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Janko Tipsarevic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnieszka Radwanska - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Sydney International - Day 1

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Juan Martin Del Potro Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina reacts tot a play during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2011 in London, England.

Not among the highest achievers of 2011, these players nevertheless merited briefer discussion during the off-season.  Having discussed the best of the season, we now reflect upon some of the other players who caught our attention, for better, for worse, or for both.

Del Potro:  A tale of two seasons for the former US Open champion, 2011 began promisingly with a pair of minor first-half titles and encouraging runs at more significant tournaments.  Competitive against Nadal in an Indian Wells semifinal and even more competitive in the fourth round of Wimbledon, perhaps a match that he should have won, Del Potro also tested the then-undefeated Djokovic when they met at Roland Garros.  Over the summer, his charge towards the top 10 stalled unexpectedly on the North American hard courts where he had scored his greatest successes.  One of the more enigmatic champions in recent years, Del Potro faded meekly away throughout the fall with the exception of Davis Cup.  Having assisted Argentina to a victory over Serbia in Belgrade, he spared no effort in the final hosted by the heavily favored Spain.  Although he lost both of his rubbers, Del Potro severely threatened both Ferrer and Nadal with a competitive tenacity too little seen from him since 2009.  The question remains as to whether he can build upon those gallant defeats and reconstruct his tattered aura.  Entering 2011 with great uncertainty surrounding him, he will enter 2012 with his status as a contender almost equally unclear.

Soderling:  After a relentless succession of injuries and illnesses halted his 2011 campaign, viewers might not remember that the Swede started the season 19-1 with three titles in his first four tournaments.  But he played only 27 matches the rest of the season, winning just one more title, and entered only one tournament after Wimbledon.  Serving the role of a gatekeeper to the top, Soderling finished 0-3 against top-five opponents and 5-0 against opponents ranked sixth through tenth.  Few players ever quite recover from mono, especially those who rely so heavily on ball-striking power, so the Swede may struggle to recapture his magnificent form of 2009-10.  On the other hand, he did finish his half-season in sensational fashion by allowing just five total games to Berdych and Ferrer at his home tournament in Bastad, an intimidating performance that surely comforted him during the absence that followed.

Roddick:  As dependent on his serve as ever, the American now wins fewer free points on it than ever before.  That trend stems in part from the improved returning skills of even second-tier opponents and in part from his own diminishing energies.  Averaging just two wins for each loss in 2011, Roddick suffered straight-sets Slam losses to Wawrinka and Lopez, the type of talented but unexceptional opponent whom he would have dispatched with ease two or three years ago.  He also compiled a losing record at Masters 1000 tournaments (6-7) and failed to qualify for the year-end championships for the first time since winning his first major.  On the bright side, Roddick delivered his best tennis for the home audience when he upset Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals and won a thrilling final in Memphis over the rising Raonic.  He should collect a few more of those vintage wins while his ranking ebbs slowly but surely.

Almagro:  The only inhabitant of the top 10 who did not appear on our “Best of 2011” list, Almagro reached all five of his finals on clay tournaments at the 250 or 500 level.  Then, he lost to the lowly Lukasz Kubot in the first round of Roland Garros, illustrating the inconsistency that has troubled his adherents.  With more first-round losses than second-week appearances at majors, Almagro unquestionably built his inflated ranking by feasting on low-hanging fruit.  His powerful serve and groundstrokes should earn him more than 13 hard-court wins in a season, the remarkably low number that the world #10 recorded this year.  Still, his choice to play three consecutive minor clay tournaments after Wimbledon tells you everything that you need to know about his priorities.

Monfils:  Whenever and wherever he flickered onto the screen, Monfils briefly enlivened the lives of everyone who watched.  Rallying from a two-set deficit in the first round of the Australian Open, he outlasted Ferrer in a 14-game fifth set at Roland Garros and then succumbed to Ferrero in a four-hour epic in the first round of the US Open.  Dizzy and out of breath?  We haven’t even started to discuss the non-majors, where he nearly let the Stockholm final slip away against the underwhelming Nieminen, did let the Washington final slip away against the aging Stepanek, played final sets against the world #1 and the world #112, and contested eleven match-ending tiebreaks.  In short, the Monfils rollercoaster often impressed, often disappointed, and almost always entertained.  Just when he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious threat, he vanished.  Just when one gave up on him, he leapt back into relevance.

Dolgopolov:  Like Monfils, the mercurial Ukrainian attempted to hit virtually any shot from anywhere on the court—and succeeded much more often than one would have expected.  In his marathon first set against Djokovic at the US Open, Dolgopolov befuddled the world #1 as much as any other player did this year, ceaselessly changing pace and rhythm while looking for angles to exploit.  His most impressive achievement of the year came at the beginning, though, when he defeated Soderling and Tsonga in consecutive five-setters to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.  Hampered by a chronic medical issue, Dolgopolov cannot maintain his momentum for long even if he could maintain his focus.  His smooth, seemingly effortless game nevertheless captures the imagination when he times his shots crisply, more than compensating for his inexplicable early-round losses.

Isner:  One of the most boring players to afflict the ATP in recent years, the towering server played no fewer than 58 tiebreaks.  In four matches, he played three tiebreaks or more as the inefficacy of his return symmetrically balanced the impenetrability of his serve.  Riding that latter shot to a US Open quarterfinal, Isner unhinged many an opponent with the steadily mounting pressure caused by his routine holds.  Perhaps his most notable performance came in a loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, when he lost just four points in the two tiebreaks that they played and closed within a set of a world-shocking upset that would have cast Soderling into shadow.  As mind-numbing as we find his monochromatic style, he has proven it effective even against the elite and has asserted himself as a dark horse in any draw on any surface.

Verdasco / Davydenko:  Both of these players peaked in 2009, when the Spaniard edged within six points of the Australian Open final and the Russian won the World Tour Finals with victories over Federer and Del Potro  Since then, their stock has fallen dramatically.  Despite his excellent shot-making skills and other fast-court talents, Verdasco reached only two hard-court quarterfinals this year and suffered one embarrassing stretch of six losses in seven ATP matches.  His descent still paled next to the disappearance of the now 41st-ranked Davydenko, who posted a 25-25 record this year in a perfect illustration of mediocrity.  But at least the Russian has a convincing alibi of a wrist injury from which he never recovered, whereas the Spaniard’s struggles live largely above the neck.  Jesting aside, it’s curious to observe the different paths that decline can take.  The steep trajectories charted by Verdasco and Davydenko contrast with the more gradual routes traced by other veterans.

Cilic:  Although he accomplished little of note at the majors, the lanky Croat distinguished himself during the fall and on indoor hard courts.  He might continue to reap rewards during that season and on that surface, far from the spotlight of more important events.  Or Cilic might use a promising fall as a springboard towards 2012, capitalizing upon the talent that once seemed likely to embed him in the top ten.  Considering his plethora of weapons and unruffled demeanor, few reasons explain his underachievement over the past two years, save perhaps an ornate technique on his forehand or possibly a lack of competitive intensity.  For now, he remains a bland enigma.

