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Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

At the verge of victory, the pressure suddenly descended on Novak Djokovic.  Even after his stunning Wimbledon title, and even after he took a 40-0 lead in the final game, the new #1 visibly tightened when he stepped to the service notch at triple championship point.  A forehand plunked into the net, a point-stopping challenge turned against him, a second serve trickled off the net into a near-double fault, and another routine forehand floated aimlessly well over the baseline.  As the three championship points melted away, Djokovic’s ball bounces multiplied and his typically penetrating groundstrokes fell shorter and shorter inside the court, sometimes barely beyond the service line.  The sunless Montreal sky glowered down at him, ominously reminiscent of the Paris evening when he suffered his only loss of this superhuman season.  Meanwhile, the enterprising, still hopeful Fish refused to donate a match-ending error, defying his reputation for erratic play.  When Djokovic missed his first serve at deuce and settled into another protracted point, an implausible comeback started to seem plausible. But after an anxiety-laden exchange from both sides of the net, Fish finally sailed a standard backhand—his strength—over the baseline.  That one glimpse of fallibility sealed his fate, for the Serb capitalized upon his second chance with an unreturnable first serve.  In a week when he faced none of his leading rivals, Djokovic’s main challenge ultimately came from within.  Just as impressive as his nervelessness on occasions like his Wimbledon victory this summer was his ability to subdue and survive his nerves when a match tottered on the brink of turning against him.

Suffering yet another gallant defeat in a Masters 1000 final, Fish nevertheless consolidated his status as the tour’s top-ranked American.  In fact, his steady reliance on fundamentals and businesslike demeanor reminded us of his predecessor during his most dangerous years.  Not the most colorful or exciting player to watch, he can rattle the premier contenders with his rare net-rushing style and unpredictable shot-making from both groundstroke wings (Whether he can actually win against them remains an open question, though.)  Unless Roddick rebounds to shine in Cincinnati, Fish clearly has transcended his compatriot and will become the home nation’s principal standard-bearer at the US Open.  Like Schiavone and Li in the WTA, his late-career surge should inspire other chronic underachievers to redouble their efforts in the hope of future rewards.  On the

Crowned in Toronto was a champion ranked much lower than Djokovic but equally expected to collect the title.  Similar to many of her most memorable title charges, Serena’s tournament started modestly with three-setters against Zheng and Safarova before accelerating into commanding performances against Azarenka and Stosur.  Since she might well face the former late in the US Open, her nearly flawless semifinal performance especially dazzled.  Following her success at the relatively minor tournament in Stanford, we still wondered whether Serena could maintain that form into New York and against her leading challengers.  Toronto advanced some distance towards answering that question, confirming the American’s status as the favorite to capture another US Open.  Like Djokovic, however, Serena never faced most of the players whom one might expect to bar her path in New York.  The central storylines of these two tournaments consisted of the astonishing upset epidemic that had convulsed both draws by Wednesday and Thursday.  Beyond Djokovic and Serena, almost none of the familiar names remained immune.  The rest of this article considers the most notable ambushes of the week and their possible impact on the tournaments ahead.

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

Murray (l. to Anderson):  Had he lost two tiebreaks to Kevin Anderson, the towering South African’s upset would look less stunning.  But instead Murray won just four games from an opponent whom he had routed in a previous meeting.  Like Wozniacki, the Scot looked uncomfortable in almost every department of the game, even his normally seamless movement and crisp backhand.  The loss marked a third opening-match exit at Masters 1000 tournaments this year, departing alarmingly from his usual excellence at these events and especially on North American hard courts.  Fortunately for Murray, the concurrent stumbles of Nadal and Federer diminished what otherwise would have seemed a confirmation of the gulf separating him from the top three.  Nevertheless, the Scot risks losing the momentum accumulated during the clay and grass seasons if he allows this loss to deepen the gloom of his Wimbledon disappointment and produce a malaise similar to his post-Australian Open slumps.  Also like Wozniacki, he needs a noteworthy week in Cincinnati to convince himself that he can contend in New York and validate his recent commitment to a more aggressive mentality.

Wozniacki (l. to Vinci):  In March, the world #1 looked on the verge of justifying her ranking after she had come within a point of the Australian Open final and won the year’s first Premier Mandatory tournament at Indian Wells.  Five months later, pre-quarterfinal losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon punctuated a disappointing European spring of stagnation or even regression.  When the battlefields shifted back to hard courts again, Wozniacki desperately needed an infusion of positive energy.  She didn’t get it.  Squandering a 5-1 lead against Roberta Vinci in her Toronto opener, she unleashed an uncharacteristic string of double faults and then just as uncharacteristically assisted an anxious Vinci with unforced errors when she served for the upset.  The setback heightened the ongoing debate over her (un)worthiness to hold the top ranking and turned Cincinnati into a vital week for her before the US Open.  Renowned for dominating this level of tournament and consistently suppressing the rank-and-file of the WTA during her ascent to #1, Wozniacki can ill afford to start opening the door just as those below her grow more confident and others in her generation (see K for Kvitova) start breaking through at majors.

Clijsters (ret. vs. Zheng):  Winning the only completed set that she played in Canada, the Belgian fell victim not to an opponent but to her fourth injury of 2011.  Gone from Cincinnati but “hopeful” for the US Open, she aims to recover from an ailing wrist, ankle, shoulder, and abdomen in time to defend her title.  When she enters New York, she will have played only three matches since Miami and will lack the rhythm upon which she relies.  Clijsters won the US Open as just the third tournament of her comeback, but rust posed a far different and far more easily solved problem than the myriad injuries encircling her.  In order to mount a creditable title defense, she will need a comfortable draw free of dangerous floaters, but the odds of her battered body surviving the fortnight in prime condition look slim.

Zvonareva (l. to Radwanska):  Conquered by Radwanska in straight sets for the second consecutive week, Vera floundered helplessly on her serve this week but still should not have lost twice to an opponent like the Pole on a hard court.  When she won her first nine matches at Wimbledon, one wondered whether she had emerged from the rollercoaster of the last few months.  An error-strewn final in San Diego suggested otherwise, and an early loss in Canada continued her 2011 pattern of underachieving at significant events.  Having fallen in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense, her US Open finals defense looks equally precarious.  On the other hand, Zvonareva collided with an opponent enjoying one of the most successful stretches of her career, hardly an anonymous journeywoman like several of this week’s other ambush artists.  The top-three ranking also probably inflates her status and thus the magnitude of her defeats.

Maria Sharapova - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Sharapova (l. to Voskoboeva):  Just 2-2 in the US Open Series, the Russian appears to have witnessed the climax of her spring surge at the Wimbledon final.  In her four hard-court matches this summer, Sharapova soared through a few brilliant passages but recurrently sank into mediocre and sometimes abysmal stretches.  Often subdued in manner at the Rogers Cup, she may still have felt the sting of her sixth straight loss to Serena.  Moreover, her motivation may have ebbed following her outstanding European campaign.  During her comeback, Sharapova has relied more than ever upon determination and willpower to propel her through matches.  Without those traits, her diminished serve and low margin for error leave her vulnerable to anyone on a day when she lacks her competitive will.  The three-time major champion has suffered much more discouraging reverses over the past few years, however, and has sprung back eventually from each of them with redoubled vigor.  For the post-surgery Sharapova, streakiness has become a way of life, leading to both equally stunning heights and depths.

Nadal (l. to Dodig):  Not since 2008 had the Spaniard fallen in his opening match at a Slam or Masters 1000 tournament, although Isner had startled him in the first round of Roland Garros.  While Ivan Dodig delivered the performance of a lifetime, Nadal routinely has survived the mightiest thunderbolts that ordinary adversaries can hurl at him.  Dominant through a set and a half, the second seed let an opponents escape a one-set deficit for the fourth time this season, causing one to wonder whether his five losses to Djokovic have drained his morale more generally.  But beware of extrapolating too much from a single setback.  After Nadal last lost an opener at a Masters 1000 tournament, he rebounded to win not only the next Masters event but the next two majors, a run culminating with the unforgettable Wimbledon 2008 final.  Inadequate preparation stemming from a nagging foot injury also may have undermined him when the match drifted deep into the Montreal night.

Li (l. to Stosur):  Following her surprise appearance in the Australian Open final, she failed to win a match until the clay season.  Following her even more surprising run to the Roland Garros title, a parallel hangover has ensued that has exacerbated the inconsistency inherent throughout Li’s career.  Although Stosur eventually reached the final, the sixth seed should have found a way to win more than six games in a match when she played “like a junior,” by her own admission.  All the same, one can easily forgive her this lapse when one considers the degree to which her life has changed off the court since that Sunday in Paris.  Projected to become the second-highest-earning woman in sports, Li may not adjust to her new celebrity status for months to come.  If the season ended today, she still would be the WTA player of the year, followed closely by the next name on this list.

