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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

The quietest month on the calendar between the Australian Open and the US Open, February showcases several indoor tournaments as well as the opening rounds of national team competition.  We review the best and worst of what we watched in the first week at venues around the world.

Ad-in:

National #2s:  Overshadowed at the outset by higher-ranked compatriots such as Kvitova, Sharapova, and Jankovic, several of the second-ranked women on Fed Cup teams played pivotal roles in their team’s success.  While most of the attention in Moscow swirled around Sharapova, Kuznetsova delivered two singles victories to continue her excellence under national colors.  Not renowned for valiant responses to pressure in ordinary circumstances, she clinched yet another tie with a rollercoaster three-set victory over a plucky opponent with nothing to lose.  When Jankovic vanished after a first-rubber victory, as did Sharapova, Bojana Jovanovski became the heroine of Serbia’s road victory over Belgium.  The promising teenager rebounded from a Saturday loss to Wickmayer and fueled her nation’s comeback from a 1-2 deficit by winning in both singles and doubles on Sunday.  Stagnant over the last several months in individual competition, perhaps she can build from that success to reinvigorate her fortunes.

Nor should one neglect the effort of Hantuchova in World Group II, opening and closing a dangerous tie against France with victories.  Similar to Kuznetsova in her unsteadiness at crucial moments, the elegant Slovak found the courage to survive a 16-game final set in the first rubber, when the tie still hung in the balance.  Although Kvitova provided the principal heroics for the Czechs (see below), Iveta Benesova mastered the more talented Lisicki to strip the suspense almost immediately from what had seemed an intriguing tie.  Even in the presence of their more notable peers, therefore, the performance of these #2s proved the importance of depth in team competition.

Berdych:  Having waited two and a half years between his two previous titles, the world #7 ensured that no such drought would separate his next two.  Following swiftly upon his Beijing title last fall, another minor title at Montpellier extended his momentum from a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.  As confident and authoritative as he looked in Melbourne, Berdych comfortably shouldered the burden of the top seed at a small event and withstood a second-set surge by Monfils in the final.  While his programmatic style translates especially well to the artificial conditions under a roof, he should bring confidence to the North American hard courts in March.  A runner-up at Miami two years ago, Berdych should aim to surpass the flagging Tsonga as the leading threat to the top four.

French men:  In the absence of the aforementioned Tsonga, his countrymen still flew the French flag with panache under the roof of Montpellier. Monfils may have watched his finals record dwindle to 4-13, but he edged within a set of defending a title for the first time in his career.  Sandwiched around his dismal exit from Melbourne are runner-up trophies at his other tournaments.  In an all-French semifinal that must have delighted the audience, Simon fell one point short of snatching his countryman’s berth in the final but displayed the competitive resilience associated with him.  To be sure, one should not overstate success at a tournament so minor and so friendly to native talent, where the French held three of the top four seeds and 12 of the 28 total slots in the main draw.  But les bleus historically have labored under a reputation for imploding on home soil, and the weeks enjoyed by these two Frenchmen combined with the recent success of Tsonga and Monfils at the Paris Indoors to undermine that theory.

Youzhny:  Now outside the top 30, this former resident of the top 10 had not even reached a final since the start of 2010.  Exploiting the inexperience of first-time finalist Lukas Lacko, Youzhny won his fifth indoor title under the Zagreb roof while showcasing his elegant backhand and effortless versatility.  Although very Russian in personality, his game almost looks French with its free-flowing grace from all corners of the court.  Considering his volatile emotions, a three-set victory over Karlovic during which he never broke serve represented the most impressive accomplishment from an otherwise smooth passage through the draw.  Added to the Fed Cup team’s triumph, Youzhny’s title offered multiple causes for celebration in Russia, whose women long have dwarfed the men in tennis talent.  With Davis Cup on the horizon, Shamil Tarpischev must look forward to welcoming this experienced veteran and stalwart patriot at one of his more optimistic moments in recent years.

Kvitova:  Although she lost the first set to lower-ranked players in each of her Fed Cup rubbers, the world #2 showed commendable determination in eking out victories against talented opponents in hostile territory.  Extended to eighteen games in the third set against Goerges, she marshaled sufficient energy to outlast inspired resistance from Lisicki on Sunday.  Uncharacteristically fragile late in the third set of the Australian Open semifinal, she displayed a tenacity more worthy of her status on an occasion not much less intense in pressure.

Deuce:

Germans:  In all of the first three singles rubbers, they won the first set.  In all three rubbers, they lost the next two sets.  As the momentum slid away from them again and again, Lisicki and Goerges must have sensed the opportunity slipping through their fingers.  But they should take comfort from their ability to threaten the heavily favored Kvitova in a tie much more competitive than the scoreline showed.  When Petkovic returns, this team will have the depth to become a Fed Cup powerhouse.

Schiavone:  Unaccountably ghastly on Saturday, she regrouped to win her second rubber on Sunday but only after a rollercoaster three-setter, a startling result on her beloved clay against a Ukrainian team that struggles on the surface.  One typically numbers Schiavone among the lionesses of Fed Cup, but surprisingly she has won only 22 of 39 singles rubbers.  After reaching the Brisbane semifinal to start 2012, she has sputtered in the last few weeks.  That said, Schiavone delivered a key win for her country when the situation absolutely demanded, and she showed the poise of a veteran in regrouping from Saturday’s debacle with competitive willpower undimmed.

