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Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Out with the old, in with the new:  Just two days apart, spectators caught glimpses of the last decade’s dominant ATP rivalry and the rivalry that has crystallized in its place.  More striking a contrast one could scarcely imagine than the gulf that yawned between Friday’s pallid semifinal and Sunday’s pulsating final.  Only occasionally competitive, the Federer-Nadal clash lasted just 79 uneventful minutes as the Spaniard dominated a somber Swiss in every department of the game.  Early in the second set, Federer’s double fault on break point epitomized an encounter only slightly less decisive than Djokovic’s victory over Fish in the other semifinal.  The sprawling 201-minute labyrinth of the championship match, however, encompassed multiple momentum shifts between two fiery competitors who rarely relaxed their willpower.  Permitting no breaks of serve after the second game of the second set, Nadal and Djokovic collaborated on a crescendo of suspense that culminated in a final-set tiebreak after the eventual runner-up had edged within two points of the title.

The last two rounds in Miami thus proved that Federer has sunk to the third-best player in the world—and by a considerable margin.  Unless the balance of power shifts sharply on clay and grass, this realization may erode the Swiss legend’s confidence in future meetings with the two who have surpassed him.  Meanwhile, fans can thrill to the prospect of a new, distinct, equally scintillating duel at the top.  Can Djokovic launch an assault upon Nadal’s clay citadel?  If he doggedly pursues the Spaniard’s footsteps across the spring and summer, the Serb could initiate a genuine battle for #1 that few would have envisioned a year ago.   In a sport where narratives shift exceptionally fast, though, one would be unwise to project too far ahead.

In with the old, in with the new:  Amidst a transitional period and the criticisms that accompany it, the WTA must have relished the convergence of past and future that transpired in Miami.  Suggesting parallels with Zvonareva’s emotional maturation, Azarenka found her long-absent composure to withstand three three-setters in her opening matches.  Not distant from defeat against Cibulkova, she later surrendered just 14 total games to the notable trio of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Azarenka  admittedly struggled to deliver the coup de grace after thoroughly dominating both Slam champions, but she likely will maintain leads with greater aplomb as her confidence mounts.  Juxtaposed with Wozniacki’s performance at Indian Wells, the Belarussian’s second Miami title reclaimed at least a corner of the spotlight from her peer, although she still must prove that she can build upon the achievement more effectively than in 2009.

Forced to concede the champion’s supremacy, Sharapova may struggle to solve the conundrum posed by newcomers like Azarenka who can fuse power with consistency.  Nevertheless, she demonstrated throughout the week how far the mind and the spirit can carry a competitor of her towering resolve.  Psychologically adjusted to her serve’s fallibility, the Russian continued to impose her will upon opponents with a grim determination as relentless and intimidating as her shrieks.  Returning to the top 10 for the first time since 2009, the three-time major champion earned her ascendancy in suitably dramatic fashion with the longest match of her career.  That signature performance tested her perseverance to the limit, but 76 unforced errors, 17 double faults, and a painful ankle injury could not dull the Russian’s appetite for conquest.  Her most impressive result since shoulder surgery, Sharapova’s exploits in Miami extended her surge from Indian Wells and dispelled the malaise that had hovered above her since the US Open.

Surprise semifinalists:  Earlier in his career, Fish would not have won wars of attrition against formidable opponents in the torrid environment of Key Biscayne.  But a draconian fitness program has enabled him to complement his shot-making skills with serviceable defense and movement, which he showcased in an unexpected triumph over Del Potro.  Then he mentally outlasted grinder par excellence Ferrer in a quarterfinal to become the top American man, an accolade that he earned for the first time.  Unable to convert his first-set opportunities against Djokovic, Fish nevertheless challenged the world #2 more consistently than the scoreline suggested.  Unfortunately for him, the clay season will blunt his momentum, but he might well resurface during the US Open Series for the second straight year.

Even more impressive than the American’s accomplishments were the feats of a plucky, zany German in the other draw.  Although Wozniacki contributed to her own demise with over 50 unforced errors, Petkovic still merits applause for inflicting steady pressure on the world #1 and showing no uncertainty as she served out the match.  Firmly confident in her weapons, she clawed back from a third-set deficit against 2008 finalist Jankovic by weathering a grueling series of deuce games riddled with protracted rallies.  Bursting to the attention of international audiences with her patented “Petko-dance,” Petkovic now wisely has chosen to center her energies upon activities during rather than after the match.  A threat on every surface, the German has developed a habit of peaking at the most significant tournaments; this trend could vault her into the top 10 later this year should it persist.

What a difference a year makes:  Plunging outside the top 10, Roddick suffered from a host of ailments en route to an opening-round loss at the tournament that he captured in such scintillating style last year.  When he fell just one victory short of the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2010, the American seemed on the verge of regaining the form that he displayed during the 2009 Wimbledon final.  But such hopes evaporated after an untimely bout of mono from which Roddick still has not quite recovered.  While winning Memphis and reaching the Brisbane final this year, he has lost before the quarterfinals at the three marquee events that he has contested:  the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Despite a quarterfinal appearance at this year’s tournament, 2010 runner-up Berdych resembled his inconsistent former self during a three-setter against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and a near-loss to Florian Mayer.  Required to defend copious quantities of points on clay and grass, the Czech may bounce from his elevated ranking by the second half.

What a difference a surface could make:  Shining on the red-brick road to Roland Garros last year, Verdasco will welcome the Tour’s return to his favorite surface after losses to Querrey and the nearly unknown Pablo Andujar in North America.  Doubtless sharing his delight is compatriot and 2010 Rome finalist Ferrer, eager to erase the memories of an oddly listless loss to Fish in a quarterfinal poisoned by costly double faults.  Like Roddick, Soderling has battled illness and injury over the past month, so his premature exit against Del Potro raised few eyebrows.  Nevertheless, the Swede’s spirits should soar when he steps onto the terre battue where his greatest achievements have occurred.

Stirring briefly to life before Sharapova stifled her, Stosur prepares to mount her title defense in Charleston this week.  Often confused and disorganized during her recent slump, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up should profit from the additional time allowed by the surface where her kick serve most thrives.  Looking similarly puzzled over much of the last several months, Kuznetsova has failed to capitalize upon her victory over Henin in Melbourne as well as a Dubai finals appearance a month later.  Searching for consistency, the Russian will find the terre battue an ideal terrain to hone her technique and develop a rhythm, while the longer rallies will force Sveta to sharpen her focus.  And, while March proved generally kind to the 2008 Roland Garros champion, a change of surface and continent may aid Ana in draining the disillusionment of her Clijsters defeat from her mind.  Justifiably determined to view that match through an optimistic lens, she still may benefit psychologically from turning her back on the hard courts for the next few months.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

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Novak Djokovic Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after their match during the final of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 20, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Twice a runner-up in Miami, the all-time leader in Masters Series shields now eyes a third opportunity to add this coveted crown to his collection.  Across the net looms an opponent who seeks to not only complete the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double but also become the first player in ATP history to reach the clay season undefeated.  Moreover, Djokovic almost certainly would break Lendl’s record for a single-season winning streak should he win his second Key Biscayne title.  The stakes thus stand higher for him than for the world #1, although Nadal surely would not relish the prospect of consecutive losses to the same rival at these prestigious North American tournaments.

