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Bernard Tomic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 1

After a Day 2 that offered much more intrigue from the women than the men, Day 3 presents greater entertainment from the men’s field.  We focus our attention there in our preview of the day’s most notable encounters, as well as a curious clash or two.

Querrey vs. Tomic:  With his stunning comeback from a two-set deficit against a highly talented opponent, Tomic earned his marquee position as the featured men’s match in the Rod Laver night session.  Two and a half sets into his victory over Verdasco, this meeting between two giants from former British colonies looked improbable as the Aussie emerged only sporadically from his passivity.  According to Tomic, that passivity eventually turned the tide as his opponent also slipped into an unfocused lull.  But he cannot afford to wage such wars of attrition in each round if he aims to plow deep into the draw, and this clash with a player recovering from injuries and chronically struggling with motivation presents an opportunity to economize on effort.  Disheartened by Stosur’s first-round exit, the Australian crowds should rally ever more fervently behind their brightest remaining hope.  Under the bright lights of Rod Laver, Tomic extended the then-intimidating Cilic to five sets in an earlier Australian Open, well before he reached his current level of versatility and maturity.  One senses that the Melbourne faithful will go home happier than they did on Day 2.

Berdych vs. Rochus:  Often vulnerable early in majors, Berdych dropped a set in his first match to the anonymous Albert Ramos.  Fresh from reaching the final in Auckland, Rochus strikes the ball significantly harder than his unimposing physique would suggest, although he lacks the Czech’s formidable serve.  The stage seems set for a collision in which Berdych controls the short points but may find himself outmaneuvered in many of the longer exchanges.  Beyond the length of the rallies, note the contrast between their footwork, one of the dimensions in which Rochus can compensate for his physical limitations.  In this battle between an underachiever and an overachiever, one’s thoughts may drift towards the ways in which each of these men represent the virtues of talent and effort, the elusive combination that separates the elite contenders from their inferiors.

Isner vs. Nalbandian:  The beneficiary of a retirement from the well-traveled Nieminen, Nalbandian remains a threat at nearly every tournament he enters when healthy.  Even in the twilight of his career, he competed effectively against Nadal for extended stretches of their US Open encounter last fall.  Gifted with a crystalline vision of the court’s geometry, Nalbandian sometimes recalls Daniela Hantuchova in his inveterate taste for crafting angles.  Also like Hantuchova, he has excelled in neither fitness nor mental stamina throughout his career, leaving this former Wimbledon finalist with far fewer laurels than he should have earned.  Somewhat the opposite, Isner proved both of those attributes throughout his immortal Wimbledon marathon but can rely upon few shots outside his serve on any given day.  Against the American’s straightforward, monochromatic approach, then, stands the Argentine’s mercurial inflammability and imagination.

Wawrinka vs. Baghdatis:  For those who admire backhands in all of their flamboyant flavors, the meeting of the Swiss and the Cypriot will showcase a florid one-hander against a more streamlined but equally scintillating two-hander.  A semifinalist in Sydney, Baghdatis can rely upon the support of Melbourne’s vocal expatriate community, while the sometimes weak-willed Wawrinka might find the opposition unnerving.  Often successful on clay, Federer’s understudy usually wins by grinding down his opponents with steady, high-percentage tennis, whereas the charismatic shot-maker from Minassol wins with a baseline barrage of groundstrokes that barely skim over the net.  Neither man dominates behind their serve, but both can use that shot effectively to set up their next gambit.  Both men have enjoyed some of their most successful performances at the Australian Open, although six long years have passed since Baghdatis reached the final.  Can he recapture that magic?

Dimitrov vs. Almagro:  Another young star who escaped from first-round trouble, Dimitrov profited from the wildly erratic play of Chardy even more than Tomic benefited from Verdasco’s profligacy.  Commentators and fans long have awaited the emergence of this latest “baby Federer,” a sobriquet that seems to bode ill for all those burdened by it.  Much improved over the past year is his serve, which allows him to strike his elegant groundstrokes from more advantageous positions.  Inflated by his annual prowess on South American clay, Almagro’s ranking exaggerates the accomplishments of a player with ample talent but not always the most intelligent point construction or shot selection.  Considering the Spaniard’s meager results at majors, Dimitrov should consider victory well within range.  An upset would open his draw for a first career appearance in the second week of a Slam, a critical step forward for him.

Karlovic vs. Berlocq:  Against one of the best servers in the ATP stands a player whom many consider the worst server in the top 100.  At last year’s US Ope, Djokovic laid waste to Berlocq’s delivery and never allowed him to hold across the course of three sets.  During a first-round upset of Melzer, Karlovic broke serve no fewer than five times, an oddity for a player whose returning ineptitude usually compensates symmetrically for his serving prowess.  If this match arrives at a tiebreak or two, though, we will find out just how neatly those two features of his game balance each other.  Watch this match for ghoulish curiosity rather than aesthetic entertainment.

The ladies (briefly noted):  To be honest, one struggled to find many captivating matches as the second round began.  The most promising Australian woman still in the draw, Casey Dellacqua will attempt to frustrate Azarenka a round after the third seed looked intimidatingly imperturbable against Heather Watson.  Together with the support of her Stosur-starved compatriots, memories of her second-week appearance several Australian Opens ago might catalyze this lefty, and Vika sometimes has struggled with southpaws before.  Realistically speaking, though, neither Dellacqua nor Li Na’s next opponent, the sprightly Olivia Rogowska, can harbor much hope of an upset.  More convincing in that regard is Hobart champion Mona Barthel, who marched to that title as a qualifier and dominated Wickmayer in the final.  Perhaps Barthel’s ambush of Kuznetsova last year represented just the first notable victory of a promising career.  Since Cetkovska wavered throughout her three-set victory over Morita, the 32nd seed might fall victim to a player with accelerating momentum.

Daniela Hantuchova - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ad-in:

Birmingham finalists:  Contesting her second final of the season, Hantuchova extended her impetus from a second-week surge at Roland Garros to her favorite surface.  Ideally suited for grass are her pinpoint angles, risky shot-making, and deftness in the forecourt, while the surface also masks her awkward movement.  Not normally known for her competitive will, the Slovak showed not only expected bravado but unexpected tenacity in turning the tide of her semifinal with Ivanovic.  Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lisicki also shone with victories over former champion Rybarikova and 2011 breakthrough sensation Peng.  Several injuries and two years removed from her Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the German still can unleash the short-point style of massive serves and returns that works most effectively on grass.  Despite the disappointments that have filled a once-promising career, Lisicki has maintained more optimism than have many less blighted peers.  The All England Club will not regret awarding her a wildcard, although those near her in the draw might.

