exceptionally challenging draw with a steeliness absent from his recent slump, saving match points against Verdasco with sledgehammer forehands before grimly outlasting new top-10 resident Almagro.

In the tenth game of his victory over Wawrinka, meanwhile, Djokovic displayed the mental maturity vital to his barrage of titles.  Brushing aside a string of game points, the future #1 refused to let the Swiss #2 elude his grasp.  Instead, Djokovic subjected him to a relentless 36-shot rally that both players appeared to have won more than once; it led to a set point, smartly converted with a  drop shot that froze the weary Wawrinka.  Never the most durable competitor, Federer’s understudy wilted predictably in the second set, his spirit crushed by the close of the first.  A much firmer nut to crack, Soderling has a decent chance at breaking the Serb’s jaws if he can find lines with his mighty swings early in the rallies.  But the Djoker will have the last laugh if he can extend the rallies long enough to expose the Swede’s wooden movement.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless against the Serb in her first four attempts, the world #1 reversed that trend with a pair of straight-sets victories this season.  Falling in consecutive tournaments to the talented but untested Julia Goerges, Wozniacki enters Rome hopeful to bolster her candidacy for the Roland Garros crown.  Across the net stands a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist whose opportunity for capturing that elusive major have dwindled steadily since 2009.  But Jankovic still can count herself among the contenders in Paris this year, especially if she can collect a third title at the tournament kinder to her than any other.  After three successive bagels to start the week, Wozniacki flirted with danger by surrendering a second-set lead to Wickmayer, a fierce ball-striker not unlike Goerges who troubled her in Charleston.  Regrouping to quell that threat before a third set arrived, the Dane may prefer the challenge posed by a counterpuncher similar to herself.  In a match between two players of almost identical styles and strengths, form on the day almost invariably decides the outcome.  While Jankovic impressively avenged her Madrid loss to Safarova, a mid-match wobble against Medina Garrigues does not bode well for a player who defeated the Williams sisters consecutively here a year ago.  Can the apprentice conquer the sorceress for the third time in 2011, or will Wozniacki’s Paris aspirations suffer a blow from a different direction?

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Azarenka vs. Sharapova:  Opposed in another sorceress-apprentice clash are the Miami finalists, armed with savage shrieks and equally savage returns of serve.  When they intersected in Key Biscayne, Sharapova and her descendant combined for only five service holds in seventeen total games.  This trend should continue in their first clay meeting after five fast-court tilts, although the Russian’s serve has proved unexpectedly imposing during her first two matches.  Broken only once by the solid Peer, Sharapova has lost a bare six games this week and eyes a third consecutive semifinal in the Italian capital, where she has played just once every three years.  Defying the grit beneath her feet, she has hammered her groundstrokes through the court with a vigor barely blunted by the clay.  On the other hand, Azarenka navigated through an erratic three-setter against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the same round at Key Biscayne.  Among her former weaknesses was a struggle to finish matches convincingly, but she mastered her nerves impressively in the Miami final after the inevitable late Sharapova surge.  Somewhat similar to the Soderling-Djokovic match that accompanies it in the night session, this glamorous quarterfinal presents the question of whether the Russian can deliver a terminal blow with her superior weight of shot before the Belarussian outmaneuvers her with her superior movement and footwork.  Curiously, all of Azarenka’s wins in their rivalry have come in straight sets, while both of Sharapova’s victories have come in three.  No matter the scoreline, though, their matches provide compelling entertainment as much because of the pugnacious personalities as because of the crackling groundstrokes.

Arn vs. Li:  A 32-year-old Hungarian who won the Auckland title in January, Arn has put  many of her younger colleagues to shame while spending eight hours on court and winning third-set tiebreaks from both Kuznetsova and Vesnina.  This most improbable Cinderella probably will find her coach transformed into a pumpkin by the Australian Open runner-up, striking a rich vein of form at just the right moment.  As she approaches a second straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory / Five event, dare we place “Li Na” and “consistency” in the same sentence?  Although her game still can veer wildly out of control on any given day, her ghastly post-Melbourne stretch seems finally to have abated.

