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Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Twelve

In the first half of 2011, the Williams sisters played three total tournaments, Henin retired in January, and Clijsters nearly vanished after March.  So what went right for the WTA so far this year?  Quite a bit, in fact.  A new champion rose, an old champion rose again, another champion brought 100 million new fans to the sport, and two more champions fought a duel to the death (well, almost).  We reflect upon the most memorable and meaningful matches from a first half that compensated in drama for what it lacked in star power.

5) Sharapova d. Dulgheru (Miami):  At first glance, many readers might have imagined that this often excruciating ordeal would land on the less glamorous list below.  In the longest match of Sharapova’s career, she overcame 17 double faults, 76 unforced errors, an ankle injury late in the third set, and an unexpectedly determined opponent.  With a return to the top 10 at stake, however, the three-time major champion refused to let those obstacles halt her as her lasers grazed the line in the final moments of both tiebreaks.  Earlier in her comeback, Sharapova had lost these tortuous affairs to players like Oudin, Zheng, or Kirilenko.  This time, her renewed steeliness propelled her to victory on a night when almost nothing else could.  While Sharapova delivered much more stunning tennis later in the spring, arduous, hard-earned triumphs like these played a more important role in fueling her revival than any of her emphatic routs.  Many players can win when they strike their strokes to perfection, but few can win simply by refusing to accept any other outcome.

4) Venus d. Date-Krumm (Wimbledon) / Lisicki d. Li (Wimbledon):  Often criticized for eccentric scheduling decisions, Wimbledon redeemed itself in part by placing both of these second-round thrillers on Centre Court.  Opposing competitors from different generations, the two epics featured scintillating contrasts of styles between the artful angles of Date-Krumm, the baseline resilience of Li, and the massive first-strike firepower of their conquerors.  While the Goliaths eventually slew the Davids, these suspenseful matches illustrated the surge in quality experienced by the WTA this year, which has led to early-round encounters more entertaining than ever.  In probably her final Wimbledon, the Japanese star nearly unhinged the five-time champion with her inspired improvisations and pinpoint placement.  Even more noteworthy was the courage of Lisicki, whom few would have blamed for conceding to the Roland Garros champion late in the third set.  Proving herself as tough as one of the tour’s toughest veterans, however, the German did not flinch on the sport’s grandest stage.  While a former Wimbledon champion won one of these matches, a future Wimbledon champion may have won the other.

3) Kvitova d. Azarenka (Madrid):  Dwarfed by the Wimbledon title that followed two months later, Kvitova’s performance in this Premier Mandatory final underscored her precocious competitive determination.  No less remarkable than her blazing winners was her refusal to retreat when her ambitious shot-making misfired.  Seizing her fate in her own hands, Kvitova separated herself from the fragile debutantes who have flirted with WTA breakthroughs before faltering.  This match also separated her from one of her most talented potential rivals, a distinction confirmed in the Wimbledon semifinal.  Nevertheless, Azarenka delivered more than enough blows to the Czech on both occasions to suggest that an engaging rivalry might develop between these feisty aggressors.  After witnessing so many recent WTA finals lost by nerves or unfocused play, one relished the sight of a title tilt decided (largely) by timely excellence rather than untimely frailty.

2) Li d. Wozniacki (Australian Open):  The stakes stood high for both players in a semifinal that often felt more like a final, pitting Li’s attempt to become the first Chinese Slam finalist against Wozniacki’s attempt to legitimize her #1 ranking at a major.  Throughout most of its three grueling sets, both players held firm under the pressure as they traded weapons from two of the tour’s most balanced groundstroke arsenals.  As with Kvitova, this preliminary triumph may fade in the glow of what Li accomplished at the following major, but none of her Roland Garros wins so clearly showcased her ability to guard her baseline while unleashing strategic flashes of offense.  Averting a match point with a flamboyant forehand winner, she ground down the WTA’s ultimate grinder by patiently constructing her opportunities.  Although this defeat exposed Wozniacki’s notorious lack of firepower, it also demonstrated the degree of sustained physical and mental effort required to conquer her on a hard court.  Her decision to diverge from the winner-wild mentality in women’s tennis may or may not lead to major titles, but her baseline fortress often separates contenders from pretenders and diversifies a somewhat stylistically homogenous WTA.