Queens Club finalists:  Perhaps favored to win the title from the outset, 2009 champion Murray still deserved credit for so emphatically crushing three-time Wimbledon finalist Roddick.  Their 59-minute semifinal showcased the Scot at his best, especially his talent for shot selection and point construction.  Mastering the challenge of translating momentum from clay to grass, Murray may enter Wimbledon as the most plausible threat to Nadal and Federer.  Less a contender than a dark horse, Tsonga erased his Paris disappointment by upsetting the world #1 while hammering 25 aces upon the London lawn.  Although he lately has underperformed at majors and will not have a comfortable draw, the acrobatic Frenchman could repeat his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance with his mixture of pounding serves and delicate touch.  Sporadic focus remains his primary flaw, though, and it emerged again in a semifinal win that became more exciting than necessary.

Ivanovic:  Surpassing the expectations of most, including herself, the Serb expressed delight at playing four straight matches at the same tournament for just the second time this year.  After collecting just two matches during the clay season, Ivanovic found her footing on the grass and exceeded that total in a single event.  Despite squandering a one-set lead once more, she served magnificently on crucial points and hit through her backhand with greater conviction until her last few games of the tournament.  While nobody would confuse Lucic or Marino with a contender, wins matter more than opponents now for the Serb.  Sharapova-less for only the second time since 2004, the Edgbaston Priory must have breathed a sigh of relief when the Russian’s glamorous replacement stayed for the weekend.

James Ward:  Ranked outside the top 200, this unknown Brit stunned Wawrinka and defending champion Querrey (see below) before recording a more competitive performance against Tsonga than Roddick against Murray.  A wildcard recipient like Ivanovic, Ward will vanish into the mists of tennis history soon enough, but he deserves a moment in the spotlight for generating good news for British tennis at one of the gloomier moments in its history.  It appears that the English don’t always need to import a Scotsman to win their battles for them.

Deuce:

Wozniacki:  Another week, another trivial tournament, another trivial title.  While every trophy counts to some degree, few events have seemed more like foregone conclusions than Copenhagen, which retained its indoor hard surface while wedged into an uncomfortable pigeonhole between the clay and grass seasons.  One recognizes the pressures on Wozniacki to play her home nation’s tournament, perhaps dependent on her for its existence, and her commitment to these small events suggests a genuine affection for the sport not always observed in #1s.  Nevertheless, one suspects that even most Danes would prefer her to win at a major rather than on home soil, and Copenhagen offers a uniquely ill-conceived venue to prepare for Wimbledon.

Nadal:  Falling to Tsonga and on the turf, the ten-time major champion rarely settled into a comfortable rhythm during his three matches.  A quarterfinal exit at Queens Club preceded his second Wimbledon title last year, though, so this result seems inconsequential as an omen.  After an unusually stressful fortnight at Roland Garros, it should come as no surprise that Nadal could not rekindle his intensity just days later.

Roddick:  Winless since Indian Wells, he desperately needed to collect a few solid matches this week to restore some of his confidence before Wimbledon, where he should stay in contention throughout his career.   In a stiffer draw than a standard 250 event, Roddick notched those wins in impressive fashion when he conquered Spaniards Lopez and Verdasco.  Then Murray notched an even more impressive win against Roddick, who suddenly looked one-dimensional and outdated against a top-five opponent.

Ad-out:

Querrey:  While nobody imagined that the slumping American would defend his title, a loss to the aforementioned Ward marked a particularly deflating end to his attempt.  That early exit likely will cost him a Wimbledon seed and thus may stir him from his complacency.

Berdych:  In a second straight odd loss, the world #7 and defending Wimbledon finalist could not solve the uncomplicated challenge of Petzschner.  As notable as the loss itself was the manner of the loss, for Berdych reversed the momentum after the first set to cruise through the second set in what should have proved a decisive momentum shift.  Few leading contenders would have allowed a match against a journeyman to escape them at that stage, as the Czech did.

Kanepi:  Soon to defend marquee quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open, the Estonian continued a generally fruitless 2011 campaign with an early Birmingham loss as the top seed.  Having reached the quarterfinals in just one of ten tournaments this year, she has not performed at the level of most rising stars ranked near her, such as Pavlyuchenkova, Goerges, Wickmayer, and Peng.

Adidas:  Nike’s putative rival signed sponsorship contracts with two women on whom almost anything looks good, then chose to garb them in essentially the same outfit like members of a doubles team.  Compare the picture below with the picture at the top.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates a point during her semi-final match agsint Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia during day six of the AEGON Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club on June 11, 2011 in Birmingham, England.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Sharapova vs. Garcia:  Dispatching one Caroline en route to the Rome title, Sharapova eyes a less intimidating Caroline in Paris.  This apparent mismatch pits a storied champion who has won three Slam titles against a 17-year-old who has won two total matches at majors, but perhaps one should not feed this Christian to the lioness too eagerly.  Flitting across one’s mind are the shadows of Kudryavtseva and Oudin, who defeated Sharapova at Wimbledon and the US Open when ranked #154 and #70, respectively.  Thrust onto a court far larger than any where she has tread, Garcia can expect the vociferous support of her compatriots and showed a glimpse of courage by winning the first Slam match of her career in January.  Demonstrating a nascent aptitude for the surface, the world #177 claimed her second ITF clay title in Florida this April.  Of course, Sharapova would capture the Premier Five crown in Rome two weeks later.

Chardy vs. Simon:  Sharing a passport but little else, this internecine clash of les bleus pits an aggressive, forehand-centered Frenchman against a compatriot who relies on steadiness and a crisp two-hander.  Whereas Chardy can drift emotionally within tournaments and even matches, a healthy Simon consistently competes with the sturdiness that has enabled him to maximize his potential.  The clay will shelter the former’s asymmetrical groundstroke game while showcasing the latter’s defense.  In the pressure of playing in their nation’s most prestigious event and largest stadium, the experience of Simon may shine through, but the brashness of Chardy may allow him to capture the moment.

Zheng vs. Kvitova:  Although she has failed to recapture her momentum following wrist surgery, Zheng has accumulated a history of upsetting or nearly upsetting contenders from Sharapova to Serena.  Her low center of gravity and compact stroke production aid her in adjusting to the clay’s unpredictable bounces, while her court coverage should prove even more seamless on the dirt.  Nevertheless, the unusually fast bounce and light balls at Roland Garros this year, coupled with warm, sunny weather, will encourage shot-maker like Kvitova to fancy their chances against defensive-minded foes.  Displaying traces of her scintillating form in Madrid, the Czech crushed 2011 surprise Arn in the first round and should gain further hope from her friendly first-week draw.

