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Agnieszka Radwanska - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 7

From the relatively arid draws of San Diego and Washington emerge few signals for the Premier Five and Masters 1000 tournaments ahead.  In fact, Del Potro’s nudge past Verdasco from #20 to #19 marked the only change in the rankings of the ATP top 20.  Nevertheless, these tournaments featured some surprisingly intriguing and entertaining tennis, most notably from the quirky hero and heroine who wove artful paths toward the champion’s podium.

A fine hour for finesse:  Retired magician Fabrice Santoro would have relished watching Stepanek and Radwanska carve through their draws to comfortably dispatch a pair of top-10 opponents in the finals.  Even before his routine victory over Monfils, Stepanek had conquered the far more powerful and athletic Verdasco with similar ease.  For her part, Radwanska rallied from a first-set bagel against Hantuchova and another one-set deficit against Petkovic, relentlessly chipping away at her opponents until they crumbled.  Not known for their outstanding serves, neither the Czech nor the Pole lost their serve throughout their Sunday collisions with two outstanding returners.  Especially notable in this regard was Stepanek, who perceptibly heightened his focus at crucial moments and never faced a break point even as the nerve-inducing upset neared.  Likewise, Radwanska compensated for her lack of first-strike power with uncanny instincts and a keen sense of placement.  Exploiting every area of the court, including the net, both champions varied spins and speeds throughout rallies, leaving their more programmatic, rhythm-oriented opponents marooned in confusion.  While Stepanek carved sharply angled volleys and abruptly changed the pace on his groundstrokes, Radwanska looped moonballs, feathered drop shots, and lofted precise lobs.  To be sure, one hardly expects the 32-year-old Stepanek to become a factor at the prestigious Masters 1000 events ahead.  Nor will Radwanska threaten the WTA’s heaviest hitters, like Serena or Clijsters.  But, on a week when most top stars rested, their distinctive games offered an entertaining diversion from the status quo that enlivened these events more than one would have anticipated.

A tale of two top seeds:  While some #1 seeds tower above their draws, others perch there precariously.  Clearly in the latter category, Monfils and Zvonareva had looked vulnerable for much of 2011, so their mental frailty suggested that they might wilt under the pressure of their position.  Although both ultimately fell one round short, they recorded a handful of creditable victories in hard-fought contests.  The Frenchman impressed with his semifinal victory over Isner in a match delayed by rain during which he saved a match point in the third-set tiebreak.  An exuberant personality often lacking in competitive stamina or motivation, Monfils might have buckled under either the distractions of the weather or the American’s impenetrable serve.  By evading both of those pitfalls, the Washington top seed proved that a professional lurks behind the veneer of a charismatic performer.  As introverted as Monfils is extroverted, Zvonareva harbors a morose streak that might have undone her when she squandered a first-set lead against Ivanovic and ultimately lost the set on a double fault.  After she edged through a shaky second set on her seventh set point, though, the San Diego top seed revealed a champion’s DNA by asserting control early in the final set.  Zvonareva almost choked away another lead at the end, but the ability to choke and survive impresses at least as much as the ability to avoid choking at all.  Also praiseworthy was her victory over the streaking Lisicki in a three-set quarterfinal, during which she shrugged off multiple missed opportunities and steadied herself in the climactic moments.

The sluggish performances by both top seeds in the finals sprang in large part from fatigue, causing one to wonder the extent to which playing the Saturday evening semifinal places that finalist at a disadvantage against the finalist who played the Saturday afternoon semifinal.  Serena and Gulbis escaped that predicament last week, but they progressed much more comfortably.  Perhaps someone should research whether three-set Saturday night semifinals correlate inversely with success in Sunday afternoon finals, with additional variables for ranking, ranking of opponent, temperature, and magnitude of tournament….

Putting the US in the US Open Series: As so often happens, the American men have flourished this summer on their home hard courts.  Advancing to his first ATP semifinal in the Washington midsummer torpor, Donald Young raised eyebrows with a straight-sets victory over the dangerous but erratic Marcos Baghatis.  Within a point of his second final in the US Open Series, Isner elevated his ranking inside the top 30 and continued to menace opponents with far greater athleticism and natural talent.  Upsetting defending champion Nalbandian in the second round of Washington, Blake engaged in a second three-set epic with Isner that thrilled the local crowd, if not tennis purists.

In a much less frequent and thus more newsworthy development, American women flew their flag with pride at San Diego.  Despite falling a round short of last year’s quarterfinal appearance, Coco Vandeweghe mustered consecutive main-draw victories.  The fastest-rising teenager in the WTA top 100, Christina McHale likewise registered a pair of wins before succumbing to eventual champion Radwanska.  Rewarding the wildcard that the tournament offered her, Alexa Glatch ambushed the formidable lefty serve of Makarova, a challenge that has baffled many a more experienced player.  But the most remarkable accomplishment resonated from the racket of fellow wildcard Sloane Stephens, who repeated Vandeweghe’s 2010 feat by reaching her first WTA quarterfinal following a triumph over top-20 opponent Julia Goerges.  All of the above hinted that there might be life after death in American women’s tennis, or rather life after the retirement of the Williams sisters.