1) Schiavone d. Kuznetsova (Australian Open):  In the first month of 2011, this clash between two Slam champions set the standard extremely high for the season that followed.  Less notable for the quality of the strokes than the quality of the competition, the 284-minute women’s sequel to Isner-Mahut proved infinitely more fascinating to watch than its predecessor.  Representative of their nations were the contrasting styles of the Russian and the Italian, one of whom pummeled forehands with reckless abandon while the other parried these blows with elegant slices and unexpected assaults on the forecourt.  Those who dismissively labeled Schiavone a “one-Slam wonder” should have gained greater respect for her following this demonstration of indefatigable will.  Meanwhile, the often fallible Kuznetsova earned honor in defeat by battling with undimmed vigor even as match point after match points slipped past.  Like the other matches in this list, moreover, “4:44” was won rather than lost—not a statement that often applies to these scoreboard-straining marathons.

From the zenith to the abyss…we recall the most unforgettably forgettable performances of the first half.

3) Wozniacki d. Kuznetsova (Dubai):  Among the reasons why Kvitova’s Madrid triumph appeared above was woeful WTA finals like this desert debacle.  After an eye-opening Australian Open highlighted not only by “4:44” but by a victory over Henin, Kuznetsova seemed poised to reverse her 2010 futility when she reached the final at the next significant tournament.  But then the feckless Sveta of old resurfaced in a final once again, holding serve only once and winning less than a third of her first-serve points.  Her avalanche of errors failed to put any consistent pressure on the world #1, who looked as bored as the audience.  Since that limp performance, Kuznetsova has shown scant sign of reclaiming her January momentum, which now appears less breakthrough than anomaly.

2) Azarenka d. Zvonareva (Miami):  Another Russian known for frailty at crucial moments, Zvonareva had advanced a considerable distance towards shedding that reputation in 2010.  Although she has distinctly surpassed Kuznetsova this season, her inner sense of inferiority has resurfaced on occasions such as this dismal semifinal in which she won only three games.  Against an opponent with less experience, less prestigious accomplishments, and a parallel tendency for implosions, the Russian had little excuse for a disappearing act that presaged her limp exits at the next two majors.  Despite clinging to her top-5 status, Zvonareva rarely carries herself with the poise of an elite contender.  If she doesn’t believe in herself, why should anyone else?

1) Safina d. Stosur (Indian Wells):  A lovely sight after her months of adversity, Safina’s smile nearly obscured the farcically horrific tennis that unfolded here—but not quite.  Second serves sank into the bottom of the net or flew into the doubles alley, drop shots bounced before reaching the net, and overhead attempts threatened Larry Ellison’s safety in the first row behind the baseline.  While one could understand and even empathize with the Russian’s anxiety, one’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion over Stosur’s incompetence on the most routine shots against an opponent seemingly eager to assist in her own demise.  Able to win just two games from Sharapova with a similar display a round later, Safina somehow managed to win two sets from a top-10 foe. Or rather Stosur somehow managed to lose two sets, for rarely has an elite player snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with greater determination.  If the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open finalist has regressed this year, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist has sped well ahead of her down the highway to oblivion.

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

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

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

Victoria Azarenka - Sony Ericsson Open

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

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

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

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

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

Deuce:

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

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

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

Samantha Stosur - Sony Ericsson Open

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

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

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

 

Caroline Wozniacki - BNP Paribas Open

First quarter:  Tested occasionally but not intensely during her Indian Wells title run, Wozniacki should have the physical reserves and mental focus to launch a deep run at this second Premier Mandatory tournament.  On the other hand, the top seed often has looked invincible for extended stretches before a sudden stumble, such as her losses to Zvonareva at the US Open last fall and in Doha last month.  Although Petkovic can outhit Wozniacki in forehand-to-forehand exchanges, she probably lacks the consistency to score the upset.  Meanwhile, Pennetta never has defeated the world #1 even on the clay surfaces that tilt so markedly in the Italian’s favor.  Unable to seize the elusive double herself last year, Jankovic will have an opportunity to spoil the Dane’s attempt should they meet in the quarterfinals.  Unlikely to encounter much resistance until the fourth round, the Serb may find herself tested there by Indian Wells surprise semifinalist Wickmayer.  A 2010 quarterfinalist in Miami, the Belgian #2 first would need to reprise last week’s comfortable victory over Peer, who soon could become the first Israeli to reach the top 10.  After a stinging early defeat in the desert, Jankovic may arrive additionally motivated to recapture the form that lifted her to the 2008 final here.  During a February loss to Wozniacki, she held three set points in the first set and might have scripted a different outcome had she converted one of them.  Should a quarterfinal between the stylistically similar Dane and Serb unfold, we will discover whether the apprentice has surpassed the sorceress.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Jankovic