Bogomolov:  To some observers, his decision to play Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States suggested a traitorous ingratitude to the USTA.  While surprising, Bogomolov’s decision didn’t offend us to that extent.  He hardly would have appeared in anything but a dead rubber for the American squad (or the Russian squad, most likely), and the USTA has suffered much more serious slights at the hands of other recipients of its generosity, like Donald Young.  That controversy aside, Bogomolov’s upset over Murray galvanized him to a string of results that his most optimistic followers could not have predicted.  He stands on the verge of receiving a seed at the Australian Open after 15 victories over higher-ranked opponents, including Murray and Tsonga.

Raonic/Tomic/Harrison:  Of this rapidly rising trio, Raonic recorded the most consistent success by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier before rampaging to his first title in San Jose and another final in Memphis.  After he bombarded opponents with an ATP-leading quantity of aces during the first half, the Canadian spent much of the second half convalescing from a hip injury.  Meanwhile, Australian hope Tomic astonished Wimbledon with a quarterfinal appearance that culminated in a tightly contested four-setter against eventual champion Djokovic.  A disappointment at the US Open, he still finished 2011 with a winning record at ATP tournaments for the first time and secured fall victories over three top-20 opponents while reaching the top 50.  Compared by some to an embryonic Roddick, the fiery Ryan Harrison lacked the second-week Slam appearances of his fellow prodigies but defeated Raonic in a compelling three-setter at Indian Wells.  Competing with confidence against opponents like Federer and Ferrer, the foremost American of the next generation gained valuable experience by reaching consecutive semifinals during the US Open Series.  All three of these talents must mature before rising into the upper echelon of the ATP, but fans should feel heartened to see such reassuring glimpses of the ATP’s future.

Bernard Tomic - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 1

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.

 

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

First quarter:  On the top line of a Slam draw for the first time in his career, Djokovic should not test his ailing shoulder significantly against his first two opponents.  Not until the third round does the path become intriguing for the Serb, who then would face Nadal’s recent nemesis Ivan Dodig.  Of Djokovic’s seven victims in Australia, only Dodig claimed a set from him.  Also wedged into this section is former semifinalist Davydenko, a recurrent threat to Djokovic on hard courts although lately struggling to string together compelling performances.  As the second week begins, a pair of graceful, spectacular, and spectacularly erratic shot-makers in Dolgopolov and Gasquet will vie for the right to battle the top seed.  The towering serve of Karlovic and a revitalized Gonzalez might disrupt the Frenchman’s progress with styles perhaps better suited to the fast courts of New York.  But none of these competitors possesses the versatility, athleticism, and mental durability of the Djokovic who has burst to the pinnacle of the ATP in 2011.  Nor, most likely, do his most plausible quarterfinal opponents.  For the third consecutive North American tournament, Djokovic might meet Monfils in an entertaining quarterfinal.  When they collided her last year, however, the latter’s showmanship produced sporadic moments of brilliance rather than a competitive encounter.  His confidence boosted by a Cincinnati victory over Federer, Berdych could block Monfils in the fourth round.  Almost the opposite of the Frenchman in playing style and personality, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist could not challenge Djokovic in Australia and has dropped their last five meetings.  Among the dark horses in this section is Grigor Dimitrov, who delivered a promising effort against Tsonga at Wimbledon and could ambush a desultory Monfils in his opener.

Quarterfinal:  Djokovic d. Berdych

Second quarter:  Having knocked off Ljubicic in the first round of last year’s Open, rising American star Ryan Harrison aims to repeat the feat against another Croat, 2009 quarterfinalist Cilic.  If Harrison should score the mini-upset, a battle between future ATP champions could unfold when he duels with leading Australian hope Bernard Tomic.  Turning heads with his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the Aussie shares the American’s competitive determination, which would serve either of them well against Federer.   Like Djokovic, the five-time champion should collide with no genuine threats in his first two matches and might well reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  No longer able to blaze through draws with sustained dominance, Federer could profit from the opportunity to gradually refine his shots as the tournament progresses.  In a similar situation with a comfortable Wimbledon draw, though, he lacked the necessary intensity to withstand Tsonga’s inspired charge when the competition suddenly spiked upward dramatically.  Aligned to meet Stepanek, Troicki, or perhaps Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, the Swiss legend would face a corresponding challenge at the US Open when he meets Tsonga or Fish a round later.  Lurking ominously near the top-ranked American is Thiemo De Bakker, a tall Dutchman with the overpowering serve-forehand combinations that could trouble even the elite on this fast surface.  As for Tsonga, the American’s projected fourth-round opponent, a host of neighboring qualifiers and the fading Verdasco.  The Spaniard did topple Federer’s recent conqueror during his sensational semifinal run at the 2009 Australian Open, but a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal looks likely.  Can Federer solve a foe who has lost serve just twice in their last eight sets?

Quarterfinal:  Tsonga d. Federer

Third quarter:  In his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Del Potro hopes to reclaim his scintillating spring form and move past the disappointing US Open Series.  Already having defeated Soderling twice this year, the 2009 champion should reprise that meeting early in the second week.  Before that stage, the indefatigable Simon will probe Del Potro’s consistency and fitness by extending the Argentine deep into rallies.  Of the three Americans situated between the Argentine and the Swede, Alex Bogomolov has earned the greatest attention by catapulting from a Miami upset of Murray to reach his highest ranking to date.  Likely unimpressed by this counterpunching upstart, Soderling has not played on hard courts this summer and may open the tournament a few notches below his impenetrable self.  In fact, the two-time Roland Garros finalist has spent much of 2011 located between stagnation and regression as increasing numbers of opponents have exposed his one-dimensionality.  On the day that Soderling meets Del Potro, Murray might seek revenge for his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s Open.  The Swiss #2 chronically displayed skills that shine on any surface, but the Cincinnati title should have boosted the Scot’s confidence before his (alleged) favorite major.  Late in the first week, he might once again test his mother’s loyalties when he faces Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, routinely dispatched by Murray at the All England Club.  Navigating past Del Potro in a four-set quarterfinal three years ago, the third seed typically struggles against the type of opponent who can terminate points without warning from either groundstroke wing.  Nevertheless, the 2009 champion has not yet toppled one of the ATP’s top four since returning from wrist surgery, still searching for the effortless explosiveness that won him this title.