Stosur vs. Schiavone:  Thrilling the Roman fans who will flock to the Foro Italico on Friday afternoon, this rematch of the Roland Garros final in fact pits two deeply slumping stars desperately in need of momentum before defending their Paris results.  A glance at their clay nemeses this season illustrates the situation, for Vesnina, Pavlyuchenkova, Radwanska, and Mattek-Sands scarcely rank among the leading threats on this surface.  With her top-10 status perhaps soon at stake, Stosur must quell not only her notorious nemesis but an enthusiastic Italian crowd that exhorted Schiavone throughout a suspenseful victory over Hantuchova.  At her best far from the madding crowd, the Australian struggles to match her nerve to the moment and succumbed to the Italian in the similarly fraught environment of Fed Cup.  Nevertheless, she has not experienced the extreme physical (and probably emotional) fatigue suffered by Schiavone after her Melbourne heroics.  Like its famous predecessor and unlike the other quarterfinals, this matinee encounter should feature classic clay-court tennis to delight adherents of tradition and of tennis played as much with the brain as with any other muscle.

Rafael Nadal - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Far from a foregone conclusion at times on Saturday, an encore of the championship matches in Indian Wells and Miami will oppose a 33-match winning streak and a 37-match clay winning streak.  From Nadal’s perspective, of course, “encore” serves as a singularly poor word to describe the events that he hopes will unfold.  After winning the first set in each of their North American finals, the Spaniard uncharacteristically squandered leads on both occasions as the world #2 outhit and outmaneuvered the world #1 at the key turning points in those matches.  Most impressive was the apparent fitness edge that the Serb enjoyed in their Miami final, when he looked the less fatigued of the two in the climactic tiebreak.  Yet Rafa has dominated Novak on clay and grass, maintaining a perfect record highlighted by their semifinal clash in Madrid two years ago.  In that riveting four-hour duel, Djokovic delivered a performance that he considered (rightfully) among the finest of his career but still fell one point short of victory.  Can he win one more point this time to preserve his impeccable 2011 record?

With the momentum of their mini-rivalry squarely in his corner, Djokovic should approach this final as confidently as he has approached any of his collisions with Nadal.  Unlikely to become complacent, though, he recognizes the towering task that confronts him and likely will follow Federer’s example in attacking Nadal relentlessly from the baseline, striking the ball early and redirecting it often.  Outside his winning streak, Djokovic probably has less at stake in this match than the world #1 whom he aims to supplant.  Overshadowed by the Serb on the hard court, Rafa cannot cede this clay citadel without amplifying the murmurs of Djokovic’s ascendancy and elevating the pressure that accompanies him at Roland Garros.  If Djokovic can capture his sixth title of his season, he would move a significant step closer to the top ranking while establishing himself as a serious challenger to Nadal’s reign in Paris, although the Spaniard certainly would remain the favorite.  If Rafa can halt Novak’s momentum, by contrast, he would reassert his supremacy as the world #1 and launch himself into the crucial coming weeks with confidence secure.  In a rivalry that likely will define the early stages of this decade, the ATP top two may divide the world into surfaces just as the former top two once did.  With Djokovic aiming to control the hard courts and Nadal the remaining surface, any triumph on the other’s territory resonates with especial force.

Not only a sequel to their thunderous 2009 classic, the 2011 Madrid final offers a plausible preview of the Roland Garros final, albeit on a markedly different surface with markedly different conditions.  Few sequels rise to the level of the original that inspired them, and this match should prove no exception; neither Nadal nor Djokovic has unleashed their most scintillating tennis this week.  (Also, how does one trump a 20-point final-set tiebreak for suspense?)  But that epic two years ago drained both of its combatants, both of whom fell before the quarterfinals in Paris.  This year, perhaps a less magical encounter will serve as an appetizer rather than a feast of Lucullan proportions, setting the stage for what lies ahead rather than resulting in a premature climax.

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Eight

Whereas Nadal and Djokovic will contest their 26th meeting, the WTA finalists will clash for just the fourth time.  Like the Serb, Azarenka mastered the task of defusing an unseeded semifinalist armed with blazing first-strike power and an impressive degree of self-belief.  From her relatively routine triumph shone the Belarussian’s own confidence, undimmed by the intimidating forehands and return winners that Goerges thumped throughout the first several games.  Weathering the early storm with a champion’s aplomb, Azarenka merely honed her focus and scored the pivotal break after trailing 40-0 on her opponent’s serve.  Once she asserted control, moreover, she imposed a linear narrative of increasing dominance upon a match that many had expected to drip with drama.  The new world #4 displayed encouraging tactical acuity when she organized rallies around backhands to pit her greatest weapon against the German’s weaker wing, but she did not hesitate to attack the forehand when she saw an opening or to approach the forecourt upon the first mid-court ball.  In clear contention for the Roland Garros crown is an Azarenka who can muster that level of composure, always the chink in her armor.