Kvitova (l. to Petkovic):  Much like Li, the sudden surge in her renown likely will distract her in the coming tournaments.  First among her peers to claim a major title, Kvitova came down to earth with a thud as she collected just three games from Petkovic, whom she had defeated comfortably in the Brisbane final.  The defeat exposed her lack of versatility or alternatives when her formidable weapons misfire, but one could say the same about most of her offense-oriented peers.  If Kvitova accomplishes nothing the rest of the year, she still has accomplished more than almost all of her rivals, and the recognition of that fact may understandably sap her motivation.

Federer (l. to Tsonga):  For the second time in two tournaments, the GOAT looked listless, tentative, and often disinterested against Tsonga’s assertive physicality.  One might have expected him to vigorously seek revenge for his unprecedented Wimbledon defeat after holding a two-set lead.  Instead, Federer wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of a first set that he ultimately lost, and he oddly vanished after rallying to force a third set, when the momentum lay in his favor.  But only one position in the rankings matters to Federer in his fourth decade, and only four tournaments on the calendar. Three years ago, he lost his opening match at the Rogers Cup to the then-unfamiliar Gilles Simon, an opponent much less accomplished than Tsonga.  A month afterwards, he held the US Open trophy.

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We return shortly with the previews of the Cincinnati tournament, the last major event before the last major of 2011.

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Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Fish:  Halfway through this historic season, the world #1 aims to break another record and become the first player to win five Masters 1000 titles in one year.  In each of his previous four title runs, Djokovic contested at least one compelling three-setter against opponents such as Nadal, Federer, and Ferrer.  By contrast, this week has witnessed the emergence of no serious challengers for the Serb after the first set of his first match.  Recovering from a deep deficit to win that set, Djokovic has lost his serve only once thenceforth and has displayed little tension in his three successive straight-sets victories.  The raised eyebrows and bemused shrugs of Monfils and Tsonga, two spectacularly gifted Frenchmen, demonstrated not only the degree to which the Serb has risen above the competition but also the degree to which he intimidates even high-quality foes.  Having won all six of his meetings with his opponent in the final, the tournament seems headed towards an anticlimactic conclusion.

Or will it?  For his part, Fish has reached three consecutive finals for the first time in his career and will contest his fourth Masters 1000 final.  On these relatively fast hard courts, Fish has executed his serve-reliant style to excellent effect and more often than not has attacked the net at judicious moments.  (In an upset-riddled draw, however, Fish has defeated no opponent more imposing than Wawrinka, far from a hard-court threat.)  During the Indian Wells final three years ago, moreover, the top-ranked American rebounded from a lopsided first set to alarm the Serb’s fans by extending him to a final set.  Likewise unruffled by facing Federer in last year’s Cincinnati final, he came within a tiebreak of what then would have seemed a stunning upset before suffering another gallant defeat.  Nevertheless, in a sport where outcomes still matter most, the key word remains “defeat.”  A dismal 6-13 in championship matches, Fish rarely has summoned his finest tennis on Sundays but instead has contributed to his conqueror’s cause with untimely unforced errors or unwise shot selection.  Most tellingly, Fish’s most impressive tournament in 2011 halted with a lopsided loss at the hands of the Serb.  Having defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinal, the American clawed just four games away from Djokovic despite earning multiple opportunities to play an active role in their encounter.

In order to inflict the second loss of Djokovic’s season, therefore, Fish probably must hope for a fallible performance from the top seed.  Victorious in all eight of his finals this year, the Serb faces an opponent outside the top five for just the second time on a championship Sunday.  He has dropped just one of his last 63 matches to opponents in that category, a tribute to a versatile game that lacks any element upon which an adversary can prey.  When battling Federer, opponents know to attack his backhand; when dueling with Nadal, they can expect vulnerability on his serve.  Somewhere between solid and stunning in every department, meanwhile, Djokovic can combat Fish’s outstanding serve with one of the ATP’s finest returns, the product of agile footwork and reflexes.  Also essential in this final for the Serb is his movement and his passing shots, for the American will stand little chance in a contest of protracted exchanges from behind the baseline.   As Tsonga learned in the semifinals, however, only commanding approach shots can prevent Djokovic from finding an angle to force a difficult volley attempt.  All the same, Fish can rely on the underdog’s nervelessness and remind himself that he has nothing to lose, perhaps allowing him to swing more freely.  If he can stay within range in the early stages, the Serb might feel pressure from the unfamiliar situation of playing a close match.  Should Djokovic gain an early lead, conversely, he almost certainly will not allow the American a second life, as he did in their Indian Wells final.  An increasingly inexorable front-runner when he holds the advantage, the Serb still has not suffered a dip in motivation as he seeks to continue his march into history.

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Serena vs. Stosur:  Terminating the nine-match winning streak of the San Diego champion in the semifinals, the suddenly resurgent Stosur attempts to terminate the ten-match winning streak of the Stanford champion in the final.  Their past encounters offer the Aussie reason for hope, especially a Roland Garros quarterfinal last year.  Despite the magnitude of both the stage and the opponent, Stosur summoned the courage to outplay Serena on crucial points deep in the third set, normally when the 13-time Slam champion becomes most dangerous.   Also inspiring hope in her supporters is a three-set victory during the 2009 US Open Series at Stanford, which marked her first breakthrough against an opponent from whom she previously had won sets.  Since losing the opening set of her tournament to Morita, Stosur has lost her serve only three times in the eleven sets thereafter, subjecting her opponents to immense pressure on their own service games.

Better equipped than any other potential opponent to handle that pressure, however, is the most formidable server in the WTA.  Against the outstanding return game of Azarenka, Serena faced only two total break points and rarely trailed in a service game.  Just when the fourth seed seemed on the verge of asserting herself early in the second set, Serena cruised through a service game in which she hit only one groundstroke (a routine forehand into the open court) together with two aces and a service winner.  Typically associated only with the ATP, that sort of overwhelming serving has worn down opponents mentally as much as physically.  One could observe even the highly accomplished Belarussian grow progressively more discouraged until she finally capitulated.  Not much less impressive, Serena’s second-serve return has unleashed a cascade of flagrant winners throughout this tournament, so Stosur either must aim for a high first-serve percentage or add ample kick to her second serve.  Considering the American’s modest stature, that kick serve could prove one of the keys to the final if it consistently veers above her favored strike zone.  Yet in few other areas does the Aussie have weapons that can trouble Serena.  More balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Serena should find ways to target her opponent’s backhand and perhaps stretch her wide to the forehand in order to expose the backhand corner.  In the semifinal, though, she curiously directed the majority of her groundstrokes towards her opponent’s stronger wing—the backhand—and still managed to prevail while matching strength with strength.

Although both players prefer the staccato, first-strike tennis that showcases their imposing power, Serena probably has a slight edge in movement and defense.  As she smothered Azarenka, spectators could notice that she often forced the Belarussian to hit an additional shot or two when the rally’s conclusion seemed foregone.  Whereas the fourth seed could not always finish those points, the 13-time Slam champion almost invariably finished when she had the opportunity.  That type of focused, precise play should allow Serena to exploit the occasional crack in Stosur’s serve when it does arise and edge past an opponent who, like Fish, rarely finds her highest level in finals.  Juxtaposed with the American’s sparkling 38-14 record in championship tilts is a statistic that illustrates her opponent’s contrasting fecklessness on those occasions.  A finalist ten times but a titlist just twice, Stosur has not acquired the mixture of scorching intensity and steel focus that champions like Serena personify.

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We return shortly with Cincinnati previews and a review of the most memorable upsets in Canada.

Samantha Stosur - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Stosur vs. Radwanska:  Seeking her tenth straight victory, the deceptively unprepossessing Pole already has defeated consecutive top-10 opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  A champion in San Diego, Radwanska surprisingly won her only hard-court meeting Stosur, whose far superior serve should allow her to assert early control over their exchanges.  In her four wins so far this week, the slumping Australian conquered a series of versatile opponents from the counterpunching of Morita to the shot-making of Li Na to the craftiness of Vinci.  After she rallied from a one-set deficit in her opener, Stosur has not lost her serve in her last seven sets this week while saving 11 break points.  One senses that the loss of her lofty status may have allowed her to relax and focus on fundamentals by removing the spotlight that appeared to unhinge her over the past year.

