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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.

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

Thrilled to reach the second week at the Australian Open for the first time since 2008, Ivanovic overcame a spirited challenge from Vania King as well as a lingering virus to arrange a rendezvous with a—perhaps “the”—tournament favorite.  Announcing that she had accomplished her goal for the fortnight, she cheerfully cast herself in the role of an underdog against a player who has not defeated her in three meetings.  During much of her post-2008 woes, Ivanovic continued to perceive herself as a leading contender at virtually every event that she entered.  Her recent definition of herself as someone who can “play a great match” or “upset a top player” (essentially, a dark horse) represented a welcome recognition of reality that likely will help her rebuild her game and confidence.

In the same round of  the US Open last fall, the former #1 faced a similar sort of obstacle in Serena but competed valiantly despite absorbing the loss.  Ivanovic hammered more winners than the 13-time Slam champion during that match, stepped inside the court whenever she could, and even swung freely at her opponent’s justly feared serve.  Now, she must deploy those tactics again.  Practically oozing a Serena-like power, Kvitova launches massive first strikes on her serve and return as well as her other groundstrokes.  Unable to track down balls with the alacrity of a Suarez Navarro, a player of Ivanovic’s type simply must aim to pull the trigger and decide the point before the Czech can.  After an unforeseen second-round wobble against the aforementioned Spaniard, Kvitova settled back into her groove against Kirilenko and should relish the steady rhythm of a fellow heavy hitter like Ivanovic.  Expect plenty of explosive shot-making from both sides of the net before the former #1 gracefully demurs to the future #1.

Murray vs. Kukushkin:  In one of the tournament’s most disorderly matches, Kukushkin blew a two-set lead against an oddly disinterested Monfils before weathering a comeback from the Frenchman, his own fatigue, and a curious disruption in the final game to preserve his perfect record in five-setters.  Also overcome by this opportunistic anonymity in a fifth set was Troicki, not an outstanding competitor on major stages but still much more talented than his nemesis.  Suffice it to say, therefore, that Murray will not want to tempt fate by letting his unseeded foe linger into a final stanza.  After losing the first set to Kukushkin in his first match of 2012, their only meeting so far, an irritable Scot recovered to control the encounter thenceforth. Under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl, the world #4 survived a four-set opening battle with Ryan Harrison that may have steeled him for the challenges ahead.  In his last two rounds, Murray looked scarcely more troubled than Djokovic as he subjected his opponents to the tennis version of death by a thousand cuts.  Although he occasionally has struck his forehand with more authority and has hinted at a greater willingness to approach the net, he has not needed to leave his counterpunching comfort zone thus far.  Murray should not need to exert himself or attempt anything extraordinary to reach a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, where the resistance might stiffen suddenly.

Makarova vs. Serena:  Into the second week for the second straight Australian Open, the Russian lefty banished her countrywoman Zvonareva with a combination of well-placed serves and blistering down-the-line groundstrokes.  A round before, in fact, Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi with even greater ease despite a surface suited more to the Estonian’s style.  Only once has she met Serena, losing routinely in Beijing on a somewhat slower court.  Rarely tested by any of her first three opponents, the woman who has won more Australian Open titles than any player in history did not find herself forced to play her best tennis during the first week.  Serena looked bored at times in her third-round victory over Greta Arn, while her greatest concern so far surrounds the insects that visit Rod Laver in the evenings.  Although she has played with heavy wrapping on her legs and ankles, her movement has looked reasonably efficient on the few occasions when her thunderous weapons do not win her the point within three or four shots.  Mustering surprising resistance to eventual champion Clijsters in the same round a year ago, Makarova will bring more self-belief than Serena’s previous opponents.  The Russian’s lefty groundstrokes will stretch the American along the baseline and may offer her less time to prepare her shots.  But Serena loves to create angles with her returns and groundstrokes, exploiting her natural athleticism to hit her most dangerous lasers while racing along the baseline.  Despite staying competitive for much of the match, Makarova never will threaten to win it.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  In the third game of the second set in Sharapova’s second-round match, something remarkable happened:  her opponent held serve without facing a break point.  All of her other 22 return games resulted in at least one break point—and 20 of them in a break.  Ravaging her opponent’s delivery with impunity, the 2008 champion has protected her own serve more smoothly than she has for much of her comeback.  Early in the second set of each match, though, Sharapova suffered a lull in her serve and the rest of her game after a nearly flawless first set.  At that stage occurred her two lost service games of the tournament, in addition to the bulk of her unforced errors.  For a set and a few games of Lisicki’s meeting with Kuznetsova, one expected an all-Russian meeting in the fourth round.  To the German’s great credit, though, she rebounded from a woeful start to steadily assert her mastery behind a massive first serve.  She will need that weapon to fire more regularly than during her previous meetings with Sharapova, who mauled her much less fearsome second serve in victories at Miami and Wimbledon last year.  Even when the Russian suffered a poor serving day at the All England Club, she still defeated Lisicki comfortably.  Those precedents suggest that her second meeting with a German in the fourth round of the Australian Open will unfold more successfully than its predecessor.  All the same, we have not seen Sharapova respond to pressure during this tournament as she has sizzled through matches while losing no more than two games in a set.  Lisicki could place her opponent in the unfamiliar situation of a competitive match, testing her under pressure, if she can survive the initial bombardment.  But it’s easier said than done.