Central to the outcome of their Indian Wells final was the mysterious collapse of the Spaniard’s serve, without which he cannot overcome an opponent of Djokovic’s talent.  Until that shot disintegrated so miserably, Nadal dominated the majority of the extended rallies and looked likely to record a routine straight-sets victory.  But the Serb played a substantial role in whiplash-like reversal of fortunes, staying mentally resilient deep into the second set and shrugging off several potentially deflating errors as he served for it.  Under scant pressure in the third set, he marched majestically toward the winner’s podium as his fabled foe failed to collect himself.  For the first time in his career, Djokovic won a final and rallied from a one-set deficit against Nadal, accomplishments that will combine with his 8-5 hard-court record against the Spaniard to infuse him with additional confidence in his pursuit of history on Sunday.  Impeccable in sets during this tournament, the new #2 has lost no more than six games in any of his matches and just 18 total games en route to the final.  Never even pushed to 5-5 in a set, the Serb jestingly considered a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Kevin Anderson a difficult match.  And so it was by his recent standards, which raises the question of whether he will have sufficient preparation for an opponent far more dangerous than his previous prey.  Djokovic’s often farcically smooth progress through the Miami draw may have preserved his energy for the final but also has not forced him to leave his comfort zone or elevate his focus.  When Rafa offers much sterner resistance, as he surely will, we will discover whether an airplane that impresses at cruising altitude can weather a burst of turbulence.  Should he maneuver himself into position to win, furthermore, will the burden of achieving the double and the other records weigh heavily upon his shoulders?

While Rafa reinvigorated his serve earlier in this tournament, one wonders whether his memories from the desert will inject tension into that crucial stroke when he faces the same opponent in another final.  Whenever the world #1 wandered into perilous territory here, however, his serve swooped to the rescue less with outright aces than with well-placed, penetrating balls that allowed him to seize command early in the rally.  Expressing greater satisfaction with his game than at the previous tournament, the world #1 has lost his serve only once through five matches (admittedly once more often than Djokovic has lost his serve).  Unlike his tranquil route through the Indian Wells draw and his opponent’s route here, Nadal has traced a dangerous path past a more resilient series of opponents and advances to the final after a pair of triumphs over top-10 rivals.  After an uneven three-setter against Berdych, he soared to his most emphatic victory over Federer on a surface other the clay.  Nevertheless, Rafa now faces the unusual situation of following that triumph with another before the title.  Not in that situation since Roland Garros 2005, Nadal must guard against peaking too soon and forgetting that the Hydra still has another head.  Considering his unparalleled focus and self-motivating powers, however, he should approach that challenge with aplomb.  Nor will the disillusionments of Miami finals lost in 2005 (to Federer) and 2008 (to Davydenko) likely return to haunt him.  A player who lives firmly in the moment, the world #1 should approach his Sunday opponent with a clear mind, aided by the familiarity that their frequent meetings have provided.

Clashing more frequently than Federer and Nadal, the ATP top two have engineered a rivalry currently more scintillating than its predecessor.  Separating them from their peers, in our view, is their ability to transition from defense to offense in the most improbable positions.  Gifted with sensational movement and counterpunching skills, they can strike penetrating shots even when thrust onto defense well behind the baseline.  Once they reverse the momentum in a rally, they rarely allow opponents to regain the initiative but instead can finish points with any shot, ranging from delicate drop shots to inside-out forehand blasts.  Therefore, one often prefers watching the return games of both Novak and Rafa rather than their service games, when they generally open exchanges on offense and pursue them to an inevitable conclusion.  Against each other, though, the fearsome combination of movement, power, and reflexes results in thunderous rallies during which several shots that would have defeated an ordinary opponent barely alter the balance of power in rallies.  Should Nadal and Djokovic deliver a performance worthy of their previous collisions, tennis fans may begin to ask themselves a question unthinkable a few years ago.  Might a new rivalry ultimately transcend in drama and spine-tingling shot-making the greatest rivalry in sports?

Rafael Nadal (L-R) Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with Rafael Nadal prior to playing their men's singles final match during day fifteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Like all successful sorceresses, the Siberian siren has acquired an apprentice who now aspires to dethrone her.  A reluctant runner-up in 2005 and 2006, Sharapova will contest her third Miami final as an underdog on paper but perhaps not in reality.  Seeking to become the seventh consecutive lower-ranked finalist to win the title, the Russian meets the equally strong-lunged 2009 champion.  Their paths have intersected on just four occasions so far, resulting in percussive groundstrokes, ringing shrieks, and one classic in Beijing.  In that 2009 meeting, Sharapova roared from the brink of defeat to a spectacular comeback after Azarenka twice served for the match.  Emphatically erasing the scars of that loss, the Belarussian soared past the three-time major champion in the Stanford final last year at the climax of her finest week of tennis in 2010.

After an even more dazzling display here, Azarenka already has defused two of the top three players in the world as well as a pair of dangerous dark horses in Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova.  Conquering both Clijsters and Zvonareva in straight sets, the 2009 champion bombarded the baseline with crisp groundstrokes that forced her opponents into unfavorable court positioning.  When she seized the initiative in rallies, moreover, Vika showed no hesitation before surging into the forecourt to dispatch swinging volleys or sharply angled backhands worthy of her opponent in the final.  Like Sharapova, Azarenka can strike flagrant winners from either groundstroke but gains greater consistency from the backhand than the forehand.  Also like Sharapova, she possesses a weapon on her return of serve more impressive as her serve itself, which remains the most unreliable component of their games.  Again like Sharapova, she regularly redirects the ball off both wings and over the high part of the net.  Just as an alert listener can distinguish between their shrieks, though, an alert viewer can distinguish between certain qualities of their styles and strategies.  For example, the apprentice reverses direction along the baseline more swiftly than does the sorceress, a flaw in the Russian’s movement that the Belarussian will aim to exploit.  A more versatile and fluid player, Azarenka does not target the edges of lines and corners as relentlessly as Sharapova.  Admittedly far from patient, the 2009 champion arguably constructs points more thoughtfully than her fellow finalist.  Less confident in her movement and consistency, the three-time major champion prefers to assume one significant risk in a point rather than a series of several smaller risks.

Not a natural, instinctive athlete, Sharapova relies upon her greater first-strike power to terminate exchanges with methodical, almost mechanized precision.   Armed with superior shot-making skills, the Russian does not flinch from pulling the trigger even from unpromising positions, aware that stunning results often reward her.  On the other hand, Maria recognizes that she prospers more frequently when she unleashes her firepower from inside the baseline rather than behind it.  This realization assisted her in reversing the momentum of her previous two victories after losing the first set in each of them.  Initially waiting for the ball to arrive, she steeled herself to step forward into her strokes and lean her full weight behind them.  Sharapova must maintain that mentality against Azarenka while also punishing the Belarussian’s second serves, which she once caustically labeled “creampuffs.”   Since Vika’s high first-serve percentage results in few such eclairs, the Russian also should consider full swings on occasional first serves as well, perhaps instilling some doubt in the Achilles heel of her foe.  Following her shoulder surgery, Sharapova shares that Achilles heel and must brace herself for the prospect of sporadic serving struggles.  If she can collect herself quickly to harness the rest of her game after such stumbles, she can minimize the damage that an opportunistic opponent like Azarenka could inflict.

But the greatest weapon that Sharapova possesses lies less visible than her scorching groundstrokes.  Nearly peerless in her relentlessness, she relies upon a fiery competitive ferocity to surmount erratic stretches.  Among the most compelling recent examples of this trait emerged from the second set of her semifinal against Petkovic.  In all six games, the German held at least one game point.  Like a tiger slowly masticating its prey, Sharapova ultimately tore all six games away from her.  Subjected to constant pressure throughout this most atypical bagel, the German crumbled mentally in the third set.  A pugnacious competitor herself, however, Azarenka exhibited gritty resolve by chipping away at a confident Cibulkova throughout their three-setter.  When Clijsters mounted an eleventh-hour rally late in the quarterfinal, the eighth seed again quelled the threat with conviction.  Fortified by their accelerating momentum, neither Sharapova nor Azarenka will melt easily under the unforgiving Miami sun.  Whose psychological armor will prove more resilient as the sorceress and the apprentice battle for the keys to Biscayne?  The answer to that question probably will determine who casts a more potent spell.

