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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

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In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

If Sharapova’s legions of fans felt trepidation before her opener against Dulko, they should have left that match reassured not just about her ankle but about the state of her game overall.  Far more impressive than in her last two Melbourne appearances, the Russian moved more and more crisply as the match progressed while suffering only one brief serving lapse and returning serve with her familiar ferocity.  Knowing the quality of her opponent, and remembering her loss to her at Wimbledon 2009, Sharapova may have benefited from a match that forced her to focus immediately.  A draw that initially seemed unkind now grows more benign with a clash against an American qualifier.  Or does it?  The Siberian siren has recorded mixed results against American youngsters before, falling to Oudin in a US Open epic and double-bageling Beatrice Capra a year later.  As she admitted, Sharapova knows virtually nothing about Jamie Hampton’s style and may need a few games to adjust to it.  At the same time, though, Hampton almost certainly never has played an opponent who can generate power approaching the Russian’s baseline bombardment.

More in doubt are several other matches on Day 4, to which we now turn our attention.

Hewitt vs. Roddick:  Although the head-to-head between these two grizzled veterans stands at 7-6 in Roddick’s favor, the American has won their last six meetings in a span stretching back to 2005.  But Hewitt continues to threaten his far more powerful rival with his agile movement, clever point construction, and unrelenting patience.  Three of their last four meetings reached final sets, including a Wimbledon thriller, while the fourth featured two tiebreaks.  Relying upon the support of the Rod Laver crowd, Hewitt may fancy his chances of swinging those few crucial points in his direction this time.  The stark disparity between their serves should play a less significant role than on the grass and fast hard courts where Roddick won all six matches in his current streak.  All the same, the American advanced impressively past a talented opponent in Robin Haase, showing more purpose and poise than usual, whereas Hewitt struggled to deliver the coup de grace against an anonymous obstacle.  Through most of the tennis world, Roddick will go into history as the more accomplished player, but one should note that Hewitt almost certainly will retire with more major titles, including the Wimbledon crown that the American so desperately covets.

Zvonareva vs. Hradecka:  Extended for more than three hours by Alexandra Dulgheru, Zvonareva may arrive in the second round physically and mentally jaded by a match that hung in the balance for an excruciating length.  The Russian typically has struggled with heavy servers (see S for Stosur), so Hradecka’s penetrating delivery may cause her anxiety if supplemented by the groundstroke missiles that she showcased in Auckland during a victory over Peng.  Can she finish what Dulgheru started?   The speed of these courts tilts towards Zvonareva’s advantage, however, showcasing her balanced game more effectively than the raw firepower of her still-evolving opponent.

Bellucci vs. Monfils:  One might understate the situation to say that Monfils has produced drastically different results from one major to the next.  After his comeback five-set victory over dirt devil at Roland Garros, many fans exulted that Monfils finally had found the purpose that he long had lacked.  Then came an unexpected Wimbledon loss to Lukasz Kubot and a thoroughly disappointing US Open setback against Ferrero.  After those setbacks, a strong Australian Open would seem likely for a player whose career has constituted a sequence of peaks and valleys.  Further suggesting that possibility was a strong week in Doha, highlighted by a semifinal victory over Nadal.  Full of talent and ambition, meanwhile, Bellucci has struggled to harness his lefty power at crucial moments in matches.  Before he ended last season with seven straight losses at ATP tournaments, the top-ranked Brazilian defeated Murray and Berdych consecutively at the prestigious event in Madrid. This enigma could trouble Monfils by curving his lefty forehand into the Frenchman’s modest backhand and by winning the battle of court positioning.  But Bellucci has developed little of the tactical sense necessary to topple an opponent superior in athleticism, fitness, experience, and nearly all other meaningful areas.