Ad-out:

South American clay:  If these tournaments wish to attract players more notable than Spanish clay specialists, they must consider changing to the hard courts where almost any sensible player would spend their time between the Australian Open and Indian Wells.  Such a change might imperil their attractiveness for players like Ferrer and Almagro, who can inflate their rankings by gorging on cheap rankings points up and down the continent.  (Appearance money and distance from players’ bases in North America and Europe also play a role, of course.)  For now, they represent a curious anomaly on the calendar and a reminder of the region’s remoteness from relevance.

Nicolas Escude:  With his team’s survival at stake, the French captain bizarrely selected the Fed Cup-allergic Cornet to face Hantuchova, who has enjoyed a strong start to 2012.  To no surprise, the feckless Frenchwoman sank to 2-12 in Fed Cup action, including 1-8 in singles.  Never should Escude have entrusted her with a live rubber, much less a must-win live rubber, and least of all after Razzano (the player for whom she substituted) had defeated Slovakian #1 Cibulkova routinely on Saturday.  As France faces possible relegation to zonal play, the French Tennis Federation should have little trouble identifying a key architect of their humiliation.

Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

First quarter:  Still clinging to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki warily arrives into Melbourne after a wrist injury and attempts to shed her inconsistency of the past several months.  These slow courts will benefit her defensive style, especially since she faces no overwhelming shot-maker in the first week.  Even when the Dane reaches the fourth round, she would face only her counterpunching counterpart Jankovic, who compiled respectable but not remarkable results in Brisbane and Sydney.  If Safaraova can capitalize upon a fine week in Sydney to upset Jankovic, a more intriguing test might await for Wozniacki in the Czech lefty’s assertive serve-forehand combinations.  As her 24th seed would suggest, though, Safarova likely lacks the consistency to outhit the world #1 for an entire match.  Offering more intrigue is the lower part of this section, where both Clijsters and Li Na reside.  After a series of consistently solid performances at preparatory tournaments, last year’s runner-up looks sharper than she has since winning Roland Garros.  More questions surround the defending champion, forced to withdraw from her last tournament with a minor injury but now ostensibly recovered.  Often vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments, Clijsters could meet Hantuchova for the second time in four matches, having struggled with her before retiring from their Brisbane semifinal.  No similar obstacle could intercept Li, who might replay last year’s semifinal and final in reverse order should she reach the second week.  Last year, she defeated Wozniacki and probably should have finished off Clijsters.  This year, she has acquitted herself much more convincingly than both rivals and, for once, seems physically healthier.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  The champion at Sydney in 2011, Li built upon that momentum to reach the Melbourne final two weeks later.  As she searches for her first major final, Azarenka will hope to follow that example, but her draw could prove somewhat thorny.  In the first week, clashes with Bolletieri pupil Heather Watson and rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski would prepare Vika effectively for the challenges ahead.  Capable counterpunchers Pennetta and Peng might vie in the third round for the honor of withstanding Azarenka’s offense.  When they met at the US Open, their two-set match lasted over two hours as they fiercely contested every game and point with protracted rally after protracted rally.  Bookending the lower part of this quarter are two artful practitioners of a finesse rare in the current WTA, Schiavone and Radwanska.  Although she withdrew from Sydney, Julia Goerges returns in Melbourne to eye a third-round meeting with Schiavone that would contrast the German’s penetrating serve and groundstrokes with the Italian’s biting slice and uncanny placement.  Playing for the Hobart title on Saturday, Yanina Wickmayer seeks to reassert her relevance in the aftermath of a disappointing 2011 campaign.  As she showed against Henin two years ago on Rod Laver Arena, the Belgian #2 possesses natural athleticism, crisp technique, and a generally balanced game.  Sometimes too emotional at the wrong moments, Wickmayer could find Pironkova’s deceptively vanilla style frustrating in the second round and likely would come unglued when she meets Radwanska a round later.  Reaching the second week last year, the eighth seed would aim for a quarterfinal rematch with Azarenka of their Sydney semifinal, a match that she controlled for a set and a half before fading.  While neither of these Generation Next stars has broken through at a major, the third seed Vika has accomplished somewhat more on these stages and has grown slightly more patient with age.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  When the draw first appeared, many who awaited it scanned to see where Serena had appeared.  Still an intimidating presence in any player field, the 13-time major champion lies embedded in this quarter near Cibulkova, who has played three sets in all three of her matches this year and lost two of them.  The imposing serve of Canadian Rebecca Marino, praised by Serena’s sister, might test the American should she meet her in the third round.  Yet the most serious challenge that she will face during the first week concerns her ankle, severely twisted in Brisbane and not quite recovered.  Early in her comeback last year, Serena sustained a loss in Eastbourne to Vera Zvonareva, projected to meet her when the second week begins.  Considering the Russian’s ongoing slump, though, Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi might offer more plausible resistance with her overwhelming serve and improved footwork.  Even if Zvonareva stumbles in the first week, this section still might feature a Russian quarterfinalist, since it includes 2008 champion Sharapova as well as two-time major titlist Kuznetsova.  A nagging ankle injury forestalled Sharapova’s tournament preparation and may leave her rusty for a dangerous first-round encounter with steady Argentine Gisela Dulko, who defeated her at Wimbledon in 2009.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova’s primary challenge should emerge from the chronically injured Lisicki, seeking to recover from a back injury in Auckland.  While she has not reached a semifinal at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova upset Henin and competed with unexpected tenacity throughout her epic against Schiavone last year.  The mercurial Russian defeated Serena at a major and once served for the match against her here before another of the American’s patented comebacks.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Fourth quarter:  Perhaps a little less deep than the other sections, this quarter lies at the mercy of second seed and probable future #1 Kvitova.  Losing to Li in Sydney after leading by a set and a break illustrated some remaining vestiges of immaturity, costly against elite opponents.  Aligned to face Kirilenko in the third round, Kvitova will need to cultivate her patience as she attempts to repeat her Fed Cup dominance over the Russian on slower, hotter courts.  On paper, her fourth-round encounter with either Ivanovic or Pavlyuchenkova should confront her with a hard-hitting adversary worthy of her steel.  Nevertheless, the still youthful Russian crashed out of both Brisbane and Sydney ignominiously, constantly beleaguered on serve.  While Ivanovic’s serve has improved, her overall confidence level falls well below the heights recently attained by Kvitova, who exudes purpose with each stride when at her best.  Australian fans should take confidence of their own from Stosur’s comfortable early draw, although the US Open champion nearly fell to third-round opponent Petrova early in her championship run.  Dangerous but not quite dominant in the last two weeks, Bartoli will open against her compatriot Razzano, with whom she has crossed verbal swords before.  Among the non-boldfaced names to note is Zheng Jie, the improbable Auckland champion and 2010 semifinalist.  Her opener against rising American Madison Keys ranks as one of the more intriguing first-round WTA matches.  Nor should one neglect former top-5 resident Anna Chakvetadze, who stirred from her long-dormant state in Hobart and will start against another comeback artist in Jelena Dokic.  All of these storylines feel like subplots, though, in the presence of Kvitova.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Janko Tipsarevic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnieszka Radwanska - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Sydney International - Day 1