Stifled by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year during an arid, injury-blighted spring, Vika hopes to recapture her two earlier successes against the Czech.  Winning four of her five matches against the top 10 this year, including two this week, the Wimbledon semifinalist has announced herself in commanding fashion as an all-surface threat.  Against one of the WTA’s most sparkling returners, Kvitova must seek to control of points immediately with her serve.  Her own return constitutes a formidable weapon as well, subjecting Azarenka’s less imposing delivery to consistent pressure.  Both of these brash blondes contest their third finals of the season, and both won their previous two, so neither should shrink from the opportunity before them.  Aiming for a sweep of the singles and doubles titles, Azarenka has a somewhat fiercer appetite and somewhat more developed game, so she enters as the slight favorite to win a second straight Premier Mandatory title.

The preparatory events to Roland Garros proved a poisoned chalice for their 2010 WTA champions, neither of whom could sustain anything approaching their excellence there.  Nevertheless, the 21-year-old who drinks from that cup this year should not suffer the same fate but instead continue to climb upwards through the ranks of contenders, battling over their sport’s most prestigious prizes.

Rafael Nadal Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) and Rafael Nadal of Spain share a moment during the prize giving ceremony after the mens final during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

Roger Federer Mens finalist Rafael Nadal and  Roger Federer of Switzerland hold aloft their trophies after the mens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Among the oddest moments of the 2010 season was the final shot (or non-shot) of their meeting last year in Madrid, a whiff by the 16-time major champion on the twelfth point of the second-set tiebreak.  Rarely has a Masters 1000 tournament ended in such anticlimactic fashion, but their 2009 final in the Caja Magica likewise exuded an air of anticlimax.  Exhausted by his semifinal classic with Djokovic that year, Nadal could not consistently challenge his archrival.  Nevertheless, each Madrid final propelled its victor towards the Roland Garros title three weeks later.  An altered schedule has reduced that potential impact, while Federer does not pose as serious a threat to Rafa’s supremacy on Court Philippe Chatrier as he once did.  Yet intrigue still hovers around their third meeting in the Spanish capital, where the atypically fast surface theoretically should offer the Swiss star his best possible opportunity to unseat the world #1 on clay.  In a quarterfinal victory over Soderling, his first win over a top-5 opponent this season, the third seed never lost his serve and moved more smoothly on the slippery surface than in earlier rounds.  During two brief excursions to the Caja Magica, meanwhile, Nadal has not lost his own serve and surrendered eight total games in performances crisper than many of his previous Madrid efforts.

As Rafa’s ascendancy over Roger has inexorably mounted, their rivalry has pivoted less around the question of “can Nadal topple the GOAT?” than the question of “can Federer conquer his nemesis?”  Following a lackluster loss to Nadal in Miami, some would suggest that the question has become “can Federer keep the match competitive?”  Although that formulation seems premature, the burden clearly rests on the Spaniard to maintain his current dominance over their rivalry.  This shift should allow the 16-time major champion to play with the fluid, confident aggression so rarely evident in his recent matches against Nadal.  But is Federer ready to recognize this shift and assume the underdog’s mantle?  Central to his achievements, a streak of rigid stubbornness may prevent him from perceiving himself as anything other than the favorite and the established champion, a role that he has played so well for so long.  In this waning phase of his career, Federer may need to become less gracious and more gritty.  Now when he plays Nadal, the inevitable uncertainties of an aging champion seep into his game and demeanor.  Virtually impenetrable on his favorite surface already, Rafa requires no such assistance in conquering the suave Swiss matador once more.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic:  At each of the first three Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, excluding the optional Monte Carlo event, the top three players have advanced to the semifinals.  At each of these tournaments, the architect of an unexpected breakthrough joins them—Del Potro in Indian Wells, Fish in Miami, and Belluci (perhaps most surprising of all) in Madrid.  And one can hardly claim that the Brazilian has profited from early upsets that vacated his draw, for he defeated fourth-seeded Murray and seventh-seeded Berdych in straight sets to reach the semifinals.  In an era when surface specialists have begun to decline, Bellucci’s progress through this prestigious event may suggest the continued relevance of expertise on clay.  Personifying the trend towards all-court versatility among the ATP’s elite, however, is a semifinal opponent buoyed by his victory over dirt devil par excellence Ferrer.