Raonic vs. Petzschner:  Not known for their returning talents, both of these huge servers broke their opponents repeatedly during emphatic first-round victories.  In fact, Petzschner fell just two games short of the first triple-bagel at the Australian Open since the 1970s and first at any major since 1993.  While his opponent’s ineptitude likely played a role in that development, the German has ridden waves of confidence to impressive accomplishments before.  Contesting a five-setter with Nadal two Wimbledons ago, he shares Raonic’s preference for faster surfaces.  The high bounce of this court should aid the Canadian’s monstrous kick serve, one of the reasons why he reached the second week here last year.  With his hip injury now behind him, Raonic must win matches like these to deliver a statement to his peers about his renewed progress.

Golubev vs. Gasquet:  Slugging his path past the more talented Youzhny in the first round, Golubev confronts a very similar task in the artful Gasquet.  Like the Russian, the Frenchman unleashes stylish one-handed backhands but lacks the muscular force projected by the Kazakh, who has rebounded impressively from an 18-match losing streak in 2011.  When a match turns for or against either of these players, it generally swings dramatically.  In the best-of-five format, neither probably can sustain their high-risk tactics for long enough to win without a lull, which will give the opponent a chance to reassert himself.  One senses that a match of momentum shifts might evolve as Golubev’s unvarnished ball-bruising pounds away at Gasquet’s psyche in addition to his defenses.  If he can stay positive, though, the Frenchman should withstand many of those first strikes and outlast the assault.

Stephens vs. Kuznetsova:  Succumbing twice to Christina McHale in 2011, the two-time major champion now faces another opportunistic American teenager.  Stephens enjoyed her emergence during last summer, when she reached a San Diego quarterfinal and the third round at the US Open with an upset over Peer.  Seeking to duplicate that feat in Australia, she meets a player who already has alternated the encouraging (Auckland semifinal performance, Sydney victory over Zvonareva) with the discouraging (a first career loss to Zheng and a retirement against Safarova).  Illustrating the rollercoaster that Kuznetsova regularly rides was her three-set victory over Scheepers, which started with a comfortable set, continued with a desultory second set, and ended abruptly with a third-set bagel.  Although she can deliver slightly more offense than her fellow rising Americans, Stephens remains a counterpuncher against whom the Russian will need to hit her targets consistently.  Anyone who has watched Kuznetsova could tell you that she finds this task less easy than she should.

Simon vs. Benneteau:  When these two compatriots collide, their promising performances at preparatory tournaments should provide them with plenty of momentum.  A semifinalist at Brisbane, Simon will duel with the Sydney runner-up in a match between a player who clings to the baseline and another who ventures into the forecourt more boldly than many.  As Benneteau tries to shorten points, his countryman will try to extend them with the same tenacity that carried him to a quarterfinal in Melbourne two years ago.  While he has faded since his breakthrough in 2008-09, Simon remains within range of the top 10 and certainly has maximized his potential.  In the Melbourne heat, this counterpuncher’s grinding style should prove especially lethal.

Llodra vs. Bogomolov, Jr.:  Unheralded until last year, the Russian-turned-American-turned-Russian seems to have weathered the controversy over his nationality with little concern.  A win here would move into the third round, justifying his seed and accomplishing the difficult task of maintaining momentum during the offseason.  By the standards of this journeyman, that accomplishment would deserve credit, especially following the early demise of more celebrated compatriots.  Overcoming perhaps the ATP’s most maddening player in Gulbis, Llodra may find greater resistance from someone who generally competes more vigorously (except at the Paris Indoors).  Aware that the Frenchman will attack the forecourt consistently, Bogomolov needs to refine his passing shots and aim to keep his opponent behind the baseline in rallies that expose his erratic groundstrokes.