Quarterfinal:  Murray d. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Slipping outside the top 20 for the first time in a decade, Roddick could not have asked for a kinder draw at his home major, which he departed in the second round last year.  Ample talent but scant willpower looms to threaten the 2003 champion in the form of Winston-Salem finalist Benneteau or new top-10 inhabitant Almagro.  Hampered since Wimbledon by assorted injuries, Roddick did play four matches last week in North Carolina although faltering again once he encountered determined resistance.  Here, that resistance should arrive in the fourth round, when he attempts to avoid a second 2011 defeat to Ferrer after falling to him in straight sets during the Davis Cup quarterfinal.  Undeterred by the American crowd, the world #5 rallied from multiple deficits in that match as he slowly gnawed away at Roddick mentally and physically.  Familiar with such a feeling against Ferrer here, world #2 Nadal yielded to his compatriot at this tournament four years ago. After dismal performances in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal could lift his spirits (and thus his game) significantly by recording a series of uneventful victories en route to that quarterfinal.  Projected to encounter him before that stage is another notable hard-court nemesis of the Spaniard, 2010 Indian Wells champion Ljubicic.  The second seed should quell that aging menace before reprising last year’s semifinal here against Youzhny.  Once winning two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon, Youzhny might fall prey to the reinvigorated Gulbis in his opener.  Should the Latvian string together three wins to reach Nadal, a compelling test of Rafa’s nerve might lie ahead.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal d. Ferrer

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Tsonga; Murray d. Nadal

Final:  Djokovic d. Murray

***

We return tomorrow with the companion article on the women’s draw.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses for photographers after receiving a trophy commemorating his number one ATP singles ranking during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 8, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Djokovic:  An overwhelming favorite before Cincinnati began, the world #1 remains the favorite despite the fatigue and shoulder soreness that caused him to withdraw from last week’s final.  Confident that he will overcome those issues before the US Open begins, Djokovic has won 20 of his last 21 matches at non-clay matches, eight of his nine matches this year against Nadal and Federer, and 57 of 59 matches in 2011 overall.  The US Open historically has proved his finest major, where he has not lost before the semifinals or to anyone outside the top three since 2006, and the city’s glamorous atmosphere mirrors his personality.  If he reaches the championship weekend, his improved fitness should allow him to weather the challenges of playing best-of-five matches on consecutive days better than before.  In fact, his failure to win Cincinnati ultimately may improve his prospects in New York by diminishing expectations for him.

Nadal:  Quelled by Djokovic in five finals this season, the defending champion struggled in the US Open Series while registering just two victories and squandering multiple leads in an opening-round Montreal defeat.  An outstanding year by almost anyone’s standards has proven relatively disappointing for Nadal, whose futility against the Serb has translated into a general uncertainty against other opponents.  But the glimpse of his rival’s frailty will embolden this keen competitor, if he can find the formidable serving that carried him to last year’s title, and his “underperformance” to this stage may heighten his motivation.  Other than Djokovic and perhaps Murray at their finest, few of his rivals currently can sustain the level of calculated aggression necessary to overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format.

Federer:  Gone by the quarterfinals in his last three tournaments, the five-time US Open titlist has become increasingly unreliable in his old age.  While his serve should benefit from the fastest Slam surface, he seems unlikely to progress through an entire fortnight without at least one notable lapse upon which a talented opponent could capitalize.  His vintage, inspired self against Del Potro in his Cincinnati opener, Federer looked passive when confronted by the physicality of Tsonga and Berdych.  Nevertheless, he will enjoy ardent crowd support in New York, and he remains the only player to convert a match point against Djokovic this year.  Should he meet the Serb for the fifth straight Open, Federer will gain confidence from his three previous victories there and from their memorable encounter in Paris.

Murray:  A finalist and semifinalist at the two non-clay majors so far, the Cincinnati champion won’t become a favorite to win a major until he does.  Murray might exploit any lingering injury to Djokovic and the erratic form of Nadal and Federer, though, for his counterpunching style demands both durability and consistency from his opponents.  Having played many fewer matches this year than the top two, he might bring greater energy to New York.  Considering the US Open his favorite major, Murray remains vulnerable to explosive hitters on its fast courts.  Moreover, he has lost all three of his Slam finals in straight sets, wilting miserably in the most important matches of his career.

Ferrer:  A clay-court specialist, the Spaniard has reached improbable semifinals at both hard-court majors.  His grinding, underpowered style seemingly would struggle here, but Ferrer rarely loses matches that he should win or contributes to his own demise.  Not a genuine title threat, he could spoil the hopes of one or two rivals before someone hits through him.

Soderling:  Still seeking his first Slam semifinal outside Roland Garros, the Swede will find his weaknesses minimized and his strengths maximized on a surface that favors first-strike firepower over crisp movement or footwork.  Injured for much of 2011, Soderling began the year with three titles in two months but has faded since then at significant tournaments, including Slam losses to second-tier threats Dolgopolov and Tomic.  He nearly extended Federer to five sets here two years ago, however, and should not find the grand stage intimidating.  Absent from Montreal and Cincinnati, Soderling probably needs more hard-court matches to mount a legitimate threat.

Fish:  Like Li and Schiavone, the new top-ranked American has crossed the line from spoiler to contender in his late 20s and now can hope (albeit faintly) for a debut Slam title.  A three-time finalist in the US Open Series, Fish has struggled in finals throughout his career and never has passed the quarterfinals at a major.  Assuming the mantle of Roddick, the newest home hope will go as far as his first serve can carry him and survive as long as he maintains his focus, difficult for him in the best-of-five format before.  A win over Nadal and a tight three-setter against Djokovic will have encouraged the world #7 to believe in his ability to compete with the best.

Tsonga:  Twice defeating Federer this summer, he should find a rapt audience in New York for his distinctively acrobatic brand of tennis.  Leaping and darting to the Wimbledon semifinal, Tsonga never has excelled at the US Open as injuries have hampered his attempts to sustain momentum after his breakthroughs.  In addition to his status as Federer’s most recent nemesis, though, his winning record against Djokovic and Slam success against Nadal inspires thoughts of a splashy potential upset.  A title probably lies out of reach, especially if the Frenchman confronts Murray or a similarly steady opponent.

Del Potro:  Never discount former champions, but a player who lost to Gulbis and Cilic in straight sets this summer looks more like a dark horse than a title threat.  Thoroughly outplayed by Federer in Cincinnati, Del Potro regressed from his spring form in recent weeks and has recalled his younger, more tentative self in recent losses.  Will his first match in New York since the greatest triumph of his career revive him?  While not impossible, that prospect seems distant for a player who has lost all of his matches against the top three since returning from shoulder surgery.

***

We return tomorrow with a parallel article on the top women at the season’s final Slam.

Rafael Nadal - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

With the sport settled into its midsummer vacation, albeit not a vacation for players like Isner and Roberta Vinci, we return from our own brief respite to remember the most memorable matches of the first half.  In three majors and five Masters 1000 tournaments, the top men provided plenty of stiff competition for a list that we reduced to five (or rather six).