Repeatedly stymied by the Spaniard in their previous clay meetings, Djokovic will have acquired confidence from reversing those setbacks in a fiercely contested three-setter.  To be sure, some of the Serb’s self-deprecating grimaces, smirks, and shrugs crept back when he failed to capitalize upon a potentially decisive momentum shift that carried him from 3-4 in the first set to 2-0 in the second.  Impeccable late in the first and third sets, his serve grew unreliable on key points during the second set.  Counterbalancing those causes for concern, however, was his victory celebration after he ended the match.  Delighted but not delirious with joy, Djokovic conducted himself as a champion who had his expectations of eventual victory confirmed after an especially arduous battle.  That heightening maturity will serve him well against a competitor as raw as Bellucci, who at a certain psychological level must feel content to have penetrated as far into the draw as he already has.

Goerges vs. Azarenka:  Facilitating the German’s charge to the Porsche title, the world #5 retired after winning the first set of their Stuttgart meeting.  The latest potential sensation to emerge from the WTA, Goerges must take care to avoid following the routes of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai, who effectively evaporated after excelling on the road to Roland Garros last year.  Petkovic’s compatriot seemingly has a game better adapted to hard courts than to clay, but she demonstrated her ball-striking might by battering through Wozniacki’s defenses in consecutive weeks, no mean feat.  After three three-setters, she comfortably dispatched Pavlyuchenkova in a battle between German and Russian rising stars.  Her eight arduous hours in singles competition, however, contrast with the nearly effortless progress of Azarenka, detained for an hour or more by only one of her four opponents here.  Although she lost a set to Safarova for the first time in six meetings, the fourth seed finished that quarterfinal on an uplifting note, revealing no sign of the physical or mental frailty that has dogged her in long matches before.  While Goerges has won ten straight matches, Azarenka has won her last eighteen encounters excluding retirements and has not faced a match point since February.  Like their fellow semifinalists, these feisty competitors diverge from the familiar model of clay counterpunchers.  Capable movers with respectable consistency, Vika and her challenger nevertheless prowl the baseline eager for the first opportunity to launch a lasered groundstroke.  Can Azarenka finish in Madrid what she started in Stuttgart?

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  In their first career meeting, two players who will rank in the top 10 on Monday hope to rebound from suspenseful quarterfinals.  The formerly flaky Kvitova deserves high praise for chipping away at the baseline fortress of Cibulkova, who mustered far sturdier opposition to the Czech than in their previous clashes this year.  As Li Na has shown herself, inflammable upstarts become ever more dangerous when they gather impetus, and the Chinese star needed all of her competitive tenacity to subdue the startling surge of Bethanie-Mattek-Sands.  Eight years older and considerably more weathered than Kvitova, the sixth seed may not enter their semifinal as fresh as the 21-year-old Czech.  On the other hand, she adapts her movement to the clay more adroitly and strikes the ball a little earlier, allowing her to take the initiative more frequently in exchange for assuming greater risks.  While the Czech owns the superior serve, the Chinese enjoys a more scintillating backhand with which to complement her forehand.  Among the most mercurial personalities in a mercurial WTA elite, these two players will have combined to reach five finals and lose seven first-round matches in this season alone.  One thus expects an unpredictable match filled with stunning shot-making but also some egregious errors as Kvitova and Li target more lines than one typically would find in a clay semifinal.  Perhaps more prescient than Ion Tiriac knew was his suggestion of changing the surface color from red to blue.

Novak Djokovic - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Five

Lifting the lid to the magic box, we catch sight of several familiar faces on Friday but not quite the cast that one initially expected to assemble at this stage.  We examine the quarterfinals in the semi-predictable ATP draw and its wildly unpredictable WTA counterpart.