Makarova vs. Kanepi:  The flavor of the fortnight at the 2010 Australian Open, this lesser Russian built upon an upset of Ivanovic to reach the second week and challenge eventual champion Clijsters for a set when she arrived there.  This year, she delivered two bagels in her opener as memories of Melbourne likely flooded back into her mind.  An unseeded champion in Brisbane, Kanepi entered this tournament as perhaps its most compelling dark horse.  With straight-sets victories over Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone during the first week of 2012, she showcased a more formidable serve than ever and rarely faced a break point throughout the tournament.  Even more notable was Kanepi’s improved shot selection and consistency, areas that had retarded her progress until now.  But the question lingers as to whether she enjoyed a career week in Brisbane or whether her accomplishment laid the foundation for something greater.  After all, everyone knows what the Brisbane champion did last year.

And, of course, we could not complete a preview of Day 4 without…

Ivanovic vs. Krajicek:  Never forced to face a break point throughout her opening victory, the former #1 dominated beyond her serve against an overmatched opponent and thus could afford to attack her returns aggressively.  To be sure, the knowledge of Dominguez Lino’s weak serve may have enabled Ivanovic to relax and swing more freely during her own service games, but that shot has shown steady signs of improvement throughout her partnership with Nigel Sears.  When she faces an opponent with a more imposing serve in Krajicek, Ana will face greater pressure to maintain her own delivery.  This match likely will consist of short points punctuated by staccato winners or unforced errors.  A former prodigy derailed by injuries, Krajicek impressed us with her ball-striking and her poise when we watched compete creditably against an aging Hingis in San Diego five years ago.  Although injuries have derailed her since then, she remains a player more dangerous than her ranking would suggest.  Handle not with complacency but with confidence and calm.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 2

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Janko Tipsarevic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Having examined the leading contenders for the Australian Open titles, we now cast a glance across the diverse spectrum of dark horses who might stifle the hopes of a favorite.

Tipsarevic:  Long before his late-career surge carried him into the top 10, the second-ranked Serb dragged Federer deep into a fifth set on Rod Laver Arena.  While Tipsarevic’s more recent visits to Australia have resulted in few such exploits, his appearance in the Chennai final extended his momentum from a strong second half, including a US Open quarterfinal.  His compact physique conceals an unexpectedly effective serve, and his backhand down the line sometimes triggers parallels to his more famous compatriot.  Throughout his career, though, Tipsarevic has struggled with injuries, fatigue, and sporadic lack of motivation.

Del Potro:  During the Davis Cup final, he competed vigorously throughout two losses on clay to Ferrer and a heavily favored Nadal.  Those matches illustrated not only Del Potro’s forehand but his movement, uncommon in a player of his height and a key to his Melbourne success.  Never has he distinguished himself in Rod Laver Arena, even before his wrist injury.  Nevertheless, Del Potro won sets at majors from Djokovic and Nadal last year.  If he has gained confidence from his Davis Cup performance and a strong week in Sydney, his groundstrokes should regain some of the explosiveness that they have lacked since his injury.  Very few other players in the draw can claim victories over every member of the top five.

Dolgopolov:  For an example of the Ukrainian’s talent for wizardry, one need look no further than the first set of his US Open encounter with Djokovic last fall.  Against the ATP’s leading player, his befuddling mixture of spins, slices, and sudden groundstroke blasts nearly worked their magic.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov won consecutive five-setters against Tsonga and Soderling during which his counterpunching blunted their far superior power.  One might expect him to feel pressure when he returns to the scene of those former triumphs, but the Ukrainian seems thoroughly immune to such emotions, as he does to more significant aspirations.

Isner: A stark contrast to Dolgopolov, the American relies upon an unvarnished, almost retro style of serving and simplistic first-strike tennis.  Stiff and ungainly at times, he nevertheless won two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros last year—something that Federer never has accomplished in five attempts.  As he showed at the US Open when reaching the quarterfinals, Isner can force even the most elite foes to tiebreaks, an uncomfortable position for a contender early in the tournament Since his game revolves around a single shot, Isner can struggle with almost any opponent when his first-serve percentage dips, so he also could suffer an upset of his own before he meets a notable name.