Against an opponent who has registered 33 consecutive holds, Radwanska will shoulder the weighty burden of protecting a delivery that rarely reaches triple digits in speed and has decelerated further following a shoulder injury last week.  Facing 18 break points in two sets against Zvonareva, the Pole relied on her return game in a 13-break encounter.  The prospect of matching Stosur hold for hold seems a daunting task indeed under those circumstances, although the balance of power will tip in her favor should she survive the Australian’s potent first strike.  In neutral rallies, she can vary her shot selection, target her opponent’s erratic two-handed backhand, and expose her clumsy footwork.  Despite striking few winners, she has developed a knack for placing her shots in unexpectedly awkward locations.  With many more arrows in her quiver, Radwanska will hope that her all-court prowess can disrupt Stosur’s programmatic point construction and unsettle her mind.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Between two Australian Opens in 2009 and 2010, these ferocious combatants engaged in four noteworthy battles.  In Act I, Azarenka kept the greatest player of her generation pinned behind the baseline for a set before the heat caused her retirement.  Trading lopsided victories in Acts II and III, the brazen Belarussian devoured an injured Serena at Miami and then succumbed to an overpowering assault by the four-time Wimbledon champion at the All England Club.  Most intriguing of all, though, was Act IV at the following year’s Australian Open, when Azarenka thrust the former #1 to the brink of the precipice—a situation in which she often has thrived.  Once again, Serena roared back from 4-6, 0-4, deuce to claim the critical second-set tiebreak and sweep through a commanding third set.  This Rogers Cup semifinal, the third of Azarenka’s career, represents the sequel to that memorable rollercoaster of court-stretching rallies and furiously flourished fists.

Conceding just six games in six sets this week, the fourth seed has become the only member of the WTA top 10 to reach the semifinals.  Gifted with an especially accommodating draw, Vika has encountered less intense opposition than Serena, forced to rally from one-set deficits on consecutive nights against Zheng and Safarova.  Not quite the invincible force of nature that she seemed at Stanford, the 13-time Slam champion has endured a few more precarious service games in Toronto as well as more frequent stretches of errors caused by lingering rust.  Two weeks ago, she perceptibly sharpened her focus when elite competition barred her path, however, pinpointing the lines with greater precision and arranging her feet more meticulously.  Just a month removed from her first Wimbledon semifinal, Azarenka has enjoyed the most impressive season of her career thus far, so Serena cannot escape a tentative, diffident, or uneven performance.  The American has shown her trademark appetite for competition, augmented by her enforced absence, but one wonders whether her prolonged encounters from the past two days will have exacted a physical toll.

Mardy Fish Mardy Fish celebrates match point against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 11, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Fish vs. Tipsarevic:  Overshadowed by the evening semifinal, this battle of contrasting personalities will supply a first-time finalist for the Rogers Cup.  Yet Fish has reached three finals at Masters 1000 tournaments in North America before, whereas Tipsarevic contests the first Masters 1000 semifinal of his career.  Lately, the Serb has gained almost as much notoriety for his off-court adulation of his countryman Djokovic as for his on-court achievements, although he has reached finals at the minor events in Delray Beach and Eastbourne.  Earning his third consecutive victory over Berdych, Tipsarevic burnished his reputation as a perpetual thorn in the side of more notable foes.  In consecutive three-set victories over Gulbis and Wawrinka, Fish displayed occasional frailty on serve before escalating his intensity towards the conclusion of those matches.  Broken five times in the first two sets by the Swiss #2, he will want to find the rhythm on his serve sooner against an opponent more alert to punish a mediocre performance.

On the other hand, the top-ranked American navigated a route to victory despite the unreliability of his mightiest weapon, suggesting his ability to seek alternate options and improvise during a match.  Following an Atlanta title and a Los Angeles final, a final at this much more prestigious tournament would heighten Fish’s self-belief before his home major.  Still deferential towards Roddick’s greater accomplishments, this unassuming competitor will attempt to defuse the flamboyant, bespectacled eccentric who rarely has lacked in confidence.  Will substance conquer style, or can Tipsarevic translate his swagger into an intimidating display of courage that unsettles the understated favorite?

Djokovic vs. Tsonga:  In the absence of his two principal rivals, the world #1 gazes down from the mountaintop upon the penultimate obstacle to a fifth consecutive Masters 1000 crown.  For the second straight tournament, Djokovic faces the dangerous Tsonga two days after the Frenchman ambushed Federer.  Carrying that momentum into a dominant performance against Almagro, the Wimbledon semifinalist never lost his serve  during the quarterfinal and suffered none of the concentration lapses that have undermined his consistency.  Best known for his serve, forehand, and net acrobatics, Tsonga has struck his backhand with authority this week.  That shot’s steadiness will prove crucial when he confronts the finest backhand in the ATP, for Djokovic surely will hammer his own two-hander cross-court into the Frenchman’s weaker wing.  Curiously, Tsonga has won four of their five previous meetings at non-majors, but those triumphs sprang in part from the Serb’s meandering malaise of late 2008-early 2010.  Depleted in confidence and uncertain on serve during that stage, Djokovic struggled to match the Frenchman hold for hold—no longer a disadvantage for him in their rivalry.

After a wobbly start to the second half, the new #1 has elevated his level with each successive performance as a talented trio of adversaries (Davydenko, Cilic, Monfils) threatened him initially before wilting under the relentlessness of his baseline barrage.  Towards the end of his quarterfinal, Djokovic turned the world #7 into a quasi-hitting partner much in the manner that Federer embarrassed his most prominent rivals at his zenith.  Tsonga’s superior serve and greater commitment to aggression should result in a more competitive encounter, however, similar to their four-set Wimbledon semifinal.  On that occasion, the Frenchman nearly snatched the first set before an untimely brain cramp.  Against an opponent as physically and mentally impenetrable as Djokovic, any such stumble would prove fatal.  Nobody other than Nadal or Federer has won so much as a set from the Serb at a hard-court Masters 1000 tournament this year.


 

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Jie Zheng of China on Day 4 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 11, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Far from Canada’s frozen north, Toronto and Montreal still have proven inhospitable habitats for elite contenders in both Rogers Cups.  Defending champions Murray and Wozniacki?  The three WTA Slam champions this year?  The two most dominant ATP players of the past decade?  Together with defending US Open finalist Zvonareva and former #1s Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, all have departed to more humid surroundings in Cincinnati.  Scraping through the rubble after the avalanche of upsets are a host of talented, often under-appreciated figures—in addition to a reigning #1 and a thirteen-time Slam champion with carnivorous streaks.

Vinci vs. Stosur:  Glancing down the WTA rankings, few would suspect that the world #22 has won more tournaments than eight members of the current top 10.  But Vinci has enjoyed a modest counterpart to the late-career surge of her compatriot Schiavone, capturing three titles in 2011 and baffling more notable opponents with her deceptively penetrating backhand slice.  Among the baffled this week were two former #1s, Wozniacki and Ivanovic, who struggled to find a rhythm against the Italian’s unpredictable mixture of slices, chops, and spins.  Although this quarterfinal seems a serving mismatch on paper, Vinci protected her underpowered delivery with considerable success against the excellent return games of the Dane and the Serb.  Facing only one break point in her second 2011 victory over Li Na, meanwhile, Stosur has responded to the loss of her top-10 status with one of her most encouraging performances this year.  Nevertheless, she now must shoulder the burden of the favorite in a half stripped of the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion, the defending US Open finalist, and the reigning world #1.  Often fragile under pressure, Stosur may require time to adjust to a distinctive game that she never before has faced and that may threaten her composure unless she can assert her dominance in the early stages.

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Less than a week ago in San Diego, they met in a semifinal defined mostly by Petkovic’s nausea-induced sprint from the court.  Drained of energy by that experience, the top 10’s newest inhabitant mustered scant resistance thenceforth against a foe who has won all three of their encounters and excels at eroding the physically or mentally vulnerable and.  Radwanska repeated her Sunday victory over Zvonareva on Thursday, suggesting that her first title in over three years has boosted her confidence.  Regularly impressive during the US Open Series, the San Diego champion often has thrived on faster surfaces that add an ounce of extra sting to her serve.  Halting Kvitova in the previous round, Petkovic benefited considerably from the Wimbledon champion’s errant groundstrokes but deserves credit for staying crisp and focused rather than allowing her opponent’s waywardness to infect her.  At the core of this quarterfinal are Radwanska’s serve and Petkovic’s return, which could savage the Pole’s second delivery if she fails to maintain a high first-serve percentage.  Able to maneuver through rallies reasonably well when healthy, the German must resist the temptation to pull the trigger too aggressively too early in the point.  At the same time, she will want to keep Radwanska stretched along the baseline, preventing her from constructing her clever combinations at leisure.

Voskoboeva vs. Azarenka:  If one of the other quarterfinalists wins this tournament, they will have needed to collect only five or six victories.  Voskoboeva already has won five matches here, having progressed through qualifying, and has defeated two top-10 opponents in Bartoli and Sharapova.  Sometimes flustered by unknown challengers before, Azarenka suffered such a fate when she lost to Erakovic in her Stanford opener.  Far more impressive are her first two performances in this tournament, when she conceded three total games in four sets against home hope Dubois and former nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Despite Voskoboeva’s stunning run to this stage, fatigue may hamper her as she confronts a player more consistent than those whom she previously has ambushed.  The Kazakh has spent nine hours on court this week compared to just two for the Belarussian, who seeks her third semifinal at one of the Canadian tournaments.