Francesca Schiavone - 2011 US Open - Day 4

Schiavone vs. Kanepi:  Through the first two and a half sets of her epic quarterfinal victory over Jankovic, Schiavone escaped from one perilous situation after another.  Eluding her opponent when she served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, the feisty Italian successfully stared down multiple match points a few games later and then clawed herself out of a 3-1 third set.  Her unquenchable optimism throughout this three-hour comeback recalled her Melbourne marathon against Kuznetsova a year ago, although one wonders the battle-scarred veteran can recover successfully from her exertions.  On that earlier occasion, Schiavone competed valiantly with Wozniacki for a set and half before fading, and she certainly will need every ounce of agility available to withstand Kanepi.  Pummeling Pavlyuchenkova for the loss of just three games, the robust Estonian stifled the second-seeded Petkovic nearly as emphatically in the quarterfinals.  In both of those matches, she surged through a commanding first set and sustained that momentum through a more competitive second set, so the early stages of this semifinal could prove crucial once again.  Thumping twelve aces against Petkovic, Kanepi dropped her serve only once against two of the WTA’s brightest rising stars—an intimidating prospect for a player like Schiavone who lacks a consistently formidable delivery.

Seven of the last eight sets between the Italian and the Estonian have lasted ten games or more, suggesting that their seventh meeting will hinge upon a timely burst of shot-making from the former or a timely spurt of scrambling from the latter.  A prototypical collision of guns against guile, their semifinal will test Schiavone’s talents for artistic improvisation under pressure as much as it does Kanepi’s ability to finish points and take time away from her opponent.  If she can win the battle of court positioning, the younger woman’s weapons will prevent the third seed from crafting the type of point with which she unhinged the less muscular Jankovic.

Clijsters vs. Hantuchova:  Undefeated in nine meetings against the Slovak, Clijsters has won 18 of the 19 sets that they have played while recording eight bagels or breadsticks.  But all of those dismal statistics date from the Belgian’s first career, which ended nearly five years ago.  While Clijsters has won three of her four majors in her widely lauded second career, she also has succumbed to odd stumbles more often than usual (see her debacle in Melbourne 2010 or her loss to Arantxa Rus at Roland Garros last year).   The schism between her Jekyll and Hyde personas surfaced in her second Brisbane match, a whiplash-inducing rollercoaster in which she won six of the first seven games, lost nine of the next ten, and then won six consecutively.  To a certain degree, however, those oscillations reflected peaks and valleys in the prowess of her opponent, Ivanovic, as well as Kim’s rust on physical and mental levels.  In her quarterfinal against Benesova, she struck both wings of groundstrokes with an authority born of increasing confidence.

Very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde player herself, Hantuchova enjoyed one of the better seasons of her career in 2011 while recording victories over players as notable as Zvonareva and Wozniacki.  Yet she possesses essentially the same game that she did when losing those nine consecutive meetings with Clijsters, far superior in movement and overall athleticism.  With those two advantages, the Belgian could counter Hantuchova’s sharply angled but not quite stinging groundstrokes until she could transition from defense to offense.  Had not Serena sprained her ankle a round earlier, in fact, Hantuchova almost certainly would not have earned this opportunity to duel with a four-time major champion.  Although Clijsters may consider herself fortunate in one sense, she probably would have profited more from the experience of playing one of her more significant rivals as the Australian Open approaches.

Having shed these shimmering robes and braced herself for 2012, Ivanovic confronts many a daunting challenge in the dense Brisbane draw.  We glance across it in our first  tournament preview of the season to come.

