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Francesca Schiavone - 2011 US Open - Day 4

Schiavone vs. Kanepi:  Through the first two and a half sets of her epic quarterfinal victory over Jankovic, Schiavone escaped from one perilous situation after another.  Eluding her opponent when she served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, the feisty Italian successfully stared down multiple match points a few games later and then clawed herself out of a 3-1 third set.  Her unquenchable optimism throughout this three-hour comeback recalled her Melbourne marathon against Kuznetsova a year ago, although one wonders the battle-scarred veteran can recover successfully from her exertions.  On that earlier occasion, Schiavone competed valiantly with Wozniacki for a set and half before fading, and she certainly will need every ounce of agility available to withstand Kanepi.  Pummeling Pavlyuchenkova for the loss of just three games, the robust Estonian stifled the second-seeded Petkovic nearly as emphatically in the quarterfinals.  In both of those matches, she surged through a commanding first set and sustained that momentum through a more competitive second set, so the early stages of this semifinal could prove crucial once again.  Thumping twelve aces against Petkovic, Kanepi dropped her serve only once against two of the WTA’s brightest rising stars—an intimidating prospect for a player like Schiavone who lacks a consistently formidable delivery.

Seven of the last eight sets between the Italian and the Estonian have lasted ten games or more, suggesting that their seventh meeting will hinge upon a timely burst of shot-making from the former or a timely spurt of scrambling from the latter.  A prototypical collision of guns against guile, their semifinal will test Schiavone’s talents for artistic improvisation under pressure as much as it does Kanepi’s ability to finish points and take time away from her opponent.  If she can win the battle of court positioning, the younger woman’s weapons will prevent the third seed from crafting the type of point with which she unhinged the less muscular Jankovic.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova:  Undefeated in nine meetings against the Slovak, Clijsters has won 18 of the 19 sets that they have played while recording eight bagels or breadsticks.  But all of those dismal statistics date from the Belgian’s first career, which ended nearly five years ago.  While Clijsters has won three of her four majors in her widely lauded second career, she also has succumbed to odd stumbles more often than usual (see her debacle in Melbourne 2010 or her loss to Arantxa Rus at Roland Garros last year).   The schism between her Jekyll and Hyde personas surfaced in her second Brisbane match, a whiplash-inducing rollercoaster in which she won six of the first seven games, lost nine of the next ten, and then won six consecutively.  To a certain degree, however, those oscillations reflected peaks and valleys in the prowess of her opponent, Ivanovic, as well as Kim’s rust on physical and mental levels.  In her quarterfinal against Benesova, she struck both wings of groundstrokes with an authority born of increasing confidence.

Very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde player herself, Hantuchova enjoyed one of the better seasons of her career in 2011 while recording victories over players as notable as Zvonareva and Wozniacki.  Yet she possesses essentially the same game that she did when losing those nine consecutive meetings with Clijsters, far superior in movement and overall athleticism.  With those two advantages, the Belgian could counter Hantuchova’s sharply angled but not quite stinging groundstrokes until she could transition from defense to offense.  Had not Serena sprained her ankle a round earlier, in fact, Hantuchova almost certainly would not have earned this opportunity to duel with a four-time major champion.  Although Clijsters may consider herself fortunate in one sense, she probably would have profited more from the experience of playing one of her more significant rivals as the Australian Open approaches.

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Having shed these shimmering robes and braced herself for 2012, Ivanovic confronts many a daunting challenge in the dense Brisbane draw.  We glance across it in our first  tournament preview of the season to come.

Top half:  After a triumphant homecoming as the US Open champion, Stosur shoulders the unfamiliar burden of holding the top seed amongst a group that includes Serena and Clijsters.  At the 2011 Australian Open, among other occasions, the Aussie #1 has appeared ruffled by the expectations of her compatriots.  One wonders whether her major breakthrough will allow her to handle those situations with greater composure, for surely expectations will have risen even higher following her victory over Serena in New York.  Destined to face one of two streaky Czech lefties in the second round, Stosur must establish herself early in the tournament so that she can build confidence for the marquee clashes from the quarterfinals onwards.  First among those is a projected meeting with 2010 Brisbane champion Clijsters, who has played sparsely since early April but should shine in the relaxed atmosphere of this city near the sea.  Although rustiness might trouble this champion who relies on rhythm, she returned impressively from a far longer absence when she launched her second career.  Undefeated against both Stosur and Ivanovic, Clijsters will aim to exploit her more balanced game and far superior movement to outlast two players centered around first strikes and forehands.  If she survives a potentially intriguing opener against Paszek, the Serb can seek revenge for a loss to Belgian in Miami when she held five match points.  Nevertheless, the memories of that epic encounter should provide Clijsters with a significant psychological advantage in the sequel.