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Djokovic:  Having operated a flourishing bakery on Key Biscayne, the omnivorous Serb now plans to open a sushi bar at the season’s second Masters 1000 event.  Impeccable on serve throughout the tournament, Djokovic stands within two victories of the Indian Wells-Miami double after four victories that ranged between the routine and the resounding.  Nevertheless, occasional cracks in his stunning veneer emerged during his wins over Troicki and Kevin Anderson.  After struggling to close out the first set against his compatriot, Djokovic looked unsettled on serve in the opening set against the South African leviathan.  Although he escaped several deuces and break points, one wonders whether he has grown so accustomed to comfortably cruising past his victims that he will feel pressure when his opponent can stay somewhat within range.  Unlikely to break Fish with regularity, Djokovic will need to maintain his focus and positive energy more scrupulously than in his previous routs.  If the American can lure him into a tiebreak or a third set, the Serb may struggle to adapt mentally in such unfamiliar circumstances.  And such a narrative plausibly could unfold on Friday, for Fish twice has won sets from the world #2 at Indian Wells despite never capturing a match from him in five attempts.

Now his nation’s top-ranked man, the fourteenth seed aims to extend the momentum from upsets over Del Potro and Ferrer into a fourth Masters 1000 final.  All of those victories came on American soil, in part a product of vociferous crowd support that he will receive again.  At the US Open last year, however, no amount of applause could have saved Fish from a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Serb.  Since Mardy’s game should thrive on the New York fast courts even more than in the Miami conditions, that precedent looks especially ominous for this semifinal.  As Blake attempted with disastrous results, Fish will need to impose himself from the first ball on both the serve and the return. Despite his improved fitness and consistency, he discovered at the US Open that a player of his level cannot survive in rallies with Djokovic from the baseline.  But opponents long have learned that the second seed’s superb reflexes enable him to blunt even the most formidable first strike.  Among the few memorable moments of the Anderson match came when the South African cracked a sizzling return.  Not content to simply retrieve it, the Serb thrust the full force of his compact physique behind his reply, which skidded breathlessly past his flat-footed opponent.  Similarly explosive counterpunching could unsettle an unwary Fish, while Djokovic’s lethal passing shots will stifle many of his serve-volley forays.  Unless his serve or his fans can manage to ruffle the world #2 psychologically, the American should succumb to his opponent’s superior technique, consistency, and versatility.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Outside the anomalistic year-end championships, they collide before the final for the first time since Roland Garros 2005.  Without a title at stake, how will each of them respond to confronting their archrival?  No matter what happens in this match, it will have virtually no impact upon either legend’s legacy, perhaps a comforting thought for both of them that will defuse the pressure and enable them to play their finest tennis.  Rarely threatened by his previous opponents, Federer has not quite attained a lofty height but instead maintained a modest altitude sufficient to win without undue exertion.   By contrast, Nadal dazzled against Nishikori and Dolgopolov by unleashing thunderous forehands from and to everywhere on the court.  Especially notable was a flat, down-the-line rocket that complemented the heavy spin on his cross-court rally ball and the sharp angles on his inside-in hook.  Curing his serving malaise from the Indian Wells final, the Spaniard found first serves on crucial points while varying his spins and placement.

Through the first set of his quarterfinal with Berdych, therefore, Nadal seemed clearly the hungrier, more motivated player of the two rivals.  Rarely has a top-10 contender looked so thoroughly outclassed as did the Czech during a first set in which Rafa withstood his initial assault before repeatedly outmaneuvering him from the baseline.  Abruptly, a strained nerve disconcerted the Spaniard early in the second set, transforming his effortless strokes into tense, labored jabs that mirrored the uncertainty in his expressive eyes and furrowed brow.  At triple break point in the first game of the third set, the marquee semifinal looked far from assured.  But then Nadal escaped from that trap with a sequence that included three consecutive aces and dominated on his serve thereafter, although he never regained the free-flowing form of the first set.  Hovering above his duel with Federer thus is the specter of a potential injury that could dilute his energy and concentration.

All the same, these slow hard courts in Miami featured one of the most memorable occasions when the GOAT and the Spanish bull locked horns, a five-setter that remains the only encounter in which one of them (Federer) rallied from a two-set deficit.  While the best-of-three format inherently limits a match’s narrative arc, this tournament offers a relatively neutral surface that can showcase Nadal’s feline movement along the baseline as often as Federer’s serve and forecourt assault.  In their last 11 meetings, the player who has won the first set has emerged victorious, a pattern that might well continue at a non-major where the incentive to launch a ferocious comeback simmers a little lower.  Not since Wimbledon 2008 have the two legends crafted a classic that one would frame for future generations, suggesting that their rivalry may have slid into the domain of nostalgia.  Colliding just twice in each of the last two years, Nadal and Federer nevertheless represent one of the great dramas not just in this sport but in all sports, a spectacle to savor as much for the past as for the present.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - "Rally For Relief"

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning the second set tie break against Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 29, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:  Entrenched in the top 10 for the first time since February 2009, the Russian aims to dispel the memories of two previous losses this year with a single mighty blow.  Eager to counterbalance a lackluster performance in her previous semifinal at Indian Wells, Sharapova would relish the opportunity to atone for an equally mediocre display against Petkovic.  Overwhelmed by Maria in Cincinnati, the German turned the tables in stunning fashion at the Australian Open, where she never faced a break point until after she held a match point.  Petkovic seeks her third consecutive victory over a #1 after grinding past Wozniacki and Jankovic in two matches that featured a multitude of deuce games and break points, testing the 21st seed’s tenacity.  In her excruciating, exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating 209-minute quarterfinal triumph against Dulgheru, Sharapova demonstrated even greater fortitude by twice escaping from within two points of defeat despite 17 double faults and 76 unforced errors.  Perhaps the only player in the WTA who could survive such a statistical catastrophe, the three-time major champion overcame further adversity when she twisted her ankle during the quarterfinal’s penultimate moments.  All too familiar with aching joints, the two-time Miami finalist must quell her anxiety over this injury as she attempts to recover from the longest match of her career.

Brilliant in this tournament until near-disaster on Tuesday, Sharapova must recapitulate her magnificent Monday form in order to halt Petkovic’s accelerating momentum.  If her groundstrokes yield the same deluge of unforced errors as on Tuesday, this semifinal will not end any more brightly than the last.  Across the net, the German must alter her strategy against an opponent who diverges so radically from the two counterpunchers.  Targeting her foe’s forehand and disrupting her timing with heavy spin, Petkovic hopes to prevent Sharapova from planting herself inside the baseline to target lines and corners at her leisure.

Zvonareva vs. Azarenka:  Pinning Clijsters behind the baseline with relentless groundstroke depth, the 2009 Miami champion delivered one of her most complete performances against an elite opponent since winning this title two years ago.  Under pressure from the Belgian’s late surge, Azarenka constructed a startlingly thoughtful point at 5-3, 30-30 just after an edgy double fault.  The eighth seed patiently maneuvered the defending champion around the court and withstood the rally’s mounting tension better than her more experienced opponent, who finally conceded a frustrated forehand error.  Against the versatile Zvonareva, she will need to control her aggression just as calmly in order to reverse an odd rivalry in which the advantage currently lies with the Russian.  Following two dismal losses to Vika early last year, the world #3 reversed that slide after her Wimbledon breakthrough with two second-half wins.  Sharing balanced, penetrating groundstrokes, Vika and Vera have honed extremely consistent games with few clear flaws albeit few overpowering weapons.  Notorious for emotional implosions, both have maintained their composure at crucial junctures en route to this semifinal.