Top half:  After a triumphant homecoming as the US Open champion, Stosur shoulders the unfamiliar burden of holding the top seed amongst a group that includes Serena and Clijsters.  At the 2011 Australian Open, among other occasions, the Aussie #1 has appeared ruffled by the expectations of her compatriots.  One wonders whether her major breakthrough will allow her to handle those situations with greater composure, for surely expectations will have risen even higher following her victory over Serena in New York.  Destined to face one of two streaky Czech lefties in the second round, Stosur must establish herself early in the tournament so that she can build confidence for the marquee clashes from the quarterfinals onwards.  First among those is a projected meeting with 2010 Brisbane champion Clijsters, who has played sparsely since early April but should shine in the relaxed atmosphere of this city near the sea.  Although rustiness might trouble this champion who relies on rhythm, she returned impressively from a far longer absence when she launched her second career.  Undefeated against both Stosur and Ivanovic, Clijsters will aim to exploit her more balanced game and far superior movement to outlast two players centered around first strikes and forehands.  If she survives a potentially intriguing opener against Paszek, the Serb can seek revenge for a loss to Belgian in Miami when she held five match points.  Nevertheless, the memories of that epic encounter should provide Clijsters with a significant psychological advantage in the sequel.

Much more accommodating than the top quarter is the section that houses Serena, who appears in Brisbane for the first time.  Inactive since the US Open, the 13-time major champion likely simmers with motivation to erase her disappointment there.  More successful at the Australian Open than at any other major, she claims to start the season in full physical health—ominous news for her rivals.  Third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski dazzled at this stage of 2011, reaching the Sydney quarterfinals and winning a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne.  But she mustered little resistance to Serena at the US Open and may struggle to overcome home hope Casey Dellacqua, always more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else.  Highlighting this quarter is the first-round meeting between Slovaks Hantuchova and Cibulkova, separated by eight inches and six years.  While Hantuchova lacks the athleticism to survive baseline rallies with Serena, Cibulkova lacks the wingspan to return many of her serves.  A semifinal against Stosur or Clijsters would elevate the level of competition substantially, though, testing the American’s patience and concentration more than she would prefer at an event of this magnitude.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

Bottom half:  Less imposing than the top half, this section features one of the least imposing Slam champions and least accomplished #1s in the history of the WTA.  Sharing a quarter, Jankovic and Schiavone collaborated on a pair of scintillating three-setters at Roland Garros and Cincinnati last year.  Probably spurred by momentum from that victory, the winner reached the final on both occasions.  After she received a retirement from Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak, she next sets her sights upon a second Kazakh in Voskoboeva.  Meanwhile, the diminutive Spaniard Suarez Navarro unfolds an elegant one-handed backhand that contrasts with the Serb’s more streamlined two-hander.  Neither Schiavone nor Jankovic ended 2011 in especially impressive fashion, so both should welcome the opportunity to collect morale-boosting victories against unremarkable opposition.  Should they meet in the quarterfinals, Jankovic would hold the surface advantage while Schiavone might hold a fitness edge, judging from her heroics in Melbourne a year ago.

A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, Petkovic compiled a consistently solid second half before succumbing to a knee injury.  More rested than many of her colleagues, she reached the final in Brisbane 2011 with a victory over Bartoli.  Opening her week is a first career meeting Peer, who hopes to elevate her ranking from a deceptive #37 to its position inside the top 20 from early last year.  While Petkovic appeared in quarterfinals at every major but Wimbledon, possible quarterfinal foe Pavlyuchenkova gained only a little less acclaim by reaching quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open.  Similar to the German in playing style, the 20-year-old Russian has compiled far more experience than her age would suggest and seems equally ready to move a tier higher in the WTA hierarchy, provided that she can improve her serve.  Although have faced each other only once, just a few months ago in Beijing, Pavlyuchenkova and Petkovic should intersect more and more often if their careers continue on such promising trajectories.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

Outside women of the year Li Na and Petra Kvitova, several other leading women have plenty of reason to celebrate over the Christmas holidays.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates match point after winning her third round match against Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic  on Day Six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 25, 2011 in London, England.

Sharapova:  Boldly replacing coaches and equipment during the 2010-11 offseason, Sharapova signaled her determination to catalyze her sagging fortunes following a tepid 2010.  Not until Indian Wells and Miami did she reap rewards, but those tournaments sparked a magnificent spring and early summer for the three-time major champion.  A semifinalist in the California desert, she burst through to her third Miami final following consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits.  With a berth in the top 10 at stake in the quarterfinals, she overcame a pesky Alexandra Dulgheru, an ankle injury, and 17 double faults to eke out a victory in the longest match of her career.  And her momentum did not ebb when the clay season arrived, as one might have expected.  Capturing the most significant clay title of her career in Rome, Sharapova swept through her first five matches at Roland Garros until Li Na halted her.  That surge proved the overture to her memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  A champion at the All England Club seven years before, she erased her recent frustrations at her favorite tournament with a vintage performance of fearless ball-striking.  Legendary for her ferocity in three-setters, she ended 2011 with a 12-1 record in that category, one of the most remarkable statistics compiled by anyone in the WTA.