5) Nadal d. Del Potro (Wimbledon):  Arriving much earlier in the fortnight than either player would have preferred, this bruising four-hour battle illustrated Del Potro’s resurgence as well as Nadal’s self-belief against all adversaries but one.  Tension seethed throughout the first three sets as the momentum shifted throughout prolonged service games and rallies that pitted the Argentine’s massive forehand against the top seed’s cat-like court coverage.  Barely denied the upset, the former US Open champion left little doubt that he can recapture his glory once he accumulates greater confidence from playing more matches.   A match waged with the mind as much as the racket, however, this encounter deservedly fell to the combatant with the keener survival instinct and appetite for competition.

4) Djokovic d. Nadal (Wimbledon) / Nadal d. Federer (Roland Garros):  Although not the finest hours of these classic rivalries, the last two Slam finals underscored the new hierarchy at the top.  Following scripts with too little suspense to become classics, they nevertheless featured strings of scintillating exchanges from all corners of the court.  From Federer’s choreographed elegance to Nadal’s grinding physicality to Djokovic’s swaggering fusion of offense and defense, the top three showcased their distinctive strengths as well as their distinctive personalities, opening windows onto the past, present, and perhaps future of the sport.  Apparent from both matches was the psychological edge owned by Nadal over Federer and by Djokovic over Nadal, magnified by the weight of the moment.  As the second half approaches, one wonders whether the greater challenge lies in the Serb’s attempt to maintain his supremacy or in the efforts of the others to overtake him.

3) Djokovic d. Murray (Rome):  No less notable than the brilliance of the victor was the courage displayed by the vanquished in this semifinal epic.  On his least comfortable surface, Murray rebounded from an abysmal first set to reverse the match’s trajectory with a degree of aggression unfamiliar to his fans.  The Scot nearly succeeded where the king of clay failed, edging within two points of victory on multiple occasions as he served for the match.  That predicament inspired Djokovic to display his own valor and demonstrate how he had remained undefeated for so long, growing bolder and more focused as danger loomed.  In the climactic tiebreak, the Serb struck each shot with a fearlessness rarely witnessed during his 2009-10 swoon, a fearlessness that proclaimed not just his desire to win but his conviction that he would.  For Murray, meanwhile, this loss augured more brightly for the future than many of his wins.

2) Federer d. Djokovic (Roland Garros):  Robbed by Djokovic in a New York semifinal and dominated by Djokovic in a Melbourne semifinal, Federer clearly entered their Paris semifinal determined to avenge those wrongs of majors past.  Standing within a victory of the #1 ranking, the still undefeated Serb seemed almost certain to contest a third straight Slam final, for few could imagine the fading Swiss legend outlasting him over the course of five sets.  But Federer halted the march of time during a performance that awakened memories of the steely superstar who played his crispest tennis when he most needed to win a rally, returned most convincingly when he most needed to break serve, and fired an ace when he finally arrived at match point.  Tsonga would prove a month later that this match marked only an ephemeral revival, but Federer salvaged his legitimacy as a contender for some time to come with his most notable triumph since winning the 2010 Australian Open.

1) Djokovic d. Nadal (Miami):  Among the most dazzling feats in tennis is the Indian Wells-Miami double, which demands not a fortnight but a month of sustained dominance.  After Djokovic sagged through the first several games of his final against the world #1, observers sensed that this prize would elude a weary Serb burdened by the pressure of his perfect season.  Just as he had in Indian Wells, however, Djokovic willed himself to find the self-belief necessary to turn the tide early in the second set.  Not vanishing in the third set as he did in the desert, Nadal battled the Serb relentlessly through a riveting final set that featured no breaks but several suspenseful service games.  When Rafa stood two points from victory in the twelfth game, observers again sensed that the sands had at last trickled out of Novak’s hourglass.  Then, Djokovic won nine of the next eleven points as his frequently questioned fitness prevailed on physical and mental levels over an opponent previously unsurpassed in either department.  Not scorched by the glaring Miami sun or the intensity of a title-deciding tiebreak, the future #1 showcased the courageous spirit that has developed into the central storyline of 2011.

What goes up must come down.  Behold the three most unforgettably forgettable fizzles of the first half.

3) Soderling d. Verdasco (Rome):  In 2009, both players looked on the verge of becoming genuine contenders at majors after Verdasco reached the Australian Open semifinals and Soderling the Roland Garros final.  This ghastly carnival of errors illustrated several reasons why both have receded to the edges of the conversation in 2011.  Foremost among those reasons was Verdasco’s serve, which cost him the match with double faults that threw the rest of his volatile game and mind into disarray.  But the Spaniard held triple match point in the second set, which he could not have reached without considerable assistance from an equally impatient and equally profligate Swede, whose scintillating start to the season has evaporated amidst illnesses, injuries, and general petulance.

2) Djokovic d. Murray (Australian Open):  Expected to decide the leading pretender to the Nadal-Federer twin throne, the year’s first Slam final unfolded with no more suspense than a coronation.  Serenely surveying the spectacle from Djokovic’s box, Ivanovic trended on Twitter as the far less stunning events below her sputtered and wheezed towards their inevitable conclusion.  If Murray had joined her there, he might have discomfited Novak more than he did with a thoroughly feckless performance that made Britons wonder why they rose early to watch.  One could understand how farcical gaffes on even his steadiest shots cost the Scot his confidence and plunged him into a second straight spring swoon on the North American hard courts.

1) Nadal d. Federer (Miami):  Eager to witness the first North American edition of The Greatest Rivalry in Sports in six years, the Key Biscayne audience saw no encore of the thrilling 2005 final.  Instead, a listless Federer failed to summon tennis remotely resembling his magnificent best and thus did not force Nadal to unleash his own greatness.  When Federer earned a break point in the first game of the second set, spectators waited breathlessly for the plot twist that would turn this match from a soggy dishcloth into a regal tapestry.  But a dishcloth it remained, arguably the least compelling meeting between the two legends since the earliest stages of their rivalry.  Fortunately, Madrid and Roland Garros enabled them to replace this moment with brighter memories.

***

We return in a few days with the companion piece for the women’s first half.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Djokovic:  The undisputed monarch of all that he surveys, the new #1 cemented his ascendancy by triumphing on the most prestigious stage of all.  Expanding his empire to a second surface, Djokovic confirmed that his Roland Garros loss represented a temporary wobble rather than a return to the old order of Federer and Nadal.  This champion’s credentials rise significantly with his conquest of a major outside the less glamorous Australian Open and his first career victory over the Spaniard in a best-of-five format.  Twice dominating the opposition in Melbourne, Djokovic proved in London that he could maneuver through a draw without delivering his best tennis from start to finish.  His unremarkable performances against players like Baghdatis and Tomic disappeared from memory after his emphatic victory over the defending champion.  Especially notable in the final were the improvements to the Serb’s two former weaknesses, his serve and volleys.  While he did not concede a single break point to the Spaniard in the first two sets, he manufactured the only championship point that he needed with an expertly knifed volley that Nadal could not touch.  Maintaining his composure when the top seed mounted the inevitable rally, moreover, Djokovic rebounded from an ugly third set to recapture the momentum immediately in the fourth.  As he travels to the North American hard courts, the new #1 must fancy his chances of becoming the third player since 2000 to win three majors in a season.  Valedictorian