Djokovic vs. Hewitt:  Soaked with emotion was the Australian veteran’s triumph over mighty prodigy Raonic under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  After losing the first set for the second straight match, Hewitt weathered several miniature momentum shifts in the three sets that followed as he defused the Canadian’s power, exploiting his low first-serve percentage.  What reward does the home hope receive for his labors?  In order to stay competitive, he will need to play even better tennis than he did while winning his first three matches.  To win a set from Djokovic, Hewitt must find his first serve whenever he needs it, finish points at the net, and pepper the baseline with both of his groundstrokes.  At his age, such a complete display of offensive ability probably lies behind his grasp, even with the Australian crowd vigorously supporting him.  Throughout his career, Djokovic has played especially fine tennis when he has not one but thousands of opponents to conquer; among examples, one might reflect back to his victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open or his victory over Tsonga when he won in Melbourne for the first time.  If he senses especially fierce opposition on Sunday night, then, he merely will redouble his efforts to crush it.  Surrendering just ten games in nine sets so far, the world #1 has stayed relaxed without slipping into carelessness as he openly uses his matches to work on less impressive facets of his game.  Although Hewitt won a set in each of their Wimbledon encounters, Djokovic recorded a routine straight-sets victory when they met four years ago in the same round on the same court.  During the four years that have passed, the Serb has grown infinitely more dangerous, while Lleyton has faded nearly as sharply.  Neither of those trends bodes well for the survival of the last Australian remaining in either draw.

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Nishikori vs. Tsonga:  When they collided for the first time last fall, the top-ranked Japanese man stunned the top-ranked Frenchman in one of the latter’s few disappointments during the span from Wimbledon to the year-end championships.  Extending his momentum through the offseason, Tsonga collected the Doha title uneventfully and has won 13 straight matches against opponents other than Federer as he seeks his fourth consecutive final.  In the section of the draw that lacks a member of the Big Three, he must fancy his chances of reaching his third semifinal at the major where he has enjoyed the most success.  Celebrated much more for his athleticism than for his focus, Tsonga often wobbles at some stage during the first week against some unheralded foe.  This year, by contrast, he has rolled through three matches while losing only one set and growing more impressive with each round, much like Del Potro.  Dropping the first two sets to Matthew Ebden before mounting a comeback, Nishikori lost the first set to Benneteau and should have counted himself fortunate not tot trail by two sets to one.  That lesser Frenchman served for the third set no fewer than three times, at which moment the Bolletieri product demonstrated remarkable resilience by refusing to relinquish his toehold on it.  Breaking Benneteau’s resolve as well as his serve, Nishikori returned fearlessly even when in danger, a trait that should benefit him against Tsonga.  But his own delivery remains relatively benign by ATP standards, so he fares best in a match of breaks and long rallies.  The sixth seed enjoys neither of those events, preferring to dominate behind his serve and hurtle towards the net to finish points.  Despite the modest speed of these hard courts, Tsonga should impose himself upon the underdog once more.