Safarova vs. Serena:  A rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal, this meeting would seem to offer little drama.  Riding an eight-match winning streak into a clash with an opponent who never has defeated her, Serena has wasted little time in establishing herself as the leading contender for the US Open.  Since Wimbledon, she has conquered not only veterans like Sharapova and Bartoli but some of the WTA’s more promising younger stars, such as Lisicki and Goerges.  The root of Serena’s success remains a serve that has distanced itself ever further from the competition, resulting in a streak of 24 consecutive holds between Stanford and Canada.  After a series of emphatic victories, though, the former #1 faced ten break points and lost serve twice in a tense three-setter against Zheng Jie, a valiant competitor but a fading force in singles.  One wonders whether that scratchy performance signaled an ebb in Serena’s momentum or a dip in her motivation.  On the other hand, she survived a similarly unimpressive performance against Kirilenko in the same round at Stanford before roaring to life when the title neared and the opponents grew more worthy of her attention.  Having overcome Schiavone in two routine sets late on Thursday, Safarova may have gained a burst of self-belief that she can use to challenge an opponent who has not faced a lefty in over a year.  Should Serena find her trademark determination, though, the flaky Czech probably will show little appetite for battle.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Aiming to move 50 wins over .500 just 52 matches into the season, the top seed and only surviving member of the Top Four must fancy his chances of a fifth Masters 1000 crown.  Undefeated in six previous meetings with Monfils, the Serb has won ten of their last eleven sets, including emphatic victories at the US Open and Davis Cup final last year.  This authoritative head-to-head underscores the gap separating the Frenchman from the players above his inflated ranking of #7.  Lucky to survive a third-set tiebreak against Troicki on Thursday, Monfils lost the Washington final to Stepaek and has not shed his reputation of an unreliable competitor whose mind wanders from one point to the next.  Once smeared with a similar reputation, Djokovic can attribute much of his spectacular season to his elevated commitment and maturity, a lesson that his ultra-talented opponent could learn.  Nevertheless, the world #1 struggled in his opener against Davydenko and should have felt fortunate to evade a three-setter when he trailed by two breaks and later faced set point.  Although his serving improved during a Thursday victory over Cilic, the first set remained tighter than one might have expected.  On both occasions, Djokovic merely accelerated to steamroll his opponents once he earned the one-set lead, and Monfils should anticipate no more mercy if he relinquishes the initiative.

Tsonga vs. Almagro:  For the second time in four matches and for the second time in Montreal, the acrobatic Frenchman conquered Federer.  After those two earlier victories, Tsonga slumped to defeat a round later, so he must beware of another hangover against an opponent who arrived in the top 10 this year for the first time.  Less visibly talented than Tsonga, Almagro has enhanced his fitness this season and owns one of the ATP’s most elegant one-handed backhands, which he deployed to overcome fellow backhand artist and 2011 breakthrough story Gasquet.  The Spaniard and the Frenchman have tangled four times since the start of 2010, including a spectacular five-setter at the Australian Open last year that showcased not only shot-making skills but sportsmanship on both sides.  Especially ominous for the world #10, three of those matches came on the clay where he possesses much greater aptitude than does Tsonga.  His more elongated strokes require more precise timing than the compact, bludgeoned whacks of his opponent, who relies less upon placement than upon raw power.  Since the minds of both combatants can drift, though, a plot twist or two should enliven this narrative of stunning winners and stunning errors.

Fish vs. Wawrinka:  Unlike Federer, the top-ranked American avenged a recent defeat on Thursday when he reversed the Los Angeles final result against Gulbis.  Having withdrawn from Washington to rest his ankle, Fish found his caution rewarded with his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season.  Expected to face Murray at the stage, he instead eyes an opponent whom he has not faced in four years and who should pose a much less formidable threat.  After consecutive Slam quarterfinals at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Wawrinka has watched his results taper and his ranking rise stall.  Best suited to clay, his sturdy game rarely breaks down for extended stretches but conceals little of brilliance.  Much the opposite, Fish remains prone to inconsistency in his groundstrokes but remains an explosive server with sparkling touch around the net.  Considering that skill, one wonder why he does not approach the forecourt more frequently.  If Wawrinka lures him into baseline rallies, he could neutralize his disadvantage in first-strike power.  The American instead must hope to set the tone with his much brisker pace of play on serve while swinging freely on returns.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  A beneficiary of Dodig’s monumental upset, Berdych has become the arguable favorite to reach the final from this half.  Last year, the Czech served for the match against Federer and has found the fast-but-not-too-fast hard courts a suitable venue for exploiting his serve while protecting his questionable movement and groundstroke asymmetry.  Contrary to expectations, Berdych has lost both of his previous meetings with Tipsarevic, who nearly choked away a match against Verdasco for the second time this year but managed to survive 12 double faults.  The Serb often raises his level to meet the competition, delivering his finest tennis when battling opponents like Federer and Roddick.  Against the Czech, Tipsarevic has compensated for his deficiency in power with relentless focus, a weapon against an opponent as mentally flaky as girlfriend Safarova.  His stellar 2010 spring and summer nearly forgotten, Berdych has reached a position where he must prove himself again to the ATP elite.  Another defeat to Tipsarevic would heighten impressions of him as a dangerous floater capable of wins or losses against anyone, while a first victory would fan hope that last year represented no anomaly.

For the first time, the Rogers Cup events will occur concurrently rather than consecutively.  Unlike the other concurrent ATP / WTA events, however, this veritable smorgasbord of tennis will unfold in two cities five hundred kilometers apart.  This dubious decision may benefit television audiences but hinders those who enjoy attending the two Rogers Cups in consecutive week.  While concurrent events generally succeed when held at the same venue, the same-time-but-not-same-place concept strikes us as exceedingly foolish.  Just like the fans in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, and other tennis capitals, the fans in Canada should not have to choose between the two outstanding draws that we discuss below.

Andy Murray Andy Murray of Great Britain poses for photographers after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland during the final of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 15, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

First quarter:  Often troubled by Davydenko before, Djokovic likely will contest his 50th match of 2011 against the quirky Russian who has declined so steeply since wrist surgery last year.  When Kolya now appears in headlines, he generally has functioned as the foil for the breakthrough of a youngster or home hope.  Far more formidable is the challenge posed a round later by Del Potro, despite his disappointing loss to Gulbis in Los Angeles.  Winning a set from the Serb at Roland Garros this year, the Tower of Tandil never has toppled the world #1 but might approach their match with greater motivation.  A contrast to his repeated successes against Nadal and Federer, Del Potro’s futility against Djokovic suggests that he must leave his comfort zone to conquer him.  Barring such an extraordinary performance, the top seed would encounter a much more comfortable quarterfinal against his compatriot Troicki or perhaps Monfils, distinctly inferior in competitive will.  After his conquest of the All England Club and rise to #1, one wonders how much motivation Djokovic will bring to his quest for a fifth Masters 1000 crown of 2011.  Still, he has not lost before the semifinals since the Paris Indoors last year and should have refreshed his energies during the midsummer break.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  In this section proliferate the ATP’s most notable one-handed backhands, from Federer and Gasquet to Kohlschreiber and Almagro.  Just a month after falling to Tsonga at Wimbledon, the third seed may have the opportunity to exact revenge from the Frenchman in the stadium where he lost a third-set tiebreak to him two years ago after holding a 5-1 lead.  Seeking to intercept that tantalizing collision, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Tomic hopes to rival Ryan Harrison’s summer surge rather than suffering the post-Wimbledon slump of Grigor Dimitrov.  The quarter’s other side features a first-round encounter between look-alikes Stakhovsky and Kohlschreiber but no real contenders.  Like the winner of the Djokovic-Del Potro clash, the winner of a potential Federer-Tsonga meeting would fancy his chances against either of the bold-faced names here.  Fusing grace with power in their one-handed backhands, Gasquet and Almagro should offer an exuberant shot-making display in the third round.  Both players climbed unexpectedly into the top 10 or its immediate environs this season, as the Frenchman recorded second-week runs at two majors and a Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome.  Unlikely to repeat that feat here, he did defeat Federer during the aforementioned Rome run and has a winning record against Tsonga.  Comment se dit “dark horse” en français?