Kvitova:  When the much-awaited younger generation of the WTA finally broke through at a major, neither Wozniacki nor Azarenka scored the vital blow.  Those two competitors now find significant pressure heaped on their shoulders after a feisty 20-year-old lefty snatched the Wimbledon title with a fearlessness reminiscent of Sharapova’s 2004 surge.  Seemingly immune to pressure herself, Kvitova seized the initiative from famously aggressive opponents in the semifinal and final.  Accustomed to dictating rallies, Azarenka and Sharapova instead struck only nine and ten winners, respectively, as they struggled to withstand the Czech’s baseline barrage.  Beyond the fierce groundstrokes that have become de rigueur in the WTA, Kvitova owns a serve with pace, variety, and consistency; that shot separates her from the underpowered deliveries of Azarenka and Wozniacki and the erratic deliveries of Sharapova and Clijsters.  Whereas first-time finalists frequently wilt under the spotlight, the Czech served out the match at love against a legendary opponent.  Beneath her tranquil demeanor lies a degree of confidence remarkable for a player whom few knew before her semifinal appearance here a year ago.  Many of her peers have remained essentially the same players through time, combating the same weaknesses with little success.  In contrast, Kvitova has learned from her setbacks and developed into an increasingly complete competitor.  If she can adjust to her newfound celebrity, a kingdom could await.  A+

Nadal:  Reaching the Wimbledon final in his fifth straight appearance, the top seed comfortably overcame his two most notable rivals outside Djokovic.  After he battled through a four-set epic against Del Potro, prevailing in two tiebreaks, his triumph over Murray showcased some of the most compelling tennis that Nadal has delivered during a season a little below his lofty standards.  Counterpunching with imagination and conceding only one service game, the defending champion illustrated the competitive mercilessness that has carried him to ten major titles.  A round later, the hunter became the hunted as Nadal’s tentative performance at crucial moments in the final revealed his psychological frailty against Djokovic.  At the two most important junctures of the match, Rafa played two abysmal service games.  At 4-5, 30-15 in the first set, a blistering Djokovic forehand clearly unnerved him and led to two missed first serves followed by two routine errors, including a needless miss into an open court on set point.  At 3-4 in the fourth set, following a love hold by the Serb, the Spaniard uncorked a double fault and three more groundstroke errors to donate the decisive break.  Cast in the role of Federer to Djokovic’s impersonation of Nadal, the Wimbledon runner-up faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career so far.  Still, he has lost only one match since January to an opponent other than the scorching Serb.  A

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova:  Absent from the grass preparatory tournaments for only the second time, the 2004 champion showed little rust in roaring to the final without dropping a set.  Although skeptics will note that she faced no top-15 opponent in those six matches, Sharapova nevertheless navigated with ease past a diverse array of stylists, from the lefty Robson to the double-fister Peng to the jackrabbit Cibulkova to the mighty server Lisicki.  Having suffered only one pre-semifinal loss since the Australian Open, the Russian has proclaimed her return to the circle of elite contenders (albeit not the champion’s circle) by translating her momentum from the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami to the clay of Rome and Paris to the grass of Wimbledon.  Still fickle at inconvenient moments, her serve contributed to her demise in the final by lowering her confidence in the rest of her strokes.  As Kvitova effectively out-Sharapovaed Sharapova, one wonders whether Maria’s mind drifted back to her own emergence here as a 17-year-old, when she defeated Serena at her own game.  In both of those encounters, spectators expected the veteran champion to mount a valiant comeback that never happened as they succumbed to defeat with uncharacteristic meekness.  But the cathartic, self-vindicating experience of again starring on the sport’s grandest stage after a seven-year absence surely will inspire Sharapova to a sparkling second half on the hard courts that best suit her strengths.  A

Lisicki:  Amidst an engaging fortnight of women’s tennis, the single most inspiring story came from a player who had narrowly survived a career-threatening injury and had seemed unlikely ever to reproduce her bombastic best.  Perhaps the next generation’s grass-court specialist, the former Bolletieri pupil built upon her Birmingham title with victories over top-10 opponents Li and Bartoli.  Despite her relative inexperience, she displayed encouraging composure in saving match points against the reigning Roland Garros champion.  While the WTA’s age of parity has produced plentiful upsets, few of their perpetrators have extended the momentum from their breakthroughs as did Lisicki when she reeled off three more wins after defeating Li.  The German’s raw, less balanced game, heavily reliant on her serve, may prevent her from rising into the echelon of regular Slam contenders, but she should remain a threat at Wimbledon—and on the faster hard courts—as long as she stays healthy and positive.  A-

Tsonga:  Many are the players who have stared at two-set deficits against Federer and mentally submitted to the inevitable, but Tsonga refused to follow their path.  Erratic for much of the first week, the Frenchman suddenly soared near the tournament’s midpoint into the irrepressibly athletic shot-maker witnessed only sporadically since the 2008 Australian Open.  As he pounded forehands and slashed volleys past the six-time champion, he began to appear a legitimate contender at the major that most favors short points.  Djokovic then restored order in the semifinals, not without difficulty, after Tsonga’s fickle mind floated out of focus once again.  While he probably cannot summon the stamina necessary to win a major, his ebullient insouciance offered a refreshing antidote to the grimly intent top four.  Rarely does tennis look more like a sport and less like a business than when watching Tsonga.  A-

Azarenka:  Falling to the eventual champion for the second straight major, the Minx from Minsk finally capitalized upon a farcically cozy quarterfinal draw to reach her first Slam semifinal.  Contrary to the expectations of some, Azarenka did not collapse at that stage despite an unimpressive first set but instead battled to reverse the momentum, albeit temporarily.  Sometimes vulnerable to upsets against streaky opponents, she also impressed by defusing the recently scorching Hantuchova under the Centre Court roof.  Unruffled by the most prestigious arena in the sport, Azarenka largely controlled her emotions throughout the fortnight and ultimately lost not because of her shortcomings but because of her conqueror’s brilliance.  Yet her serve remains a less imposing weapon than one might expect from a player of her height, while her groundstrokes penetrated the court rather than exploding through it.  A-

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Murray:  Strikingly similar to his Wimbledon performance last year, the Scot wove an eventful route around second-tier opposition en route to another mildly competitive loss to Nadal.  That four-set defeat in some ways felt more disappointing than last year’s straight-set loss, for Murray had challenged the top seed on clay earlier this spring and opened this encounter in sparkling form.  Within range of a set-and-break lead, though, a few minor stumbles sufficed to shatter his self-belief for good.  While he must ground his confidence more firmly in order to halt Great Britain’s drought of futility at majors, Murray continued to handle the microscopic scrutiny that he endures at every Wimbledon with poise and maturity.  Moreover, the glimmers of aggression that surfaced during this natural counterpuncher’s clay season emerged again on grass.  The Scot now must display his characteristic stubbornness in retaining that more offensive mentality even when it yields ambivalent results.  A-/B+

