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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

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Serena Williams Serena Williams of USA in action against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during day five of the AEGON International at Devonshire Park on June 15, 2011 in Eastbourne, England.

Rezai vs. S. Williams:  Had she maintained her form of a year ago, the flamboyant Frenchwoman would have posed a thorny test for a momentarily vulnerable Serena.  In two matches at Eastbourne, the 13-time major champion looked sporadically frail in many departments but most notably her serve, the key to her four Wimbledon titles.  Fortunately for Serena, though, Rezai has battled a maelstrom of emotional and psychological turmoil off the court that has undermined her season. On the other hand, she might recapture her swagger with the opportunity to showcase her skills on Centre Court.  Having traded baseline missiles with Serena throughout an entertaining three-setter in Sydney, Rezai demonstrated the requisite firepower to conquer the American at her own game.  But one doubts that she sustain it across three sets, as she rarely has throughout her career.

Soderling vs. Petzschner:  Seemingly to his own surprise, Petzschner produced a finals run in his home tournament of Halle that culminated with a three-set victory over Berdych.  Exhausted by those exertions, he retired in the final but surely will arrive in Wimbledon in a dangerously confident mood.  A quarterfinalist here last year, Soderling has lost to the eventual champion in each of the last two years as he did at Roland Garros.  The world #5 has honed a groundstroke arsenal not only steadier but more formidable than Petzschner’s strokes, while his serve will garner just as many free points from the fast court.  Never a natural mover, though, Soderling may struggle to find his footing on the slippery surface after missing the grass preparatory events.  Despite his mid-career breakthrough, he remains vulnerable to unpredictable upsets at majors and has lacked consistency throughout an injury-plagued spring.

Li vs. Kudryavtseva:  Notorious for a temper as flaming as her hair, the Russian came within two points of upsetting Venus early in the American’s historic 2007 title run.  A year later, Kudryavtseva won those two points against Sharapova shortly before her compatriot departed for shoulder surgery.  Just weeks removed from her Roland Garros crown, Li thus should not enter her Wimbledon opener with a complacency otherwise justifiable under the circumstances.  After arriving in maiden Slam finals at the French Open last year, both Schiavone and Stosur slumped to early exits at the All England Club.  More disturbingly, Li herself has followed torrid bursts with arid stretches as her motivation seemingly evaporates.  While Channel Slams have become routine on the men’s side, no woman in recent years has equaled the feats of Nadal and Federer.

Isner vs. Mahut:  Scheduled on a court that didn’t exist during their epic encounter a year ago, the two record-setters probably will enjoy the sequel more than the original.  Expect a semi-serious, semi-exhibition atmosphere as the adversaries-turned-friends make the most of a deliciously bizarre coincidence.  And expect points as short as this preview.

Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez:  Surging to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Dolgopolov demonstrated lithe movement and smooth stroke production in addition to an uncanny feel for the ball.  But the Ukrainian has produced inconsistent results since that achievement, revealing an indifferent sense of point construction and shot selection.  The grass should showcase his delicate touch around the net, although his movement will prove a less valuable tool.  Returning from a potentially career-ending surgery, Gonzalez has alternately soared and staggered even more sharply.  Not at his most comfortable on this surface, the Australian Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist possesses a fiercer weapon in his forehand than anything that Dolgopolov can deploy.  If the Ukrainian can find his backhand with his own crisp two-hander, though, he can neutralize the Chilean’s power.  Built upon brief, almost casual motions, both serves can oscillate as much as the rest of their games.  Thrusting Tsonga deep into a fifth set here last Wimbledon, Dolgopolov may deliver another dramatic rollercoaster this year.

Nishikori vs. Hewitt:  Surely soon to vanish into the mists of tennis history is the last man to win Wimbledon before Federer planted his standard on Centre Court.  Nine years and several surgeries later, Hewitt no longer ranks among the contenders but can reflect upon memories as recent as his upset of Del Potro here in 2009.  Unfortunate to draw eventual champion Nadal in his 2010 opener, Nishikori has developed a style similar to Hewitt in his prime with sturdy technique, compact strokes, and mental durability.  With serves little better than point-starting shots, these players might engage in longer rallies than those often seen on grass.  In addition to their backwards caps and counterpunching tenacity, Hewitt and Nishikori share brisk cross-court backhands that exploit the geometry of the court.