Often fallible on serve, Zvonareva struck an ace to save a set point against Radwanska in her quarterfinal and has welcomed unexpected contributions from that shot throughout her last few tournaments after a shaky serving start to the season.  Among the few flaws in Azarenka’s performance this week, meanwhile, was a delivery that donated seven double faults and rarely represented more than a point-starting shot.    Thus, the contrast in their serving could play a crucial role in the outcome, as could Zvonareva’s superior experience on these stages.  Surely relieved to avoid Clijsters, the Russian now dons the mantle of tournament favorite.  Can her nerves and a fearless foe unfasten it?

Federer vs. Simon:  Among the few players outside the top 20 with repeated success against Roger, the Frenchman seeks to build upon his two 2008 triumphs over the Swiss master.  Twice surmounting one-set deficits in this tournament, Simon has produced his first sustained surge at a significant tournament since injuries derailed him a year ago.  Meanwhile, Federer has glided effortlessly past a sequence of anonymous opponents, none of whom enjoyed either the power of the consistency to unsettle him.  Clearly unsettled by Simon, in contrast, the third seed squandered a two-set lead against him at the Australian Open before reasserting his supremacy in the final set.  Although Federer possesses weapons superior to those of the Frenchman in most areas, the latter’s two-handed backhand trumps the Swiss star’s elegant but unreliable one-hander.  As the 16-time major champion ages, moreover, his decreasing consistency also renders him increasingly vulnerable to an indefatigable retriever like Simon.  Darting along the baseline, Gilles forces Roger to win points more than once and often to attempt strokes too aggressive for his court positioning.  First-serve percentage should prove essential for both players, allowing Federer to hold swiftly while shielding Simon’s benign second serve from exposure.  Unlikely to outlast the Frenchman from the baseline, the Swiss star should capitalize upon his forecourt abilities whenever possible to take time away from an opponent who showcases his counterpunching skills to greatest effect on slow hard courts like these.

Nadal vs. Berdych:   Four and a half years ago in Madrid, a budding Berdych dispatched Rafa before his home crowd and then put his finger to his lips in a gesture of disdain towards the Spanish fans.  Nineteen sets later, he has yet to win another set from Nadal, who terminated the most impressive fortnight of the Czech’s career with an emphatic victory in last year’s Wimbledon final.  From clay courts and outdoor hard courts to grass and indoor hard courts, Berdych has found no refuge from the world #1 on any surface.  Outside the context of their Madrid clash, one can find little clear explanation for Nadal’s uncanny dominance over a rival with more than adequate weapons to threaten him on both serve and forehand.  But Berdych does lack one trait shared by Djokovic, Murray, Soderling, Del Potro, and most of the players who repeatedly have troubled Rafa:  a backhand that can equal his forehand in percussive assertiveness.  Whereas his recurrent nemeses subject him to constant pressure from both groundstrokes, Nadal finds respite in rallies by targeting the Berdych two-hander.  Also separating the Czech from that group is his unsteady focus, which resulted in an unnecessarily extended opener here and nearly a loss to Florian Mayer a round ago.  Against the fiercest competitor in the ATP, that trait proves especially damaging.  A runner-up in Miami last year, Berdych stunned Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling consecutively during the fortnight.  Can he rekindle those memories by bursting free from the vise in which Rafa grips him?

Rafael Nadal - Sony Ericsson Open

Vera Zvonareva - Sony Ericsson Open

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Despite their crowded schedules over the last several years, they have met on only one prior occasion, a 2007 meeting that the Russian routinely collected.  Since both players have developed so substantially since that moment, the outcome bears little relevance to Wednesday’s collision.  While Radwanska has spared no efforts in amplifying her meager serve and developing a more penetrating backhand, Zvonareva finally has learned how to channel her emotions in a positive direction—at least more often than not.  The third and ninth seeds have traced contrasting routes to this stage, for the former twice has rallied from one-set deficits whereas the latter remains the only player who has not lost a set in the tournament.  Bageling both Kirilenko and Schiavone, Radwanska cruised past two opponents who have troubled her before.  But Zvonareva defused arguably more challenging opponents in Safina and Bartoli, finishing both of those matches in resounding fashion by sweeping the last four games of the final sets.  A few degrees less than bulletproof on her serve, however, she may offer the Pole an opportunity if a break-riddled encounter evolves.  On the other hand, Zvonareva enjoys both the power to outhit Radwanska from the baseline and the tactical poise to outmaneuver her.  Unless her technique deserts her, she also possesses too much consistency to donate the unforced errors upon which the Pole feasts against opponents who engage in risker gambits.  Perhaps Radwanska can gain a mental advantage if her canny drop shots can lure Zvonareva forwards from her baseline comfort zone towards the net, where the ninth seed excels.  Otherwise, she lacks an edge over the world #3 in any of the game’s physical components and will struggle to find loopholes in one of the WTA’s most complete players. 

Azarenka vs. Clijsters:  Twice erasing first-set setbacks like Zvonareva, the 2009 champion doggedly battled past two of her generation’s most resilient competitors in Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova.  Also dragged into third sets during her last two matches, Clijsters must count herself fortunate to have survived five match points in a fraught duel with Ivanovic that extended into Tuesday evening.  Amidst 11 double faults and 22 break points, the Belgian carved (or rather hacked) her path to victory by the narrowest of margins and cannot depend upon the pugnacious Azarenka to let her escape from a similar quagmire.  But nor can Vika expect Kim to conveniently falter as did Cibulkova when she led the Belarussian by a set and a break.  Should her questionable shoulder have survived Tuesday’s exertions intact, Clijsters may enter their clash relaxed by her brush with disaster and finally free from the tension that has beset her throughout much of the tournament.  In order to disrupt Kim’s title defense, the preceding champion must steel herself to preserve her patience and concentration in adversity more effectively than she did against Clijsters here a year ago.  Then, Azarenka competed resolutely through a series of repeated breaks before surrendering the first set with a few untimely errors—which she allowed to poison her mind thereafter and lead to a second-set bagel.  Not for many months has she conquered a player of the Belgian’s level at an event of this magnitude, so a victory could signal a significant breakthrough.  The steadier player of the two this week, Azarenka should place herself in position to issue that signal if she can master the moment more maturely than in the past. 

Ferrer vs. Fish:  A tribute to his improved fitness, the American’s unexpected victory over Del Potro edged him within one win of becoming his nation’s top-ranked man for the first time in his career.  On a humid Miami morning, Fish moved fluidly through the thick air and stayed in rallies longer than he could have a year ago.  Delivering crucial free points for him was his versatile first serve, which struck all four corners of the box.  In order to stifle one of the ATP’s finest returners, Fish will need that shot to prevent Ferrer from sinking his teeth into too many rallies.  Armed with balanced, consistent groundstrokes from both wings, the world #6 will outmaneuver and outlast the American once extended exchanges develop.  Even the less trim version of Fish has troubled Ferrer in the past, however, defeating him at the 2007 Australian Open and winning sets from him on earlier occasions.  Despite not intersecting for more than three years, these two veterans still possess essentially the same weapons that they have in the past, although both have honed those weapons in the intervening time.  Buoyed by the home crowd as well as the stirring victory over Del Potro, Fish should test Ferrer much more vigorously than his previous, less powerful opponents.  Among the most intriguing elements of the match is the potential duel between the Spaniard’s inside-out forehand and the American’s down-the-line backhand, two of their most reliable strokes.  If Fish can track down the former shot with sufficient time to redirect him, he could fluster Ferrer by transitioning into offense from a neutral position.  Although he will cast himself as the counterpuncher for most of the match, meanwhile, the Spaniard should not neglect the opportunity to finish points when he can.  Opponents cannot permit a player infused with as much momentum as Fish to constantly dictate rallies, for he may well strike his targets once too often. 