Briefly noted:

Welcome to the top 10, Andrea Petkovic!  Amidst the controversy over the divergence between rankings and reality in the WTA, the German’s rise and Stosur’s accompanying fall seemed to clearly reflect their recent performances.  A two-time Slam quarterfinalist in 2011, the German recovered from a dip during the grass season to reach another semifinal, from which she might have emerged had not her lunch decided otherwise.

Tremendously exhilarating at the moment, an unexpected title can poison a player’s ranking a year later.  Few would have picked David Nalbandian to win Washington last year, and his title defense stalled in his opening round this year.  As a result, an oddly inflated ranking tumbled 24 positions to the edge of the top 50, the difference between a seed and a lack thereof at the US Open.  The mercurial Baghdatis suffered a somewhat less precipitous plunge but also sagged well below that crucial 32nd position.  Although ample points await in Canada and Cincinnati, the current form of both players suggests that they will not recoup their losses.  Headed in the opposite direction was Stepanek, who halved his ranking as he climbed from outside the top 50 to inside the top 30.  If he remains active a year from now, though, he probably will suffer the fate of Nalbandian.

Inching upward to her highest ranking since 2009, Ivanovic erased the memories of a first-round Stanford exit with a San Diego charge that brought her within a set of the final. Not having defeated a top-3 opponent since winning Roland Garros three long years ago, the former #1 displayed impressive competitive resilience against Zvonareva and dominated 2011 breakthrough artist Peng.  Victorious in only two of ten three-setters this year, Ivanovic must aim to improve her fitness for these extended encounters.  Nevertheless, she appears to have committed to her new coach more than to his predecessors, and the situational stability should buttress her volatile game.  Most promising of all was her success in close sets.  Previously 2-10 this year in sets that reached 5-5, Ivanovic rallied from 0-5 to win a tiebreak against Stanford conqueror Morita and rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the first set against Zvonareva.  Those comebacks sketch a competitor increasing in confidence and now within striking distance of once again becoming the top-ranked woman from her nation.

Ana Ivanovic - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 3

Which is not to say that, considering her dramatic ebbs and flows, one should not close one’s eyes and hope for the best.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

After an eventful week of tennis, we pause to review the action that unfolded at four events on three different continents.

Transmission reference: BALI101

1)      The Ascent of Ana continues:

Charging to her second title of the fall, Ivanovic won matches in every way possible:  a rout, a nail-biter, and a hybrid that hovered between the two extremes.  Relentless in her 57-minute quarterfinal, the Serb surrendered just a single game to world #20 Pavlyuchenkova behind a barrage of thunderous serves.  Although she adjusted swiftly to a surface faster than she prefers, Ivanovic struggled to adapt to the distinctive style of Kimiko Date Krumm.  The age-defying Japanese legend baffled Ana for most of the first set with deceptive angles and low groundstrokes that barely skimmed across the net before darting through the court.  Facing double set point on her serve, however, Ivanovic collected herself just in time to reel off six consecutive games and seemingly seize control.  Unwilling to yield so easily, Date Krumm battled back into this memorable semifinal by rallying from a 3-5 deficit in the second set, saving a match point, and climbing out of a 2-4 hole in the second set tiebreak.  Yet this comeback remarkably failed to fluster the Serb; armed with her revived confidence, Ana broke the Japanese veteran immediately in the third set and cruised behind her own serve thereafter.

Despite her sterling record in finals, Ivanovic began the title match against Kleybanova rather tentatively and only relaxed after she broke the Russian midway through the first set.  At that stage, she reeled off 14 consecutive points to establish command.  Too resilient a competitor to let the trophy slip away, Kleybanova halted the Serb’s momentum early in the second set, while nerves caused Ivanovic’s ball toss to wander unpredictably.  Down double break point at 5-5 in the second set, though, Ana relied on her improved movement to track down a penetrating Kleybanova approach and lash an implausible passing-shot winner.  She rode this momentum surge into the tiebreak, where her opponent conceded a costly double fault for the only mini-break.  A stunning cross-court forehand and an ace later, Ivanovic had scored her tenth victory in eleven matches and vaulted back into the top 20 at #17.  Having been ranked outside the top 60 after Wimbledon, Ana improbably ends her 2010 campaign ahead of fellow Slam champions Sharapova and Kuznetsova.  As she acknowledged afterwards, this second taste of success will inject her with additional motivation during the offseason.

2)     Home-court advantage reigns (mostly):

Robbed of his home title by a bold Serb last year, Federer thrilled his compatriots by avenging that defeat in 2010.  Enjoying a tranquil route to the final, he inflicted yet another dent upon Roddick’s armor in a semifinal performance that showcased his still-crisp reflexes and instincts.  As the Swiss master braced himself for an encore of last year’s Basel final, he probably drew confidence from his title run in Stockholm last week as well as his victory over the Serb in Shanghai.  Ominously, the first two sets of the final recalled their US Open meeting, where Federer had secured a tight first set before suffering a mental lapse in the second.  Reversing that trajectory with an emphatic final set, though, the world #2 confirmed his Shanghai success and extended his momentum in this key rivalry.  Before he departed to share lunch with the ballboys, Federer claimed that this triumph evoked similar emotions in him to winning his elusive Roland Garros title.  Even allowing for post-championship hyperbole, that statement revealed a more human, even endearing dimension to the lofty GOAT.