Azarenka:  Somewhat like Sharapova, Azarenka ended 2010 in a seemingly stagnant position after failing to build upon her 2009 achievements.  A fourth-round loss in Melbourne and  yet another retirement at Indian Wells did not prepare audiences for her superb display in Miami.  In her last three matches there, she demolished the imposing triumvirate of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova without dropping a set.  Demonstrating her proficiency on all surfaces, Azarenka concurrently cooed and battered her way to the final in Madrid, where she competed valiantly in one of three 2011 losses to player of the year Kvitova.  A somewhat modest Roland Garros preceded a breakthrough at Wimbledon to her first major semifinal, although the draw opened conveniently for her.  The draw did not accommodate her at the US Open, where her third-round loss to Serena Williams concealed a resilient effort in the second set that turned the match from a rout into a catfight.  Her second 2011 winning streak of seven matches or more combined a Luxembourg title with two round-robin victories at the year-end championships, where she advanced from her group for the first time.  Thwarted again by Kvitova, Azarenka nevertheless ended the season with a career-high ranking of #3.  If she can find a way to defeat the Czech in 2012, a compelling rivalry will develop.

Stosur:  After the first half of 2011, the bright-eyed Aussie looked destined for a very different type of list.  Reaching only one final, she won four total matches at the first three majors while losing to Dulko and Melinda Czink.  In Toronto appeared the first sign of a revival, when she overcame Li Na and Radwanska en route to the final before an implacable Serena intercepted her.  All the same, even Stosur’s most ardent admirers probably did not predict what happened at the US Open, a cauldron of pressure seemingly designed to unhinge her.  Down a break to Petrova in the third set of her third round, the Aussie rallied to rewrite the script and then retained her composure when match point after match point slipped away in an epic tiebreak against Kirilenko.  Fortunate to face Zvonareva in the quarterfinals, she mastered the role of the overwhelming favorite in a semifinal against Kerber, the type of match where she had nothing to gain and everything to lose.  Overnight, the situation reversed itself when she faced the heavily favored Serena in the final.  Few fans felt much enthusiasm for a match that seemed likely to feature little suspense.  And it did not.  Overpowering Serena with her serve and forehand, Stosur toppled the greatest player of her generation with astonishing courage and poise.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004 had a player so thoroughly dominated Serena in a Slam final and surpassed her at her own strengths.

Clijsters:  Effectively gone by Roland Garros, the battle-scarred Belgian bolstered her legacy by winning a major outside the US Open for the first time.  Opening with a double bagel, she rarely seemed challenged during her first six matches in Melbourne, where both the courts and the environment suited the player once fondly dubbed “Aussie Kim.”  Under unexpected fire from first-time Slam finalist Li Na, Clijsters looked ripe for an upset during the first set and a half.  As defeat drew nearer, though, she refused to crumble as she had in similar situations before.  Slowing the tempo of the match and constructing points more carefully, the four-time major champion found a way to survive on a night when she could not showcase her best tennis.  Together with Serena, she represents perhaps the most impressive 12-13 combination in the history of the WTA rankings.

Serena:  Despite contesting only six tournaments this season, she returned to her familiar intimidating self with remarkable speed after a year-long absence.  Dazzling at Stanford and the Rogers Cup, Serena displayed a delight in winning those relatively insignificant tournaments that she might not have shown before her injury.  Under the spotlights of New York, she looked clearly the best player of the tournament for most of the fortnight as she carved through a thorny draw.  The 13-time major champion revealed late-match nerves on a few occasions but otherwise looked virtually impenetrable in dismissing Azarenka and Wozniacki.  In her highly anticipated semifinal with the Dane, Serena proved again that an elite offense generally trumps an elite defense in the WTA on non-clay surfaces.  Following that commanding performance, her debacle against Stosur must have stung her deeply.  Still, few players could have accomplished so much so soon after so long.

Radwanska:  Hampered by an injury when the season started, the Pole nevertheless edged past the dangerous Date-Krumm and Peng in Australian thrillers en route to an unexpected quarterfinal appearance.  That accomplishment testified to Radwanska’s resolve, a trait on display less often as the first half unfolded; struggling with confidence, she grew tense and tentative at turning points in narrow losses to Azarenka at Indian Wells, Sharapova at Roland Garros, and Kvitova in Eastbourne.  When the second half began, however, the longest title drought in the WTA top 15 ended with victories over Petkovic and Zvonareva in San Diego.  With that reassuring triumph behind her, Radwanska approached the fall with redoubled determination and enjoyed the best fortnight of her career by completing the Tokyo-Beijing double.  As she swept through Asia, the artful counterpuncher befuddled opponents by interweaving her familiar finesse with opportunistic aggression.  As with Murray’s fall, the absence of many elite contenders probably inflated Radwanska’s achievements, but her berth in the year-end championships seemed well deserved.

Schiavone:  When she returned to defend her improbable Roland Garros title, most expected little from the flamboyant but aging Italian.  Like a nuanced Italian wine, though, Schiavone relied upon her cunning and experience to defuse her first six opponents.  Especially compelling was her quarterfinal victory over Pavlyuchenkova, which witnessed massive comebacks from both players, and her fourth-round victory over Jankovic, during which game after game seemed like a miniature drama.  But both of those matches paled in comparison with the 284-minute epic at the Australian Open that she contested with Kuznetsova.  Saving five match points before tottering to victory, Schiavone thrilled international audiences with her shot-making imagination and her unrelenting competitive appetite.  The veteran best known for her accomplishments on clay then sparred convincingly with Wozniacki a round later in a hard-court Slam quarterfinal.  After such first-half heroics, one hardly could blame the fiery Fran for fading somewhat in the second half, although she fell just a 20-game final set short of reaching the second week at every major in 2011.