Second quarter:  Hovering around the beleaguered top seeds here like vultures around carrion, two-time finalist Sharapova and 2006 champion Kuznetsova aim to break through a relatively weak section.  Oscillating between unremarkable and unsightly during the last several months, fourth-seeded Stosur has rarely resembled the player who dazzled us last spring.  Winless since the Australian Open, seventh-seeded Li Na could not have arranged for an easier draw in the first few rounds but then could collide with Kuznetsova.  Sparring with the Russian in Sydney this year, the world #6 narrowly survived a three-setter that proved her most severe challenge en route to that title.  Situated amidst several seismic servers, Sharapova must protect her own service games more effectively than she did while marching to the semifinals at Indian Wells.  Nevertheless, she has achieved almost immaculate mastery over Stosur and Petrova, the two highest-ranked players whom she could face before the quarterfinals.  Posing a perhaps more stubborn obstacle is Czech lefty Safarova, a mercurial player who should discomfit Stosur in the third round and has won her only meeting with Maria.  Elsewhere, a pair of youthful prodigies, Lisicki and Halep, seek to state (or restate) their relevance with creditable efforts against seeded players.  Nor should one neglect the presence of Peng, who seemingly has upset at least one notable player in each tournament that she has played this season.  The Chinese star might derail Kuznetsova for the second time in three months should they meet in the third round.  Unless someone in this section unexpectedly catches fire, though, one suspects that Sharapova will not allow anyone to block her probable ascent to the top 10.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Third quarter:  After a three-hour duel with Cibulkova turned against her in Indian Wells, Zvonareva may bring little positive energy to a tournament where she has reached the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances.  And the Russian may not thrill to the task of confronting compatriot Safina in her opener, although she dispatched Dinara last fall in a tight two-setter.  Progressing beyond that meeting, however, the road could become much smoother for the world #3.  Vera has dominated her two most likely opponents in the fourth round and the quarterfinals, compiling an 8-2 record against Bartoli and winning all ten of her meetings with fifth-seeded Schiavone.  While Bartoli did capture her last clash with the Russian last fall, the 2010 Miami semifinalist may enter this tournament a bit enervated by her exploits of the preceding fortnight.  Perhaps the most powerful ball-striker in the section, Kleybanova defeated Zvonareva last month but remains disappointingly inconsistent from one tournament to the next.  Thus, one should not project too boldly from an encouraging week at Indian Wells during which she conquered longtime nemesis Pennetta and snatched a set from Wozniacki.  Likely to meet Kirilenko for the second straight tournament, Radwanska must quickly dispel the memories of her four squandered match points against Azarenka in the desert.  The Pole may have the opportunity to pit her wits against the equally crafty Schiavone in an idiosyncratic fourth-round encounter.  Can this sorceress extend her dominance over her apprentice more effectively than Jankovic did over Wozniacki?

Quarterfinal:  Radwanska vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Sore in more ways than one after Indian Wells, Clijsters sounded defensive and sour when she retrospectively denigrated the event from which she retired.  Less distant from home, the defending champion has sounded tentative about her condition over the last few days, claiming that she will withdraw at the moment that she experiences the first twinge in her shoulder.  Consequently, the players uncomfortably situated in her vicinity may progress further into the draw than they had expected.  Poised to profit from the Belgian’s frailties is potential fourth-round opponent Ivanovic, perhaps destined to face Date-Krumm for the second straight tournament.  The muscular but recently dormant Kanepi could threaten the Serb, who has not reached the quarterfinals in Miami since her first appearance there in 2005.  Personifying the WTA’s unpredictability, the streaking star Kvitova has won two titles in 2011 and lost two opening matches.  The bane of a bookie’s existence, she will seek to repeat her Wimbledon triumph over Azarenka in a fourth-round collision of brash, fist-pumping blondes.  Yet Pavlyuchenkova could intercept Kvitova if the Monterrey champion can recover psychologically from squandering multiple leads against Peer in Indian Wells.  A champion at this event in 2009, Azarenka has honed a more refined game and accumulated much more experience than either the Russian or the Czech.  Nevertheless, a hamstring strain at Indian Wells raises concern for her ever-fragile health, while her lackluster results this year inspire scant confidence even if the injury does not trouble her.  Sagging dismally against Clijsters in Miami a year ago, Azarenka will face a daunting mental challenge if the Belgian bars her path again.  Question marks cluster around this section, however, bookended by competitors in uncertain condition.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka vs. Clijsters, if healthy; otherwise vs. Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