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Eclipsed this year by the other members in the Gang of Four, the two-time defending champion defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days at last year’s Toronto event.  Also conquering Del Potro in the 2009 final, Murray typically has showcased his finest tennis on North American hard courts and finds himself in the weakest section of the draw, allowing him to preserve energy for the weekend climax.  Littering his section is the detritus of yesteryear like Ferrero and Nalbandian or clay specialists like Montanes and Andujar.  In the third round, Murray might encounter Federer’s understudy Wawrinka, who defeated him at last year’s US Open en route to consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Since the Australian Open, the Swiss #2 has shown little confidence and less consistency against not just the elite but the ATP journeymen.  A more compelling test might come in the quarterfinals, where Murray might encounter either the Los Angeles titlist Gulbis or Los Angeles runner-up Fish.  Wisely withdrawing from Washington to rest his ankle, the American will rely on his experience to conquer his recent nemesis.  Spurred by consecutive finals appearance in the first two US Open Series events, Fish also can recall his Cincinnati victory over Murray last year should he face him in a quarterfinal.  If Judy Murray has her hopes answered, though, Feliciano Lopez will carve his way through this flaccid section to set up a second consecutive quarterfinal with her son.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Fourth quarter:  Lost in the scrutiny of his struggles against Djokovic were Nadal’s achievements between Indian Wells and Wimbledon.  Falling just a win short of his third Channel Slam, the new #2 has lost only once since the Australian Open to an opponent other than Djokovic, while recording seven victories over other top-5 opponents.  Aligned to meet Nadal in the third round is his compatriot Verdasco, who challenged him so memorably at the 2009 Australian Open but never has defeated him.  If the seventh-seeded Berdych can escape a Dolgopolov fresh from his debut title, he would attempt to halt a prolonged drought against Rafa during which he once lost 19 consecutive sets.  Solid but unremarkable this season, the Czech has evinced few flickers of the form that carried him to the Wimbledon final last summer, and he has not won a title at any level since 2009.  Towering over his surroundings is the perpetually dangerous Karlovic, who came within two points of defeating Nadal on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But perhaps the most vigorous test for the second seed might come from Gilles Simon, an indefatigable competitor with earlier success against Rafa and a crowd favorite in this Francophone city before.  Only if his lingering foot injury hampers the Spaniard’s explosive athleticism, however, will he become vulnerable for a pre-semifinal upset.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final: Djokovic vs. Murray

Champion:  Djokovic

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses for photographers after defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the final of the  Rogers Cup at Stade Uniprix on August 23, 2010 in Montreal, Canada.

First quarter:  Following an indifferent European spring, Wozniacki will need to right her Viking vessel immediately in order to survive a section that includes two of the three players who have defeated her at majors in 2011 .  As early as the third round, the defending champion could face San Diego semifinalist Ivanovic, who tested her in Beijing last fall and dragged world #3 Zvonareva through three tense sets on Saturday.  The survivor from this battle of current and former #1s next might duel with Roland Garros champion Li Na, although Li has proved erratic in the past following her greatest accomplishments and will not fancy the prospect of facing Peng Shuai in the second round.  Defeating her compatriot earlier in 2011, Peng has compiled a consistent season during which she has regularly challenged elite opponents.  One can say the same of Cibulkova, who has defeated Wozniacki twice this year and notched a victory over Ivanovic in Fed Cup (albeit on clay).  The new prototype for players who aim to transcend their diminutive stature, the Slovak excels at covering all but the fastest courts and generates deceptive pace from her forehand.  A less imposing rival for Wozniacki in this section, Stosur seems likely to fall well outside the top 10 by the end of the US Open if the level of her performances continues its inverse correlation with the magnitude of events.  Yet she too has troubled the Dane before, so the world #1 certainly will have earned her semifinal berth if she does arrive there.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Having fallen to Radwanska in the San Diego final on Sunday, Zvonareva could meet the cunning Pole again on Thursday.  Wedged into her section also is inaugural College Park champion Petrova, far from a title threat at significant tournaments but as much of a potential dark horse as her first-round opponent Gajdosova.  An encore of the Brisbane final could unfold in this section should seeds Petkovic and Kvitova progress to the third round, yet one suspects that the Czech lefty’s first tournament since winning Wimbledon may not inspire her competitive energies.  A competitor as volatile and erratic as Li, Kvitova likely will suffer a lapse in form until at least the US Open. Reaching the semifinals in San Diego to secure her top-10 debut, Petkovic remains too raw and plays with too little margin for error to topple Zvonareva’s consistent, versatile baseline arsenal.  The Russian’s consecutive finals should infuse her with confidence, as should her memories of a run to the Canada final last year.    Courageously overcoming a shoulder injury to win San Diego, Radwanska probably cannot sustain her artistry for a second straight week.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter:  Lurking here is Roland Garros semifinalist and Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova, who must lose little time in rebounding from a dismal loss to Serena at Stanford.  An intriguing potential opener with rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski could precede a clash with Stanford finalist Bartoli, back in the top 10 after winning nine matches at the last two majors.  Often at her finest on the North American hard courts, the double-fister has struggled to protect her serve against Sharapova’s scorching return and, in her father’s opinion, lacks the belief that she can threaten her.  If Bartoli can find that belief, though, her own penetrating returns could test the Russian’s confidence in her serve following a four-match stretch in which it has chronically disappeared.  Disappearing as well in the opening match of her Stanford title defense, Azarenka should halt her losing streak at two in a comfortable section of the draw.  Barring her path to the quarterfinal is Pavlyuchenkova, who twice has won sets from her this year but, like Sharapova, has suffered severe albeit sporadic serving disruptions.  The WTA’s top-ranked teenager donated more than 50 double faults during three matches at her last tournament (Baku) while failing to build upon the momentum of her Roland Garros quarterfinal.  Stopped by Sharapova at Stanford and Radwanska in San Diego, Hantuchova won a set from Azarenka at Wimbledon and could take advantage of any lapse.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter:  No fewer than four Slam champions reside in this elite district, of which the lowest ranked may prove the most dangerous.  Fierce and focused as she charged to the Stanford title, Serena may bring slightly less motivation now that she has dispelled her post-Wimbledon uncertainties.  Nevertheless, one’s imagination falters at the thought of a dormant and dispirited Jankovic finding a way to overcome even a tepid Serena, despite their history of thrilling encounters.  Having played only one tournament since Miami, Clijsters pursues a similar mission to Serena’s objective during the US Open Series:  accumulating sufficient matches to mount a credible charge at a major that suits their strengths.  These US Open champions would collide on Thursday as Djokovic and Del Potro do battle in Montreal, forcing television viewers to hold onto their remotes and internet viewers like us to use multiple streaming windows.  In the first meeting since their famous “foot fault” clash of 2009, one expects a scintillating encounter between two competitors who will want to deliver a key pre-Open statement.  Unlikely to leave an impact upon the summer hard courts are the two bold-faced names higher in the quarter.  Just six months removed from their 4-hour, 44-minute Australian Open epic, Schiavone and Kuznetsova will hope for a swifter decision on this occasion.  Balancing their hard-court resumes against those of Serena and Clijsters, one nourishes little optimism for their chances in a quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Final:  Zvonareva vs. S. Williams

Champion:  S. Williams

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

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Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

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After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.

Currently simmering at a plebeian #42, Gilles Simon seeks to rebound in 2011 from an injury-plagued season and reassert his status as a threat to the ATP elite.  In response to a request from one of our readers, we discuss the Frenchman’s principal achievements thus far, trace the symptoms of his recent struggles, and outline several reasons to watch his deceptively understated game.

While Simon first signaled his rise with a victory over reigning Australian Open champion Djokovic at the 2008 Marseille tournament, his crucial breakthrough emerged with his implausible upset of Federer at the Rogers Cup that summer.  Despite the immense disappointment of losing the immortal Wimbledon final that year, the world #1 began that match in scintillating style and almost effortlessly romped through the first four games.  The first set grew more competitive towards its close, yet this development initially seemed more the product of Federer’s boredom than Simon’s brilliance.  Surely anticipating that a routine straight-sets win awaited, the Swiss suddenly found himself in a gritty baseline battle as the Frenchman launched penetrating groundstrokes from both wings throughout the second set.  His relentless pressure eventually exacted a toll upon even this legendary opponent, who suffered a lapse in the twelfth game that Simon swiftly exploited with opportunistic backhands.  Now awakened to the peril confronting him, Federer predictably soared into an early lead in the final set, much as he had in the opener.  But Simon stubbornly refused to bow to the world #1’s apparent supremacy, extinguishing his chance to collect a (probably terminal) insurance break during a multiple-deuce game on his own serve.  Shaken by his challenger’s tenacity, Federer won only one more game afterwards, surrendering his serve at love to culminate an encounter that left most fans speechless as they exited the stadium.  On that humid evening in Toronto, Simon demonstrated not only his ball-striking fitness and groundstroke consistency but, more importantly, his bulletproof self-belief against the aristocracy of the ATP.  To his credit, he did not rest content with this headline-seizing result, charging within a few points of the final at this significant Masters 1000 event, where he would have faced Nadal.