Malisse vs. Verdasco:  Most dangerous when least anticipated, the Spaniard surprisingly overcame a history of futility against Monaco in his opener despite a generally disappointing season.  One would imagine that this comprehensive four-set victory would raise the spirits of a player whose form fluctuates with his confidence.  But Verdasco’s fortunes have not always followed a logical trajectory, nor have those of his opponent.  From a nation more renowned in the WTA than ATP, Malisse has underachieved even more than the Spaniard has, in part as a result of chronic injuries.  Taking a set from Murray in Rome, he could unsettle the unsubtle Verdasco with his penetrating backhand and versatile all-court repertoire.

Mirza vs. Radwanska / Medina Garrigues vs. Gajdosova:  Only a sporadic player at this stage, Mirza still can unleash forehands that occasionally fluster competitors as noteworthy as Henin (in Melbourne this year).  Targeting the lines too often for sustained success on clay, her relentless ball-striking presents Radwanska with an assignment at which the Pole excels.  Smothered by the WTA’s premier offenses, she specializes in chipping away at less consistent or balanced attackers with canny shot placement that exploits the geometry of the court.  The balance of overall talent between puncher and counterpuncher shifts in the opposite direction when Gajdosova faces Medina Garrigues, whose superior clay skills that carried her to the Barcelona title.  Unruffled by a recent divorce or the circumstances of her opener against Razzano, however, the Aussie proved herself a focused and motivated competitor.

Querrey vs. Ljubicic:  Formerly feckless at Roland Garros, the youthful tower of power delivered a victory over Kohslchreiber almost as impressive and unexpected as Verdasco’s win over Monaco.  Standing poised to intercept him is a seasoned tower of power, who will rely upon the experience that Querrey never quite seems to acquire or turn to his advantage.  Neither player has displayed much spark over the past several months, trudging from tournament to tournament with their explosive serves but not much else.  In a match less meaningful for the veteran than for the American, Querrey has an opportunity to accumulate a bit of momentum before defending his Queens Club title and perhaps launching a longer campaign at Wimbledon.  Far from a contender here or there, he personifies the recent trend among American men of underperforming at majors—by their nation’s lofty standards, in any case.  Perhaps we should learn to accept him for what he remains, a decent talent with weapons and weaknesses in equal measure, rather than expecting him to develop into something special.

Cirstea vs. Dulgheru:  Banished to a court as peripheral as their country on Europe’s map, these two Romanians have scored their finest achievements on clay.  Scorching into the second week at Roland Garros 2009, Cirstea delivered an epic upset over Jankovic that suggested much more promise than she since has fulfilled.  Barely inside the top 100, she has floated among challengers and qualifying draws while winning only three main-draw matches this year.  Less eye-catching in both looks and playing style, Dulgheru won the last two editions of the Warsaw clay tournament with tireless court coverage and timely backhands down the line.  The two Romanians have struggled for most of 2011, although Alexandra did reach the Miami quarterfinals.  Having eaten more bagels and breadsticks lately than her tennis health should permit, she must remember that those who give gain more blessings than those who receive.

Ana Ivanovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Two

Ivanovic vs. Larsson:  A first-round victim at two of the last three majors, the 2008 champion has succumbed in her opening match at three of seven tournaments this season.  While the first statistic illustrates her recent psychological frailty on grand stages, the latter statistic springs more from the injuries that have limited her to just 17 matches in 2011.  When healthy and confident, however, Ivanovic can carve her way deep into prestigious draws (cf. Indian Wells this year) and challenge the most elite opponents (cf. Clijsters in Miami).  Despite a wrist inflammation last week, she gained encouragement from her pre-tournament practices and can remind herself that she dominated Larsson in their previous meeting last fall.  The Swede has enjoyed a surprisingly fine clay season, highlighted by an Estoril semifinal, and she showed sufficient steel to topple Li Na in Miami.  If Ivanovic can subdue the inevitable first-round nerves, her much superior weight of shot should prevail.  But she will not want to invigorate her opponent with the sort of mid-match wobble that has dogged her all year, leading to squandered leads in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, and Rome.

Sharapova vs. Lucic:  For the second straight season, the three-time major champion arrives with a winning streak at the only Slam that has eluded her.  Far more impressive than the 2010 Strasbourg title, though, was a Rome surge that catapulted Maria from the outer to the inner circle of contenders with a  single blow.  A single blow remains the Russian’s preferred manner of terminating rallies with what Francis Ford Coppola might consider “extreme prejudice.”  In order to ultimately win this title, she must balance on the edge between aggression and recklessness, although her first opponent may not require such precision.  More than a decade ago, Lucic reached the Wimbledon semifinals with a win over Seles before soon fading from the picture like so many former prodigies.  While her comeback has not reached the celebrity of Date-Krumm’s revival, she won a set from Jankovic at the US Open and has the ball-striking capacity to survive the initial wave of assault from Sharapova.  Whether she can stay competitive throughout an entire match lies open to question.

Nadal vs. Isner: Never at his most comfortable against the skyscrapers of the ATP, the five-time champion must feel that Ivanovic played a naughty prank by assigning him the sport’s second-tallest man.  But the first-round loss of the sport’s tallest man, Karlovic, demonstrated the danger of relying upon a single shot to win three sets on these dusty battlefields.   After a desultory season thus far, Isner probably will enter the match with no real self-belief that he could threaten a player against whom he once won a set on a hard court.  If Nadal can score an early break of serve, the intrigue here could evaporate quickly.  Before it does, the match should provide a scintillating exercise in Rafa’s returning skills that will serve him well against later foes like Soderling.  Few elements of Nadal’s game impress more than his ability to gradually maneuver himself into control of a rally after absorbing a massive serve, and no surface showcases that talent more clearly than clay.

Harrison vs. Soderling:  Entering the main draw as a lucky loser, the future of American men’s tennis faces the two-time finalist.  After a pedestrian spring, Soderling brings little momentum into a clash with a player whom he defeated en route to the Brisbane title.  Nor did he bring momentum into his 2010 fortnight here, however, so Harrison should expect to meet the giant-killer who toppled Nadal and Federer in his last two appearances.  As unlikely to mount a legitimate threat as Isner against Nadal, the American has the opportunity to test his fledgling game against one of the ATP’s central pillars.  Mentally, he has the makings of a champion, but does he have the raw weapons?