We return tomorrow to forecast the men’s draw.  Federer and Nadal in the same half?  Djokovic and Murray in the same quarter?  Brace yourselves for suspense!

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

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

Ivanovic vs. Jankovic:  Seeking her second straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, Ana eyes a tenth confrontation with her compatriot and fellow Indian Wells champion.  The Serbian stars share parallel career trajectories, having emerged almost simultaneously, crested during the same season, and receded swiftly from the circle of contenders within months of completing their meteoric rise.  While Ana rose to a higher pinnacle of accomplishments, she tumbled much more precipitously thereafter.  Victorious in six of her first seven meetings with Jankovic, Ivanovic has lost their last two encounters during a slump from which she finally emerged in the second half of 2010 with a pair of titles.  Outside their memorable meeting in a Roland Garros semifinal three years ago, both Serbs have struggled to showcase their finest tennis when they meet, perhaps because they hold so few secrets from each other.  Last year in Madrid, they contested an unsightly, break-strewn match that illustrated their uneasiness in these internecine skirmishes.

After an injury-blighted start to her 2011 campaign, Ivanovic may have restored a measure of confidence with two crisp victories in the desert where she lifted the trophy in 2008 and reached the final a year later.  Escaping from a swoon of her own that extended from last Wimbledon through the Australian Open, Jankovic has crept back into contention (or at least its environs) with three successive tournaments in which she has reached the semifinals or better.  She thus will enter this encounter with greater momentum than her compatriot, a potentially decisive factor.  On the other hand, Ana defeated her compatriot at this tournament three years ago, when both Serbs ranked in the top five.  Although Ivanovic’s best surpasses Jankovic’s best, one expects to see a level less than the best from both players on Monday.

Bartoli vs. Clijsters:  Sweeping all three of her encounters with the Frenchwoman, the four-time Slam champion ignited her second career by dispatching Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Somewhat greater drama developed when they met in New York a few weeks later, as the eventual US Open titlist rallied from a one-set deficit in emphatic fashion.  In theory, Clijsters should cruise smoothly into the quarterfinals of an event that she has won more often than any player remaining in the draw.  Compared to her double-fisted foe, the Belgian moves more smoothly, penetrates the court more consistently with her groundstrokes, and serves more effectively.  But warning bells rang when Kim conceded 13 double faults during her three-set win over Errani, suffering from shoulder pain that she revealed afterwards.  Since Clijsters noted that her discomfort increases when she reaches for high forehands, Bartoli should consider interweaving some high-bouncing groundstrokes with her trademark flat lasers.  Although one struggles to imagine her winning two sets from a healthy Clijsters on a slow hard court, the Frenchwoman reached the Doha semifinal and extended that momentum to a commanding victory over Petkovic here.