Ana Ivanovic - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ivanovic vs. Oudin:  A first-round victim in three of the last four majors, the former #1 has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since her title at Roland Garros 2008.  Nevertheless, she has recorded solid results at non-majors with sufficient frequency to stabilize her ranking inside or slightly outside the top 20.  After her 2009 US Open quarterfinal, meanwhile, Oudin has plunged off the tennis radar as swiftly as she burst upon it.  Two years ago, both players reached the second week here, and both gain contrasting benefits from the grass. Striking sixteen aces in a Birmingham semifinal, Ivanovic benefits from the surface’s short points and will hope to crack plentiful return winners off Oudin’s unimposing serve.  Like many tall players, though, the Serb sometimes struggles to adjust to the low bounce on grass, which rewards her opponent’s compact stature.  Both Ana and the American vastly prefer their forehands to their backhands, so each should target the other’s weaker wing with inside-out strikes of their weapons.

Sharapova vs. Chakvetadze:  The only former champion in the draw not named Williams, Sharapova ascended to the status of a leading contender after her Roland Garros semifinal.  Seeking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2006, the 2004 champion confronts an opponent whom she has dispatched in all seven of their previous meetings.  After a giddy ascent to the top 5 four years ago, Chakvetadze tumbled to a sub-100 ranking in the wake of a house robbery and a disintegrating serve.  Impressive on the clay when few expected anything notable from her, Sharapova must continue her progress with those expectations now renewed.  Choosing to rest rather than enter Birmingham as usual, she has practiced at Wimbledon for over a week but still lacks any match practice on grass.  Chakvetadze may have an opportunity to exploit that lingering rust early in the match before Sharapova, a habitually slow starter, finds her range and starts to spray chalk around Centre Court.

Cibulkova vs. Lucic:  Yet another retiree who fancied a comeback, a woman who once defeated Seles at Wimbledon aims to recapture that magic of more than a decade ago.  After an encouraging clay campaign, Lucic garnered a pair of wins in Birmingham as her serve struck its targets with increasing precision.  That crucial shot still disintegrates occasionally, though, producing strings of double faults without warning.  A steadier competitor who lacks the Croat’s first-strike power, Cibulkova may find her short wingspan threatened on returns but should outlast Lucic if she can survive the first few shots of the rally.  Despite defeating Kuznetsova en route to the Dutch Open semifinals, the Slovak has found grass her least productive surface and has won only four matches in four Wimbledon appearances—fewer than her opponent won during her signature run in 1999.

Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

Ad-in:

Wozarenka:  When the surface changed, the champions stayed the same.  While she didn’t quite tower over the Charleston draw, Wozniacki elevated her performance as the week progressed and satisfyingly erased the memory of her ankle sprain here last year.  Challenged more than expected by Zahlavova Strycova and Wickmayer, the world #1 should draw confidence from her ability to capture crucial points even when she couldn’t find her best form.  Wozniacki’s comfortable victory over Jankovic, one of her generation’s finest clay players, augurs well for the Dane’s chances at Roland Garros.  Armed with sufficient consistency, concentration, and fitness to prevail on clay, she could finally legitimize her top ranking in a draw without clear favorites.  On the other hand, Caro’s best friend might ruin that storyline.  Spanning the hard courts of Miami and the red clay of Marbella, the longest winning streak of Azarenka’s career has vaulted her into the top 5 for the first time.  In the relatively toothless Andalusian draw, Vika did not succumb to complacency but instead marched through the week without surrendering a set.  A somewhat more natural mover on the crushed brick, Azarenka shares Wozniacki’s hope that injuries will not cripple her clay campaign as happened last year.  If they remain healthy, this budding rivalry could blossom during the European spring.  Stay tuned for Stuttgart, where they compete for a Porsche.

First-time champions: While Begu and Vesnina fell a round short of their maiden titles, Pablo Andujar and Ryan Sweeting completed most improbable weeks by defeating distinctly favored opponents in the final.  Prognosticators should not extrapolate too boldly from these peripheral tournaments, far removed in geography and significance from the battlefields of Madrid, Rome, and Paris.  Nevertheless, Andujar deserves credit for capitalizing upon his victory over Verdasco in Miami, which itself extended promising portents such as a win over Robredo and a competitive three-set loss to Wawrinka.  And Sweeting will have claimed the attention of hopeful American fans with aggressive ball-striking and a confident demeanor that belied his inexperience in finals.  That confidence assisted him in a victory over the recently resurgent Karlovic, who has flustered many a more notable foe.  Under pressure from Nishikori late in the second set, Sweeting found the courage to take his fate into his own hands during the championship-clinching tiebreak—not an easy feat for a first-time finalist.