Li vs. Zahlavova Strycova:  At her finest when coolest in the head, the Australian Open runner-up faces a perpetually sizzling firecracker.  An indifferent talent at best, Zahlavova Strycova attempts to strike sparks from her opponents with her pugnacious gamesmanship and tasteless theatrics.  One wonder whether she can crack the veneer of the Chinese star, so solid in Melbourne but so brittle over the following months.  If Lie aims to become a genuine contender on a consistent basis, the Czech exemplifies the type of journeywoman whom she must regularly defeat in uneventful fashion.

Monaco vs. Verdasco:  Hindered by several unkind draws this season, Verdasco has won consecutive matches at only three of eleven tournaments this year.  Now unseeded at Masters 1000 events, the Spaniard at least enters the tournament fresher than he did last year after an exhausting spring schedule.  Verdasco will need all of the energy that his legs can summon in order to outlast the tireless Monaco, the Argentine answer to Ferrer.  Technically sound albeit offensively underpowered, he can punish the Spaniard for the chronic lulls in the latter’s game by forcing him to hit multiple quasi-winners to finish points.  The world #20 has escaped unscathed from only two of their eights wars of attrition, so he will gain impetus from grinding down the defenses of this recurrent nemesis.

Petkovic vs. Jovanovski:  Can Jovanovski become “the third Serb” and follow in the footstep of compatriots Ivanovic and Jankovic?  Can Petkovic restore Germany to the tennis map a generation after the exploits of Steffi Graf?  The politician-musician-filmmaker-dancer-athlete has made substantial strides in that direction by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal and Miami semifinal, but her momentum slowed between that performance and her Strasbourg title last week.  While both players prefer hard courts to clay, Petkovic has accumulated greater experience on the dirt and came within a point of halting Kuznetsova’s title defense last year.  In somewhat the opposite of Harrison’s position, Jovanovski has shown that she has ample firepower to compete with the elite, most notably in a Melbourne three-setter against Zvonareva.  What she has not shown is the mental stamina and willpower equally essential to becoming a champion.  To that end, she could learn from her opponent on Tuesday, a few steps higher on that evolutionary ladder although still a work in progress.

Querrey vs. Kohlschreiber:  One of the ATP’s most familiar scènes à faire, this match pits a steady, serve-oriented American against a fiery, versatile European.  Their respective backhands encapsulate the contrast between their styles, Querrey’s a studied, conservative two-hander and Kohlschreiber’s an effortless, audacious one-handed flick.  On clay, steady normally overcomes streaky, but the German has enjoyed much the stronger season overall and finds his footing here more naturally, having scored terre battue triumphs over Djokovic and Murray before.  A day that looks dismal for Americans from Isner to Russell to Harrison may turn no brighter when Querrey takes the court.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

First quarter:  While Nadal may loom above the competition here, the section’s most intriguing storyline concerns 2010 runner-up Berdych, whose surge into the top 10 began in Key Biscayne last year with victories over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling.  Less formidable but relatively consistent in recent months, last year’s finalist could advance to the fourth round without facing any opponent more intimidating than Gulbis.  Aligned to reprise their Indian Wells collision are Spaniards Almagro and Montanes, although one wonders whether Karlovic can exploit a wildcard to reprise his draw-shattering assault in the desert.  Well superior to either Spaniard except on his most erratic days, Berdych might experience a greater challenge if he confronts the Croat’s staggering delivery.  Hoping to reconstitute the serve that evaporated in the Indian Wells final, Nadal finds himself amidst three of the ATP’s rising stars.  After a potential first-round encounter with the recently disappointing Nishikori, the world #1 could face Lithunian prodigy Ricardas Berankis if the latter can overcome aging lefty Feliciano Lopez.  Reliant more on subtlety and deftness than on raw power, Berankis probably can threaten Rafa less than the effortless, electrifying shot-making of Dolgopolov, a possible fourth-round opponent.  Despite an indifferent performance at Indian Wells, the Ukrainian should have an opportunity to repeat his Australian Open upset over Tsonga.  If top seeds Nadal and Berdych do maneuver into the quarterfinals, though, the top seed will bring immense confidence from a 19-set winning streak against the Czech that dates from early 2007.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal vs. the 2010 finalist

Second quarter:  Like the first quarter, the second highest-ranked seed offers a more compelling narrative than the legend who shares this neighborhood with him.  A champion at this prestigious event last year, Roddick eyes a plausible third-round confrontation with the indefatigable Simon, who won their last meeting during the 2010 US Open Series but fell to the American at this tournament three years ago.  Lacking his former spark since his struggle with mono, the defending champion could fall from the top 10 if he fails to progress smoothly through this quarter.  Also in his vicinity is teenage sensation Ryan Harrison, who must attempt to capitalize upon his Indian Wells momentum at his home event.  Defeating Roddick at the 2009 Australian Open, Cilic has edged into relevance this season after the inexplicable, career-threatening slump that descended upon him a year ago.  Should the defending champion arrive in the quarterfinals, the competition could spike upwards dramatically against a player who has pitilessly blocked the American’s path to Slam glory since 2004.  Likely to have won at least four or five majors had Federer chosen soccer over tennis, Roddick nevertheless scored one of his two victories against the Swiss star at this tournament in 2008.  Moreover, the GOAT tumbled to a fourth-round loss against Berdych here last year and could face 2010 nemesis Baghdatis at that stage this year.  Already having defeated Murray and Del Potro during 2011, the Cypriot could cause trouble for Federer if he enters this tournament searching for motivation.  Or so Roddick fervently hopes.

Quarterfinal:  Federer vs. the defending champion

Third quarter:  Sharing this section are two players who fizzled like soggy fireworks in Indian Wells, Soderling and Ferrer.  Struggling with illness there, the Swede may have suffered from a peripatetic post-Melbourne schedule during which he captured two titles and a Davis Cup victory over Russia.  Although Ferrer swept through the clay event in Acapulco, he looked jaded in Indian Wells against Karlovic while playing uncharacteristically error-strewn tennis.  Yet the Spaniard can excel on these medium-speed hard courts, as demonstrated by two Miami semifinals.  A semifinalist here in 2010, meanwhile, Soderling could face Del Potro in a highly anticipated third-round encounter should the Argentine navigate past Kohlschreiber as he did in the desert.  On the other hand, the former US Open champion may enter this tournament weary from a Delray Beach title and an Indian Wells semifinal appearance.  This quarter thus offers fertile terrain for a dark horse like Raonic, who could hammer his mighty serves past Ferrer in the third round just as Karlovic did in the second round of Indian Wells.  Among the more experienced opportunists here are the one-handed backhands of Wawrinka and Gasquet.  Ferocious against anyone but Federer, the Swiss #2 upset Berdych last week and enjoys a comfortable early draw before tackling Ferrer, whom he rarely has faced on a hard court.  Aligned against Fish in a potential third-round clash, Gasquet dazzled in Indian Wells but must validate that apparent revival with consistent results before his momentum slows.