Anderson vs. Djokovic:  Having doled out various types of pastries from a fully functioning bakery over the past few weeks, the last remaining undefeated player in 2011 has broken opponents more often than they have held while not dropping his own serve throughout the tournament so far.  Such a recipe results in a championship more often than not, but Djokovic first must blunt the serving might of a relatively unheralded ATP giant.  Capitalizing upon a vacuum in his section of the draw, Anderson has navigated through an area once populated by Murray and Verdasco.  A champion in Johannesburg earlier this season, he complements his serve with a creditable inside-in forehand and serviceable touch at the net.  Beyond his massive delivery, however, Anderson will find his offensive potential thoroughly contained by the Serb’s lithe movement and explosive counterpunching.  Moreover, once Djokovic takes command of a rally, the South African probably cannot recover from a defensive position because his gangly limbs will hamper his movement.  Likely to hold serve more regularly than most of the second seed’s previous victims, Anderson must hope to stay within range early and hope that his opponent grows frustrated by his inability to dominate as comprehensively as in the resounding triumphs to which he has become accustomed.  Considering Djokovic’s current confidence in every element of his game, however, such a hope looks slim indeed.  

Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts against Samantha Stosur of Australia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 28, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Sharapova vs. Dulgheru:  Emphatically delivering her first victory over a top-5 opponent since shoulder surgery, the two-time Miami finalist now hopes to replicate her semifinal surge at Indian Wells as her confidence grows with each victory.  Unusually crisp with her movement and footwork here, Sharapova has dropped her serve just three times in three matches despite occasional clusters of double faults, while her return arguably has unleashed even more impressive blows.  Yet the Russian has oscillated sharply from one match to the next throughout her comeback, suggesting that the excellence of Monday will not necessarily translate to Tuesday.  At Indian Wells, for example, she stifled the potentially dangerous Safina with intimidating ease before wobbling through extended stretches of her quarterfinal against the less intimidating Peng.  Never having faced the Romanian before, Sharapova will require a few games to adjust to Dulgheru’s style.  Without the opportunity to watch the world #28 during the past year, we cannot offer much insight onto that style.  Nevertheless, Dulgheru has advanced to this quarterfinal without dropping a set, an accomplishment that deserves respect although occurring entirely against unseeded players.  While the match surely rests in Sharapova’s hands, the three-time major champion cannot afford to loosen her focus against a competitor probably brimming with confidence.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Fortunate to encounter Wozniacki on an uncharacteristically error-strewn afternoon, “Petkorazzi” still receives credit for polishing off the world #1 so confidently.  Serving out the match at love with an ace, the 21st seed showcased the swagger that could bring her into the top 20 if she learns how to harness her groundstrokes throughout an entire tournament.  Aligned against a second consecutive counterpuncher, Petkovic probably will deploy the same tactics that her coach suggested to undermine Wozniacki.  One wonders whether her strategy of out-counterpunching the counterpuncher would have succeeded so well, however, had the Dane not substituted an impersonator for her normally stingy self.  Even more susceptible to such wobbles than Wozniacki is the counterpuncher who now confronts the German, for Jankovic spent much of last year tottering from one misstep to the next.  Buoyed by a February revival, she atoned for a disappointing Indian Wells campaign with a sturdy performance here.  On the other hand, none of her previous victims possesses the same degree of weapons or poise as Petkovic.  Another resident in the WTA’s second tier of ball-strikers, Pavlyuchenkova, thumped heavy but not electric groundstrokes past her in the Monterrey final.

Mayer vs. Berdych:  Fallible in his first two victories, the 2010 runner-up needlessly dropped a set to the aging Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and nearly another to the anonymous Carlos Berlocq.  Such profligacy could cost Berdych against an opponent who quenched the inflammable Almagro two rounds after circumventing Indian Wells quarterfinalist Karlovic.  Nor should this week’s success surprise those who closely followed the German this season, during which he has conquered Del Potro, Davydenko, and Cilic.  A two-time semifinalist already in 2011, Mayer can compile formidable serve-forehand combinations while struggling at times with his movement and shot selection.  Also a rather programmatic player, Berdych has settled into a netherworld this year between the leading contenders and the second tier, generally defeating the players whom he should defeat but losing to those ranked above him.  The Czech must defend vast quantities of points over the next few months, so one wonders how he will respond to the pressure.

Federer vs. Rochus:  A former doubles partner of the Swiss legend, the Belgian never has defeated him in their seven career meetings.  En route to this unexpected fourth-round encounter, though, Rochus not only qualified but defeated familiar names Baghdatis and Youzhny after winning the longest match of the men’s tournament in his opener.  Cruising at medium altitude in his first two matches, Federer should not need to elevate his performance to record another unremarkable straight-sets victory.  In return for brushing aside potential threats like a minesweeper, Rochus probably deserves a bit of compensation from the world #3.  Perhaps an autographed box of Lindt chocolates?

Tipsarevic vs. Simon:  Amidst a largely sparkling tournament for Serbs so far, the quirky Tipsarevic displayed his underrated talents by upsetting a flustered Cilic with one carefully constructed rally at a time.  Far less mighty than the Croat, the compact Serb outmaneuvered his lanky foe from the baseline with expertly placed groundstrokes while creating unpredictable angles on his serve.  But Tipsarevic now collides with an opponent who shares his competitive resilience and his scintillating two-handed backhand.  Although Tipsarevic reached the Delray Beach final in February, Simon generally has shone more brightly over the past several months with titles in Metz last fall and Sydney before the Australian Open.  After a rain-soaked three-setter with Cuevas that extended late into Monday night, the Frenchman may enter his meeting with the Serb a trifle jaded.  His brand of tennis relies upon indefatigable movement and concentration, whereas Tipsarevic more often showcases shot-making almost as bold and idiosyncratic as his hairstyle, sunglasses, and tattoos.

Ferrer vs Granollers:  Following a dismal defeat against Karlovic, the Spanish #2 regrouped commendably to overcome a rising Devvarman.  The highest-ranked player remaining in his section eyes a compatriot who rallied from the edge of the precipice against Llodra a round ago to win his third consecutive three-setter.  Not known for his serving prowess, Granollers nevertheless never conceded his delivery throughout three sets against twelfth-seeded Wawrinka.  And he already has proven his ability to topple notable opponents by conquering Soderling at the 2010 Australian Open.  Will three long matches hamper his fitness against Ferrer, perhaps the worst possible opponent to confront when tired?  Unless Granollers can continue to win free points on his serve, he probably will find himself dragged into prolonged baseline exchanges where Ferrer’s consistency should prevail.

Juan Martin Del Potro - Sony Ericsson Open

Fish vs. Del Potro:  In the most impressive victory of his comeback, the 2009 US Open champion comprehensively outplayed world #4 Soderling from the first ball to the last.  Covering the court with aplomb, Del Potro struck his backhand with as much purpose and confidence as his forehand, a dangerous omen for his rivals.  After such a comprehensive performance, he must guard against a lull when he faces an opponent who troubled him in the second set of their Delray Beach semifinal.  Among Fish’s more successful ploys in that match was pounding his two-hander down the line into Del Potro’s forehand, the side towards which the Argentine moves less effectively.  Unlikely to outlast or consistently outhit the Tower of Tandil from the baseline, the American must maintain a high first-serve percentage in order to open as many rallies as possible on the offensive, perhaps even following his serve to the net at times.  Across the net, Del Potro will aim to intimidate Fish with the percussive returns that his broad wingspan facilitates.