Nishikori:  Unfortunate to draw Nadal in his Miami opener, he acquitted himself impressively throughout a match more complex than the scoreline suggested and built upon that encouraging performance in Houston.  Still early in his partnership with Brad Gilbert, Nishikori has climbed to a position within range of his ambition to become the highest-ranked Japanese player in ATP history.  He should aim to bolster his second serve and refine his down-the-line forehand, but this week provided a desperately needed flicker of positive news for his beleaguered compatriots.  (Nishikori also has started an auction and a Facebook fund-raising drive for tsunami relief in which anyone interested should participate.)

Peng:  Despite Li Na’s post-Australian collapse, Chinese tennis continues to enjoy an outstanding 2011.  A paragon of consistency amidst the tumultuous WTA, China’s #2 surrounded an Indian Wells quarterfinal with fourth-round surges in Melbourne and Miami during which she defeated Jankovic and Kuznetsova, respectively.  The double-fister once known largely for her doubles skills plowed into the Charleston semifinals despite a style seemingly unsuited for the clay.  Firmly embedded in the top 30, Peng soon can look forward to seeded status at Grand Slams and perhaps even byes at some of the smaller tournaments.

Lisicki:  Sweeping to the Charleston title in 2009, the German with the infectious smile looked on the verge of a breakthrough that could catapult her to the top of the WTA.  Injuries (probably permanently) thwarted those aspirations, but Lisicki proved with a resounding victory over Bartoli that she still can threaten top-20 opponents.  To be sure, the Frenchwoman has suffered her share of head-scratching losses.  Still, this triumph must have delighted a player who spent months on crutches learning how to walk again one step at a time.

Deuce:

Jankovic:  Inching back towards her former reliability, she has reached the quarterfinals or better in six of seven tournaments since a second-round Melbourne loss to the aforementioned Peng.  This stretch represents a significant step forward from a disastrous second half of 2010, and Jankovic’s most productive time of year lies just over the horizon.  But one expected more from the Serb than a routine straight-sets loss when she faced a fallible Wozniacki.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has begun to struggle against the stars of the next generation (Pavyluchenkova, Petkovic, Wozniacki), never an auspicious sign.

Safina:  Whether or not one supports Marat’s controversial sister, only the hardest hearts could lack at least a tremor of compassion for her frustrating, chronically aborted return from a back injury.  Two creditable victories in Marbella set up an intriguing clash with Azarenka, at which stage her body failed her again.  Few players deserve a shift in karma more than Safina.

Green clay:  On the one hand, the slow-but-not-too-slow courts in Charleston offered a pleasant transition in color and texture between the blue/purple of the North American hard courts and the red of the European clay.  On the other hand, how relevant is a surface when only one tournament in either the ATP or WTA calendar uses it?  Even more ominously, Charleston’s move to the week immediately after the Indian Wells-Miami marathon does not bode well for its future viability. While Wimbledon could survive as the season’s only grass tournament, if necessary, Charleston might struggle to lift the banner of green clay on its own.

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

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Stosur:  For last year’s Roland Garros finalist, her past accomplishments weigh upon her as a burden rather than buttressing her as a source of confidence.  Considering her 2011 form, though, one could not have expected her to defend her title, and her defeat to Vesnina looked less embarrassing after the Russian reached the final.  Can a return to the red clay reverse her spiral before it imperils her top-10 status?

Kuznetsova:  Fortunate to escape a qualifier ranked outside the top 100 in her opener, the 2009 Roland Garros champion wasn’t so lucky when the same situation recurred in her semifinal.  While conquering Henin and three top-10 opponents this year, Sveta has suffered four of her nine defeats against players ranked outside the top 60.

Rezai:  Another hideous loss for the pugnacious Frenchwoman as time ticks towards April 30, the day when her Madrid title defense begins.  It may end then as well, judging from recent evidence.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

***

Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

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

ATP:

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist: Murray

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

Semifinalist: Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

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

WTA:

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

Semifinalist:  Henin

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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