Quarterfinal:  Wawrinka vs. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Undefeated since November, Djokovic has gripped the ATP in a relentless stranglehold.  Interrupting his quest for the Indian Wells-Miami double, however, were promotional activities that ranged from a Colombia exhibition and a Head video to two charity events in Miami.  Can Djokovic recover his focus from those distractions and batter his way to a title that he seized in 2007?  Surrounded by several slumping rivals, the Serb may not need to reach his highest level en route to the quarterfinals.  While Djokovic has handled Troicki with increasing ease, he routinely dismantled Querrey in their two hard-court meetings.  Even more stagnant than his compatriot, Isner admitted that a series of uninspired performances have eroded his conviction—not an auspicious situation in which to confront the world #2.  Eagerly anticipating his return to clay, Verdasco has looked listless and puzzled during his hard-court encounters in 2011.  Nor has he conquered Djokovic on a hard court since the 2005 US Open, long before the latter’s breakthrough.  Atop this section stands currently the ATP’s greatest enigma, a resident and former champion in Miami who defeated the Serb in the 2009 final.  Struggling with his serve, stamina, and self-belief on that occasion, however, Djokovic scarcely resembled the confident, fit, and technically flawless competitor who has sparkled this year.  Before a fruitless clay season begins, Murray hopes to reconstruct his own confidence with a few notable victories.  Unable to do so last year, he may crumble mentally if he confronts the player who comprehensively crushed him at the Australian Open.

Quarterfinal:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain (L) congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning championship point in their men's final match during day fourteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

Transmission reference: CADC102

Serbs:

Ivanovic vs. Bartoli:  Skipping to the net after a comprehensive victory over compatriot, rival, and defending champion Jankovic, Serbia’s merry maiden exuded delight with her most impressive performance of the season so far.  Now, Ivanovic must prevent her charmingly giddy mood from spilling into a winnable match against not Clijsters, her anticipated opponent, but Bartoli.  If she can preserve the focus that she displayed in her first three matches, the Serb should earn the opportunity to take control of this encounter.  Once dominant against the double-fisted Frenchwoman, Ivanovic suffered a pair of defeats against her last season before rebounding to vanquish her en route to the Beijing quarterfinals.  In a match between two players with exceptional returns, the ability to find first serves at pivotal moments will prove essential.  While Bartoli built a victory over Petkovic upon timely serving, Ana relied upon her delivery to deny several break points and propel her through multiple deuce games against Jankovic.

Perhaps a little fortunate to receive a retirement from Clijsters, Bartoli will hope to stretch Ivanovic out of position with her symmetrical groundstrokes.  The similarly flat, low, and heavy groundstrokes of Kleybanova baffled Wozniacki for a set on the same court, so the Frenchwoman could enjoy parallel success if she takes control of the points from the outset.  By contrast, Ivanovic will aim to establish early dominance over their exchanges with a mighty first blow of her own, from either the serve or the return.  Since neither player fancies elongated, grinding rallies, we should witness a sequence of relatively short, sharp exchanges that the Frenchwoman and the Serb will seek to terminate in the forecourt.  Will Ana rest content in the euphoria of Tuesday’s triumph, or will she soar from that success to another win on Wednesday?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  The second all-Serbian match in the last two days, this confrontation may test the apparent invincibility of the Australian Open champion.  Racing through a 16-match winning streak, Djokovic has lost only three sets this season—as many as he lost to Troicki in their four meetings last year.  Since the elder Serb won their first collision in 2007, his younger compatriot has reeled off seven consecutive victories but twice had to escape from predicaments against him last year.  Most notably, Troicki led the eventual US Open runner-up by two sets to one in New York before succumbing.  Denied a chance to atone for that disappointment when he retired against Djokovic in Melbourne, the world #18 will hope to capitalize upon his renewed self-belief after winning his first career title and the deciding Davis Cup rubber last fall.  On the other hand, he surpasses his compatriot in no area of the game when the world #3 produces his best tennis. Almost entirely bulletproof thus far, Djokovic may benefit from the incline in competition as the crucial rounds approach.

Serves:

Querrey vs. Robredo:  Dispatching the two highest-ranked players in their eighth of the draw, two Americans have found their paths barred by the evergreen Robredo.  Will Querrey founder on the shoals of the Spaniard’s unassuming game just as did Donald Young?  Unbroken on serve in victories over Tipsarevic and Verdasco, he possesses a far more formidable weapon in that tournament than his compatriot.  Robredo has struggled against the powerful serve of Roddick, unable to expose that American’s relative one-dimensionality.  Against Querrey, his principal advantage lies in his experience and his often more intelligent shot selection.  But he may not have the opportunity to construct rallies as carefully as he would prefer.

Roddick vs. Gasquet:  While Roddick may have won three of their four meetings, the clash that most fans remember tilted in the direction of the Frenchman.  Trailing the former US Open champion by two sets and a break in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Gasquet suddenly sprang to life to erase the arrears with his magical shot-making.  Almost before Roddick could catch his breath, it appeared, the last of the Frenchman’s exquisite backhands whistled past him to terminate his campaign at the All England Club.  In a far more prosaic encounter, however, lies the key to how this match might unfold.  After a scintillating first set accelerated into a tiebreak, Roddick’s superior serve collected crucial points as a deflated Gasquet faded anticlimactically.

And more:

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  Following the departure of most notable names from his section, the Argentine can become a surprise semifinalist if he overcomes a German who continued his dominance over Soderling in the previous round.  Increasingly more impressive in a three-set victory over Ljubicic, Del Potro then dismissed Dolgopolov with surprising ease.  He has not faced Kohlschreiber on a hard court since 2007, well before his breakthrough, and he must beware of targeting the German’s volatile backhand in cross-court exchanges.  A recurrent dark horse but rarely a champion, the world #35 generally scores no more than one upset per tournament.  Despite the disparity between their current rankings, a win over the 2009 US Open champion probably would rank in the upset category.