Isner vs. Anderson:  Serve…serve…serve.  In Federer’s view, with which we sympathize, these two leviathans do not play tennis but some ghastly and irreverent imitation of it.  Both of them have profited from the upsets that other players achieved over Murray and Verdasco.  Although Isner’s greater experience at elite tournaments should provide him with a vital edge, this match probably will hinge upon a missed first serve or a botched smash on break point or in a tiebreak.  Until that moment occurs, little action will stimulate audience members who hope to see something more than serve…serve…serve.

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  When the current world #2 struggled in 2010, his compatriot nearly capitalized with a pair of notable upsets in Dubai and the US Open.  Noted by a variety of commentators, his first-round encounter with Djokovic in New York may have represented a crucial turning point in the younger Serb’s revitalization.  Having failed to secure that match when it lay well within his grasp, Troicki appears to have lost self-belief against the Australian Open champion.  When they met in the same round at Indian Wells, he collected just one game from Djokovic in an effort that fell short even of Wawrinka’s standards against Federer.  Still undefeated in 2011, the second seed has conceded only three games in four sets here while spending 101 total minutes on court.  Striking every shot with effortless confidence, he has dominated opponents to an extent reminiscent of Nadal on clay.  Throughout this winning streak, viewers have started to wonder less whether the Serb would prevail than how he would arrive at his inevitable destination this time.

[As of publication, Nadal’s fourth-round opponent remained undecided.  See the article below for a preview of Ivanovic-Clijsters, postponed from Monday night as a result of inclement weather.]

 

 

Maria Sharapova - Sony Ericsson Open

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  More accustomed to late nights than early mornings, the three-time major champion opens proceedings against a player whom she has dominated but has faced just once since shoulder surgery and the Aussie’s renaissance.  On that occasion, Stosur secured just one game against Sharapova in a Tokyo tournament that the Russian eventually won.  Among the most notable weapons in the Australian’s game is her kicking second serve, one of the finest in the WTA.  Against the statuesque Sharapova, however, that shot does not jolt as high above her comfortable strike zone or as far outside her vast wingspan.  Less auspicious for Maria is her reliance on breaking serve throughout this month, which has generally compensated for chronic wobbles in her own service games.  Winning 58% of her return games since the start of Indian Wells, Sharapova cannot expect to break as regularly against a server as imposing as Stosur.  If the world #5 can compile some comfortable holds, the Russian might shoulder elevated pressure as she attempts to circumvent the inevitable her double faults.  Outside her serve, Stosur has few clear advantages over the three-time major champion.  Sharapova will seek to expose her puny backhand and prevent the Aussie from frequently showcasing her net skills with a withering barrage of groundstrokes that thrust her behind the baseline.  Since neither player excels when rushed, both should hasten to attack on the first mid-court ball that they see in order to take time away from the opponent.

While she enters this match in scintillating form, the Russian also dazzled in a few of her Indian Wells matches before crumbling against Wozniacki in the semifinals.  A test of Stosur’s confidence and Sharapova’s consistency, this clash represents an immense opportunity for the winner, who will face either Peng or Dulgheru in a quarterfinal.  Who can carpe the diem?  Sharapova in three

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  In the same round at Indian Wells, the Dane stumbled for a set against the heavy-hitting Kleybanova before outlasting her less durable opponent.  A parallel narrative could unfold against Petkovic, physically fit but mentally a bit suspect.  Squandering a cavalcade of match points against Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, the German almost let Sharapova escape from a massive deficit in Melbourne and nearly let another commanding lead slip away against Benesova in the previous round.  If she maneuvers herself into position to halt the world #1’s winning streak at these top-tier events, one wonders whether Petkovic will find the nerve to deliver the coup de grace.  Vulnerable in the second set of her victories over Mattek-Sands and Hantuchova, Wozniacki nearly let the Slovak drag her into a third set but ultimately found a way to win the points that she needed to win.  Nevertheless, her strategy in that match boded well for her future more broadly.  Attempting to infuse her game with greater aggression, the world #1 courageously approached the forecourt for swing volleys and struck a series of crackling backhand winners down the line.  Although these unaccustomed tactics did not always reap rewards, the Dane will further her bid for the Indian Wells-Miami double if she can expend less exertion in finishing each point.  Wozniacki in three

Medina Garrigues vs. Jankovic:  Perhaps girding herself for the clay season where she thrives most often, the many-syllabled Spaniard has dispatched three creditable opponents of Dulko, world #11 Peer, and Vesnina without dropping a set.  Yet her implausible run surely will conclude at the hands of the sixth seed, who has rebounded from a stinging Indian Wells defeat with a pair of solid victories.  Like Sharapova, Jankovic has won all six of her meetings with her fourth-round opponent while dropping just two total sets.  Unlike Stosur, Medina Garrigues has done nothing to suggest that her fortunes against a recurrent nemesis could change.  Although the Serb has faded since losing the #1 ranking, opponents without baseline weapons still struggle to overcome her.  Unless Jankovic suffers one of the inexplicable collapses that haunted her in the second half of last year, this match should feature little suspense.  Jankovic in two

Schiavone vs. Radwanska:  As mighty baseliners trade missiles elsewhere on Monday, these subtle shot-makers will dance around each other with artful grace.  Comfortable anywhere on the court, the Italian and the Pole compensate for their lack of first-strike power with brilliant shot selection and generally unerring instincts.  While Schiavone has won all three of their previous meetings, Radwanska has looked equally impressive in recent weeks; both came within a third-set tiebreak of reaching the Indian Wells quarterfinals after sturdy Melbourne performances.  More inclined to generate offense from their backhands than their forehands, they offer a compelling contrast between the Italian’s flowing one-handed stroke and the Pole’s compact two-handed jab.  But neither player relies exclusively upon finishing points from the baseline, instead creeping towards the net for a deft volley or drop shot.  Unimposing on serve, they will punish each other’s second deliveries with precisely placed albeit not overwhelming returns.  One expects a draining test of endurance with prolonged rallies, precarious service games, and plenty of mini-tennis near the net.  Whereas the action in most matches slides along the baseline, points here may unfold vertically as well as horizontally.  Radwanska in three

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Russia reacts after she won the second set against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 27, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Azarenka vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Two years ago, the Belarussian collided with the former junior #1 en route to the most significant title of her career.  Still struggling to assert herself among the WTA elite, Azarenka has regressed since that breakthrough moment while retaining the core of crisp movement, balanced power, and steady technique that earned her the 2009 Miami crown.  The likely future of Russian tennis, Pavlyuchenkova ominously has endured several injuries already but showed her competitive maturity by rallying from a one-set deficit against Jankovic to defend her Monterrey title this year.  Also on display at this tournament is the Russian’s resilience, which allowed her to survive the disappointment of twice failing to serve out a match against Kvitova in the second set.  Whereas many WTA journeywomen would have crumbled at that stage, “Nastia” proved a nasty foe for the dangerous 12th seed as she fired back with a third-set bagel.  The momentum from that victory could propel Pavlyuchenkova to an only slightly more remarkable victory over the 2009 champion.  During a gripping third-round three-setter of her own, however, Azarenka demonstrated an uncharacteristic degree of durability and focus.  Struggling to hold serve during the first half of the match, the eighth seed did not despair as Cibulkova raced across the court to retrieve every dart that she could throw at her.  One expected that Azarenka might shrug and pout her way to a routine loss when she trailed by a set and a break, but instead she remained confident in her weapons and steadily chipped away at the Slovak.  More comfortable against a player who shares her unreliable serve and penetrating groundstrokes but not her agility, Vika would take a significant step forward if she could reach consecutive quarterfinals at these Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Azarenka in two