Amidst a Valencia draw riddled with upsets, Ferrer played the local hero by conquering the fearsome Soderling for the second time this fall.  The Spaniard secured his second ATP 500 title of 2010 by overcoming compatriot Marcel Granollers in a final that few observers anticipated before the week began.  Probably best known for defeating Soderling at this year’s Australian Open, the understated, unseeded Granollers sprang unpleasant surprises upon Shanghai semifinalist Monaco as well as the rejuvenated Simon.  His charge to the final illustrated not only the advantages of playing at home but the depth of Spanish men’s tennis, seemingly unique in its ability to produce legions of champions and finalists on all surfaces.  (Kudos to the Frenchman, though, who adroitly defused the twin threats of Verdasco and Davydenko just weeks after seizing the title in Metz.  Davis Cup captain Guy Forget must seriously consider him for singles action in Belgrade).

Transmission reference: CAGB121

3)      Viva Flavia:

Nevertheless, home-court advantage couldn’t rescue the US Fed Cup team from their more talented Italian foes, spearheaded on this occasion not by Schiavone but by the tempestuous Pennetta.  Delivering two of her team’s three victories, Flavia atoned for an uninspired 2010 campaign and compensated for a puzzlingly erratic performance by the Roland Garros champion in the third rubber.  Two moments from Pennetta’s weekend especially impressed, for they represented the two potential turning points of what could have been a tightly contested tie.  Having watched a 5-1 lead slip away in the first set against Mattek-Sands, the Italian suddenly found herself staring at a set point in the set’s twelfth game.  With an invigorated American crowd exhorting her opponent, Pennetta mustered her nerve and fought her way into the tiebreak, where she played intelligently high-percentage tennis while the American imploded.  Had she let that set unravel, though, Mattek-Sands might not have relinquished the initiative; instead, Italy took a commanding, virtually terminal lead after Saturday.

Less obviously crucial was the second moment, which occurred just two games into Pennetta’s Sunday clash with the untested but mighty Coco Vandeweghe.  After cheering Oudin to an astonishing victory over Schiavone, the home crowd watched with delight as the teenager broke the Italian in the opening game and advanced to 40-0 on her own serve.  Undeterred by this inauspicious beginning, Pennetta swept aside game point after game point before converting a break point seven deuces later.  Having halted Vandeweghe’s impetus, she thoroughly dominated proceedings and trimmed the burly American down to size with a clinical efficiency worthy of Procrustes. A week after winning the doubles title in Doha, Pennetta proudly clinched the Fed Cup title for her nation just as she had in 2009.

***

We return to preview the Paris semifinals on Friday; until then, enjoy the tennis!

 

Team of Italy (left Corrado Barazzutti, Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci, Sara Errani,Flavia Pennetta) lift the trophy after the final match of the Fed Cup World Group between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 8, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Embedded in an intensely individual sport, Fed Cup and Davis Caup continue to reward competitors who can maintain unity and cohesion under pressure.  Neither team in San Diego this weekend contains a marquee superstar familiar to casual fans, with the arguable exception of Schiavone.  Instead, both Italy and the United States have built their recent success upon a core of loyal players dedicated to Fed Cup, most of whom value this team competition more than many of the tournaments that they enter.  While the Italians arrive as considerable favorites, Team USA ambushed a Russian squad spearheaded by Dementieva earlier and will hope to exploit their home-court advantage to reverse the outcome of the 2009 final, held on hostile clay.  Yet Schiavone and her supporting cast enjoy greater experience and possess a deeper reservoir of talent.  We break down each member of the teams and analyze her individual impact upon the weekend.  Which squad will prove greater than the sum of its parts?

USA:

Mattek-Sands:  A stronger server than the Italians, Mattek-Sands won the key rubber in the USA’s semifinal victory, a three-set rollercoaster over Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova.  The fast indoor court will shield her from the inconsistency that has hampered her in longer points, and she will find opportunities to showcase her forecourt talents.  When she faces Schiavone in Sunday’s singles, an engaging all-court contest could ensue.  Idle since reaching the final in Quebec City, Mattek-Sands responded to enthusiastic fan support at the US Open by reaching match point against the much more formidable Petkovic.  Likely to partner Huber in the doubles rubber, the quirky American probably holds the key to victory—or defeat—for the home team.

Vandeweghe:  Choosing Coco over the more seasoned Oudin, captain Mary Joe Fernandez has assumed a calculated risk that seems likely to reward her.  Appearing in her Fed Cup debut, the volatile teenager from Southern California hopes to build upon her local success in the San Diego event this August.  There, Vandeweghe stunned Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva and severely tested Kuznetsova before succumbing to that tournament’s eventual champion.   With her massive serve-forehand combinations, she should secure numerous free points on the fast court and won’t find her questionable movement exposed by the shorter rallies there.  After an encouraging fall campaign, Coco should enter the weekend brimming with confidence, while the crowd support should inoculate her against the tension typically experienced by Fed Cup novices.

Oudin:  The toast of New York a year ago, the pugnacious Georgian staggered through most of 2010 with one notable exception:  Fed Cup.  Effective against a dysfunctional French team in the quarterfinals, the former US Open quarterfinalist scored a key victory for the US in their opening rubber against Russia.  She then extended Dementieva to three sets a day later, reminding audiences that she thrives upon the home crowd’s support.  But the fast indoor court should prove a little too fast for the diminutive American, who relies on counterpunching rather than first-strike shotmaking.  Barring a Coco catastrophe on Saturday, she probably won’t see any action in a meaningful match over the weekend.