Berdych vs. Wawrinka:  Once again situated in Federer’s vicinity, the second Swiss aims to extend his two-match winning streak against the seventh seed, whom he routed in January at Chennai.  While Berdych has looked imperious against a pair of overmatched opponents, Wawrinka has labored harder to earn his victories.  Narrowly escaping Davydenko after the Russian served for the match in the second set, he later erased a first-set deficit against Cilic.  No longer content to idle in Federer’s shadow, the Swiss #2 has grown more willing to take the initiative in baseline exchanges rather than trudging through wars of attrition.  Just before his Miami breakthrough last year, Berdych reached the quarterfinal in the desert and valiantly tested Nadal through a pair of tight sets.  As he prepares to defend copious amounts of points through the spring and summer, a strong result at a major event like Indian Wells would buttress his confidence.

Peer vs. Wickmayer:  A round after clawing herself past Pavlyuchenkova 7-5 in the third set, the gritty Israeli once again found herself in a marathon encounter.  Extending her uncanny hard-court dominance over Schiavone, Peer battled past the Italian in a third-set tiebreak with a dogged resilience to which her victim herself would have doffed her cap.   Yet one wonders how much energy will she bring to this quarterfinal against an opponent who can outhit her from the baseline and out-serve her from the notch.  Across the net, Wickmayer squandered a 5-1 lead in the first set against Cibulkova and proceeded through the second set less efficiently than she could have.  On the other hand, the Belgian won the two games at the end of each set and, like Peer, refused to let the points that mattered most slip away from her.  Armed with combative mentalities, neither the Israeli nor the Belgian should concede an inch with so much at stake:  a berth in a Premier Mandatory semifinal, which does not often drift in their direction.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Caro(usel) at the top: After the briefest of interregnums, Wozniacki marched into Dubai and terminated Clijsters’ one-week reign atop the rankings.  Although she nearly dropped sets to both Chakvetadze and Jankovic, the Dane ended her week in emphatic fashion by outclassing Kuznetsova in her seventh win across an eight-final span.  Wozniacki struck a blow for the WTA’s Generation Next against its aging aristocracy this week, but Clijsters may well regain the top ranking when she defends only third-round points at Indian Wells.  Tethered to finals points in the California desert, Caro perhaps could snatch the top spot back a fortnight later when the Belgian defends her Miami title.  Similarly unspectacular during last year’s clay and grass seasons, the prodigy and the veteran could trade the #1 ranking back and forth as spring turns to summer.  We don’t know where this rollercoaster will stop, but we expect to enjoy the ride—and the photo shoots that ensue each time that Wozniacki reclaims the top spot. 

Sleeping giants stir:  Ascending from year-long obscurity, two towers of power delivered warning salvoes to their peers.  A week after upsetting Melzer in Rotterdam, Cilic unexpectedly reached his first final since Munich last May.  On the indoor hard surface where he has reached four of his nine career finals, the Croat swept past the seventh-ranked Berdych  and then battled past Youzhny before snatching the first set from a scorching Soderling in the final.  While Cilic’s technique still looks laborious and unwieldy at times, he can generate explosive power from both groundstrokes when he times his elongated swings effectively.   Before the battlefields change to clay, he will hope to buttress this recent awakening upon a few imposing wins in North America, although his lowered ranking could pit him against a top seed as early as the third round.  Seemingly both physically and psychologically sturdy, Cilic might rejoin the circle of contenders more swiftly than the other comeback artist of the past two weeks.

Sidelined and demoralized by a wrist injury, Del Potro showed flashes of his familiar self during a semifinal run in Memphis that included a comfortable victory over Isner and built upon his semifinal in San Jose a week before.  Thoroughly outgunned by Roddick as he was by Verdasco, the 2009 US Open champion still lacks a critical fraction of confidence in the groundstrokes that once jerked Federer around Arthur Ashe like a puppet on a string.  Once he regains that extra bit of sting in his forehand, though, the other elements of his game look ready to slip into their appointed places.  Also in Memphis, Querrey finally snapped an embarrassing six-match losing streak by rallying from within two points of defeat against Istomin.  Quarterfinal conqueror Fish labeled the lanky Californian “the future of American tennis,” but American fans should hope that this future lies well beyond the horizon.

What a difference a week makes:  Weary from their last week’s accomplishments, none of the players who excelled at those smaller tournaments could translate their momentum to the Persian Gulf.  Days after title runs in Paris and Pattaya City, Hantuchova and Kvitova dropped their Dubai openers to Chakvetadze and qualifier Ayumi Morita, respectively.  Less notably, Pattaya City finalist Errani pried one game away from Stosur, a player whom she previously had threatened.  Perhaps exacerbating their struggles was the contrast between humid Thailand, climate-controlled Paris, and the windswept desert in Dubai.  Not forced to make such adjustments, the four semifinalists at this Premier Five event participated in neither Paris nor Pattaya City, although Kuznetsova and Pennetta did play Fed Cup.  In the WTA’s geographically sprawling schedule this month, choosing battles became a crucial step towards winning them. 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

What a difference a week doesn’t make:  Thrown into relief by the whiplash effect in the WTA, an exceptional degree of continuity prevailed in the ATP.  An ocean apart, Soderling and Almagro battered through their draws for the second consecutive week and overcame a resilient pair of opponents in their three-set finals.  Both the Swede and the Spaniard profited from the relatively benign draws in these 250 events, so one should not overstate their surges when the leading contenders reconvene at Indian Wells.  In Soderling’s case, though, the extra rankings points will further insulate his #4 position should Murray improve upon his meager 2010 results at the spring Masters events.

But the highest honors go to a player who fell just short of his second straight title after a riveting albeit stylistically one-dimensional final in Memphis.  Hammering 130 aces across five three-setters, Raonic demonstrated a fortitude remarkable in a player who just turned 20 in December.  More durable than one might expect for such a massive frame, the Canadian suffered many more dips in form than he did in San Jose, yet he rebounded sturdily from that adversity.  Unusually edgy in the first-set tiebreak against Roddick, he did not buckle in the second set but instead swatted away three match points in the 24-point second-set tiebreak.  Few would have faulted Raonic had he surrendered at 1-4, 30-40 in the final set, when he somehow clawed back onto even terms and saved another match point before the breathtaking denouement.  In the end, only the most spectacular shot of the season so far could subdue the Canadian.