Much more accommodating than the top quarter is the section that houses Serena, who appears in Brisbane for the first time.  Inactive since the US Open, the 13-time major champion likely simmers with motivation to erase her disappointment there.  More successful at the Australian Open than at any other major, she claims to start the season in full physical health—ominous news for her rivals.  Third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski dazzled at this stage of 2011, reaching the Sydney quarterfinals and winning a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne.  But she mustered little resistance to Serena at the US Open and may struggle to overcome home hope Casey Dellacqua, always more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else.  Highlighting this quarter is the first-round meeting between Slovaks Hantuchova and Cibulkova, separated by eight inches and six years.  While Hantuchova lacks the athleticism to survive baseline rallies with Serena, Cibulkova lacks the wingspan to return many of her serves.  A semifinal against Stosur or Clijsters would elevate the level of competition substantially, though, testing the American’s patience and concentration more than she would prefer at an event of this magnitude.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

Bottom half:  Less imposing than the top half, this section features one of the least imposing Slam champions and least accomplished #1s in the history of the WTA.  Sharing a quarter, Jankovic and Schiavone collaborated on a pair of scintillating three-setters at Roland Garros and Cincinnati last year.  Probably spurred by momentum from that victory, the winner reached the final on both occasions.  After she received a retirement from Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak, she next sets her sights upon a second Kazakh in Voskoboeva.  Meanwhile, the diminutive Spaniard Suarez Navarro unfolds an elegant one-handed backhand that contrasts with the Serb’s more streamlined two-hander.  Neither Schiavone nor Jankovic ended 2011 in especially impressive fashion, so both should welcome the opportunity to collect morale-boosting victories against unremarkable opposition.  Should they meet in the quarterfinals, Jankovic would hold the surface advantage while Schiavone might hold a fitness edge, judging from her heroics in Melbourne a year ago.

A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, Petkovic compiled a consistently solid second half before succumbing to a knee injury.  More rested than many of her colleagues, she reached the final in Brisbane 2011 with a victory over Bartoli.  Opening her week is a first career meeting Peer, who hopes to elevate her ranking from a deceptive #37 to its position inside the top 20 from early last year.  While Petkovic appeared in quarterfinals at every major but Wimbledon, possible quarterfinal foe Pavlyuchenkova gained only a little less acclaim by reaching quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open.  Similar to the German in playing style, the 20-year-old Russian has compiled far more experience than her age would suggest and seems equally ready to move a tier higher in the WTA hierarchy, provided that she can improve her serve.  Although have faced each other only once, just a few months ago in Beijing, Pavlyuchenkova and Petkovic should intersect more and more often if their careers continue on such promising trajectories.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

Perhaps the quietest month of the tennis season, February hovers uneasily between the Australian Open and the two mini-Slams of Indian Wells and Miami.  As the contenders converge upon North America, we reflect upon the four events that unfolded during this month’s final week.  Who holds a game point, who rests in equilibrium at deuce, and who faces break point?

Vera Zvonareva - WTA Dubai Barclays Tennis Championship - Day Four

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Zvonareva: After an uncertain start to 2011, the world #3 snapped a five-final losing streak in emphatic fashion against a player who had captured two finals from her in 2010.  Rarely threatened by Wozniacki in Doha, Zvonareva won her first title since Pattaya City last year and will bring considerable momentum to the California desert, where she collected the most notable trophy of her career thus far.  Two rounds before her victory over the world #1, moreover, the Russian displayed physical and psychological resilience by outlasting Hantuchova after tottering within two points of defeat in an epic three-setter.

The single most impressive moment of her week, however, may have come in the penultimate game of her semifinal with Jankovic.  After splitting a pair of lopsided sets, the Russian and the Serb traded hold for hold through eight games of the final set without facing a break point.  In the ninth game, Zvonareva opened with two egregious errors and a double fault to hand Jankovic triple break point, at which stage a meltdown looked imminent.  But then came three unreturnable serves and later an ace to punctuate this crucial hold.  A staggered Serb conceded the match-ending break a game later, undone by the unexpected poise under pressure from an opponent famous for her fragility.  Although she had not yet claimed the title, Zvonareva responded to that adversity with the composure of a champion.

Djokovic: Like Zvonareva, he looked much less bulletproof throughout the week than the player whom he ultimately defeated in the final.  Unlike Zvonareva two weeks before, the Serb captured a tournament for the third successive year, a feat unprecedented in his career.  Saving his best for last, Djokovic delivered his finest tennis of the week against Federer in the final as he surpassed the Swiss star in both of the latter’s greatest strengths, the serve and the forehand.  The Australian Open champion cruised through service games more efficiently than Federer, finding first serves at crucial moments and targeting all four corners of the service boxes.  (In fact, Djokovic dropped only one total service game during his two victories over top-10 opponents Berdych and Federer.)  Somewhat less surprisingly, the Serb generally fired the decisive salvo in their forehand-to-forehand exchanges, often freezing Federer with scorching cross-court angles.  Juxtaposing his undefeated record in 2011 with his previous triumphs in Indian Wells and Miami, we christen him the slight favorite at both North American events.