Nadal vs. Llodra:  From the outset, one expected the defending champion to reach a quarterfinal in which he would face a lefty with an affinity for charging the net and a brazen, occasionally dubious shot selection.  But one did not expect the aging Llodra to record the finest clay performance of his career, supplanting the eighth-seeded Melzer in an anarchic corner of the draw.  Llodra’s achievement speaks not only to his talent but to the atypical surface and conditions in Madrid, the slickest clay court that one will ever encounter.  Spared from undue exertion by Del Potro’s untimely injury, Nadal has played only one match this week.  Although Llodra upset a weary Djokovic last fall at the Paris Indoors, he surely cannot hope to win more than a handful of games from the world #1.  Swifter than the surface of Court Philippe Chatrier, the Manolo Santana Stadium nevertheless remains a clay court and thus as lethal for most of Rafa’s challengers as the Colosseum for the Christians of ancient Rome.

Federer vs. Soderling:  A match away from meeting his archrival in a Monte Carlo semifinal, Federer slumped abruptly to a straight-sets defeat against Melzer.  The listless nature of that performance caused many to wonder whether the third seed lacked the desire to embark upon yet another quixotic attempt to conquer Nadal on clay.  If a similarly uncertain Federer spars with Soderling on Friday, the Swede might well score just his second victory in their seventeen meetings.  Chronically injured and regularly inconsistent since March, the two-time Roland Garros finalist may have seized some momentum from a tense victory over Tsonga that remained in doubt almost from the first ball to the last.  On the other hand, Federer may relax in relief from the reprieve that he earned when Feliciano Lopez failed to deliver the coup de grace, leading 5-2 in the third-set tiebreak.  While Soderling has won three titles this year to his opponent’s one, the Swiss star has progressed further at all of the key events in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami (Soderling did not play Monte Carlo).  Moreover, the slippery surface and altitude in Madrid should favor a player with greater margin for error and ability to adjust to changing circumstances throughout a match.  Despite the Swede’s capacity to remorselessly punish a tennis ball, he has not excelled in his previous appearances here—one of which ended in a straight-sets loss to Federer.

Berdych vs. Bellucci:  Watching the top-ranked Brazilian upset the top-ranked Brit on Thursday, we noticed fleeting resemblances between the games of Bellucci and 2010 WTA champion Rezai.  Both players whack their groundstrokes with unbridled vigor but lack a sense of how to construct a point or transition from a neutral or defensive position into offensive.  Many were the 150-kph winners that Bellucci whacked past a stumbling Murray, but many were the needlessly sprayed errors that targeted an opening where none existed.  To the Brazilian’s credit, he found the former strokes at the few critical junctures of the match, snuffing out the fourth seed’s last serious threat with a pulverized inside-in forehands.  Two years ago at Roland Garros, he delivered a similarly compelling performance in a competitive loss to Nadal.  And the only somewhat more reliable shot-making of Almagro carried that Spaniard to the semifinals here last year, so Bellucci’s run might extend further.  Against Berdych, however, he will face an opponent who can match him blow for blow from the baseline and ace for ace from the service notch.  In that situation, the less experienced Brazilian will want to pin the Czech into his backhand corner before he finds himself pinned there instead.  Whoever cracks the first mighty blow in the rally will rarely relinquish the initiative thenceforth.

Ferrer vs. Djokovic:  Arguably the most scintillating quarterfinal, this contest pits a 31-match winning streak against a foe who has not lost a clay match to anyone other than Nadal in three tournaments.   Adding to the intrigue is the second-ranked Spaniard’s success against the Serb on this surface, which spans a quite irrelevant 2004 battle in Bucharest, a somewhat relevant 2007 meeting in Monte Carlo, and a highly relevant 2009 duel in Davis Cup.  Generally at his most intense and motivated when playing for his nation, Djokovic could not pry even a set away from the Spaniard on the last of those occasions.  Desultory in the clay season a year ago, he rose to the challenges posed by clay in 2009 with a thunderous charge to the most memorable match ever played in the Spanish capital, a four-hour semifinal against Nadal during which he held multiple match points.  The highly anticipated rematch lies two rounds ahead, but the world #2 can deliver an imposing statement by thrusting aside the player who finished runner-up to Rafa in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.  Dispatching Garcia-Lopez in 54 clinical minutes, Djokovic has looked sharper early this week than in Belgrade last week.  Crucial to his 2011 feats has been his serve, vastly improved from his previous clay losses to Ferrer.  Even more improved is the Serb’s conditioning, which now might enable him to win a war of attrition against the player who personifies that style.  If he can, he will take even greater confidence into a potential Sunday encounter with Nadal.