Huber:  Despite playing only one rubber for the USA, the former doubles #1 brings valuable experience and leadership qualities to the team.  After separating from longtime partner Cara Black, Huber has continued to score victories at WTA events with various partners; moreover, she has won all of the deciding doubles rubbers in which she has participated for the Americans.  Accustomed to receiving little attention in doubles, she has embraced the heightened intensity of Fed Cup and regularly exhorts her teammates from the bench.

Italy v USA - Fed Cup World Group Final Day Two

Italy:

Schiavone:   Seeking to conclude the strongest season of her career with a third Fed Cup title, the crafty veteran may arrive in San Diego fatigued from her exertions in Doha.  During that week, Schiavone often looked weary at key moments against Stosur and Wozniacki, but perhaps she merely conserved her energy for an event with greater personal significance for her.  A proud Italian who has personified the spirit of Fed Cup, the Roland Garros champion demonstrated her hard-court prowess throughout the second half of 2010, even on the fast surface at the US Open.  Relishing the atmosphere of battle, Schiavone will not crumble in the hostile surroundings of San Diego.  On the other hand, she has compiled just a 4-9 Fed Cup singles record on hard courts and a 7-8 Fed Cup singles record indoors.

Pennetta:  Overshadowed this season by her flamboyant compatriot, Flavia has delivered much more impressive Fed Cup performances on hard courts (6-2) and indoors (8-3).  Somewhat more powerful than Schiavone, Pennetta possesses a more reliable serve that led her to a semifinal in San Diego and a quarterfinal in Cincinnati this summer.  The second-ranked doubles player in the world, the Italian collected momentum from Doha by winning the doubles title there with Dulko.  Pennetta sagged perceptibly over the last few months, however, and brings a three-match losing streak to the weekend in San Diego.  Notorious for an explosive temper, the Calabrian will need to restrain her emotions under the pressure of the American crowd.  If she stays positive with the assistance of captain Corrado Barazzuti, however, Pennetta likely will play the heroine for Italy by winning both of her singles matches.

Errani/Vinci:  On most occasions, Team USA would fancy its chances in a doubles rubber involving Huber.  But Luxembourg champion Vinci remains a perfect 15-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition, with seven indoor victories.  Her partner Errani has lost just once in seven Fed Cup doubles rubbers and never on a hard court, so the Americans should not rely upon simply splitting the four singles matches to preserve their hopes for the doubles.  If this weekend does reach the final rubber, it could produce a thrilling climax that would showcase the highest quality of this overlooked division of the sport.

***

We return over the weekend to preview the Rafa-less Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, but first we extend our birthday wishes to the smiling Serb in Bali!

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

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1) Andy Roddick

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

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

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2) Robin Soderling

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

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

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3) Tomas Berdych

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

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

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

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

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

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

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

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

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3) Vera Zvonareva

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

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

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

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This first article in our series of US Open previews discusses the tournament favorites, the inner circle of contenders who most closely surround the title.  As with the Wimbledon previews, we outline both causes for confidence and causes for concern regarding each player, four from the ATP and four from the WTA.

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1) Roger Federer

Causes for confidence: A finalist in Toronto and a champion in Cincinnati, Federer duplicated his 2007 performance at the summer Masters 1000 events.  That year, of course, he captured the trophy in New York from the player who denied him the trophy in Canada; we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scenario unfold in 2010.  Avenging his Wimbledon loss to Berdych and reasserting his dominance over Djokovic, Federer’s Toronto performance demonstrated his ability to outlast his primary challengers in tense situations.  A week later in Cincinnati, he demonstrated that he could smother inspired dark horses by navigating past Nadal-killer Baghdatis and Murray-killer Fish.  The fast courts of Flushing suit Federer’s game better than the surface at any other major, sparking a streak of six consecutive finals there, and his superb fitness allows him to profit from the best-of-five format in steamy conditions more than any of his rivals except Nadal.

Causes for concern: Firmly in control of his matches against Berdych and Djokovic, Federer wavered in the second set and ultimately came within a few points of defeat on both occasions.  In order to progress efficiently through the draw and conserve energy for the later rounds, he can’t afford such lapses of concentration at the Open.  His draw at Cincinnati couldn’t have been much cozier on paper, featuring a bye, a walkover, a retirement, and just one seeded player (Davydenko); one imagines that his route in New York will be significantly more arduous.  But the most serious issue concerns his Toronto nemesis, Murray, who showed there that he finally has learned to attack Federer just as he attacks Nadal.  A rematch of their 2008 final would be the most compelling men’s championship match that one could expect this year.

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2) Rafael Nadal

Causes for confidence: Having won fourteen consecutive matches at majors, the world #1 seeks to join Federer in the career Slam club.  During his title runs in Paris and London, he overcame several of the players who most tormented him throughout his previous slump, such as Soderling and Murray.  The knees seem healthy after various surgical procedures, and his confidence generally rises in direct proportion to his health.  Almost as much as Federer, Nadal profits from the best-of-five format, which allows him to lose a tight set here or there while gradually wearing down the shotmakers who prosper on the Open’s fast courts.  A semifinalist in his last two appearances there, the Spaniard has followed a pattern of gradual but steady improvement each year that recalls his progress towards the Australian Open title in 2009.  Although Federer has established himself as the favorite, there is little evidence to suggest that he has overcome his mental fragility against Nadal.