Del Potro: Not content with a third consecutive semifinal appearance, the gentle giant marched to his first title since the 2009 US Open.  From one week to the next, Del Potro’s confidence has mounted as his movement has grown more natural, his anticipation keener, and his forehands more fluid.  The Argentine also struck his backhands with greater authority, unafraid to attempt winners from his crisp two-hander as well as his more intimidating wing.  Still fallible is the serve that contributed untimely double faults to Fish in the semifinal and offered eleven break points to Tipsarevic in the final, of which the Serb courteously spurned ten.  Nevertheless, Del Potro will join Raonic among the most dangerous dark horses in Indian Wells and Miami, especially the latter event with its vociferous Latin American fans.

Jankovic: Five points from her first final since last year’s clay season, the former #1 bolstered her Dubai revival with a second straight semifinal.  Jankovic has rediscovered the range on her scintillating backhands and served above her normal level against Zvonareva, allowing her to expend less effort on each point.  While she reverses direction less smoothly than she once did, her lateral movement continues to frustrate opponents who rely upon winning points from the baseline.  Although the Serb seems unlikely to defend her Indian Wells crown, she might lose fewer points there than we initially expected.  And she might well have won her match with Zvonareva had they played on clay, where she should distinguish herself once again.

Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Deuce:

Federer: For elite contenders like the Swiss, tournaments like Dubai principally provide preparation for more pivotal events on the calendar.  Thus, Federer accomplished his central goal this week by playing five matches before traveling to the North American hard courts.  On the other hand, he followed four routine victories over unimposing foes with a lackluster performance against Djokovic.  Often missing backhands by feet rather than inches, the top seed donated far too many unforced errors to exert pressure upon the Serb, and he struggled to absorb Djokovic’s pace at both the baseline and the net.  Although Federer remains #2 in the rankings, few would consider him currently the second-best player in the world.

Wozniacki: Like Federer, the women’s #1 swept comfortably to the final and then lost rather comfortably when she arrived there.  Through her first three matches, Wozniacki demolished three estimable opponents with heightened aggression that some analysts attributed to a lingering illness.  Against Petrova, Bartoli, and Peer, she attempted uncharacteristically bold forehands and even ventured into the forecourt at times for swinging volleys.  But she retreated from that aggression when the competition stiffened in the final against Zvonareva, who combined superior power with sufficient consistency to stifle the counterpunching Dane.   While Wozniacki will continue to win the vast majority of matches with her trademark, high-percentage style, she will not take the next step forward until she gains the confidence to seize the initiative more often against marquee opponents.  Nevertheless, the relatively slow surfaces at Indian Wells and Miami should showcase her strengths as they did last season.

Acapulco: A jarring sight in February, the Mexican red clay hosted many of the week’s most compelling matches.  Accelerating prodigy Alexander Dolgopolov scored a notable victory over Wawrinka before taking a set from Ferrer, one of the finest clay-courters of his generation.  Meanwhile, Almagro extended his scalding recent form into a three-set final against his fellow Spaniard, who defended his title only after 161 minutes of grinding rallies, flowing one-handed backhands (Almagro), ruthless inside-out forehands (Ferrer), and imaginative shot selection (both players).  Yet this magnificent entertainment seems virtually irrelevant to the impending hard-court Masters tournaments.  The Latin American clay-court strongholds must decide whether to risk abandoning their traditional clay-court niche and shift to hard courts, where they would fit more logically into a February wedged between key hard-court events in Melbourne and Indian Wells.

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Li Na: After winning her first eleven matches of 2011, the Australian Open finalist will bring a three-match losing streak to Indian Wells.  A week after wasting four consecutive match points against Wickmayer, Li managed just three games against Klara Zakopalova.  Continuing a career-long pattern of peaks and valleys, the Chinese star has grown more dangerous but perhaps no more consistent.

Kuznetsova: Perhaps weary from the previous week’s exertions, this similarly mercurial competitor could not capitalize upon her Dubai momentum and sagged in her Doha opener against Peer.  One should not discount Kuznetsova on the ultra-slow hard courts in the California desert, however, where she has reached two previous finals.

Verdasco: Defeated twice by Raonic in less than a week, he expressed churlish contempt for the hard courts (and his opponent) as he stalked spitefully off to Acapulco.  But karma descended to smite Verdasco with a first-round loss to Bellucci, which perhaps reminded him that his struggles stem from more than the surface.  Ironically, the Spaniard has accomplished at least as much on hard courts as on clay, so he should not squeeze himself too eagerly into the role of one-dimensional dirt devil.