Denied the opportunity to dethrone both of the top two at the Rogers Cup, Simon collided with new world #1 Nadal at his home Masters tournament in Madrid.  Once again, Gilles did not declare his ability to challenge the overwhelming favorite early in the match, dropping a rather routine first set.  Just as he did against Federer, though, the Frenchman elevated his intensity midway through the second set and caught his opponent off guard by combining tireless counterpunching with crackling, staccato jolts from an enhanced forehand.  When this semifinal edged deep into its fourth hour and ultimately a third-set tiebreak, one expected Nadal’s superior experience in such situations to overcome his bold but relatively untested adversary.  After 203 minutes of ruthlessly grinding tennis, however, Simon captured a fourteen-point tiebreak to reach his first Masters 1000 final.  Predictably weary at that stage, he nonetheless dragged a scowling Murray into a second-set tiebreak before conceding the battlefield.  His appetite for competition not sated by this week, the indefatigable Frenchman slipped into the year-end championships; there, he nearly outlasted defending champion Djokovic in a three-set semifinal, the sort of steely struggle of wills that had come to define his most memorable matches.  In the round-robin stage, Simon rallied from a one-set deficit against Federer for the second time in 2008.  Asked to describe the encore of what he had called an “accident” in Toronto, the charmingly unassuming Gilles said “a second accident.”

Although 2009 began brightly for Simon, his season soon spiraled into disappointment and stagnation.  Reaching his first Slam quarterfinal in Melbourne, he engaged in a spirited battle against eventual champion Nadal that offered the audience far more entertainment than a standard straight-setter.  A similarly gallant loss awaited in a Dubai semifinal against Djokovic, which uncannily mirrored their tightly contested meeting at the year-end championships.  But then two critical losses in Davis Cup seemed to deflate Simon, who failed to repeat his comfortable victory over Stepanek at the year-end championships.  After losing the weekend’s decisive rubber to the fading Czech veteran, the Frenchman also sagged twice against the similarly decaying Ferrero, unlikely to have overcome him when at his 2008 best.  When we sat behind Simon at the Rogers Cup this time, we observed how swiftly his once-positive body language decayed into negativity during a tepid straight-sets loss to Tsonga.  Curtailing his 2009 campaign, a knee injury incurred at the Paris Indoors hampered him significantly during the first half of 2010.  Gilles appeared to have reached his nadir, however, when he won just seven games in three sets against Murray at Wimbledon.

After that defeat, he gradually rekindled his confidence with a victory over Roddick and a five-set comeback against the dangerous Kohlschreiber at the US Open.  Celebrating the birth of his first child soon afterwards, Simon won his first tournament as a father in Metz and then recorded characteristically hard-fought three-set victories over Nalbandian and Davydenko during the indoor hard courts where the Argentine and the Russian generally excel.  Surely invigorated by these positive omens, the Frenchman should approach 2011 with renewed vigor.  A steady grinder rather than a gaudy shot-maker, he relies upon a consistency that only will improve with a fuller schedule of events, now that his injury lies behind him.  Thus, Simon must strike a careful balance between playing too much (risking further injury) or playing too little (not often enough to find a rhythm).  As suggested above, moreover, the Frenchman often has proved a slow starter in matches and has needed to rally from one-set deficits more frequently than one might wish; greater efficiency, especially in early rounds, would improve his longevity while leaving him with deeper reserves of energy for crucial matches later in draws.

Probably more compelling in person than on television, Simon displays several admirable traits that reward a trip to an outer court if one has the opportunity to watch him.  At the core of his arsenal lies a brisk two-handed backhand, struck with precise timing and excellent disguise that often allows him to catch his opponents flat-footed.  Although Simon’s forehand remains less technically reliable, he has shown a similar talent for redirecting the ball on that wing, changing direction after a lengthy cross-court rally with a flat, stinging drive down the line.  The Frenchman derives his ball-redirecting skills largely from carefully honed footwork that rarely leaves him out of position.  Aiding him in that regard, his compact physique has undermined the evolution of his serve into a reliable weapon, but Gilles has devoted substantial effort to bolstering this relative weakness.  Often as valuable as raw physical talent, a conscientious work ethic has enabled Simon to maximize his potential and surpass contemporaries with superior innate athleticism.   Even when his game dips below its best, moreover, his trademark tenacity and courage still surface.  Late in an underwhelming 2009 campaign, Simon injured his knee during an opening-round clash with Ljubicic at the Paris Indoors.  Rather than retiring or limping to a justifiable defeat, he struggled against his seemingly inevitable fate and conquered it in a third-set tiebreak.  If Simon does return to the ranks of the ATP elite, that uncommon resilience will supply the foundation for his resurgence.

As the World Tour Finals recedes into the London fog, Simon and his compatriots travel to Belgrade, where Novak Djokovic and 18,000 equally inhospitable hosts await them.  We return shortly to preview the first Davis Cup final in Serbian history.

This second article of our US Open preview series discusses the challengers in the outer circle of contenders, players with legitimate aspirations to win the title but with less airtight cases than the favorites whom we outlined yesterday.  Selecting three members of the ATP and three members of the WTA, we explain why these less legendary players might find themselves with a bit of extra hardware to polish over the winter.

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1) Andy Roddick

Causes for confidence:  Recovering from a bout of mono that hampered much of his summer, Roddick dramatically exceeded expectations in Cincinnati.  After he vanquished fifth-ranked Soderling in a suspenseful third-set tiebreak, the top American extended his mastery over third-ranked Djokovic and nearly doused the flames of a scalding Mardy Fish.  The 2003 US Open champion always enjoys greater crowd support than any of his rivals in New York, creating an electric atmosphere that boosts his spirits in tight matches.  During his earlier hard-court campaigns this season, he scored triumphs over Soderling, Nadal, and Berdych at the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.  As illustrated in Cincinnati, Roddick responds better to heat and humidity than most of his future foes.

Causes for concern:  Visibly drained of energy late in his longer matches, the post-mono Roddick may not be ideally prepared for the best-of-five format at a major.  Once stellar in tight sets, Andy has dropped eight of his last eleven tiebreaks, and his prowess in closing out matches has wavered; he failed to serve out matches against Djokovic and Fish after squandering second-set match points against Soderling.  Moreover, there’s that little problem called Federer, who has defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and three Slam semifinals while compiling a 19-2 record against the American.

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2) Robin Soderling

Causes for confidence: A two-time Roland Garros finalist, Soderling came within a point of a fifth set against Federer in a US Open quarterfinal last year.  Despite his clay breakthroughs, the swift surface there should suit his percussive game better than any of the other majors.  The only player in the draw who has defeated both Federer and Nadal at majors, Soderling possesses more than sufficient swagger to assault the summit of the ATP.  His fearsome precision on both serve and groundstrokes should especially dazzle during a night session, when conditions are calmer. Traveling without coach Magnus Norman for the last several weeks, the Swede will be rejoined by his invaluable mentor before confronting the pressure of New York.

Causes for concern:  Ever an inflammable character, Soderling succumbed to his emotions too often during his summer campaign and displayed a disturbing negativity during a few of his recent losses.  Rebounding from TGUE (The Greatest Upset Ever) last spring, Nadal seems to have regained the momentum in that mini-rivalry with victories at the last two majors.  Lacking a Plan B, Soderling often struggles to maintain consistency throughout a tournament and may not be equipped to defeat a range of playing styles over the course of a fortnight; he has won surprisingly few titles considering his vast talents.

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3) Tomas Berdych

Causes for confidence: Rare is the player who takes up residence inside Federer’s cranium, but Berdych joined Nadal in that coveted piece of real estate after the Swiss admitted his anxiety when playing the Czech in Canada.  For the vast majority of that match, Tomas controlled as many baseline rallies as did Roger and kept his legendary opponent at bay with Del Potro-like groundstrokes.  After reaching the Roland Garros semifinals and the Wimbledon final, Berdych adapts well to the best-of-five format, which allows him to find his game, lose it, and find it again.  Yet fast hard courts remain his favorite surface, suggesting that he should improve upon dismal past performances at the US Open.  The Czech’s sturdier mentality will allow him to cope with his glamorous surroundings more capably than before.

Causes for concern: In response to an abysmal bit of scheduling by the Washington event, the old, churlish Berdych resurfaced to express his disgust with this minor tournament.  When he attempted to serve out his match against Federer, more importantly, the old Berdych resurfaced in a different way by donating egregious unforced errors as the pressure mounted upon him.  No such situation arose in Cincinnati, where the Czech suffered a routine loss to Baghdatis amidst discussion of a lingering injury.  Consequently, he brings little momentum to New York and will hope for a tranquil first week in which to regain it.

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

Causes for confidence:  Rebounding from a disastrous first half, the mercurial Russian relished her week in San Diego, where she battled to the title past Pennetta and Radwanska.  Armed with the confidence of that long-awaited victory, she tested Sharapova in Cincinnati before reaching the Montreal semifinal.  The 2004 US Open champion and 2007 finalist possesses a Clijsters-like athleticism that will be rewarded on the fast courts and a taste for showmanship that will be welcomed in New York.  Although Kuznetsova’s forehand comprises a more potent weapon than her backhand, she can hit winners from both wings and won’t easily be wrong-footed.  She also enters the tournament with a stronger health record than any of the other contenders, and durability should not be underestimated in the physically demanding context of a major.