Causes for concern: Highly fallible during the summer Masters tournaments, Nadal dropped a set to Kohlschreiber, faced a match point against Benneteau, mustered little resistance against Murray, and sprayed forehands wildly against Baghatis.  Rafa moves much less fluidly on hard court, often still lacks the depth on his groundstrokes, and sometimes displays a negativity never witnessed on clay or grass.  During the second half, fatigue typically prevents him from summoning his best tennis, while the slick surface in New York is antithetical to his movement-based style.  Unquestionably the steeliest competitor in the sport, he remains vulnerable to a swaggering shotmaker who can deny him the rallying rhythm upon which he relies.  Finally, his backhand will need to deliver much more consistently than it did in the past two weeks, for confidence in his weaker groundstroke has been essential to his previous hard-court success.

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3) Andy Murray

Causes for confidence: The almost certain US Open Series winner, Murray enjoys an excellent chance to secure his extra million if he can reproduce his Rogers Cup performance.  In Toronto, the introverted Scot became the first player since Del Potro at last year’s US Open to defeat Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Reminding audiences of his quarterfinal victory over Rafa in Australia, Murray suffocated the Spaniard with clutch serving and his lethal cross-court backhand.  In the final, he frustrated Federer with crisp returning and pinpoint passing shots whenever the Swiss legend ventured into the forecourt.  Clearly recovered from his post-Australian Open swoon, Britain’s #1 appears to relish his current coachless status and the independence that he has acquired from it.  Reaching both of his Slam finals on hard courts, Murray considers the US Open his favorite major and will feel much less pressure to succeed there than at the All England Club, two factors that bode well for a breakthrough.

Causes for concern: Unable to blunt Querrey’s power in the LA final and Fish’s power in the Cincinnati quarterfinal, Murray still is susceptible to being battered off the court by the ATP’s premier (and not-so-premier) powerhouses.  A year ago, Cilic dispatched him rather routinely in the round of 16; the Scot’s draw thus could be crucial in deciding his fate, for he often needs to play his way into a tournament in order to find his rhythm.  Although his serve has improved, Murray has yet to develop the type of first-strike weapon that thrives on the Open’s fast surface. As Mats Wilander dryly noted, moreover, his status as a Slam favorite remains dubious until and unless he wins one of them.

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4) Novak Djokovic

Causes for confidence: After a disheartening spring, Djokovic reinvigorated his 2010 campaign with a somewhat unexpected charge to the Wimbledon semifinals on his least favorite surface.  Later in the summer, he starred in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over Croatia and severely tested Federer deep in the third set of their Rogers Cup semifinal.  Reaching the semifinals or better at his last three US Opens, the Serb has lost to nobody other than Federer in any of those years.  The vibrant New York atmosphere ideally fits his personality, and this ebullient impersonator recaptured the acclaim of Open audiences last year after alienating them with harsh (albeit justifiable) criticism of Roddick in 2008.  Although less impressive than during his 2008 title run in Australia, his serve has grown into a more potent weapon in the last few months than it was at the outset of 2010.

Causes for concern: Predictably bothered by the Canada and Cincinnati heat, Djokovic will find scant relief when the stage shifts to humid New York.  His fitness comprises perhaps his greatest shortcoming, although his odd lack of confidence against elite opponents registers a close second.  Even when facing the relatively untested Berdych at Wimbledon, he slumped into defeatism too soon after encountering adversity; despite his prodigious talents, his appetite for competition simmers quite low.  This mixture of complacency and self-doubt rarely wins majors or defeats dangerous rivals, so Djokovic must quell those character traits before seizing a second Slam.

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

Causes for confidence: Freed temporarily from the shadow of her more glamorous compatriot, the defending champion extended her American hard-court winning streak by battling to the Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Often considered too gentle for her own good, Clijsters defied this perception by tenaciously surviving Sharapova’s assault in the final there and by escaping multiple deficits in the quarterfinals against Pennetta.  Her balanced groundstroke game and outstanding athleticism hinders opponents from wrong-footing her as easily as some of her more powerful, less agile colleagues.  Winning both of her majors in New York, the Belgian generally showcases her best tennis in the summer season and will be especially fresh this year after a foot injury curtailed her spring campaign.  Although a hip strain fueled a quarterfinal exit in Canada, she sounded convinced that the injury would not hamper her preparations for the Open.  (In fact, she may find herself better prepared than the four semifinalists there, forced to wait in limbo until the precipitation stops.)

Causes for concern: Not a weapon like the deliveries of Sharapova or Venus, the Belgian’s serve became an outright liability on multiple occasions in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup.  When one element of her game disintegrates, the other components often descend with it as she struggles to adapt to the circumstances.  Rallying from within five points of defeat against Mattek-Sands in her Montreal opener, Clijsters has suffered chronic premature losses in her comeback, including third-round debacles in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  Her last two defeats have occurred against the mentally suspect Zvonareva, not a player accustomed to upsetting elite contenders, so a dangerous floater could threaten in an early round before she settles into the tournament.