Bartoli:  Unlike Federer, the Frenchwoman surged from her Paris exploits to a notable accomplishment at Wimbledon, where she expelled the two-time defending champion.  Not known for her serving excellence, Bartoli kept Serena at bay with that stroke late in the second set, when the greatest player of her generation threatened to mount one of her patented comebacks.  Despite the rust evident on the American’s game, a triumph over this fabled competitor ranks among the highlights of the double-fister’s career, similar to her victory over Henin here in 2007.  Having conquered Serena, though, Bartoli fell immediately afterwards to Lisicki as her questionable fitness betrayed her in a third set.  One might have expected Monday’s magic to last a little longer than a day.  B+

Pironkova:  Seemingly designed by the gods to vex Venus at every possible opportunity, last year’s semifinalist fell only one round short of repeating that implausible accomplishment.  In addition to dispatching the American by an eerily identical scoreline, the Bulgarian won a set from eventual champion Kvitova and flattened defending finalist Zvonareva for the loss of only five games.  Some players excel far more at one tournament than any other, and Pironkova certainly has chosen her spot of sunshine wisely.  B+

Cibulkova:  Similar to Bartoli, the Slovak watched a magnificent Monday turn to a tepid Tuesday as a stirring comeback over Wozniacki preceded a rout at the hands of Sharapova.  Few Slam quarterfinalists have eaten four breadsticks in the tournament, as did Cibulkova, but she illustrated a different route to success on grass than the huge serves and huge returns pioneered by champions like the Williams sisters or Sharapova.  Clinging tightly to the baseline, the Slovak chipped away at the top seed and earlier victims with low, darting groundstrokes.  Nearly toppled by Lucic in the first round, she competed through three three-setters against more powerful opponents with admirable durability and concentration.  B+/B

Federer:  The fashionable pre-tournament choice for the title (and not just because we chose him), the Roland Garros runner-up could not extend that momentum to the site of his most memorable accomplishments.  Undone in part by the Frenchman’s ball-striking power and in part by his wayward return, Federer resembled more than ever a genius from an earlier age.  Although Tsonga unleashed some of the finest tennis that he ever has displayed, the 16-time major champion formerly weathered those tempests and simply refused to permit such a blot upon his escutcheon.  Much more courteous in defeat than last year, he sounded strangely content with his tournament for a competitor who generally demands perfection from himself.  Perhaps even Federer has begun to accustom himself to the world after Federer—good news for his psyche but bad news for his viability as a contender.  B

Tomic:  Stealing the spotlight from his youthful contemporaries in the ATP, the controversial Aussie prodigy strung together the sequence of victories for which his languishing compatriots had hoped.  As events unfolded, Tomic tested Djokovic more than any opponent before or after him, although he faced a diluted version of the Serb far different from the tornado that swept away Nadal’s title defense.  At just 18, he has developed a surprisingly versatile array of weapons but, like Murray, sometimes outthinks himself when choosing among them.  A straight-sets victory over a two-time Slam finalist en route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal will earn the teenager ample attention over the summer.  Not adept at handling scrutiny and hype previously, has he matured mentally as well as physically?  B

Del Potro:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, he had every opportunity to claim a two-set lead against Nadal.  Allowing the Spaniard’s unfortunately timed treatment request to unglue him, he gave further credence to suspicions of competitive fragility.  From a broader perspective, though, his ability to battle the world #1 on equal terms throughout three tense sets augurs well for a comeback that remains a work in progress.  B

Berdych:  While he didn’t implode in spectacular fashion as he did at Roland Garros, a straight-sets loss to Fish on Manic Monday did little to counter the impression that his 2010 campaign stands as a unique moment in a career of underachievement.  Since reaching the Wimbledon final last year, Berdych has won seven matches in four majors as his introverted personality has shrunk from the expectations placed upon him.  His lowered ranking may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing him to collect himself under the gaze of fewer eyes.   B-

Caroline Wozniacki - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Wozniacki:  When the Dane dines, she must prefer the appetizer to the main course.  Winning New Haven in the week before the US Open, Brussels in the week before Roland Garros, and Copenhagen in the week before Wimbledon, Wozniacki failed to reach the final at any of the aforementioned majors.  Almost entirely a hard-court threat, she perhaps can explain her premature exits in Paris and London as a product of the surface.  Had a champion like a Williams or a Sharapova fed a breadstick to a sub-20 opponent, though, one feels confident that they would not have let their victim wriggle free.  Moreover, Kvitova’s breakthrough underlines and italicizes the question mark hovering above Wozniacki’s #1 status.  Meanwhile, Bastad beckons…  B-

Zvonareva:  Not expected to duplicate her finals appearance from last year, the tempestuous Russian at least should have earned herself an opportunity to face Venus in the fourth round.  But she slumped to an embarrassingly lopsided defeat against Pironkova, whose counterpunching skills might trouble a shot-maker as inconsistent as Venus but should not have troubled an opponent as complete as Zvonareva.  Although her top-5 position survived the avalanche of sliding rankings points, the early upset does not bode well for her attempt to defend the same result at the US Open.  C+

Soderling:  After winning three titles in the first two months of 2011, he has vanished almost entirely from relevance in the wake of injuries, illness, and allegedly a bout of food poisoning at Wimbledon’s new pasta bar.  Understandably surly in defeat, the Swede probably senses that his window of opportunity will pass swiftly as rivals emerge who can match his firepower while surpassing his movement and versatility.  Alone among the top five, he exited the European majors with his credibility dented rather than burnished.  C+

Roddick:  Perhaps Feliciano Lopez played the match of his life in their third-round encounter, dismissing Roddick in three sets less competitive than the scoreline suggested.  But it seems as though the American’s monochromatic style more and more brings out the best from more multifaceted, flashy opponents.  Never quite recovering from his mono last year, the three-time Wimbledon finalist lacks much spark or direction as his career inexorably wanes.  C

Williams, Inc.:  By far the more encouraging return came from the younger sister, who revealed an encouragingly human side after her opening victory over Rezai.  Two uneven victories later, a rusty Serena nearly scratched and clawed into a third set against Bartoli.  Even in defeat, the defending champion displayed the trademark intensity that could propel her to Slam glory again if she stays healthy.  On the other hand, she may struggle to intimidate a WTA that has grown increasingly opportunistic and populated with players who don’t know enough about Serena to fear her.  After she collaborated with Kimiko Date-Krumm on one of the tournament’s most thrilling encounters, Venus dismissed the dangerous Martinez Sanchez with aplomb.  But then she flunked the consistency test posed by Pironkova for the second straight year.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,…?”  Incomplete