Bartoli:  Only two small titles did she win this year, yet the double-fister also defeated three of the season’s four Slam champions.  Boosted by a gentle draw when she reached the Indian Wells final, Bartoli enjoyed no such assistance when she reached the semifinals at her home major.  Generally considered a fast-court specialist, she overcame former champion Kuznetsova as well as clay specialist Dulko at Roland Garros, where the expectations of her compatriots did not unhinge her as they have so many French players.  Bartoli reawakened memories of her Wimbledon finals appearance in 2007 when she emerged triumphant from a strong Eastbourne finalist and then halted Serena’s title defense on Centre Court.  Rarely intimidated by any opponent, she attacked the defending champion’s serve with courage and snuffed out an inevitable eleventh-hour comeback with the fortitude of a much more accomplished player.  The Frenchwoman’s iconoclastic style causes purists to shudder in horror, but her much-maligned serve grew more effective this year and rarely abandoned her in key matches.

Germans:  Only one player reached three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, a year of anarchy by even WTA standards.  After Venus retired from their third-round meeting in Melbourne, Petkovic capitalized upon the opportunity by stunning Sharapova in straight sets a round later.  Dormant until Miami, she recorded three-set victories over Wozniacki and Jankovic there, the former of which snapped a streak of five consecutive Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments won by the world #1.  Clay would have seemed a surface ill-suited to her flat groundstrokes and sometimes impatient shot selection, yet Petkovic collected a title in Strasbourg and four victories at Roland Garros.  Not known as a paragon of consistency, she compiled a surprisingly steady second-half record by reaching the quarterfinals or better at all five tournaments that she played before a knee injury curtailed her 2011 campaign.  Among those victories were two wins over Kvitova and another over Bartoli, opponents who had defeated her on hard courts during the first half.

But Petkovic did not stand alone in the spotlight, accompanied by her countrywoman Lisicki.  Multiple injuries and extended absences had blunted this formidable server until the grass season, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinal.  Facing double match point against Li in the second round, Lisicki erased both opportunities with massive serves unmatched by anyone in the WTA except Serena, Venus, and possibly Stosur.  A much less balanced player than Petkovic, she receded in the second half as physical issues resurfaced.  More similar to the German #1 in playing style is Julia Goerges, who ambushed Stosur and Wozniacki while winning her home tournament (and a Porsche) in Stuttgart.  Outside a second victory over Wozniacki in Madrid, Goerges also faded from relevance following that attention-seizing statement.  Nevertheless, the nation that produced Steffi Graf should harbor plenty of hope for a more sustained assault from its racket-wielding Cerberus in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with her WTA Tour World Number 1 trophy in the garden of the Shangri-La Hotel on October 12, 2010 in Beijing, China.

First quarter:  Battered by Gajdosova and banished by Kanepi in Tokyo last week, Wozniacki hopes that this week’s title defense fares better than its predecessor.  Remarkably, she could face the same pair of opponents again in her first two matches, although the booming serve of Lisicki might disrupt that odd serendipity.  Absent from action since the US Open, the 17th-ranked German suffered a slight dip in form following her Wimbledon semifinal appearance and will engage in a bruising second-round battle of first-strike bombs.  Lisicki resoundingly defeated Wozniacki twice in 2009, so the world #1 certainly will have earned a quarterfinal berth should she navigate her Viking vessel around such a dangerous reef.  Less dangerous are her potential quarterfinal opponents, headlined by Schiavone and home hope Peng Shuai.  A quarterfinalist in Beijing two years ago with wins over Jankovic and Sharapova, the Chinese double-fister will aim to steal a bit of the spotlight from newly crowned Slam champion Li Na.  Meanwhile, Schiavone lost her first-round match in Seoul and has looked shaky for most of the second half.  Perhaps more intriguing than the bold-faced names, therefore, are two of Wozniacki’s Slam nemeses this year:  the flamboyant Hantuchova (Roland Garros) and the gritty Cibulkova (Wimbledon), who has struggled lately with an abdominal strain.  In a section with ample talent but plenty of questions hovering over its leading combatants, the hour seems ripe for an unexpected heroine to make a statement.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Second quarter:  Spiked with three Slam champions, this quarter could feature a second-round clash between fellow Roland Garros titlist Ivanovic (2008) and Kuznetsova (2009), should the Serb defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm for the fourth time in less than a year.  Although she displayed flashes of her vintage brilliance in a Wimbledon epic against Venus, 2011 has proved much less kind to the aging Japanese legend than 2010.  Last year’s runner-up Zvonareva should arrive either determined to win one more match than she did in Tokyo or deflated from still another loss to Radwanska, an opponent whom she formerly had dominated.  Should she arrange a third-round clash with the winner of Ivanovic-Kuznetsova, however, one would fancy the steady Russian’s chances to outlast either of those erratic opponents in an encounter of oscillating momentum.  What reward would Zvonareva gain for such an achievement?  As she did in Cincinnati, she could confront the challenge of defeating Radwanska less than a week after losing a final to the Pole, a challenge to which she could not rise this summer.  Inadvertently positioned to rescue Zvonareva is her semifinal victim last week, Kvitova, who delivered a generally reassuring series of performances in Tokyo.  On the other hand, her unsightly meltdown against a player infamous for such meltdowns herself continues to trigger concerns surrounding her maturity.  Kvitova can ill afford such a lapse when she meets the stingy Radwanska in the third round, for the Tokyo champion will magnify and exploit the flaws in her still-raw style.  At Eastbourne this year, they dueled into a third-set tiebreak before the Czech’s power prevailed.  She could profit from the dip in performance that one expects from both Tokyo finalists.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Third quarter:   A member of the Wozniacki “déjà vu” club, Stosur likely will reprise her second-round meeting with Kirilenko in Tokyo should she neutralize Pironkova, who tested Zvonareva for a set last week.  To the surprise of some, the Aussie’s competitive experience proved no shield to the hangover suffered by all three of the WTA’s first-time Slam champions this season.  Just weeks after stunning Serena in such spectacular fashion, she should aim to reassemble her motivation before the year-end championships in Istanbul but may fall victim to one of her steady opponents here.  Nevertheless, Stosur will enjoy a distinct serving advantage over most early opponents except Julia Goerges, an enigmatic German who extended Sharapova to two tiebreaks in Tokyo following an indifferent summer.  If this ambitious German rediscovers her spring prowess, a path to the quarterfinals might lie open.  Among the most compelling questions surrounding this tournament is the tennis with which Li Na will either dazzle or dismay her compatriots.  Although she left little imprint upon Beijing in recent years, the reigning French Open champion reached the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics in her nation’s capital, vanquishing Venus and Kuznetsova en route.  With three qualifiers and two wildcards in their vicinity, Li should feel relatively sanguine about a draw that she will tackle with the guidance of her coach-husband rather than Michal Mortensen.  That new arrangement might infuse the Chinese superstar with fresh energy, valuable against Guangzhou champion Scheepers or the persistent Dulko.  Should she reach a quarterfinal with Stosur, though, Li somehow must solve an opponent who has dispatched her in all five of their meetings while conceding one total set.  Slightly less likely is a rematch with New Haven nemesis Cetkovska in the quarterfinals.  Like a volcano that quietly accumulates lava before exploding, Li has spent a career alternating between long dormant periods and abrupt, ephemeral explosions of greatness.  She has accomplished almost nothing in the last four months, so…