Gasquet vs. Ferrer:  During a fine first half of 2011, the Frenchman surged towards the threshold of the top 10 and recorded victories over four top-10 opponents while reaching an Indian Wells quarterfinal, a Rome semifinal, and the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Much less productive in the second half, Gasquet slipped to the edges of the top 20.  Such ebbs and flows have characterized his career, whereas Ferrer has embedded himself in the top 10 with the same relentlessness that he has shown on the court in contesting each point.  To no surprise, then, the Spaniard has won five of their six meetings in a rivalry that has not featured a single final set or any encounter in which the winning player lost more than seven games.  In the best-of-five format at a major, where they have not played before, Ferrer’s tenacity and superior fitness would seem to place him at an even greater advantage.  Although the extended length allows Gasquet more time to strike one of his patented flawless streaks, it also allows the Spaniard more time to recover from it.  Forced to five sets by Ryan Sweeting, last year’s semifinalist did not dominate as resoundingly as one would expect in the first week.  By contrast, Gasquet has grown increasingly imposing with a sequence of victories that led to a straight-sets demolition of Tipsarevic, admittedly not at his best that day.  One need look no further than their respective backhands to understand their contrasting approaches to the game, Ferrer’s a compact model of efficiency and Gasquet’s an aesthetic wonder worthy of an artist.

Errani vs. Zheng:  Fortunate to reach the fourth round of a major, Errani marched through the section that once contained Stosur and would become a most improbable Slam quarterfinalist, even by recent WTA standards.  The Italian doubles specialist lacks any noteworthy weapons and instead wins matches through consistency as well as fine forecourt skills, which she has showcased for her nation in Fed Cup.  Also a greater presence in doubles than in singles, Zheng did reach the semifinals here and at Wimbledon behind her streamlined groundstrokes and alert anticipation.  Compensating for her tiny physique with crisp footwork, she uses the full weight of her body behind shots that penetrate the court more effectively than one would expect.  Nevertheless, neither of these players can compensate for serves that earn them virtually no free points, or for second serves that properly should have a bow tied around them.  A superior returner to Errani, Zheng might capitalize more skillfully upon this weakness that they share.  She also enjoys the advantage of momentum, accumulated through an eight-match winning streak that culminated with an upset over Bartoli.  Through her first three matches, Zheng has defeated opponents with a variety of experience and playing styles, ranging from the double-fisted strokes of the Frenchwoman to the biting backhand slices of Vinci and the straightforward power tactics of Madison Keys.  When she faces the relatively bland Errani, that experience should help her adjust to whatever the Italian will offer.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open Previews

Overcome by Makarova in her first Melbourne match last year, Ivanovic strides towards a less formidable obstacle in the diminutive Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino.  Never have they met before, but the Serb possesses far superior weapons on every stroke and should pummel her opponent’s weak serve with aggressive returning.  Rather than reaching for her more nuanced, stylish gambits, she should stick to straightforward first-strike tennis for an efficient victory.  The first round invariably triggers nerves in even the most prominent contenders, so this match might provide a glimpse into how steady Ivanovic’s serve stays when her mind grows tense.  Nevertheless, Day 2 offers many more intriguing and suspenseful matches, of which we now preview our favorites.

Dushevina vs. Kvitova:   Falling in the first round of the US Open, Kvitova lost six of nine matches on outdoor hard courts during the spring and summer of 2011.  The favorite for the title notwithstanding, she faces a potentially tricky encounter against a woman who has an uncanny knack for threatening far superior players from both Williams sisters to Sharapova and Ivanovic.  At first glance, one struggles to discern what in Dushevina’s game can pose such difficulty.  But her lack of a clear strength or weakness, as well as her marked fluctuations in form, can confuse and frustrate opponents as they seek to develop a strategy.  If Kvitova strikes her shots with relentless authority, she should overpower the Russian in a match scarcely more competitive than Azarenka’s first-round victory.  If she succumbs to complacency and underestimates her opponent, on the other hand, the second seed might not advance as comfortably as she should.