Li:  Suffering the misfortune of a second-round meeting with Lisicki, the Roland Garros champion repeated her post-Melbourne stumble of failing to convert match points en route to a loss, the third time that she has accomplished that dubious feat this year.  Since few expected her to complete the Channel Slam, though, the early loss largely just repeated the precedent set by Schiavone and Stosur here after their Paris breakthroughs last year.  Had Wimbledon followed Roland Garros by more than a few weeks, a different narrative might have unfolded.  Excused Absence

Manic Monday:  Replete with upsets in the women’s draw, the busiest day on the tennis calendar felt like an embarrassment of riches better enjoyed in moderation.  By introducing matches on the middle Sunday, Wimbledon could ensure that spectators see and appreciate more of the fascinating action that generally unfolds in the final 16, when dark horses often trample the top seeds.  Furthermore, dividing this round into two days would allow the tournament to include both men’s and women’s matches on each of the following days, not a possibility at present because it would require men to play best-of-five encounters on consecutive days.  Ticket holders and television viewers alike probably would prefer the variety of seeing two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as they do at the other majors.  (Also on our list of convention-bending reforms:  night sessions.)  Expulsion

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals and on an article on the most entertaining matches of the first half.

Robin Soderling - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Soderling vs. Hewitt:  Thrust to the brink of a fifth set by Petzschner in his opener, the world #5 battled not only an inflammable opponent but bursts of erratic play from himself.  That procession of squandered leads and prolonged service games inspired little faith in Soderling’s ability to contend for the title and even cast doubt upon his ability to reach the second week.  Against an equally dangerous foe in Nishikori, the 2002 champion flirted with disaster by wasting a match point in the third set but finished more impressively than did the Swede.  Fortunate to escape their profligacy without further consequences, Soderling and Hewitt complement each other’s strengths with a massive server (the former) confronting a steady returner (the latter).  Despite the serve-friendly surface, both players struggled to hold in their opening encounters.  The Aussie might earn a reasonable chance to score the upset if this trend continues, just as he did against the similarly powerful but mobility-challenged Del Potro in 2009.

Li vs. Lisicki:  Since she exited Roland Garros on a stretcher, the Florida-based German has reeled off seven straight victories on grass.  Elated to win her first title in more than two years at Birmingham, Lisicki also can draw inspiration from the memory of a 2009 quarterfinal charge during which she overcame Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.  Outside the Williams sisters, few women can deliver serves with both power and accuracy equal to the vivacious blonde, who curbed her erratic tendencies to concede only six unforced errors in her opener.  Not tested by massive servers at the season’s first two majors, Li Na withstood the temptation to bask in the aura of her Roland Garros title and maintained her focus to smoothly dispatch Kudryavtseva. Lisicki’s all-or-nothing style often reduces matches to a few key points late in sets, so the Chinese star must stay alert to recognize her opportunities when they arise.

Dimitrov vs. Tsonga:  Often described as the future Federer, the Bulgarian prodigy has worn that label awkwardly at times while attempting to master his volatile temper.  Whether or not the Swiss master’s elegant brand of tennis can produce a champion in an era of enhanced physicality remains an open question that Dimitrov may answer, but he must travel a considerable distance before one can pose it.  Across the net stands a manifestation of that enhanced physicality, a Frenchman with superb athleticism and sporadic focus.  Even on an erratic day, Tsonga should survive this second-round encounter, for he reached the Queens Club final this year and the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year, troubling Murray on both occasions.  This match thus represents a rare opportunity for Dimitrov to test himself against a mature member of the elite and learn from the results, as well as an opportunity for spectators to measure his evolution in comparison to Harrison, Raonic, Berankis, and other rising stars.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

Sharapova vs. Robson:  For the second round of the second straight major, Sharapova levels her glacial gaze at the most promising rising star from the host nation.  Narrowly surviving the lashing forehands of Caroline Garcia in Paris, she will hope to overcome the similarly spunky Laura Robson in less suspenseful fashion.  Within a game of defeat in the first round, the former junior Wimbledon champion rallied impressively to turn the tide but nearly let a double-break lead slip away in the third set before collecting herself.  Unflustered by former top-10 denizen Chakvetadze in her opener, Sharapova moved with surprising fluidity on a surface where she had not played any preparatory matches.  Her crisp footwork and clean ball-striking defined an intimidatingly effortless performance, but she has looked equally emphatic in first rounds of majors past before faltering soon afterwards.  A second-round victim in two of her last three Wimbledon appearances, the 2004 champion may require a few games to adjust to the patterns of an unfamiliar challenger.  Meawhile, Robson also must adjust to the pace of an opponent who strikes the ball more savagely than anyone whom she has played before.

Ferrer vs. Harrison:  Perhaps a future rival of Dimitrov, the most promising young American announced himself at the US Open last year and continued his success as an Indian Wells wildcard this spring.  Less successful outside his home nation, Harrison exploited his lucky-loser status to the fullest by defeating Croat Ivan Dodig, who had won a title this year and challenged more than one notable opponent.  Since Ferrer finds his grinding style least suited to this surface, the fiery phenom may fancy his chances to score an upset over a player who will not out-serve him like most of the top 10.  Relying on his experience to overcome Harrison’s superior power, the seventh seed has reached the second week at Wimbledon before and likely has accumulated superior fitness for what promises to become an extended battle.  The American harbors a voracious appetite for competition himself, however, so he should not relent easily.

Ivanovic vs. Daniilidou:  The only Serb to reach the second round in the women’s draw, Ivanovic dazzled in a 48-minute victory over Oudin filled with pulverized returns and audaciously angled forehands.  Oscillating in form from one day to the next throughout the season, the former #1 either has annihilated opponents or slumped to demoralizing defeats without much explanation for one outcome or the other outside the status of a few nagging injuries.  Not threatening an adversary of Ana’s credentials for many months, her sub-100 opponent had won exactly one main-draw match at 2011 WTA tournaments before defusing Coco Vandeweghe’s serve in the first round.  Daniilidou did defeat Henin here six years ago, suggesting that her unusual one-handed backhand and concomitant weapons translate smoothly to grass.  But Ivanovic’s fate rests firmly in her own hands, for she projects superior power behind nearly every shot.

Almagro vs. Isner:  Escaping a tepid encore of the Mahut marathon without undue exertion, Isner will aim to progress much further into the draw than he could after last year’s historic collision.  This year’s Wimbledon has not proved kind to tall players, for Karlovic fell in straight sets to an unremarkable opponent, while the diminutive Rochus captured the first set from Del Potro.  Nevertheless, the grass usually proves even less kind to clay specialists, who struggle to streamline their elongated swings and eschew their baseline-tethered positioning to step inside the court.  Especially reluctant to break free from that mold is a dirt devil as dedicated as Almagro, who swept through the picayune South American tournaments with an almost comical determination.  Unlikely to appease the gods of grass by regularly charging the net, the Spaniard will juxtapose his horizontal baseline coverage with Isner’s vertical forecourt gambits.  An often reckless shot-maker, Almagro must stay stingy in order to quell an opponent against whom any misstep, as Nadal muttered, causes “big trouble.”