Semifinalist:  Li

Fourth quarter:  A tight two-set encounter, Petkovic’s victory over Safarova determined one of the week’s most intriguing first-round matches.  By dispatching the WTA’s second most dangerous Czech lefty, the WTA’s most dangerous German moved a step closer to an Istanbul berth and showed little sign of sliding into complacency after a US Open quarterfinal.  Two rounds ahead, Petkovic might encounter the third most dangerous Czech lefty in Benesova but more plausibly would encounter Bartoli or Christina McHale.  The rising teenager ambushed the double-fisted Frenchwoman in New York, although that task will prove more daunting without the vociferous American fans to exhort her.  Not at her most impressive in Tokyo, US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova faces recent Quebec champion and fellow serpentine surname Zahlavova Strycova.  Either the 20-year-old Russian or Seoul titlist Martinez Sanchez could pose a stern test for Azarenka, who might meet the equally feisty Laura Robson in her first match.  While the second seed has struggled with lefties before, including Martinez Sanchez, Vika twice has lost sets to Pavlyuchenkova and probably would prefer to avoid her on the court where “Nastia” once defeated Venus.  Rather than a predictable second straight quarterfinal against Bartoli, an encounter between the brash Belarussian and the pugnacious Petkovic would offer the scintillation of the uncertain.  Only once have they clashed before, in a Moscow three-setter, and their relatively even strengths should intertwine for a blazing battle from the baseline as well as a fiery clash of personalities.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  A tiebreak from defeat in the previous round, the flamboyant Italian has grown accustomed to suspenseful three-setters during a year filled with epic encounters.  Among her more memorable triumphs was her quarterfinal duel with Pavlyuchenkova at Roland Garros, during which she lost 10 of the first 12 games.  In that whiplash-inducing rollercoaster, Schiavone then squandered a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to capture the two games that she needed.  At last year’s US Open, the Italian prevailed much less dramatically over a teenager who slumped through a second half of injuries and double faults.  Tested by rising Croat Petra Martic in the second round, Pavlyuchenkova enjoyed a more tranquil passage against 2008 finalist Jankovic, troubled by a back injury.

In a battle of youthful vigor against veteran cunning, the Russian will aim to take time away from Schiavone with penetrating cross-court groundstrokes into the corners that set up mild mid-court replies.  Not especially comfortable at the net, “Nastia” possesses the firepower to end points from the baseline or with a routine drive volley.  Unlike most practitioners of first-strike tennis, however, she has not honed an overwhelming serve or an especially explosive return.  Those shortcomings have forestalled Pavlyuchenkova from mounting higher in the rankings, but they may not hamper her against an opponent unremarkable in those categories herself.  An all-court artist who excels at tying her opponents in knots, Schiavone darted and dodged to consecutive Roland Garros finals by improvising unexpected gambits.  If she can parry Pavlyuchenkova’s initial assault, she might unsettle the relatively one-dimensional novice for the third time in five Slams.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Ivanovic vs. Serena:  Thrilled to reach the second week of the US Open for the third time, Ivanovic relished the experience of playing under the lights of Arthur Ashe as her thunderous forehand crackled through the sport’s largest arena.  From her victory over American hope Sloane Stephens emerged flashes of her vintage form, especially her ability to dictate play from her stronger groundstroke while shielding her weaker wing.  On this fast surface, this challenging task will grow ever more demanding when the smiling Serb confronts the greatest player in this era of women’s tennis.  Superior to Ivanovic in virtually all departments of the game, Serena sharpened her weapons with a victory over world #4 Azarenka that began as a rout and would have ended in that fashion had not one of her backhands landed an inch or two wide.  Drama then ensued, but the 13-time Slam champion enjoys nothing more than drama and once again demonstrated her superiority to the WTA’s next generation.