The Russian bear growls:  While Davydenko, Sharapova, and Zvonareva all may have sagged recently, an implausible group of reinforcements arrived to bolster their nation’s pride.  Capitalizing upon her victory over Henin at the Australian Open and her ensuing Fed Cup exploits, Kuznetsova not only avenged her Melbourne loss to Schiavone but reached her most notable final since Beijing 2009.  Wedged into the top 20 after an eye-opening quarterfinal run, Kleybanova overcame compatriots Pavlyuchenkova and Zvonareva in imperious fashion before falling to recurrent nemesis Pennetta. Perhaps less surprising was the Marseille charge of Youzhny, who overcame not only a fiery Tsonga but a crackling French crowd to reach his first semifinal of the season.  Joining him in that round, however, was the forgotten Tursunov, fallen from the top 100 after nagging injuries but able to recapture just enough of his vintage firepower to record his first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2008.  As of this writing, however, all four Russians lost their openers this week in Dubai and Doha, so their caution seems advisable in projecting from the feats of last week.

In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

Having set the stage with our two previous posts, we now contemplate who could steal the show in Melbourne.  Overshadowed by their more accomplished peers, the second tier of the ATP and WTA regularly springs memorable upsets at majors.  We nominate the potential best supporting actors and actresses below, explaining factors that might support or undermine their ambitions.

ATP:

Youzhny:  A semifinalist at the US Open, the Russian built his quarterfinal run here in 2008 with a victory over Davydenko.  In New York last year, he showcased his versatile all-court style and fluid transition game, attributes that he should showcase even more effectively on the Melbourne surface.  Still struggling to restrain his notorious temper, though, Youzhny trudged through an erratic, draining (albeit gripping) five-setter against Gasquet in the first round a year ago; he then withdrew with one of his chronically nagging injuries.

Melzer:  Deposing both Nadal and Djokovic last season, this grizzled veteran reached the second week at every major while claiming the Wimbledon doubles title.  Low on consistency, he nevertheless reached the semifinal at Roland Garros, proving himself a threat on any surface.  Melzer folds like origami when he faces Federer, so don’t expect an upset if he faces the Swiss for the third straight Slam, and it’s difficult to see him winning three sets from anyone in the top five considering their current level of confidence.

Monfils:  After an unconvincing first half, the flamboyant Frenchman swaggered to the quarterfinals of the US Open and three fall finals, including a second straight Sunday appearance at his home Masters in Paris.  Opponents never quite know which Monfils will step onto the court, or even which Monfils will play the next point.  If he chooses to unveil his intense, explosively athletic self, his fusion of counterpunching and offense could reap rewards on a surface that favors rallies over first-strike tennis.

Fish:  Seizing the American spotlight from Roddick for most of the summer, this former underachiever launched a late-career surge that carried him within a tiebreak of the Cincinnati title.  Recurrently flustering foes as prominent as Federer, Fish deploys a net-charging assault dissonant from this era’s baseline vernacular.  But the American relies upon high-precision shot-making executed with less than impeccable technique, a risky tactic to deploy in a best-of-five format.  He barely earned Djokovic’s attention at the US Open in a meeting that failed to justify its anticipation.

Stanislas Wawrinka Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland reacts against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during his men's single quarterfinal match on day eleven of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wawrinka:  Separating from his wife in order to maximize the rest of his career, the Swiss #2 began to vindicate that drastic measure when he won Chennai last week after routing Berdych.  An impressive victory over Murray at last year’s US Open sparked a stirring charge to within a set of his first Slam semifinals.  Otherwise a monochromatic baseliner, Wawrinka has crafted one of the most elegant one-handed backhands in the ATP.  Despite challenging all of the top five in the past, however, his self-belief appears to fluctuate from tournament to tournament.

Querrey / Isner:  Will the United States become the new Croatia, producing graceless towers of power in the ATP and nothing of note in the WTA?  These two juggernauts serve and serve and serve some more.  Sometimes that shot alone will vault them past opponents, although thankfully not very often in this era of diversified playing styles.  While the Melbourne surface will allow both Americans extra time to set up their forehands and shield their woeful backhands, they’ll also face greater difficulty in penetrating the court and finishing points quickly before their erratic technique betrays them.

Baghdatis:  Emulating Fish’s fitness drive, the Bag Man shed some of his baggage over the offseason, only to see an injury threaten his preparations for Melbourne.  The 2006 finalist suffered a pair of gallant defeats on Rod Laver Arena to Hewitt and Safin, but his ceaselessly exhorting fans often lift him to unexpected feats there (in part by unnerving his opponents).  Many observers consider the Cypriot a dubious competitor, yet last year he engineered a compelling comeback from a two-set deficit against Ferrer, no benign opponent.  Defined by low, laser-like groundstrokes, Baghdatis defeated both Federer and Nadal at Masters 1000 events in 2010, the former after saving match points.

Llodra:  Breathlessly serving and volleying to within a point of the Paris Indoors final, he expanded his acclaim from doubles with victories over Djokovic , Davydenko, and Soderling.  Until the last rubber of the Davis Cup final, Llodra had played a pivotal role in his nation’s almost immaculate record last year.  Maintaining his tightrope act through best-of-five matches, he conquered Verdasco and Berdych in this extended format.  Far less friendly to his vintage style, however, are the medium-speed courts in Australia, which scarcely resemble the slick surfaces where he staged his key accomplishments.

Gulbis:  As rich in talent as in more conventional capital, the boyish Latvian possesses a more percussive groundstroke arsenal than anyone in his ranking vicinity.  Furthermore, Gulbis interweaves effortless power with a surprisingly deft touch at the net that penalizes opponents for retreating far behind the baseline.  Defeating Federer and nearly Nadal during the clay season, he never quite regrouped after a Roland Garros injury and hasn’t looked especially sharp in his two January events.

Troicki:  The hero of last year’s Davis Cup final, he won his first title at the Kremlin Cup after holding match points against Nadal in a Tokyo semifinal that demonstrated his deceptively imposing serve.  At his previous Slam, he led Djokovic by two sets to one and a break in the fourth set, although the sultry conditions played a perceptible role in Novak’s discomfiture.  Beyond a crisp backhand, Troicki’s seemingly improvised, careless technique can break down more easily than those of the contenders.

Del Potro:  The only unseeded player on this list, he also has the distinction of being the only Slam champion on this list…and the only player on this list who has defeated both Nadal and Federer at a major.  Winning his last three meetings against the Spaniard and his last two meetings against the Swiss, Del Potro still searches for confidence after a wrist injury derailed him for most of 2010.  He struggled to oust Lopez in Sydney before falling to the unheralded Florian Mayer, but adversaries should beware of taking such a battle-tested champion too lightly.