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2) Maria Sharapova

Causes for confidence: A finalist in three of her last four and four of her last six tournaments, Sharapova came within a point of inflicting a 2-and-3 drubbing upon Clijsters in Cincinnati before rain and then fatigue intervened.  At Stanford, she not only avenged her Indian Wells loss to Zheng but secured her first notable wins of 2010 with morale-lifting victories over Dementieva and Radwanska.  Dispatching San Diego champion Kuznetsova in her Cincinnati opener, Maria adjusted surprisingly comfortably to the sultry conditions that week.  Untroubled by a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal, she should arrive in New York healthier than she has been there since her 2006 title.  The slick surface and glamorous atmosphere of the Open mirror Sharapova’s personality; she relishes playing under the lights and never has lost a night match at a major.  Without recent Slam nemeses Henin and Serena in the draw, Maria will be poised to extend the surge of stirring performances that began with her Strasbourg title in May.

Causes for concern: While the fast courts at the Open enhance Sharapova’s first-strike ferocity, their speed also can expose her movement when opponents stretch her laterally.  Maria’s last two appearances concluded in ignominious third-round exits during which her serve unraveled in spectacular fashion, so one should observe the performance of that shot under pressure.  Even in Cincinnati, Sharapova lost the rhythm on her serve when attempting to close out matches, suggesting that her once-bulletproof confidence has not returned completely after injury travails.  During the two and a half years since her breathtaking run at the 2008 Australian Open, Maria has reached just one Slam quarterfinal (2009 Roland Garros).

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3) Venus Williams

Causes for confidence: Just as Clijsters will benefit from the absence of Henin, Venus should benefit from the absence of her sister and the scrutiny that such a situation inevitably provokes.  Her serve still sizzles through the court more fiercely than any of the other contenders, allowing her to hold serve with greater regularity.  Favoring short exchanges over extended rallies, the swift surface will shield Venus from the consequences of her increasingly erratic groundstrokes; fewer shots are required in order to win points from the baseline.  Probably more gifted in the forecourt than any of the other leading ladies, Serena’s elder sister also can exploit the fast courts to finish points at the net.  After a dismal Wimbledon, moreover, she may prove more motivated than ever to deliver a performance that reaffirms her relevance.  Startlingly, she has won only two fewer Slams (7) than the rest of the draw combined (9).

Causes for concern: Not having played since that Wimbledon loss, Venus enters with no hard-court matches this summer and without having won the Open in nine years, a period longer than many tennis careers.  (Interesting fact:  she has won no tournaments in 2009-10 except Dubai and Acapulco, both of which she won in both years.)  A factor in her loss to Clijsters there last year, her knee injury may forestall a deep run by hampering the 30-year-old’s service rhythm as well as her footwork.  Possessing virtually no B-game, she generally is ghastly when anything less than magnificent and may not be able to maintain her best tennis throughout a fortnight against seven different opponents with diverse playing styles.  Outside Wimbledon, in fact, Venus has reached just one Slam semifinal since 2003 (the 2007 US Open).

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4) Victoria Azarenka

Causes for confidence: Finally free from the hamstring injury that crippled her clay and grass seasons, the Belarussian bombshell returned to her early-season form during the US Open Series.  While capturing the Stanford title, Azarenka lost no more than five games in four of her five matches against opponents including Stosur and Sharapova.  As of this writing, she has reached the Rogers Cup semifinals with emphatic victories over Li Na and Bartoli, who often are formidable at this stage of the season.  (An unkind draw in Cincinnati witnessed her demise at the hands of a suddenly resurgent Ivanovic, no easy first-round assignment.)  Fusing power with intelligence and bold shotmaking with above-average movement, she is a more complete player than any of the WTA’s other rising stars.  Signaled by a Sharapova-esque shriek and a dog named Rolex, the Belarussian’s strutting personality should shine in a city that celebrates showmanship and swagger far more than the other Slam venues.

Causes for concern: A heavily hyped prodigy during her teenage years, Vika broke through only temporarily with the 2009 Miami title and three consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Still her greatest flaw, this phenom’s overly volatile temper has cost her matches on important stages, such as a third-round encounter with Schiavone at last year’s US Open and a clash with Wozniacki at the year-end championships in Doha.  Under the bright lights of New York, she will feel the pressure of intense media scrutiny, not a situation to which she has responded maturely in the past.  Although she defeated both Sharapova and Clijsters this summer, she has struggled against elite contenders at key tournaments; note that she fell to Maria in Beijing and Clijsters in Miami, both Premier Mandatory events much more significant than Stanford and Eastbourne.

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We return tomorrow with the challengers, the outer circle of contenders with legitimate title aspirations but a little further removed from the season’s final grand prize.  Happy reading!

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Midway through our two-week WTA vacation in Stanford and San Diego, we offer a guest post from our Spanish friend Alvaro Rama, who has supplied some of the stats mentioned by us on Twitter and on the blog.  An aspiring journalist, Alvaro discusses rising star Andrea Petkovic in a profile that follows the five-strength, five-weakness format debuted here a few months ago.  We hope that you enjoy reading his contribution and learning more about the little-known but highly talented German, an engaging personality who seems likely to become a future contender in the women’s game.

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Strengths:

Beyond her reasonably strong serve, footwork, and other features, we consider it appropriate to expand upon the following aspects in order to provide a more complete vision of Petkovic’s game.