Causes for concern:  Don’t be overly discouraged by her semifinal loss to Wozniacki in Canada, played under conditions that would have frustrated most competitors.  But that desultory defeat did remind audiences of her wayward focus, which has undermined on grand stages throughout her career.  Often more concerned with entertaining than winning, Kuznetsova sometimes derails herself with reckless, unintelligent shot-making.  And her game hasn’t returned for a substantial period, so her confidence may falter under pressure.  Furthermore, top contenders will punish her for the late-match nerves that she has displayed throughout this season.

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the most important title of her career so far, Wozniacki defeated a string of reasonably formidable opponents at the Rogers Cup and coped impressively with the rain-addled weekend.  The world #2 reached the final here last year by relentlessly exploiting the opportunities that arose and can be trusted to do so again.  More mature than her twenty years would suggest, she should respond calmly and coolly to the New York atmosphere.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki earned hard-court laurels at Indian Wells, where she reached her first Premier Mandatory final.  Recovered from the ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass seasons, she now covers the court as fluidly as ever and generally competes better than the WTA’s other rising stars.

Causes for concern:  Still susceptible to the occasional odd loss, the Pole-Dane folded meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati and struggled with the high temperatures there, an ominous portent for the Open.  Like Murray, she continues to lack an offensive weapon that would be rewarded on the fast courts (although, like Murray, she proved that counterpunchers can prosper in New York).  Dominating most of her peers, Wozniacki still struggles against most of the WTA veterans and never has defeated a former #1.  As the top seed, she will carry the proverbial “target on the back” into the draw and must cope with the additional burden of this position, not an easy task for a 20-year-old.

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3) Vera Zvonareva

Causes for confidence:  A surprise finalist at Wimbledon,  Zvonareva has scored two wins over Open favorite Clijsters this summer, which itself would suffice to feature her on this list.  Again a finalist in Canada, she dispatched her early opponents with an efficiency valuable in the seven-match fortnight at a Slam.  The meltdown potential that spelled her doom in New York a year ago has receded—although not disappeared—and allowed her to play a more focused, purposeful brand of tennis at key moments.  After struggling with ankle problems throughout her career, her balance looks much less awkward than previously and allows her to reverse direction more smoothly, an important asset on a fast court.  Far less familiar to mainstream fans and media than most contenders, she might coast into the second week with less of the exhausting scrutiny than her rivals will endure.

Causes for concern:  An unassuming personality, Vera clashes with the extroverted atmosphere surrounding the Open.  Just as with Kuznetsova, moreover, her breakthrough has been recent, so it’s difficult to discern whether she can extend success at one major better than she could extend her 2009 triumph at Indian Wells.  Often following impressive results with early exits, she lost early in San Diego and Cincinnati after reaching the Wimbledon final.  Vera often underperforms in finals and has accumulated a 10-14 record in championship matches (1-3 this year); she won eight total games in the Charleston and Montreal finals, suggesting that she might not be able to finish what she starts.

***

By contrast, we are fully able to finish what we start.  Tomorrow comes Part III of the US Open previews, focusing on dark horses who (probably) won’t win the title but might spoil the fortnights of a few higher seeds.  Here’s a glimpse of the loveliest mane in the list:

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Since the 2009 Australian Open, a jaunty upstart almost invariably has derailed a collision between Federer and Nadal just when the tennis world was bracing itself in anticipation.  In Cincinnati, the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis thwarted hopes of a rivalry renewed by scoring his second win of 2010 over a reigning ATP #1.  Can the flavor of the week replicate his Washington finals run, and what does his performance this summer portend for the US Open?  One of those questions is answered below, while the other question will be answered next week.

Baghdatis vs. Federer (3):  For the second consecutive week, a player attempts to knock off Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Ever a dangerous adversary despite his issues with fitness and motivation, Baghdatis preceded his first career win over Rafa with creditable victories over Cilic and Berdych.  Just weeks removed from his Australian Open title, Federer dropped a third-set tiebreak to the charismatic Cypriot after squandering match points in the second set.  That uncharacteristic defeat triggered an arid spring for the Swiss legend, but he appears to have emerged at least partly from that malaise with morale-boosting victories over Berdych, Djokovic, and Davydenko on the American hard courts.  A three-time champion in Cincinnati, Federer doesn’t wilt under the oppressive heat as do so many of his rivals; he’ll be much better rested for this semifinal than Baghdatis, having spent barely two hours on court this week.  If sets stay close late, the ghosts of Indian Wells could creep into his mind just as the phantoms of Miami hovered over him when his lead over Berdych evaporated in Toronto.  Although he probably won’t be motivated by personal revenge, Federer expects himself to defeat opponents like Baghdatis and can rely on far more free points from his serve than could Nadal.  Unless the Cypriot can force the GOAT into backhand-to-backhand exchanges at pivotal junctures, it’s hard to imagine that lightning will strike twice.  Beyond that vicious two-hander, there’s no area of his game in which he is equal (let alone superior) to the Swiss.  Pick:  Federer, 70-30.

Fish vs. Roddick (9): Like Sharapova here a week ago, Fish seeks to reach the final in four of his last six tournaments while duplicating his eye-opening victory over Roddick in the Atlanta semifinals.  Prior to that confrontation, however, the top-ranked American had thoroughly dominated their rivalry and had regularly prevailed in the tiebreaks and 7-5 sets in which these two outstanding servers so frequently find themselves.  Almost as successful in the heat as Federer, Roddick once again dismissed the physically and mentally fragile Djokovic in the quarterfinals; since the 2009 Australian Open, he has won nine consecutive sets from the Serb.  Perhaps more impressive was the conviction that Roddick displayed in his previous win over Soderling, when he shrugged off a series of wasted opportunities and preserved his focus despite manifold distractions.  On the other hand, Murray could remind the ninth seed that Fish rarely lets his adversaries off the hook (haha) when they waste opportunities against him.  Escaping a one-set deficit and a 2-4 deficit in the climactic tiebreak of his quarterfinal, Fish delivered his best tennis when it mattered most, a refreshing reversal of his normal trends.  Since the two Americans have lost their serve three times between them in this tournament (Fish once, Roddick twice), break points will be at a premium and a tiebreak or two almost inevitable.  Whereas Fish has won four of the five tiebreaks that he has contested here, Roddick has prevailed in just two of four, extending an uncharacteristic drought in these situations that began with his Wimbledon loss and continued through a tiebreak in his Atlanta loss to Fish.  We expect a high-quality encounter with a crackling atmosphere created by the local crowd.  While Fish will pin his hopes upon audacious shotmaking, Roddick will rely upon his consistency and high-percentage point construction to overcome a compatriot with far less experience at the sport’s highest level.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

In Montreal, the Stanford and San Diego champions remain in the quest for a second US Open Series title, but will they progress to Sunday’s final?

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Azarenka (10) vs. Zvonareva (8):  In this fascinating mini-rivalry between the Stanford champion and the Wimbledon finalist, don’t overestimate Zvonareva’s 4-2 lead.  After the Russian won the first nine sets that she played against the Belarussian, Vika has won the last four sets and both of their 2010 meetings.  At the Australian Open, Zvonareva led by a set and a break before a few wayward groundstrokes and double faults uncorked yet another of her signature meltdowns.  Sturdier this week than in her previous US Open Series appearances, the Wimbledon finalist will become the top-ranked Russian in next week’s rankings, while Azarenka hopes to rejoin the top 10 with a title run here.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against Clijsters for the second time this year, Vera profited from an ominous leg injury incurred by the Belgian.  Meanwhile, the Minx from Minsk has rolled past opponents such as Li and Bartoli without dropping a set, although she did save four set points during a second-set tiebreak against the Frenchwoman.  Azarenka has lost just three service games in four matches, a remarkable accomplishment for a player without an overwhelming serve.  Slightly more powerful and slightly less consistent than Zvonareva, the 21-year-old Belarussian favors her smooth two-handed backhand just as does the Russian, so expect cross-court rallies to develop in that direction more often than between their forehands.  Despite an early Cincinnati loss, Azarenka has proved herself a far sterner competitor than the Wimbledon finalist; she plays the important points more confidently and will be eager to establish herself among the leading contenders for the US Open.  Pick:  Azarenka, 70-30.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Reprising their scintillating fourth-round epic from last year’s US Open, the Russian and the Pole-Dane should perform a largely straightforward offense-defense pas de deux.  Armed with a forehand more potent than any of Wozniacki’s weapons, Kuznetsova should control most of the baseline rallies and will be more comfortable finishing points off at the net, where the second seed often looks helplessly marooned.  But the task of blunting the Russian’s assault casts last year’s US Open finalist in her favorite role, soaking up pace and elongating rallies into mind-numbing wars of attrition.  Therefore, the match rests squarely in Kuznetsova’s hands to win or to lose; in the 2009 US Open, she lost it with reckless shotmaking at untimely moments.  Finally regaining the form that won her two Slam titles and brought her to two US Open finals, Sveta should approach this match with greater confidence and patience than she might have a few months ago.  A titlist in the inaugural Copenhagen event but otherwise dormant since Miami, Wozniacki showed her familiar grittiness by outlasting Pennetta in the third round before smothering an irritable Schiavone in the quarterfinals.  Still relying upon errors from her opponent to win matches, however, she may not find Kuznetsova as generous as she would wish.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

***

After a thought-provoking group of quarterfinals, what intrigue will the semifinals serve for us?