Raonic:  The champion in Chennai after an arduous battle with Tipsarevic in the final, Raonic never lost his serve throughout the tournament.  His relentless holds intensify the pressure on his opponents during their own service games, sometimes resulting in anxious, uncharacteristic errors.  Since a hip injury at Wimbledon truncated most of his second half, he begins the new season fresher than many rivals.  Unknown until this time last year, Raonic won six consecutive matches in Australia to burst through qualifying to defeat Llodra and Youzhny before Ferrer finally outlasted him in four sets.

Nishikori:  Somewhat like Ferrer, the Japanese #1 always will lack the effortless power on serve and groundstrokes that forms the cornerstone of the modern game.  Without those attributes, he still can punish the unwary or profligate with a steady, disciplined baseline style and excellent stamina, both physical and mental.  Finally breaking through at meaningful tournaments last fall, Nishikori already has proven that he can spring a stunning upset at a major when he conquered Ferrer a few US Opens ago.  He likely will receive substantial crowd support in Melbourne, the major nearest his home.

Tomic:  Although Hewitt remains the sentimental favorite in the men’s field for most Aussies, the two-time major champion has ceded the status of his nation’s leading hope to this precocious prodigy.  Surprising Wimbledon by reaching the quarterfinals, Tomic has evolved into a more mature player and always has possessed a complete game with intelligent shot selection.  That attribute has convinced observers like John McEnroe that he has the greatest potential of his generation’s players, but the Australian must improve his serve and gain more experience before hoping to fulfill his potential.  To the delight of his compatriots, he reached the Brisbane semifinals before Murray unraveled him.

Harrison:  Just as Tomic represents the future of Australian men’s tennis, so does this brash youngster represent the future of American men’s tennis.  That prospect has sat comfortably on Harrison’s shoulders more often than not, spurring him towards a few inspired runs on American soil.  Still waiting for the breakthrough performance that Tomic unleashed at Wimbledon, he crumbled in the first round of the US Open and surely will burn to improve upon that result at the next major.  His passion for competition will serve him well as his career progresses, but he has not always channeled it productively thus far.

Agnieszka Radwanska - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Three

Radwanska:  Appearing in the second week at last year’s event despite a recent foot injury, the clever Pole enjoyed an outstanding second half of 2011 by her standards.  Among her three titles were prestigious events in Tokyo and Beijing, which preceded a competitive display at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Radwanska finally seemed to mix more opportunistic tactics with her customary counterpunching.  Although her benign serve always will leave her at the mercy of serving juggernauts like Serena or Kvitova, she can frustrate players with less first-strike power by deploying her clever court sense.  Also demonstrated by her upset over Wozniacki in Sydney was her improved competitive resilience.

Bartoli:  Lethal at the middle two Slams last year, the double-fisted Frenchwoman knocked off former champions at both Roland Garros (Kuznetsova) and Wimbledon (Serena).  But she left no mark whatsoever on the two hard-court Slams, despite reaching the Indian Wells final.  Bartoli probably would prefer a faster surface that would allow her to shorten points more easily, and the serve that shone at Wimbledon continues to desert her more than it should.  All the same, she looked convincing at Hopman Cup even while winning only one of three matches.

Schiavone:  From the first two weeks of the WTA season, the most entertaining match featured her comeback victory against Jankovic in Brisbane after saving double match point in the second set.  Undeterred as she clawed out of deficit after deficit, Schiavone seemingly won through sheer force of will and appetite for battle.  That appetite emerged most strikingly not in either of her memorable fortnights at Roland Garros but in the epic that she contested with Kuznetsova at last year’s Australian Open.  Yet she could not withstand the blows of second-tier shotmaker Kanepi a round later, illustrating the limits of her agility and ingenuity as a counterbalance to raw power.