1) Forehand

It is the most powerful resource in the hands of the German player. Part of a one-two punch that starts with the serve, this shot pins opponents behind the baseline, continuously moves them laterally, and seizes control of points at any time. Petkovic uses her forehand as the main foundation on which to build her transition from defense to offense. It is the flagship of her game for better or for worse. On the one hand, the optimal deployment of this blow (combining power, depth, and directional precision) usually occurs in stages of the match when her confidence is especially high. Nevertheless, at critical periods and especially at key points, this massive shot can prove a liability, for Petkovic’s flamboyant character often inspires her to attempt overly aggressive gambits. The German tends to rely almost entirely upon her explosive offense, without the flexibility of a Plan B behind this high-risk strategy; thus, she can find herself confined to a predictable, one-dimensional style. The best travel companion when present, the forehand also can be the worst nightmare when absent.

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2) Confidence against higher-ranked players

One of the most striking aspects of the German’s game is her self-belief regarding the biggest names in women’s tour.  Far from intimidated on the court against dedicated rivals with much more experience, such as Serena Williams, Dementieva, Kuznetsova, or Clijsters, she always confronts them with an offensive mindset. Employing defensive tactics against the tennis elite would appear to be a logical tactic, so Petkovic is atypical among her rising peers in the circuit. The German has always featured great performances on the grandest stages; despite having been defeated in most of such clashes, one can say that each and every one of them were extremely evenly matched. If one is not considered a threat by the stars of the WTA, one surely will never become one of their rivals.

3) Mentality

Positivity, trust in the court, conviction in her game plan being executed:  key components in any player’s game that are prominently showcased by Petkovic. In order to perform at her best, she manifests a steely composure that is quite discernible once she has begun to work herself into a match.  Petkovic possesses the ability to regroup in mid-match and convert an erratic performance into fearlessly aggressive tennis, unleashing her fierce groundstrokes in an unflinching offensive barrage while controlling her unforced errors—no small feat. On the other hand, her success clearly hangs in a delicate balance when she plays in this manner; how long can she continue to walk along on a precipice?   Often, she slips off it in an avalanche of unforced errors.

4) Intelligence and diversified interests (on-court and off-court)

Petkovic is known to be a kind of intellectual off the court, who relishes literature and political discussion.  In fact, she possesses a keen sense of humor and, above all, a great ability to laugh at herself. These are characteristics that may not seem relevant to her on-court performance but can make interesting long-term returns. Travelling to tournaments almost every week and daily training demands immense dedication from the exclusive circle of elite players and must be hard from a psychological point of view. It is important to free one’s mind and break one’s routine without leaving the road, balancing professional life with the development of a personality. Andrea’s horizons extend beyond the successes or failures on the field; victory is not her only goal in life, nor is defeat an unmitigated disaster. Between those two extremes, she is able to carve out a comfortable mental space for herself rather than magnifying the good or the bad. Among the most compelling examples of this trait was the German’s reaction to squandering four match points against Kuznetsova in the second round of Roland Garros this year. 6-4, 5-4, 40-0:  seven figures that represent a significant missed opportunity, or rather four if we consider the number of match points wasted. But Petkovic responded with professoinalism. “She’s a Grand Slam champion, [while] I’ve never been past the round of 16 in a major. That will come. I just started to start my journey. My way is to look ahead. ” Therefore, she recognized that one can learn more from defeat than from victory and that one must fall before learning to ride properly. Her disappointing experience in Fed Cup also could help her in a similar way.

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5) Steady upward mobility and potential

There is a Chinese proverb that says: ‘If you want to know what it’s like to run your hand over the back of a tiger, pet a cat first. ” A player’s career should be measured by looking at the complete file, the finished script. A wayward or inconsistent start usually does not augur poorly for a player’s ultimate success, and Petkovic already has begun to write intriguing chapters in her own story. Hunger is the word that can define her emotional state at this stage in the narrative. At 22, after having overcome a serious injury and having won her first WTA title, the German player has begun to experience new sensations in 2010 –her first final on grass, her first victory over a former #1 (Ivanovic), her first tournament as a seeded player, her first tournament as a top seed. This series of circumstances should help increase her confidence and make her see that her potential for improvement remains vast.

Weaknesses:

1) Backhand

Used primarily as a defensive shot, Petkovic’s backhand is one of the more limited components of her game. This vulnerability is often exploited by opponents, who direct their offensive sorties towards that wing. While the strategy does not always assure success, the defensive character of this shot contrasts dramatically with the striking power of her forehand. When on offense, the German rarely uses it as a weapon from the baseline, much less when she attempts winners. It plays a key role for her only when she capitalizes upon an opponent’s short balls to close points in the forecourt (as a put-away shot).

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2) Net play

Accustomed to exchanging groundstrokes from the baseline, the German feels uncomfortable upon moving into the net for volleys. Despite being endowed with good mobility that should allow her to effectively counter an opponent’s passing shots, her forecourt performance rarely yields winners or commanding shots.  She frequently leaves the ball too high or too short, allowing the opponent to respond with ample guarantee of success.