Serena Williams Serena Williams of USA in action against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during day five of the AEGON International at Devonshire Park on June 15, 2011 in Eastbourne, England.

Rezai vs. S. Williams:  Had she maintained her form of a year ago, the flamboyant Frenchwoman would have posed a thorny test for a momentarily vulnerable Serena.  In two matches at Eastbourne, the 13-time major champion looked sporadically frail in many departments but most notably her serve, the key to her four Wimbledon titles.  Fortunately for Serena, though, Rezai has battled a maelstrom of emotional and psychological turmoil off the court that has undermined her season. On the other hand, she might recapture her swagger with the opportunity to showcase her skills on Centre Court.  Having traded baseline missiles with Serena throughout an entertaining three-setter in Sydney, Rezai demonstrated the requisite firepower to conquer the American at her own game.  But one doubts that she sustain it across three sets, as she rarely has throughout her career.

Soderling vs. Petzschner:  Seemingly to his own surprise, Petzschner produced a finals run in his home tournament of Halle that culminated with a three-set victory over Berdych.  Exhausted by those exertions, he retired in the final but surely will arrive in Wimbledon in a dangerously confident mood.  A quarterfinalist here last year, Soderling has lost to the eventual champion in each of the last two years as he did at Roland Garros.  The world #5 has honed a groundstroke arsenal not only steadier but more formidable than Petzschner’s strokes, while his serve will garner just as many free points from the fast court.  Never a natural mover, though, Soderling may struggle to find his footing on the slippery surface after missing the grass preparatory events.  Despite his mid-career breakthrough, he remains vulnerable to unpredictable upsets at majors and has lacked consistency throughout an injury-plagued spring.

Li vs. Kudryavtseva:  Notorious for a temper as flaming as her hair, the Russian came within two points of upsetting Venus early in the American’s historic 2007 title run.  A year later, Kudryavtseva won those two points against Sharapova shortly before her compatriot departed for shoulder surgery.  Just weeks removed from her Roland Garros crown, Li thus should not enter her Wimbledon opener with a complacency otherwise justifiable under the circumstances.  After arriving in maiden Slam finals at the French Open last year, both Schiavone and Stosur slumped to early exits at the All England Club.  More disturbingly, Li herself has followed torrid bursts with arid stretches as her motivation seemingly evaporates.  While Channel Slams have become routine on the men’s side, no woman in recent years has equaled the feats of Nadal and Federer.

Isner vs. Mahut:  Scheduled on a court that didn’t exist during their epic encounter a year ago, the two record-setters probably will enjoy the sequel more than the original.  Expect a semi-serious, semi-exhibition atmosphere as the adversaries-turned-friends make the most of a deliciously bizarre coincidence.  And expect points as short as this preview.

Dolgopolov vs. Gonzalez:  Surging to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Dolgopolov demonstrated lithe movement and smooth stroke production in addition to an uncanny feel for the ball.  But the Ukrainian has produced inconsistent results since that achievement, revealing an indifferent sense of point construction and shot selection.  The grass should showcase his delicate touch around the net, although his movement will prove a less valuable tool.  Returning from a potentially career-ending surgery, Gonzalez has alternately soared and staggered even more sharply.  Not at his most comfortable on this surface, the Australian Open finalist and Olympic silver medalist possesses a fiercer weapon in his forehand than anything that Dolgopolov can deploy.  If the Ukrainian can find his backhand with his own crisp two-hander, though, he can neutralize the Chilean’s power.  Built upon brief, almost casual motions, both serves can oscillate as much as the rest of their games.  Thrusting Tsonga deep into a fifth set here last Wimbledon, Dolgopolov may deliver another dramatic rollercoaster this year.

Nishikori vs. Hewitt:  Surely soon to vanish into the mists of tennis history is the last man to win Wimbledon before Federer planted his standard on Centre Court.  Nine years and several surgeries later, Hewitt no longer ranks among the contenders but can reflect upon memories as recent as his upset of Del Potro here in 2009.  Unfortunate to draw eventual champion Nadal in his 2010 opener, Nishikori has developed a style similar to Hewitt in his prime with sturdy technique, compact strokes, and mental durability.  With serves little better than point-starting shots, these players might engage in longer rallies than those often seen on grass.  In addition to their backwards caps and counterpunching tenacity, Hewitt and Nishikori share brisk cross-court backhands that exploit the geometry of the court.

Ana Ivanovic - AEGON Classic - Day Six

Ivanovic vs. Oudin:  A first-round victim in three of the last four majors, the former #1 has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since her title at Roland Garros 2008.  Nevertheless, she has recorded solid results at non-majors with sufficient frequency to stabilize her ranking inside or slightly outside the top 20.  After her 2009 US Open quarterfinal, meanwhile, Oudin has plunged off the tennis radar as swiftly as she burst upon it.  Two years ago, both players reached the second week here, and both gain contrasting benefits from the grass. Striking sixteen aces in a Birmingham semifinal, Ivanovic benefits from the surface’s short points and will hope to crack plentiful return winners off Oudin’s unimposing serve.  Like many tall players, though, the Serb sometimes struggles to adjust to the low bounce on grass, which rewards her opponent’s compact stature.  Both Ana and the American vastly prefer their forehands to their backhands, so each should target the other’s weaker wing with inside-out strikes of their weapons.

Sharapova vs. Chakvetadze:  The only former champion in the draw not named Williams, Sharapova ascended to the status of a leading contender after her Roland Garros semifinal.  Seeking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2006, the 2004 champion confronts an opponent whom she has dispatched in all seven of their previous meetings.  After a giddy ascent to the top 5 four years ago, Chakvetadze tumbled to a sub-100 ranking in the wake of a house robbery and a disintegrating serve.  Impressive on the clay when few expected anything notable from her, Sharapova must continue her progress with those expectations now renewed.  Choosing to rest rather than enter Birmingham as usual, she has practiced at Wimbledon for over a week but still lacks any match practice on grass.  Chakvetadze may have an opportunity to exploit that lingering rust early in the match before Sharapova, a habitually slow starter, finds her range and starts to spray chalk around Centre Court.

Cibulkova vs. Lucic:  Yet another retiree who fancied a comeback, a woman who once defeated Seles at Wimbledon aims to recapture that magic of more than a decade ago.  After an encouraging clay campaign, Lucic garnered a pair of wins in Birmingham as her serve struck its targets with increasing precision.  That crucial shot still disintegrates occasionally, though, producing strings of double faults without warning.  A steadier competitor who lacks the Croat’s first-strike power, Cibulkova may find her short wingspan threatened on returns but should outlast Lucic if she can survive the first few shots of the rally.  Despite defeating Kuznetsova en route to the Dutch Open semifinals, the Slovak has found grass her least productive surface and has won only four matches in four Wimbledon appearances—fewer than her opponent won during her signature run in 1999.