Paszek vs. Serena:  A surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Paszek reinvigorated a career that had disappointed over the previous few years following injuries and sporadic play.  Australian fans might recall her as the player who nearly upset Jankovic in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, while others might remember the pronouncements of Henin and others who identified her as a key talent of the next generation.  Unlikely to fulfill those prophecies at this stage, Paszek projects little power from her serve and does not quite fit into the mold of either attacker or counterpuncher.  All the same, she does deliver penetrating groundstrokes from both wings and will approach Serena with more optimism than many first-round opponents.  The American has accumulated an immaculate record in the first round of majors but often doesn’t bring her finest tennis to the very beginning of a tournament.  Watch her attempts to change direction along the baseline to see whether the ankle injury incurred in Brisbane affects her mobility.

Kirilenko vs. Gajdosova: After she absorbed a humiliating double bagel against Bartoli in Hopman Cup, Gajdosova fell well short of defending her Hobart title.  The second-ranked Australian woman thus hopes to salvage her January with a creditable performance in Melbourne.  Reaching the quarterfinals here two years ago, Kirilenko may find this medium-speed surface more suited to her style than will her uncompromisingly aggressive foe.  The Russian should aim to exploit Gajdosova’s impatience by pinning her behind the baseline without offering her the pace that she relishes.  Skilled in doubles as well as in singles, Kirilenko acquits herself impressively from everywhere on the court.  Whereas the Aussie stays at the baseline except to dispatch point-ending swing volleys, the Russian can venture towards the net with confidence.  That tactic should work effectively to rush the slow-footed Gajdosova.

Sharapova vs. Dulko:  Recovering from an ankle injury sustained at Tokyo last fall, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since the US Open and none at all in 2012.  Understandably in those circumstances, she looked sporadically brilliant and sporadically hapless during a practice match with Vesnina a few days ago.  Memories of her first-round exit from the 2010 Australian Open flicker into one’s mind, considering her rustiness and the steadiness of her opponent.  Although she has distinguished herself more in doubles than in singles, most recently with Pennetta, Dulko has slain many a notable champion at a prestigious tournament.  Among her victims were Henin at Indian Wells and Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, but the willowy Argentine also toppled defending finalist Stosur at Roland Garros last year.  Quite literally overshadowed by the three-time major champion, she can unleash surprising power with her forehand and will bring valuable experience to their encounter.  When she upset Sharapova before, Dulko unsettled the Russian’s wayward serve with bold returning.  Her own serve offers a vulnerable target for the WTA’s leading returner, however, so expect a match onf uneven quality littered with breaks.

Murray vs. Harrison:  Before one feels sorry for Ryan Harrison’s unfortunate luck in drawing Murray for his first-round opponent, one should remember that Harrison probably doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  Never bereft of confidence against leading opponents, the brash American youngster stretched Federer to a first-set tiebreak at Indian Wells a year ago before winning two sets from Ferrer at Wimbledon.  To be sure, Ferrer on grass poses a much less daunting challenge than Murray on a hard court, especially the hard court where he has defeated Nadal and reached two major finals.  But Harrison should enjoy the experience of playing this grand stage, albeit Hisense rather than Rod Laver Arena, and opponents who have assaulted the Scot with abandon have reaped rewards from that strategy before.  Across the best-of-five format, Murray’s far superior versatility and depth should suffocate Harrison and expose his mediocre backhand.  American fans should not expect a sequel to Tomic’s accomplishment, then, but they reasonably can expect a strong competitive effort from their nation’s leading man when these two temperamental perfectionists collide.

Haase vs. Roddick:  Dominant through two sets against Murray at the US Open, the lanky Dutchman somehow lost the script and ultimately the match.  This pattern defined much of Haase’s 2011 campaign, which featured no fewer than twelve defeats in which he had won the first set.  Early in that series, he won the first set from Roddick at this tournament a year ago, came within a tiebreak of winning the second set, and then faded thereafter as an apparent ankle injury overtook him.  Can Haase finish what he started this time?  As Roddick’s career has waned, he has won fewer and fewer free points with his serve, leaving him more susceptible to shot-makers like Haase.  Consistency and experience represent his greatest weapons, though, and both of those should serve him well against an opponent who has much to prove regarding his competitive resilience.