Wozniacki vs. Kleybanova:  Author of a sensational upset on this court a year ago, the Russian seeks to rekindle the magic of that victory over Clijsters.  While she won just nine games in the four previous sets that she has contested with Wozniacki, they have met only on clay and grass rather than on the surface that best suits both of their games.  Curiously, both players claimed their first career victories over opponents who previously had dominated them, Martinez Sanchez and Pennetta; Kleybanova’s victory looked especially impressive considering her crushing defeat to the Italian last month.  In the daytime conditions, Wozniacki’s high-percentage style should trump the Russian’s net-brushing groundstrokes, which rely upon more precise timing.  Unless Kleybanova can seize command of points with her imposing first serve, the Dane’s counterpunching should gradually wear down her challenger on this especially slow surface.   Instead of waging war from the baseline, Alisa should consider closing points with her notable net skills, but the penetrating groundstrokes of Wozniacki probably will keep her pinned behind the baseline.  Watching the Dane, one learns that depth can become as effective a weapon as angle construction.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Safina vs. Sharapova:  On the bright side, the two-time Roland Garros finalist scored her first victory over a top-10 opponent since her back injury, a moment that will have revitalized her confidence barely a month after she contemplated retirement.  On the less bright side, she donated 16 double faults during that match and profited immensely from Stosur’s abject incompetence on even the most routine groundstrokes.  Although her head-to-head with Sharapova stands level at three wins apiece, they have not met on a hard court since Maria’s two comprehensive triumphs in 2005-06.  One can glean little from such distant history, especially because their two most memorable encounters unfolded at Roland Garros, where Safina erased imposing deficits on both occasions to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Surely eager to fasten her own jaws around her compatriot, Sharapova must beware of sinking to the level of her opponent if Dinara struggles again with her serve.  A spasmodic, unpredictable rhythm across the net could spell trouble for the 2006 champion, who has struggled with her own timing since returning from shoulder surgery.  Bedeviled for much of two sets by Medina Garrigues in her opener, Sharapova slipped gratefully into her preferred brand of tennis against Rezai.  More imposing than Safina are the memories of those earlier losses to her, so Maria may find the mental challenge more daunting than any physical test that she confronts on Monday.

Schiavone vs. Peer:  Maneuvered to the edge of the precipice by a relentless Pavlyuchenkova, the Israeli saved multiple match points deep in the third set and later erased break points that would have forced a decisive tiebreak.  This narrative diverged from a few of Peer’s matches early this year, in which she squandered opportunities to deliver the coup de grace before finding herself on the wrong side of a stirring comeback.  Once again dominant in the Middle East, she scored victories over Wickmayer and Kuznetsova that presaged her performance in the California desert, where she reached the quarterfinals in 2007.  Although Peer has not faced Schiavone since the latter’s Roland Garros heroics, she won all three of their hard-court meetings and three of their four tiebreaks.  The fifth seed has looked sharper than expected at a tournament where she never has reached the elite eight, comfortably dismissing a revitalized Cornet.  In this clash between resilient competitors, one expects epic rallies, multiple breaks, and plenty of feisty emotion from both sides of the net.  If Peer can pin Schiavone behind the baseline, she could continue her success against the Italian by neutralizing the latter’s multifaceted forecourt weapons.  Nevertheless, she lacks the offensive artillery to take time away from the Roland Garros champion as she devises her clever combinations.

Wickmayer vs. Cibulkova:  Watching them battle at Stanford last year, we noticed that the nine inches separating them in height paralleled the gulf between their relative ball-striking ability.  With the arguable exception of Cibulkova’s inside-out forehand, the Belgian hammered every shot more vigorously than her diminutive opponent.  Despite the mismatch on that afternoon, the Slovak has won her other two clashes with Wickmayer while feeding her a pair of bagels.  Both women scored impressive upsets in the previous round, of which Cibulkova’s epic win over Zvonareva (justly) garnered more acclaim because of her opponent’s pedigree.  From Wickmayer’s perspective, though, the triumph over US Open nemesis Kanepi may have provided just as substantial an emotional boost.  Dominating the Estonian through the first set and a half in New York, Yanina let the match slip away after a disappointing second-set tiebreak; the collapse poisoned the rest of her 2010 campaign.  This time, Wickmayer rallied from a one-set deficit and watched Kanepi unravel with grim satisfaction.  A quarterfinalist in Miami last year, the Belgian could equal or even surpass that feat here if she can quell the charging Cibulkova, who has maximized her potential under the guidance of Zeljko Krajan.  Who can build upon Sunday’s achievements?

Petrova vs. Peng:  Previously felled by Petrova at her home tournament in Beijing, the Chinese star has enjoyed the brightest season of her career thus far with wins over Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Li, and nearly Radwanska.  After that succession of triumphs, she should approach her former conqueror with ample self-belief.  Erratic early in her clash with American wildcard Christina McHale, Petrova grimaced, carved the air with her racket, and barked at herself even when the tide turned early in the second set.  Such negative body language jarred with her generally crisp performance when she put her racket to its more familiar function, connecting with some startling winners off both groundstrokes against an opponent who played well above her usual level.  Tested but ultimately unscathed in each of her first two matches, Petrova faces an opponent who survived a pair of three-setters herself and also has rallied from a one-set deficit here.  Whereas the Russian clearly holds the edge in power, the Chinese star holds the emotional advantage and rarely signals discomfiture to her opponent.  In order for that dimension to become relevant, however, the match must stay somewhat close.  Otherwise, Petrova will feel little of the pressure that has undermined her potential throughout her career.