Lisicki:  Raw power describes the game of this German, who will serve as the flag-bearer of her nation in Melbourne following Petkovic’s withdrawal.  Plagued by injuries throughout her still young career, Lisicki began the season inauspiciously with a retirement and a withdrawal.  Buttressing her charge to the Wimbledon semifinals, her serve ranks among the fiercest in the WTA and allows her to slash at her returns with impunity. A little like Isner, her dependence on that single shot mean that she can win or lose to almost anyone at any moment, even discounting her chronic injuries.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova battled courageously against Serena at the US Open and showed sufficient composure to avenge a Roland Garros loss to Schiavone.  She continues to struggle with sporadic injuries and especially with her serve, which donates an alarming quantity of double faults for a player so young.  Early in 2012, Pavlyuchenkova struggled to hold at all in two early-round losses at Brisbane and Sydney.  When she can sink her teeth into baseline rallies, though, she can match the firepower of any opponent from either groundstroke wing.

Kuznetsova:  Less than three years removed from her last major title, she attempts to rebound from one of her worst seasons, which witnessed no titles and an embarrassing series of losses to anonymities.  A natural athlete who might have excelled in a variety of sports, Kuznetsova probably cannot maintain her wayward focus for an entire fortnight.  Her taste for the spotlight sometimes spurs her to rise to the occasion, as evidenced by her near-upset over Wozniacki at the US Open.  Despite her unimposing physique, she strikes a heavy ball that travels through the court with deceptive speed.

Kanepi:  On this list merely for her performance in Brisbane, she has accomplished nothing memorable at majors to date.  But one should note that she held serve seamlessly through three of her last four victories that week against quality competition, an astonishing feat in the WTA.  Having reached the Moscow final in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi deserves credit for extending that momentum through the offseason.  And all three previous Brisbane champions vaulted from that success to greater heights before long.

Zheng:  Two years ago, China stood within two combined victories of monopolizing both berths in the women’s final here.  Thwarted in the semifinals by Henin, Zheng also reached a semifinal at Wimbledon in 2008.  Having gained greater acclaim for her exploits in doubles than singles, she returned to relevance by sweeping to the Auckland title following a semifinal victory over Kuznetsova.  The relatively high bounce of these courts will hinder her returns, normally one of her strengths, but her ability to keep the ball low and deep troubles tall opponents and those who specialize in creating angles.

Ivanovic:  The 2008 runner-up, “Aussie Ana” can count upon ample fan support in her quest to erase the memories of last year’s first-round exit.  Since succumbing to Sharapova four years ago, Ivanovic has not reached the second week at the Australian Open and has not reached the quarterfinals at any hard-court major.  Extending Clijsters to three sets in Brisbane, she still showed flashes of the form that lifted her to the top ranking while continuing to struggle with finishing matches.  Searching for renewed confidence, she has improved her serve under the guidance of Nigel Sears and has shown more patience in constructing points.  If any Slam suits her temperament, moreover, it’s the “Happy Slam.”

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Sydney International - Day 1

Juan Martin Del Potro Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina reacts tot a play during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2011 in London, England.

Not among the highest achievers of 2011, these players nevertheless merited briefer discussion during the off-season.  Having discussed the best of the season, we now reflect upon some of the other players who caught our attention, for better, for worse, or for both.

Del Potro:  A tale of two seasons for the former US Open champion, 2011 began promisingly with a pair of minor first-half titles and encouraging runs at more significant tournaments.  Competitive against Nadal in an Indian Wells semifinal and even more competitive in the fourth round of Wimbledon, perhaps a match that he should have won, Del Potro also tested the then-undefeated Djokovic when they met at Roland Garros.  Over the summer, his charge towards the top 10 stalled unexpectedly on the North American hard courts where he had scored his greatest successes.  One of the more enigmatic champions in recent years, Del Potro faded meekly away throughout the fall with the exception of Davis Cup.  Having assisted Argentina to a victory over Serbia in Belgrade, he spared no effort in the final hosted by the heavily favored Spain.  Although he lost both of his rubbers, Del Potro severely threatened both Ferrer and Nadal with a competitive tenacity too little seen from him since 2009.  The question remains as to whether he can build upon those gallant defeats and reconstruct his tattered aura.  Entering 2011 with great uncertainty surrounding him, he will enter 2012 with his status as a contender almost equally unclear.