Peng vs. Dulgheru:  Almost as deeply rooted in clay as Medina Garrigues, Dulgheru won just one of seven 2011 matches before this week and won consecutive matches just once between the US Open and Miami.  Although she has lost just eight games en route to the final 16, the Romanian will meet a player more than her match in the feisty Peng Shuai, fresh from a second upset over Kuznetsova.  A prosperous month for double-fisters looks likely to continue as this Chinese star has filled the void left by Li in her quarter.  Only four places lower in the rankings than Dulgheru, Peng soon will find herself with seeds, byes, and the other trappings of a legitimate contender if her ascent continues.  Peng in two

Bartoli vs. Zvonareva:  Before the Frenchwoman’s three-set victory in Beijing 2009, the world #3 had collected eight of their nine previous meetings in devastating fashion.  In ten of the fourteen completed sets that Zvonareva won before that loss to Bartoli, she dropped two or fewer games.  The events of March might suggest a change in script, however, for the Frenchwoman built upon a Doha semifinal to reach the final at Indian Wells.  By contrast, the Russian did not capitalize upon her momentum from a Doha title but instead slumped to an epic yet early exit from the desert.  Extended to three sets in their openers, both players advanced less eventfully on Sunday.  A semifinalist at this tournament last year, Bartoli must seize the initiative early in rallies by lashing her double-fisted lasers behind Zvonareva and forcing her to reverse direction.  In order to execute that strategy, though, she must step inside the baseline as often as possible and stay close to the center of the court, a goal that the Russian will aim to thwart by stretching her from side to side with deep groundstrokes.  Pounding ten aces against Groth in the third round, Zvonareva can nullify the Frenchwoman’s formidable return if she maintains a high first-serve percentage. The world #3 has not enjoyed her previous sojourns in Miami, attaining the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances, but unkind draws (like Henin in the fourth round last year) have played a role in her underachievement.  Zvonareva in two

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts against Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan during the Sony Ericsson Open at Crandon Park Tennis Center on March 25, 2011 in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Ivanovic vs. Clijsters:  Seeking her third straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, the Serb confronts the defending champion in the fourth round for the second straight tournament.  A quarterfinalist in her first appearance here, Ivanovic typically has suffered a lull in Miami between strong results at Indian Wells and during the clay season.  Traces of this pattern have emerged in her first two matches, during which she confronted 23 break points on her serve.  Tiptoeing around 18 of those threats, Ana cannot depend upon preserving this ratio against another former #1 who has quelled her comfortably in their two previous completed meetings.  On the other hand, Clijsters did not dazzle during her three-set triumph over Martinez Sanchez, during which she uncorked 10 double faults and 39 unforced errors amidst numerous edgy service games.

While Ivanovic should gain confidence from that frailty, she does not possess the quirkiness and versatility of Martinez Sanchez that can fluster a rhythm-oriented player like the Belgian with unpredictable shot selection and placement.  Unless the Serb leaves her comfort zone to attempt high-bouncing, heavy-spinning loopers, drop shots, and slices, the counterpunching Clijsters should thrive on a steady diet of smoothly struck groundstrokes that she can absorb and redirect.  Since the defending champion struggled on her serve against Martinez Sanchez, Ivanovic should swing aggressively on her returns in order to instill a few flickers of doubt in her opponent’s mind.  Just as she did against Jankovic, the Serb will seek to pound the first forehand that she sees, while Clijsters will hope to feed her a steady diet of backhands.  On court for three total hours on Sunday, Ivanovic has struggled to recover from such exertions after streamlining her figure during the offseason.  Clijsters in two

Andy Murray - Sony Ericsson Open

At first glance, the scorekeeper appeared to have committed an egregious error.  A fortnight after falling to Donald Young in Indian Wells, world #5 Andy Murray had toppled to the even more anonymous qualifier Alexander Bogomolov, Jr.  But in fact the egregious errors here all belonged to the Australian Open runner-up, who has repeated his alarming 2010 dive after finishing second at the season’s first major.  Like Murray, the WTA runner-up in Melbourne has failed to win a match since her breathtaking January surge.  Peering over the barriers that surround this disaster scene, we consider the how, why, when, where, and what of the dual implosion.

How did it unfold? Just as he had in his previous two Slam finals, Murray crumbled under the pressure of expectations against a sparkling Djokovic who probably would have conquered him anyway.  Burdened by both the disappointment and a wrist injury, the world #5 then squandered a double-break advantage against Baghdatis in Rotterdam and struggled to hold serve throughout the match.  Not until Indian Wells did his malaise fully blossom, though, with a straight-sets loss to #143 Donald Young in which the Scot showed little positive body language and less conviction behind his strokes.  (Young then would collect just four games from Robredo in the next round.)  Normally renowned for consistent technique, Murray extended this deflating trend at the year’s second Masters 1000 event by holding serve only three times in an even more ghastly and error-strewn defeat.

Whereas her ATP counterpart has lost nine consecutive sets, Li Na has positioned herself to win in all but one of her losses during her current five-match skid.  At the close of her historic Melbourne run, she stood within ten points of a maiden Grand Slam title before succumbing to the heavily favored Clijsters.  Holding quadruple match point against Wickmayer in Dubai a match later, Li surrendered six consecutive points at that stage to drop a second-set tiebreak and faded sharply in the third set.  After she won just three games from the unimposing Zakopalova in Doha, the Melbourne finalist appeared to have stabilized when she captured the first set from Peng in Indian Wells.  This appearance deceived, however, as Li spiraled downward with accelerating velocity in the second half of that match.  A ferocious comeback against world #78 Johanna Larsson in Miami brought her to the brink of victory with three more match points, but she spurned those opportunities as well as a 4-0 advantage in the deciding tiebreak.

Na Li Na Li of China looks on between games in her women's final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during day thirteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.Why did it happen? As the contrasting manner of their losses suggests, Murray and Li can attribute their slumps to divergent sources.  Confirmed in his inferiority complex by yet another disappointing performance in a major final, the Scot sagged from depleted self-esteem and self-belief during his ensuing tournaments.  The lack of confidence surfaced in the mostly meek nature of his losses, during which he exerted little effort in reversing the tide against him.  By contrast, Li probably suffered a hangover from the euphoria of her unprecedented breakthrough, becoming the first Asian woman to reach the final of a major.  She may have experienced a degree of disappointment after failing to capitalize upon her early momentum against Clijsters, but the tight scorelines of her losses suggest less a generally pervasive disillusionment—as do Murray’s straight-setters—than a sporadic lack of concentration at crucial moments.

When and where might they recover? Unlikely to excel on the surface least friendly to his style, Murray probably will wallow through a woeful clay season before rejuvenating himself in his home nation as he did in 2010.  Despite the pressure of his compatriots at Wimbledon, the Scot repeatedly has collected himself there after stumbles on the European continent.  Always a threat during the US Open Series, Murray surely will have quelled the memories of his Melbourne disappointment by that stage.  More broadly, the Scot still has several years ahead to showcase , not a luxury available to the WTA runner-up.

More competent on red dirt than the Scot, Li Na nearly reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros two years ago and thus could revitalize her form more swiftly.   While clay remains her weakest surface, the WTA features few dirt devils outside Schiavone following Henin’s retirement.  Outstanding in the grass season last year, Li should find that surface ideally suited to her darting groundstrokes and compact physique with a relatively low center of gravity.  At the not very tender age of 29, however, the Chinese star already has incurred a multitude of injuries that could emerge to haunt her without warning.   Li probably can look forward to no more than two or at most three more years as a contender, so she might approach her mission with greater urgency than will Murray.