Victoria Azarenka - BNP Paribas Open

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  On the distant battlefield of Court 7, this match between two top-10 talents should surpass its humble setting.  Dominating their head-to-head record after losing their first meeting in 2006, Azarenka holds the keys to victory but often has let them dangle too loosely from her finger in similar situations before.  Despite their high first-serve percentages, neither player wins many free points with her delivery, so one envisions repeated breaks and a series of extended service games.   Faced with a stern test of her fragile patience, Azarenka must maneuver herself into position to unleash the winning blow rather than pulling the trigger with her trademark impetuosity.  On her side of the net, Radwanska will seek to feed the Belarussian a variety of paces, spins, and perhaps heights; in the past, Vika has struggled with slow, high-bouncing groundstrokes.  While the eighth seed clearly has the mightier weapons and greater potential to win majors, the ninth seed has established herself as one of the WTA’s most consistent competitors.  Currently mired in the longest title drought among top-10 players, the Pole must find a way to more regularly solve fallible firecrackers like Azarenka in order to contend for the elite tournaments.  These ultra-slow hard courts offer the best possible surface (other than clay) for the 2010 semifinalist to crack the code.

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

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

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

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

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

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

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

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

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

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

While the men’s draw featured several suspenseful five-setters, Day 1 did not ruin the manicures of the leading women or their supporters.  That trend could shift on Day 2 when the most famous working mom in tennis opens her Melbourne campaign against the 2009 finalist and former #1.  Thoroughly embarrassed by another Russian here a year ago, Clijsters hopes to avoid a relapse when she faces Safina, with whom she has split their two meetings during her comeback (both in Cincinnati).  Almost invincible against non-Russians, the three-time US Open champion has posted an indifferent 5-5 record since the start of 2010 when she plays someone from Safina’s nation.  As the first set of the Sydney final demonstrated, the Belgian’s game still can evaporate at unexpected moments and drift hopelessly beyond her control.  On the other hand, Safina’s game may have fractured beyond repair after a career-threatening back injury that descended late in 2009, exacerbating the mental frailty that she displayed as #1.  After winning a set from Wickmayer in Auckland, the Russian secured just one game from Bartoli in Hobart, but the scoreline did not reflect the multiple-deuce games that littered their encounter.  The night-session atmosphere probably favors the more confident Clijsters, thrusting Safina into an uncomfortably intense setting where she collapsed against Serena in the 2009 final.  For Marat’s sister, though, a loss would drop her outside the top 100 and into the murky realm of wildcards or perhaps qualifying draws, so she may approach this clash with additional motivation.  Yet she has won two or fewer games in half of the sets that she has played against Clijsters, including two bagels and four breadsticks, so an ugly rout could develop if Kim seizes control before Safina settles into the match.

Elsewhere on Day 2:

Nalbandian vs. Hewitt:  Curiously, this vintage encounter opposes the victor and the vanquished from the last Wimbledon final before Federer’s lease on the All England Club began.  A finalist last week in Auckland, the Argentine scored encouraging victories over Isner and Almagro.  Despite advancing age and questionable fitness, Nalbandian continues to lurk among the dark horses at every prominent event when healthy, for his uncanny timing and immaculate ball-striking have flustered even Federer and Nadal on repeated occasions.  Probably less naturally gifted than his adversary, Hewitt has fully capitalized upon his potential with a gritty work ethic antithetical to the underachieving Argentine, whose motivation has seemed tepid and sporadic at best.  The two-time major champion likely realizes that few Australian Opens remain in the twilight of his tennis odyssey, as do his fervent supporters.  Etching indelible memories onto their minds, the Australian once collaborated with Baghdatis in an early-round epic that resulted in the latest finish ever witnessed in Melbourne.  Unless Nalbandian sweeps him aside efficiently, Hewitt’s superior fitness (both physically and mentally) likely will produce another marathon and perhaps another rousing victory.