Dokic vs. Chakvetadze:  When they met three Australian Opens ago, one of these women still held a prominent position in the WTA, and the other sought to mount a comeback from obscurity.  Now, both Dokic and Chakvetadze seek to revive their careers from potentially terminal setbacks on both physical and mental levels.  In addition to their experience in adversity, they share similarities in the strengths and flaws of their games, such as a tendency towards double faults and a talent for redirecting their groundstrokes, which skim low over the net.  During a promising week in Hobart, Chakvetadze defeated Pironkova and won a set from Peer before retiring ominously.  During an odd week in Sydney, Dokic served a double bagel to her first opponent and then nearly ate another from Bartoli.  All of this evidence suggests that we should expect the unexpected in a meeting of two personalities strung more tightly than their rackets.

Zvonareva vs. Dulgheru:  Strung tightly herself throughout a lopsided Sydney loss to Kuznetsova, Zvonareva looks ripe for an upset as she attempts to defend semifinal points.  Dulgheru overcame Kvitova in the first round of the US Open, battled Sharapova to a third-set tiebreak in Miami, and extended Kvitova to a third set in Sydney last week.  Although the Romanian rarely has progressed deep into tournaments, she mounts a credible threat on all surfaces with her excellent court coverage and clean backhand.  Those strengths shouldn’t suffice to defeat a top-10 opponent, of course, but Zvonareva rarely has played like a woman in the top 10 over the last several months.  Far in the distant past now, seemingly, are her consecutive major finals in 2010.  After those twin peaks to her career, she has slid backwards steadily.

Mahut vs. Stepanek:  Lilting around the court with a panache undimmed by age, these serve-volley artists probably would prefer a faster surface, like grass or an indoor hard court.  Vestiges of a nearly vanished area, Mahut and Stepanek will engage in truncated points that display a mixture of power and touch.  Neither can muster the consistency to survive extended rallies, so the audience should focus on the precision with which they place their serves and their approach shots, a demonstration more intellectual than aesthetically pleasing but still intriguing for its rarity.

Keys vs. Zheng:  After Christina McHale overcame Safarova, another young American woman aims to continue her nation’s momentum.  The Auckland titlist, Zheng peppers the baseline with flat, low groundstrokes that bedevil tall players.  Her opponent remains a work in progress, still raw and far from mature while filled with potential that merited a wildcard into the main draw.  With a serve that regularly reaches triple digits already, she can target Zheng’s much weaker delivery with her returns to capitalize upon this advantage to the fullest.  In this clash of two players with such different styles, Keys should view this opportunity as another step on her long evolutionary journey.

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

Petra Kvitova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

Whereas only a few of the 128 men in Melbourne will harbor serious title aspirations, several top women can set their sights legitimately upon the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  In fact, the list probably extends beyond these elite eight.

Kvitova:  While her Wimbledon title represented a breakthrough unprecedented for her generation, she dazzled just as brightly she charged undefeated through five top-eight opponents at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Kvitova’s groundstrokes whistled past her victims with a ferocity that froze even the WTA’s most agile movers.  To be sure, the courts at Melbourne resemble neither the grass of Wimbledon nor the fast indoor surface of Istanbul, which only enhanced her power.  If she aims to collect her second major in Australia, she must curb her chronic impatience and prepare for slightly longer points.  No opponent or situation intimidates her, though, as Kvitova demonstrated at the All England Club, and her serve has become not only fierce but generally reliable in a combination rare for the WTA.