Soderling:  After a relentless succession of injuries and illnesses halted his 2011 campaign, viewers might not remember that the Swede started the season 19-1 with three titles in his first four tournaments.  But he played only 27 matches the rest of the season, winning just one more title, and entered only one tournament after Wimbledon.  Serving the role of a gatekeeper to the top, Soderling finished 0-3 against top-five opponents and 5-0 against opponents ranked sixth through tenth.  Few players ever quite recover from mono, especially those who rely so heavily on ball-striking power, so the Swede may struggle to recapture his magnificent form of 2009-10.  On the other hand, he did finish his half-season in sensational fashion by allowing just five total games to Berdych and Ferrer at his home tournament in Bastad, an intimidating performance that surely comforted him during the absence that followed.

Roddick:  As dependent on his serve as ever, the American now wins fewer free points on it than ever before.  That trend stems in part from the improved returning skills of even second-tier opponents and in part from his own diminishing energies.  Averaging just two wins for each loss in 2011, Roddick suffered straight-sets Slam losses to Wawrinka and Lopez, the type of talented but unexceptional opponent whom he would have dispatched with ease two or three years ago.  He also compiled a losing record at Masters 1000 tournaments (6-7) and failed to qualify for the year-end championships for the first time since winning his first major.  On the bright side, Roddick delivered his best tennis for the home audience when he upset Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals and won a thrilling final in Memphis over the rising Raonic.  He should collect a few more of those vintage wins while his ranking ebbs slowly but surely.

Almagro:  The only inhabitant of the top 10 who did not appear on our “Best of 2011” list, Almagro reached all five of his finals on clay tournaments at the 250 or 500 level.  Then, he lost to the lowly Lukasz Kubot in the first round of Roland Garros, illustrating the inconsistency that has troubled his adherents.  With more first-round losses than second-week appearances at majors, Almagro unquestionably built his inflated ranking by feasting on low-hanging fruit.  His powerful serve and groundstrokes should earn him more than 13 hard-court wins in a season, the remarkably low number that the world #10 recorded this year.  Still, his choice to play three consecutive minor clay tournaments after Wimbledon tells you everything that you need to know about his priorities.

Monfils:  Whenever and wherever he flickered onto the screen, Monfils briefly enlivened the lives of everyone who watched.  Rallying from a two-set deficit in the first round of the Australian Open, he outlasted Ferrer in a 14-game fifth set at Roland Garros and then succumbed to Ferrero in a four-hour epic in the first round of the US Open.  Dizzy and out of breath?  We haven’t even started to discuss the non-majors, where he nearly let the Stockholm final slip away against the underwhelming Nieminen, did let the Washington final slip away against the aging Stepanek, played final sets against the world #1 and the world #112, and contested eleven match-ending tiebreaks.  In short, the Monfils rollercoaster often impressed, often disappointed, and almost always entertained.  Just when he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious threat, he vanished.  Just when one gave up on him, he leapt back into relevance.

Dolgopolov:  Like Monfils, the mercurial Ukrainian attempted to hit virtually any shot from anywhere on the court—and succeeded much more often than one would have expected.  In his marathon first set against Djokovic at the US Open, Dolgopolov befuddled the world #1 as much as any other player did this year, ceaselessly changing pace and rhythm while looking for angles to exploit.  His most impressive achievement of the year came at the beginning, though, when he defeated Soderling and Tsonga in consecutive five-setters to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.  Hampered by a chronic medical issue, Dolgopolov cannot maintain his momentum for long even if he could maintain his focus.  His smooth, seemingly effortless game nevertheless captures the imagination when he times his shots crisply, more than compensating for his inexplicable early-round losses.