Jankovic vs. Kudryavtseva:  Highly fallible during the second half of 2010, the Serb looks to recapture the form that brought her the Indian Wells title last spring.  Unleashing a temper as flaming as her hair, Kudryavtseva showcased her fearsome offense in a Wimbledon upset over Sharapova in 2008 and a near-upset there over Venus a year earlier.  The Russian’s forehand penetrates the court with ease, menacing the type of inconsistent counterpuncher that Jankovic can become when low in confidence.  But can Kudryavsteva rein in her unruly weapons at crucial moments and maintain her level throughout two or maybe three sets?  In that regard, the Serb comfortably trumps her volatile adversary.

Ana Ivanovic - Adizero Speed Week In Melbourne

Makarova vs. Ivanovic:  For the second consecutive major, Ana opens against the Russian lefty who stunned the Eastbourne draw as a qualifier last year.  Frequently flashing her signature smile during the Hopman Cup and yesterday’s Rally for Relief, Ivanovic will seek to carry her relaxed attitude into a relatively gentle draw that she can exploit.  Dueling Azarenka for more than three hours  in Sydney, however, Makarova has an imposing serve and a striking knack for saving break points, even more perceptible than with the typical lefty.  Like Kudryavtseva above, her streakiness often prevents her from delivering her best tennis for more than a few games at a time.  Much more consistent since last summer, the Serb may experience a few nerves at the tournament where she once reached the final, while a strained abdominal muscle stirs slight concern.  Guided by the insightful Antonio van Grichen , Ivanovic has gained an air of quiet confidence after conquering her self-created demons, and the crowd should support her vociferously from the first ball onwards.

Date-Krumm vs. Radwanska:  Hobbled by injury last fall, the fabulously versatile Pole has not won a match since Tokyo and has not played since Beijing.  In fact, her entry in the Australian Open surprised most observers and causes us to wonder whether she has leapt to a premature decision that she will regret.  Across the net, the oldest player in the WTA has no regrets at all about a comeback that has ambushed two former #1s and a host of other players half her age.  Slapping groundstrokes at implausible angles with oddly truncated swings, Date-Krumm hopes to jerk Radwanska from side to side like a windshield wiper.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Pole aims to unsettle and exhaust the crafty veteran by exposing her to a variety of speeds and spins.  Sophisticated tennis fans will relish the subtle talents of both players as they delicately uncover each other’s flaws.

Vandeweghe vs. Cornet:  Once considered the future of women’s tennis in her nation, the Frenchwoman confronts a hard-serving foe often considered the future of American women’s tennis.  At the Australian Open occurred the collapse against Safina that precipitated Cornet’s seemingly irreversible spiral.  After three qualifying matches, Vandeweghe may enter the main draw somewhat weary, but her brash self-belief should help bring her past the easily wilting phenom of the past.

Berankis vs. Matosevic:  During the Australian Open wildcard playoff, we warmed to the mercurial Aussie as he launched a spirited comeback against Luczak to earn a berth in his home major.  Yet he will not find his task comfortable against the top-ranked Lithuanian in the ATP, who punches well above his diminutive stature.  Likely to reach the top 20 eventually, the boyish Berankis has reached the top 100 after gorging himself upon challengers while winning a match apiece at each of the last two majors.  Can he extend that streak?

Petrova vs. Pervak:  Last year’s quarterfinalist exited both Brisbane and Sydney in the opening round, while Pervak clawed her way through qualifying into the main draw at the former event.  There, she overwhelmed former top-5 star Chakvetadze before winning a set from ultimate champion Kvitova, who had ousted Petrova much more routinely a round earlier.  We watched the petite lefty against Sharapova at Roland Garros last year, where she convinced us that she possesses both the game and the mentality to threaten a fading, fragile veteran.

Cirstea vs. Lucic:  Not unlike Cornet, the exotic-looking Romanian formerly seemed destined to become the standard-bearer of her nation’s tennis hopes.  Hampered by injuries over the past two years, Cirstea merely seeks to reassert her relevance against yet another of the WTA’s comeback artists.  Lucic has enjoyed a far less successful return than her fellow veterans but did take a set from Jankovic at last year’s US Open with her flat, heavy groundstrokes; we look forward to watching her on grass.

***

We return tomorrow with the Day 3 preview!  As before, feel free to comment if you would like to share any recommendations for matches to highlight.

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

ATP:

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist: Murray

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

Semifinalist: Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

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

WTA:

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

Semifinalist:  Henin

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

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

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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