Julia Goerges Julia Goerges of Germany plays  Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the Madrid  Open Tennis Championship in Spain. Georges beat the World No. 1 Wozniacki.

Goerges vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Last week, one could shrug off the German’s victory over Wozniacki as an emotion-stoked triumph fueled by the Stuttgart crowd.  This week’s result will prove harder to rationalize for the Dane, who could not avenge her loss to Goerges as she did her Miami loss to Petkovic.  Showing perhaps greater grit than the surface in Manolo Santana, the top seed’s challenger refused to wilt after a lopsided second set and in the face of mounting fatigue.  Like her dancing compatriot, Goerges also seems to possess a tactical sensibility greater than many in her generation.  That tool could play a pivotal role against the heavy-hitting, largely straightforward assault of Pavlyuchenkova, who hopes to spearhead the next Russian surge.  After two draining three-setters against #1s, however, how much energy will Goerges bring to a match scheduled first on Friday?  Toppling Stosur with aplomb, Pavlyuchenkova has at least temporarily quelled the injuries and double-fault woes that threatened to derail this precocious teenager.  In a field without a single Slam champion, #1, or former Roland Garros finalist, the much-anticipated breakthrough of this former junior #1 might lie just around the corner.

Azarenka vs. Safarova:  Sometimes fallible against lefties, the fourth seed has been anything but fallible against Safarova in winning all ten of the sets that they have contested.  Showing no lingering discomfort after a shoulder injury in Stuttgart, Azarenka has conceded just five games in six sets en route to the quarterfinals.  Consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella positioned her ideally for a convincing clay campaign, although she bookended those championships with retirements and remains susceptible to sudden injury at any moment.  For the first time in her career, she finds herself the favorite to win a title of consequence, so one wonders how she will respond to that sort of pressure.  Outstanding during last year’s clay season, Safarova reached the Rome quarterfinals and Madrid semifinals with victories over Sharapova, Petrova, Pennetta, and Radwanska, among others.  Thus, her upset over the sixth-seeded Jankovic here should have surprised less than it did at first glance.  Despite her dismal record against Azarenka, she has not faced her on clay since 2007 and perhaps can bring a fresh mentality to this sixth meeting.

Li vs. Mattek-Sands:  A year after Venus reached the Madrid final, one of her compatriots attempts to emulate that feat.  Bageled by Ivanovic in her first set of the tournament, Mattek-Sands has won six consecutive sets since then while ousting not only the 2008 but the 2010 Roland Garros champions.  Less accomplished on clay than on other surface, Li Na finally has won consecutive matches for the first time since the Australian Open.  A severe test confronted her in an opener against clay specialist Martinez Sanchez, who dazzled recently in Fed Cup and might have unsettled the rhythmic Li with her idiosyncratic, inspired arsenal.  Winning two tight sets from the Spaniard, the Chinese star displayed renewed fortitude and focus.  In a French Open field stripped nearly bare of superstars, she may have an opportunity to do what she could not quite do in Melbourne.  While that opportunity still lies far ahead, a Madrid semifinal appearance would lift her spirits at a crucial moment, whereas a loss to an unheralded American could cast her into gloom once more.

Cibulkova vs. Kvitova:  In a quarter initially dominated by three Russians, a Slovak and a Czech have carved their way past Sharapova, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva.  Since winning two titles in the first two months of 2011, the second Czech lefty in the Madrid quarterfinals struggled to leave an impact upon the spring tournaments.  A flat ball-striker with little spin or margin, she may reap greater rewards on this particular clay court than on most others.  After three straight wins over Slam champions, Cibulkova stands alone among the quarterfinalists as a former Roland Garros semifinalist (2009).  Often overlooked (literally) amidst her towering rivals, she can club a forehand with an authority that belies her stature.  Cibulkova demonstrated herself a resilient competitor during her win over Sharapova, during which she let two leads escape her but regrouped in time to win the vital last two games of both sets.  Rarely does the Slovak become the architect of her own undoing, forcing opponents to earn their victories.  Wozniacki failed to solve her riddle in Sydney this season, Zvonareva in Indian Wells, while Azarenka found Cibulkova her most compelling test en route to the Miami title.  But Kvitova twice has cracked the code already in 2011, allowing her to swagger into their match with the psychological edge.

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.