Isner:  One of the most boring players to afflict the ATP in recent years, the towering server played no fewer than 58 tiebreaks.  In four matches, he played three tiebreaks or more as the inefficacy of his return symmetrically balanced the impenetrability of his serve.  Riding that latter shot to a US Open quarterfinal, Isner unhinged many an opponent with the steadily mounting pressure caused by his routine holds.  Perhaps his most notable performance came in a loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, when he lost just four points in the two tiebreaks that they played and closed within a set of a world-shocking upset that would have cast Soderling into shadow.  As mind-numbing as we find his monochromatic style, he has proven it effective even against the elite and has asserted himself as a dark horse in any draw on any surface.

Verdasco / Davydenko:  Both of these players peaked in 2009, when the Spaniard edged within six points of the Australian Open final and the Russian won the World Tour Finals with victories over Federer and Del Potro  Since then, their stock has fallen dramatically.  Despite his excellent shot-making skills and other fast-court talents, Verdasco reached only two hard-court quarterfinals this year and suffered one embarrassing stretch of six losses in seven ATP matches.  His descent still paled next to the disappearance of the now 41st-ranked Davydenko, who posted a 25-25 record this year in a perfect illustration of mediocrity.  But at least the Russian has a convincing alibi of a wrist injury from which he never recovered, whereas the Spaniard’s struggles live largely above the neck.  Jesting aside, it’s curious to observe the different paths that decline can take.  The steep trajectories charted by Verdasco and Davydenko contrast with the more gradual routes traced by other veterans.

Cilic:  Although he accomplished little of note at the majors, the lanky Croat distinguished himself during the fall and on indoor hard courts.  He might continue to reap rewards during that season and on that surface, far from the spotlight of more important events.  Or Cilic might use a promising fall as a springboard towards 2012, capitalizing upon the talent that once seemed likely to embed him in the top ten.  Considering his plethora of weapons and unruffled demeanor, few reasons explain his underachievement over the past two years, save perhaps an ornate technique on his forehand or possibly a lack of competitive intensity.  For now, he remains a bland enigma.

Bogomolov:  To some observers, his decision to play Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States suggested a traitorous ingratitude to the USTA.  While surprising, Bogomolov’s decision didn’t offend us to that extent.  He hardly would have appeared in anything but a dead rubber for the American squad (or the Russian squad, most likely), and the USTA has suffered much more serious slights at the hands of other recipients of its generosity, like Donald Young.  That controversy aside, Bogomolov’s upset over Murray galvanized him to a string of results that his most optimistic followers could not have predicted.  He stands on the verge of receiving a seed at the Australian Open after 15 victories over higher-ranked opponents, including Murray and Tsonga.

Raonic/Tomic/Harrison:  Of this rapidly rising trio, Raonic recorded the most consistent success by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier before rampaging to his first title in San Jose and another final in Memphis.  After he bombarded opponents with an ATP-leading quantity of aces during the first half, the Canadian spent much of the second half convalescing from a hip injury.  Meanwhile, Australian hope Tomic astonished Wimbledon with a quarterfinal appearance that culminated in a tightly contested four-setter against eventual champion Djokovic.  A disappointment at the US Open, he still finished 2011 with a winning record at ATP tournaments for the first time and secured fall victories over three top-20 opponents while reaching the top 50.  Compared by some to an embryonic Roddick, the fiery Ryan Harrison lacked the second-week Slam appearances of his fellow prodigies but defeated Raonic in a compelling three-setter at Indian Wells.  Competing with confidence against opponents like Federer and Ferrer, the foremost American of the next generation gained valuable experience by reaching consecutive semifinals during the US Open Series.  All three of these talents must mature before rising into the upper echelon of the ATP, but fans should feel heartened to see such reassuring glimpses of the ATP’s future.

Bernard Tomic - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 1

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

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