Likely to experience less suspense in this round, Serena will thrive whenever she directs her backhand into Ivanovic’s two-hander, a neutral shot at best and often a liability against elite competition.  Although the American has lost serve only once in the tournament, Ana still should swing freely on her returns in the effort to seize the initiative immediately in rallies.  Should she not deliver that first strike, Serena’s more natural athleticism will offer her few opportunities to assert herself thereafter, and the Serb will not win many points from her defensive abilities.  In her three fourth-round appearances at the fourth jewel in the sport’s crown, Ivanovic has drawn the daunting trio of Clijsters and the Williams sisters.  Giggling with disarming charm when the media discussed her next opponent, the clear-eyed Serb knows the magnitude of the task ahead and likely lacks the confidence to convince herself that she can conquer it.

Tsonga vs. Fish:  Heavy are the expectations that rest upon the top-ranked American man, especially in a tournament where many of his compatriots have surpassed their projected results.  Joined in the second week by Roddick, isner, and Donald Young, Fish continues to generate the most anticipation following a summer of two small titles, a Masters 1000 final, and a first career victory over Nadal.  Yet his performances to this stage have not inspired great confidence, littered with routine unforced errors and missed first serves.  In the previous round against Kevin Anderson, Fish needed four set points to seal the first set and five more to seal the second.  Hitting consecutive double faults at 5-4, 40-15 in the first set, he conceded consecutive backhand unforced errors at 5-4, 40-15 in the second set before losing his serve with another wayward groundstroke.  Unable to finish the match more emphatically, Fish instead came within a few points of losing the third set as well.

Not known for his competitive steeliness, Tsonga has advanced more confidently against arguably more imposing competition, including an authoritative straight-sets victory over former nemesis Verdasco.  Perhaps still buoyed by his Wimbledon semifinal, the Frenchman has struck even his less imposing backhand with conviction.  Nevertheless, Fish should hope to arrange rallies from backhand to backhand rather than forehand to forehand, for his two-hander should break down Tsonga’s stroke under sustained pressure.  As one ponders the seismic serves on both sides of the net, one wonders how many rallies in fact will develop.  Both players typically establish unrelenting control over a point from the first ball, while neither transitions impressively from defense to offense.  Still without a Slam semifinal, Fish has yet to prove that he can translate his ascendancy from best-of-three tournaments to majors.

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  In a fourth-round night match two US Opens ago, this pair of pleasant personalities waged a gripping war of attrition that culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The 2004 champion showcased her natural athleticism in extended exchanges during which she steadily outmaneuvered the Dane from the baseline during the first set and a half.  As many of Wozniacki’s more recent opponents have discovered, the precision required to execute that strategy throughout an entire match eventually eluded Kuznetsova, fallible as always when the pressure peaked.  Since that crossroads, their careers have diverged in opposite directions with the Dane soaring to the top ranking and the Russian lurching to perplexing loss after perplexing loss.  Reflecting their relative fortunes are their last two meetings, during which Sveta won nine total games from a steady opponent who needed no more than patience and consistency to outlast her.

Despite losing to anonymous foes like Begu, Arn, and Halep at non-majors, Kuznetsova has saved some of her best tennis in 2011 for the most important tournaments on the calendar.  Reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, she dispatched Henin into retirement at the Australian Open and then collaborated with Schiavone on the WTA match of the year.  The glittering lights of Arthur Ashe might spur her to unleash something memorable against an opponent in a state of flux.  Although she survived the first week with minimal difficulty, Wozniacki pursues her first major under constantly increasing scrutiny and with correspondingly increasing uncertainty over the best means to that end.  Only by staying within herself can she earn more opportunities to justify her ascendancy.

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Djokovic vs. Dolgopolov:  A classic example of the dark horse who can defeat almost anyone or lose to almost anyone at almost any time, Dolgopolov has recorded victories over Tsonga (twice), Soderling, Ferrer, and Wawrinka this year.  Yet he also has lost to Potito Starace, Jarkko Nieminen, Jose Acasuso, and Carlos Berlocq in 2011.  The last of those names should sound familiar, for it belongs to the opponent whom Djokovic mercilessly devoured in a second-round victory somewhere between exhibition and execution.  After reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and excelling in the South American clay tournaments, Dolgopolov faded throughout the spring and summer before reaching his nadir with a first-round Wimbledon loss to Gonzalez.  With nowhere to go but upwards, the Ukrainian then won Umag and ousted the similarly budding Dimitrov at Winston-Salem.  His second-week appearance here comes as little surprise, therefore, while his ability to physically and mentally survive the towering serve of Karlovic in the third round bodes well for his future.

A carefree character who plays an effortless brand of tennis, Dolgopolov should not flinch from the towering odds confronting him against a player who has lost only one match to a player outside the top 20 since Wimbledon last year.  So overwhelming is Djokovic’s dominance that his resounding win over Davydenko, a former top-5 talent, seemed imperfect as well as unremarkable.  The best mover in the ATP, the world #1 should track down the spectacular angles that Dolgopolov creates with his sprawling retrievals, ultimately driving his challenger into attempting the impossible.  Beforehand, though, a series of court-stretching rallies and scrambles to and from the forecourt should unfold.

 

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