What should we and they learn from it? First, Slams matter immensely more than even the most significant non-majors to players as well as the majority of commentators and spectators.  Far from moping around the court after an ignominious loss to Nadal in the 2009 Indian Wells final, for example, Murray stormed to the title in Miami two weeks later with a self-assured victory over Djokovic.  And no sense of complacency from winning titles in Birmingham and Sydney during the past twelve months afflicted Li Na at ensuing tournaments at Wimbledon and Melbourne.  Clearly, the elevated intensity associated with the majors influences not only the champions who win them consistently (see N for Nadal and W for Williams) but also some players who never have raised one of the sport’s four most prestigious trophies.  Mirroring the peaks and valleys of the calendar are the emotional peaks and valleys experienced by those who participate in this rollercoaster.

At the same time, Murray and Li both must cultivate the art of amnesia in order to maximize their potential. While players should celebrate accomplishments as they happen and have the right to bemoan bitter defeats, they also must maintain a sense of perspective from one week to the next.  The ATP #5 cannot continue to meander through months of tepid tennis while nursing his wounds from a single setback, nor can Li linger in the glow of yesterday’s glory.  Apt for this sport is Horace’s saying that “time flies” (tempus fugit).  In their exceptionally short careers, tennis stars have a limited window of opportunity to leave an impact.  Requiring most contenders to live in the present and plan for the future, that situation exacerbates the challenges confronting those who dwell too long in the past.

Etched on a wall at the All England Club is Kipling’s poem “If,” which offered timely consolation for Mahut after his epic Wimbledon loss to Isner.  The second couplet of the poem’s second stanza reminds its readers that fulfillment flows to those who “can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.”

Such is the task that looms ahead for Murray and Li.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

First quarter:  While Nadal may loom above the competition here, the section’s most intriguing storyline concerns 2010 runner-up Berdych, whose surge into the top 10 began in Key Biscayne last year with victories over Federer, Verdasco, and Soderling.  Less formidable but relatively consistent in recent months, last year’s finalist could advance to the fourth round without facing any opponent more intimidating than Gulbis.  Aligned to reprise their Indian Wells collision are Spaniards Almagro and Montanes, although one wonders whether Karlovic can exploit a wildcard to reprise his draw-shattering assault in the desert.  Well superior to either Spaniard except on his most erratic days, Berdych might experience a greater challenge if he confronts the Croat’s staggering delivery.  Hoping to reconstitute the serve that evaporated in the Indian Wells final, Nadal finds himself amidst three of the ATP’s rising stars.  After a potential first-round encounter with the recently disappointing Nishikori, the world #1 could face Lithunian prodigy Ricardas Berankis if the latter can overcome aging lefty Feliciano Lopez.  Reliant more on subtlety and deftness than on raw power, Berankis probably can threaten Rafa less than the effortless, electrifying shot-making of Dolgopolov, a possible fourth-round opponent.  Despite an indifferent performance at Indian Wells, the Ukrainian should have an opportunity to repeat his Australian Open upset over Tsonga.  If top seeds Nadal and Berdych do maneuver into the quarterfinals, though, the top seed will bring immense confidence from a 19-set winning streak against the Czech that dates from early 2007.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal vs. the 2010 finalist

Second quarter:  Like the first quarter, the second highest-ranked seed offers a more compelling narrative than the legend who shares this neighborhood with him.  A champion at this prestigious event last year, Roddick eyes a plausible third-round confrontation with the indefatigable Simon, who won their last meeting during the 2010 US Open Series but fell to the American at this tournament three years ago.  Lacking his former spark since his struggle with mono, the defending champion could fall from the top 10 if he fails to progress smoothly through this quarter.  Also in his vicinity is teenage sensation Ryan Harrison, who must attempt to capitalize upon his Indian Wells momentum at his home event.  Defeating Roddick at the 2009 Australian Open, Cilic has edged into relevance this season after the inexplicable, career-threatening slump that descended upon him a year ago.  Should the defending champion arrive in the quarterfinals, the competition could spike upwards dramatically against a player who has pitilessly blocked the American’s path to Slam glory since 2004.  Likely to have won at least four or five majors had Federer chosen soccer over tennis, Roddick nevertheless scored one of his two victories against the Swiss star at this tournament in 2008.  Moreover, the GOAT tumbled to a fourth-round loss against Berdych here last year and could face 2010 nemesis Baghdatis at that stage this year.  Already having defeated Murray and Del Potro during 2011, the Cypriot could cause trouble for Federer if he enters this tournament searching for motivation.  Or so Roddick fervently hopes.

Quarterfinal:  Federer vs. the defending champion

Third quarter:  Sharing this section are two players who fizzled like soggy fireworks in Indian Wells, Soderling and Ferrer.  Struggling with illness there, the Swede may have suffered from a peripatetic post-Melbourne schedule during which he captured two titles and a Davis Cup victory over Russia.  Although Ferrer swept through the clay event in Acapulco, he looked jaded in Indian Wells against Karlovic while playing uncharacteristically error-strewn tennis.  Yet the Spaniard can excel on these medium-speed hard courts, as demonstrated by two Miami semifinals.  A semifinalist here in 2010, meanwhile, Soderling could face Del Potro in a highly anticipated third-round encounter should the Argentine navigate past Kohlschreiber as he did in the desert.  On the other hand, the former US Open champion may enter this tournament weary from a Delray Beach title and an Indian Wells semifinal appearance.  This quarter thus offers fertile terrain for a dark horse like Raonic, who could hammer his mighty serves past Ferrer in the third round just as Karlovic did in the second round of Indian Wells.  Among the more experienced opportunists here are the one-handed backhands of Wawrinka and Gasquet.  Ferocious against anyone but Federer, the Swiss #2 upset Berdych last week and enjoys a comfortable early draw before tackling Ferrer, whom he rarely has faced on a hard court.  Aligned against Fish in a potential third-round clash, Gasquet dazzled in Indian Wells but must validate that apparent revival with consistent results before his momentum slows.

Quarterfinal:  Wawrinka vs. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Undefeated since November, Djokovic has gripped the ATP in a relentless stranglehold.  Interrupting his quest for the Indian Wells-Miami double, however, were promotional activities that ranged from a Colombia exhibition and a Head video to two charity events in Miami.  Can Djokovic recover his focus from those distractions and batter his way to a title that he seized in 2007?  Surrounded by several slumping rivals, the Serb may not need to reach his highest level en route to the quarterfinals.  While Djokovic has handled Troicki with increasing ease, he routinely dismantled Querrey in their two hard-court meetings.  Even more stagnant than his compatriot, Isner admitted that a series of uninspired performances have eroded his conviction—not an auspicious situation in which to confront the world #2.  Eagerly anticipating his return to clay, Verdasco has looked listless and puzzled during his hard-court encounters in 2011.  Nor has he conquered Djokovic on a hard court since the 2005 US Open, long before the latter’s breakthrough.  Atop this section stands currently the ATP’s greatest enigma, a resident and former champion in Miami who defeated the Serb in the 2009 final.  Struggling with his serve, stamina, and self-belief on that occasion, however, Djokovic scarcely resembled the confident, fit, and technically flawless competitor who has sparkled this year.  Before a fruitless clay season begins, Murray hopes to reconstruct his own confidence with a few notable victories.  Unable to do so last year, he may crumble mentally if he confronts the player who comprehensively crushed him at the Australian Open.

Quarterfinal:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain (L) congratulates Novak Djokovic of Serbia after winning championship point in their men's final match during day fourteen of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 30, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.