Wozniacki:  Clinging to the #1 ranking at the time of this writing, the Dane looked increasingly burdened by the pressure of her position as 2011 progressed.  Thus, the more relaxed atmosphere of Australia might serve as a welcome tonic to her spirits.  Wozniacki advanced within a point of the Australian Open final last year, felled only by an exceptionally inspired Li Na.  Although she still lacks an elite weapon and probably always will, her defense remains as stingy as ever, forcing opponents to sustain a high level of precision throughout an entire match.  Outside her recent meetings with Kvitova, she has dominated most rivals from her generation, including Azarenka.  But coach Ricardo Sanchez, best known for guiding Jankovic to nowhere, seems a dubious choice of vehicle for the Dane’s evolution into a champion.

Azarenka:  Somewhat neglected in Kvitova’s brilliance at the year-end championships was the formidable week that Vika enjoyed at that event, which concluded the best season of her career so far.  Somewhat reminiscent of Djokovic in her sophisticated transition game, Azarenka should benefit as does the Serb on the medium-speed hard courts where she twice has threatened Serena.  Despite her inexorable rise in the rankings, though, she still seeks her first major final and lost all three of her marquee collisions with Kvitova last year, albeit in tightly contested fashion.  One of the WTA’s premier returners, Azarenka may need to improve both her first and second serve to win a major.  Her famously explosive temper, another longtime weakness, has receded as she has matured into a sturdier competitor.

Sharapova:  During what remains the best fortnight of her career, the three-time major champion swept to the 2008 title while exploiting the relatively high bounce of the courts, which brought balls into her favored strike zone.  In her last two appearances there, by contrast, Sharapova has struggled to find her rhythm in unsightly losses to Kirilenko and Petkovic.  Hampered by her slow recovery from an ankle injury, she has played only four complete matches since the US Open, so rust may play a role again.  In such an open draw, though, her experience on these stages could prove almost as valuable as her vicious return.  If she can survive the first few rounds, Sharapova should grow ever more dangerous as her confidence and momentum accumulate.

Serena:  Until an ankle injury struck without warning, the US Open runner-up had started 2012 in imposing fashion at Brisbane.  After losing at the 2009 US Open in deflating fashion, Serena rebounded to win the next major in her characteristic zeal for resolving unfinished business.  On that occasion as on many others, she shrugged off nagging injuries to defeat opponents as accomplished as Azarenka, Li, and Henin.  Even and perhaps especially in a battered state, Serena brings a fearsome degree of willpower to the court in addition to the most imposing serve and the most natural athleticism in the field.  As her career wanes, so will each of those strengths, but one sense that she didn’t return from her protracted absence without Slam glory firmly in mind.

Clijsters:  Blighted by injuries since she won this title a year ago, the defending champion began this season in discouraging fashion with yet another withdrawal.  Like Serena, Clijsters can win almost at will and needed little preparation before winning the US Open as the first major of her second career.  Affectionately dubbed “Aussie Kim,” she will not lack for crowd support at a tournament that appreciates her human qualities.  Clijsters remains susceptible to the unexpected wobble against an anonymous opponent, and her confidence fluctuates more often than it should in view of her status as a four-time major champion.  When the Belgian takes her time and maintains her composure, her game becomes a smooth, efficient mechanism with few flaws.

Stosur:  After bathing in glory half a world away, the Australian #1 returned to her homeland—and promptly tripped over herself in both Brisbane and Sydney.  Uninspired in consecutive losses to Benesova and Schiavone, Stosur has not reached a quarterfinal in nine Melbourne appearances.  Still, her kick serve can extract her from many a predicament, while she should have even more time than at the US Open to run around her backhand and hit forehands.  In the US Open final, she rose to the occasion far more courageously than anyone could have expected, demonstrating both that she can overpower virtually any opponent when at her best and that she can display her best tennis at the most important moments.

Li:  Having accomplished little of note since June, Li arrived at the Hopman Cup searching for a spark.  That spark seemed to arrive with a comeback victory over Bartoli that catalyzed a perfect week in singles.  As we write, she has just defused the dangerous Safarova in a Sydney quarterfinal, suggesting that last year’s finalist might rediscover her game at just the right moment.  Defending a vast quantity of points this month, Li must insulate herself from the pressure that could lead to a third straight precipitous Slam exit.  Probably the streakiest inhabitant of an exceptionally streaky top 10, she remains its most compelling enigma.

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

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

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