3) Inconsistency

This flaw constitutes probably the biggest problem in Petkovic’s game. Periodic mental lapses are typical, often involving a series of unforced errors, double faults, or unintelligent shot selection during a prolonged segment of the match.  These untimely miscues have sometimes resulted in squandered leads during contests that Andrea had controlled or even tipped the balance against her in evenly matched encounters.   She also tends to raise the level of her game as the match progresses, displaying indifferent tennis in the early games and thus incurring the risk of playing from behind.  Although an obvious shortcoming, this issue does not comprise an insoluble problem against lower-ranked rivals, who also produce numerous unforced errors—but the elite players punish such lapses.  At this higher level, errors are not to be expected from one’s opponents or a reliable means of winning matches.  Dominant WTA players win matches on their own merits rather than wait for the mistakes of the opponent. The problem is that its virtues are not always enjoy a prominent role on gaps and somehow tend to stifle the potential of your natural talent. In order to rise further in the tennis hierarchy, therefore, it is a feature of Petkovic’s game that she must improve immediately.

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4) Self-expectations / self-pressure

Although it has been suggested previously that Andrea has shown the ability to take positive readings of the sorriest episodes in her career, it is also true that sometimes she has burdened herself with excessive expectations.  An example of this concern was the Fed Cup tie against the Czech Republic, when she demonstrated emotional instability by shedding tears after a match that she believed that she needed to win. The added pressure increases her nerves during the match and possibly results in a loss of concentration that benefits the opponent’s cause during the contest’s latter stages. Before the match appears a volatile Petkovic, filled with uncertainty; having left the court, the German becomes a clear-headed individual with great analytical skills. Her adrenaline and desire before the match should be modulated to find a midpoint between tension and relaxation.

5) Capitalizing upon success

Despite the progress made this year, the German player still belongs to the second or third tier of the WTA. Without an elevated ranking to establish herself as a seed in the key tournaments, she must nudge forward a little further in order to avoid the major rivals in the early rounds of the biggest events.  As a result, she has not yet reached the status of a serious contender and does not enjoy the inherent privilege of the intimidation factor, which would dishearten her foes before they enter the court. It is a right that has yet to win. Her early exit as the top seed in Bad Gastein prevented her from enjoying the feeling of being at the center of attention for more than two matches.  Having enjoyed early tastes of success, she must continue improving her game rather than slipping into the complacent attitude of one who has arrived where she wants to be.

—Alvaro Rama (edited by sharapovanovic)

***

We return in about a week with (slightly belated) previews of the ATP Toronto and WTA Cincinnati events.  Meanwhile, let’s hope that San Diego proves as exciting as Stanford!

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Although “half as exciting” might be quite exciting enough.  We’ll remember the Sharapova-Dementieva quarterfinal for a long time.  😉

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After a prolonged sojourn in Europe, live tennis returns to California with tournaments in Stanford and San Diego.  While we prepare to visit those consecutive events, we reflect upon a few of the most striking differences between the spectator experience on TV and at the venue.  Be aware that these comments are highly subjective, so a different observer might leave a tournament with drastically divergent impressions. 

1)      More ebbs and flows / less constant drama:

Saturated with tense close-ups and portentous prattle, television broadcasts often attach excessive significance to each moment as it arrives.  To paraphrase Orwell, all points are equal, but some are more equal than others; a 1-2, 40-15 situation doesn’t carry the weight of 4-4, 15-30.  When one watches the match live, the peaks and valleys of its rhythm become more apparent, allowing the spectator to recognize the drama of those moments that matter the most.  Consequently, the suspense of a set’s climax accumulates more powerfully in person than on television, where announcers and cameramen alike attempt to maintain dramatic intrigue as relentlessly as possible.

2)      Serves, returns more impressive:

Seated in the comfortable detachment of one’s home, it’s difficult to appreciate just how rapidly the ball travels through the court and what a fast-paced sport tennis actually is.  At the stadium, the serve crackles through the court as a near-invisible blur, which in turn underscores the superb reflexes of the game’s finest returners.  First-strike tennis sometimes looks all too simple on television, but the live audience better understands the extraordinary degree of focus and timing essential to executing that style effectively.  (One caveat:  TV replays illustrate a serve’s placement better than anyone in the audience can discern.)

3)      Court appears smaller:

Hovering above the baseline, television cameras create the impression of a cavernous, vault-like stadium.  Yet even the largest venues in tennis, such as Indian Wells, seem rigidly confined in person and emphasize the proximity between the combatants, thus heightening the intensity of this individual competition.  As a consequence of the constricted court, one observes more clearly the contrast between conservative north-south baseliners and more audacious angle-creators, whose gambits seem more ambitious than on television. 

4)      Time between points seems longer:

Armed with an arsenal of technological tools, broadcasters relish multifaceted diagrams and charts that illuminate every statistical dimension of the sport.  Although this information certainly fascinates and dazzles, it also saturates the viewer with a ceaseless flow of data to process.  At the venue, by contrast, spectators can choose how they fill the time between points rather than finding themselves forced to follow the specific narrative presented to them.   Moreover, the absence of the seemingly obligatory post-rally replay breaks the continuous action loop created by television and encourages audiences to perceive the sport as an alternation between intense action and tranquil contemplation. 

***

Since we will attend the WTA events in California over the coming fortnight, we won’t be posting any articles of our own during that span.  Nevertheless, our Spanish friend Alvaro Rama plans to contribute here with a profile on rising German star Andrea Petkovic, which probably will be released around next weekend.  Alvaro currently doesn’t operate a blog, but you will agree with us that he should enter the blogging world after you read his insights!