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After a predictable increase in dramatic tension on Thursday, all eight of our projected semifinalists in Cincinnati and Montreal advanced within a round of their appointed destination.  The early rounds sometimes provide compelling evidence for altering one’s forecasts, however.  Did we change our Saturday’s semifinal lineup?  Answers straight ahead…

Nadal (1) vs. Baghdatis:  Rallying from the brink of disaster to outlast Benneteau in a three-hour epic, Nadal dropped his serve five times under the scorching Cincinnati sun.  One win away from Federer, he confronts an mercurial foe who has upset Cilic and Berdych in straight sets, bookended around an edgy victory over Bellucci.  Similar to most of the players who have troubled the Spaniard, Baghdatis can crack explosive winners from his flat, two-handed backhand, which he strikes with little margin for error.  Last fall, in fact, he won a set from the recuperating Nadal on the Asian circuit, displaying Davydenko-like precision and timing.  If the Spaniard enters the contest jaded from his Thursday war of attrition, the Cypriot might well upset a world #1 for the second time this year; he overcame Federer at Indian Wells after a memorable comeback.  Yet Rafa remains a vastly superior competitor to Baghdatis, who chooses  style over substance too often to become a regular contender.  Pick:  Nadal, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Davydenko (6):  After a career of futility against the Swiss grandmaster, Davydenko finally cracked the code during the London year-end championships last fall.  Following that triumph with a routine January victory in Doha, he entered the Australian Open as a trendy pick to capture his maiden Slam.  For the first set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, he jerked the GOAT around the court seemingly at will; then, at 6-2, 3-1, 40-15, reality struck as the eventual champion reeled off 13 consecutive games.  Having restored the balance of power in this pseudo-rivalry, the third seed enters this quarterfinal extremely rested after receiving a bye, a first-set retirement, and a walkover in the first three rounds.  Meanwhile, Davydenko hasn’t regrouped entirely from a wrist injury this spring, suffering repeated losses to players outside the top 50 since his return.  Showing signs of life in a three-set comeback over Ferrer, he nevertheless demonstrated negative body language while committing 46 unforced errors, which revealed persistent frailty on almost all of his strokes.  It’s difficult to see him summoning the nerve to win a tight match from Federer at this stage in his return, and it’s even more difficult to see him dispatching the defending champion routinely.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Fish (W) vs. Murray (4):  Two opposing storylines define this quarterfinal match, one dating from Miami and the other from Toronto.  Enduring an embarrassing second-round defeat against the American this spring, Murray surely will be spurred to exact revenge on a comparable surface.  After falling to Verdasco in last year’s Australian Open, retribution at Indian Wells was swift and brutal.  On the other hand, the easily irked Scot struggled mightily with the scorching midday temperatures in a marathon victory over Gulbis and has trudged through the draw much more laboriously than has Fish.  Murray has won consecutive tournaments only once in his career despite his sturdy fitness, and nobody has completed the Canada-Cincinnati double since 2003 (Roddick).   Winning all three of the tiebreaks that he has played this week, Fish has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set; the light balls and relatively fast surface favor his all-offense playing style more than Murray’s counterpunching agility.  In the wake of his stirring Toronto performance, the Scot surely has little at stake beyond the mission of personal revenge.  It might be enough to motivate him, or it might not.  Pick:  Fish, 55-45.

Roddick (9) vs. Djokovic (2):  Battling past a stubborn Swede and his own seething temper, Roddick delivered a crucial pre-US Open statement at the last possible opportunity.  Since he sustained a four-set loss to the Serb at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked American has seized the momentum in their somewhat acerbic (by ATP standards) rivalry by defeating Djokovic at Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Montreal last year.  Dropping just one set of the eight that they played in 2009, Roddick has exploited Novak’s occasional uncertainties on serve with consistent, stingy rallying.  Now that those issues have begun to recede, the matchup has swung closer to equilibrium.  Furthermore, the two-time Cincinnati champion will enjoy a mere 16 hours of rest after his night-session victory on Thursday, so he’ll need to summon his mono-depleted energy more swiftly than he would prefer.  But a key factor aligned with Roddick the aforementioned Ohio heat, in which these players will be immersed at their 2 PM start time.  His style of play is less taxing than the Serb’s, usually enabling him to hold serve with less effort, and soaring temperatures always exact a severe physical and psychological toll upon Djokovic.  Somehow, Roddick always exposes his latent, damaging fatalism.  Pick:  Roddick, 60-40.

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Bartoli (17) vs. Azarenka (10):  Reprising their captivating Stanford quarterfinal, these fierce competitors have advanced to this stage with commanding victories, including Azarenka’s first career win over Li Na.  While the Belarussian hasn’t evolved into a player who can dominate her peers week-in and week-out, she appears to be in the midst of a torrid stretch that might return her to the top 10 in next week’s rankings.  When the women last played in Montreal, a 19-year-old Azarenka came within a set of the final, so the surface and venue clearly complement her game.  All the same, Bartoli led Vika by a set and a break during their Stanford quarterfinal before fading, and the Frenchwoman has dropped just two games in two matches here.  (One wonders whether her demolition of Benesova was performed in the hope that the Bradenton-bound Jankovic was watching.)  We expect plenty of sizzling, flat groundstrokes, thunderous returns, and prolonged rallies in what appears to be the quarterfinal of the day in Montreal.  Pick:  Azarenka, 65-35.

Clijsters (5) vs. Zvonareva (8):  For the first time in six attempts, the Russian ambushed the Belgian at Wimbledon this year during a match in which a listless Clijsters gave Vera all of the assistance that she could have desired.  Nearly a second-round casualty in Montreal, the Cincinnati champion carries a 14-match winning streak on American hard courts into this confrontation as she prepares for her title defense in New York.  Clijsters and Zvonareva have honed somewhat similar styles, buttressed on symmetrical groundstrokes, fluid movement, and point construction more than on first-strike power from serves and returns.  In addition to these tennis-related similarities, they share the pattern of radical mood swings, which can lead them to zone in and out of matches with alarming alacrity.  If Clijsters is complacent from her title last week, Zvonareva has more than sufficient talent to take advantage.  But one should note that Kim is far more comfortable on hard courts than on grass and that her previous loss to the Russian occurred during a rusty stretch following her springtime foot injury.  Although the Belgian doesn’t seem the vengeful type, she should be especially focused against a player who recently proved that she can threaten her; focus is generally the key for Clijsters, as it is for so many of her colleagues.  Pick:  Clijsters, 60-40.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Zheng:  Quietly overcoming Rezai and now Dementieva, the understated Chinese counterpuncher faces the flamboyant Russian.  After another win over Radwanska (and another three-setter), Kuznetsova’s confidence must be climbing as she continues to demonstrate improved concentration late in matches against quality opponents.  She may need to showcase that skill again in her quarterfinal, for Zheng battles fearlessly for every point and rarely donates significant points to opponents.  If the Russian can punish her benign serve, however, the Chinese star will struggle to take command of rallies and expose Kuznetsova’s backhand.  Wobbly at times during her San Diego title run, Sveta’s own second serve can be easily attacked by crisp returners such as Zheng, so don’t be surprised to see multiple breaks and closely contested games.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 75-25.

Schiavone (6) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Winning consecutive matches this week for the first time since Roland Garros, the Italian defeated the Dane-Pole during that stunning fortnight.  In their quarterfinal match at the year’s second major, Schiavone unveiled Wozniacki’s discomfort at the net and with handling a variety of spins and slices.  Designed to trade penetrating missiles from a respectable distance, the second seed struggles with the Italian’s clever nuances while lacking the firepower to regularly hit through her from the baseline.  (Interesting fact:  Wozniacki had defeated Pennetta a round before playing Schiavone in Paris, just as is the case here.)  Nevertheless, last year’s US Open finalist possesses a superior serve and greater consistency, which allowed her to steadily grind down Pennetta on Thursday night.  Although the Italian’s artistry makes Wozniacki’s style seem monochromatic, one imagines that the 20-year-old will prevail after some nervy moments; their previous rounds featured a combined 22 service breaks.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 60-40.

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We’ll return tomorrow to discuss the semifinals, probably including Federer-Nadal XXII!  And don’t forget to keep an eye on New Haven, where the draw should be released soon.  That charmless city will become uncharacteristically charming next week…

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