WTA:

Peer:  Poised at the vertiginous #12 position, she reaped the rewards of a sterling 2010 campaign that included victories over Wozniacki, Li, Kuznetsova , and Radwanska in addition to semifinals at two Premier Mandatory tournaments and the Premier Five event in Dubai.  Had she not encountered the Williams sisters so often, her season might have extended even further.  Although Peer has sought to elevate her aggression, though, she still relies upon a counterpunching style and a serve that usually doesn’t allow her to match leading contenders hold for hold.

Petrova:  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne last year, she bludgeoned Clijsters and then Kuznetsova off the court before Henin wrapped a spider web around her once again.  Scoring clay victories over Serena and Venus, Petrova generally has prevented rust from creeping into her game as she ages.  But she lost her openers in both Brisbane and Sydney, the latter to a qualifier, and her early exit in New York last year offers little reason for confidence.

Pavlyuchenkova:  Her retirement from Hobart with a leg injury did not bode well for her Melbourne hopes, yet this former junior #1 jumped out to a sprightly start this season with a Brisbane semifinal appearance.  Last season, she collected the first two titles of her career and began to show glimpses of the promise that first emerged at Indian Wells in 2009.  A two-time conqueror of Venus on hard courts, Pavlyuchenkova must harness her serve more effectively before taking the next step forward; also concerning are her recurrent injuries, too frequent for a teenager.  The Russian’s top-16 seed shields her from a leading contender until the second week, and simply reaching that stage would represent an accomplishment at this juncture of her career.

Rezai:  Unexpectedly wresting the Madrid trophy from Venus, the flamboyantly attired Frenchwoman finally began to complement her eye-catching fashion with equally eye-catching groundstrokes that belied her diminutive stature.  While she has won no notable titles outside Madrid and Bali 2009 (via retirement), Rezai believes that she can pound her way past any prestigious opponent; she poses an thorny challenge for offensively limited counterpunchers like Jankovic.  Accomplishing little of significance in the second half of 2010, however, she survived 11 double faults in her Sydney victory over Jankovic before falling to Jovanovski a round later.

Maria Kirilenko Maria Kirilenko of Russia looks on against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during her women's singles match on day six of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 4, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Kirilenko:  The glamorous Russian blonde ambushed Sharapova in the opening match of last year’s tournament and translated that momentum into a startling quarterfinal appearance.  In contrast to her gentle visage is a latent competitive streak that can arise at key moments.  Designed to capitalize upon erratic foes, Kirilenko’s graceful game rarely disintegrates into cascades of unforced errors.  More successful in doubles than in singles, she lacks real weapons and struggles to finish points.

Kanepi:   Despite falling in her Sydney opener to Jovanovski, the burly Estonian earned her position on this list with her quarterfinal surges at the last two majors, where she defeated Stosur and Jankovic.  The medium-speed courts in Melbourne will allow her even greater time to unleash her groundstrokes and further her tendency to hit downwards on the ball.

Wickmayer:  Unable to defend her Auckland title, she nevertheless duplicated her 2010 finals appearance in New Zealand after a string of uneven three-setters.  The Belgian #3 caught fire at this time a year ago, qualifying for the Australian Open before charging within a few games of the quarterfinals once she arrived in the main draw.  A fluid, natural athlete infused with dedication for the sport and an almost harsh determination to succeed, Wickmayer can let her emotions race away with her sometimes in key matches.  In order to maximize her potential, she must learn to balance passion with poise.

Pennetta:  The Italian Fed Cup heroine posted an encouraging and a less encouraging result in Sydney, ousting #2 Zvonareva and then slumping against the qualifier Jovanovski.  Although little in her game electrifies, she has few clear flaws for opponents to exploit beyond her chronic negativity, which can fling her into a downward spiral.  If she faces a sharpshooter on a shaky afternoon, though, Pennetta has more than adequate balance and experience to profit as she has on previous occasions against Venus and Sharapova.

Kvitova:  Disappearing almost entirely after that startling Wimbledon semifinal charge, the enigmatic Czech resurfaced to capture the Brisbane trophy last week.   To be sure, she conquered no opponents more noteworthy than Petrova and Pavlyuchenkova, who belong in this list rather than its prestigious predecessor.  In her victory over then-#1 Safina at the 2009 US Open, moreover, Kvitova displayed surprisingly sturdy nerves as she navigated through a final-set tiebreak.  On the other hand, lefties have enjoyed little recent success in the WTA, and her quirky game can collapse without warning just as often as it can ignite.

Petkovic:  Like Kvitova, she garnered attention in Brisbane with victories over the increasingly dangerous Groth as well as Bartoli, although the Bosnian-German succumbed rather too meekly in the final.  Far from meek, by contrast, was her performance at the US Open, when she reached the second week after winning a final-set tiebreak from Petrova before saving match point against home hope Mattek-Sands.  These promising portents extended into the fall with a second straight Tokyo triumph over Kuznetsova and a semifinal appearance in Linz, suggesting that Petkovic may have found a measure of consistency to complement her fierce forehands.  Yet she remains a raw, unfinished product who doesn’t always construct points as intelligently as she could.

Date-Krumm:  Snatching a set from Wozniacki here last year, the most impressive comeback artist of all stunned or nearly stunned several renowned foes.  Her acutely angled groundstrokes and unpredictable shot selection can fluster the programmatic styles currently dominant in the WTA, while her lack of self-inflicted pressure itself constitutes a dangerous weapon.  Since Date-Krumm typically aims to unleash low lasers below her opponent’s strike zone, however, the high-bouncing surface may hinder her customary tactics.

Safina:  Encouraging in a three-set loss to defending champion Wickmayer in Auckland, the former #1 then departed Hobart with just one game from top-seeded Bartoli; clearly, the deities of the draw have not smiled on her lately.  If she doesn’t win at least one match, she drops out of the top 100.  That circumstance should either motivate her to an eye-opening success or produce a memorable implosion—compelling entertainment either way.  Which narrative will Marat’s sister craft?

***

Meriting a special mention are the Aussie threats of Hewitt and Groth, neither of whom possesses all of the tools necessary for a title but both of whom will arrive in Melbourne determined to compete at their highest level.  We look forward to watching their progress in the Australian Open draws, which we will return to preview on a quarter-by-quarter system about a day after their release.


 

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