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Maria Sharapova - Bank of the West Classic - Day 5

As premier players well know, staying at the top presents a greater challenge than getting there.  Following their Wimbledon exploits, the leading WTA performers there found themselves tasked with preserving their momentum through the three-week midsummer hiatus.  While first-time Slam champion Kvitova remained inactive last week, the others who broke through on the grass delivered their opening statements of the second half.  The only member of this group in College Park, Tamira Paszek succeeded in building upon her surprise Wimbledon quarterfinal by extending top-seeded Peer to three sets and 186 minutes in a tightly contested semifinal.  The player whom she defeated to reach that quarterfinal, Ksenia Pervak, had summoned a similarly encouraging effort by reaching the final of the equally minor tournament in Baku a week before.  Although nobody should confuse either tournament with an occasion of consequence, the additional wins should confirm each player’s confidence that their grass-court accomplishments represented a turning point rather than an anomaly.

But the week’s most compelling WTA action occurred on the opposite coast, where Wimbledon runner-up Sharapova as well as semifinalists Lisicki and Azarenka sought to showcase their talents.  By far the most impressive of this group was the 21-year-old German, whose third consecutive semifinal demonstrated a consistency and durability absent during her recurrent injuries.  In two of her Stanford victories, Lisicki overcame two dramatically different playing styles in the serve-oriented Stosur and the death-by-paper-cut style of Radwanska.  Unbroken on serve against the former, she adjusted to the more unpredictable rhythm of the latter and competed resiliently even when the match looked on the verge of slipping away after the second set.  Less statistically excellent than the Stosur victory, the Radwanska win impressed us more because it showed Lisicki’s ability to win without depending entirely on her aces.  Dropping serve several times during that match, the German battled fiercely to regain the breaks and did not waver in focus during the numerous multiple-deuce games that developed.

Less remarkable were the weeks enjoyed (or not enjoyed) by the other two members of Wimbledon’s final four who appeared at Stanford.  In the opening match of her title defense, Azarenka slumped to a stunning defeat against a qualifier ranked outside the top 100, the lowest-ranked player to defeat the world #4 on a hard court since 2006.  While one doffs the hat to New Zealand #1 Erakovic for her first win over a top-20 opponent, the Wimbledon semifinalist scarcely resembled the contender that she hopes to become during a limp, helpless third set.  A round later, Erakovic would win just two games against Wimbledon quarterfinalist Cibulkova, whose resounding victory merely heightened the defending champion’s embarrassment.  Also eager to put an underwhelming week behind her, as she said herself, is the Wimbledon runner-up.  Only sporadically brilliant during a three-set victory over Hantuchova, Sharapova dropped seven straight games at one stage in that match and then lost nine of the first ten games in an unjustifiably anticipated quarterfinal with Serena.  Able to compensate for her fickle serve with scorching returns against most opponents, the Russian cannot rely upon that plan against a server like the American.

On the other hand, the relative fortunes of Lisicki and Sharapova depended substantially upon their proximity to the eventual Stanford champion, who played as though one could have dropped the last two digits from her triple-digit ranking.  Against the Wimbledon semifinalist and finalist, Serena conceded just seven total games as her spontaneous athletic shot-making soared past the more mechanized offenses of her opponents.  Vital to her title run, as usual, was the 13-time Slam champion’s serve, which surrendered only five service breaks in five matches—an excellent week even by ATP serving standards.  Rarely witnessed at an event lacking in prestige, Serena’s competitive ferocity saturated Stanford’s modest arena and prevented opponents from accumulating emotional energy of their own.  Her last victim and Wimbledon nemesis, Bartoli, attempted to assert herself early in the match with fistpumps and glares after almost every point with a positive outcome, but her self-exhortations looked less like expressions of inner confidence or willpower than efforts to convince herself that she could win.  Reserved for key points and outstanding shots, by contrast, Serena’s growls and clenched fists illustrated the confirmation of her expectations.  Despite the cascade of stunning aces and winners that flowed from her racket this week, we will remember longest a point that she lost.  In a semifinal long since decided, Lisicki dragged Serena into the net with a drop shot, then lobbed over her head, and then feathered another drop volley.  At most non-majors, one might have expected the younger Williams to concede the point after the first or second of these shots.  This time, she charged down the first two and nearly the third before sprawling on the sideline as it eluded her.  Honed by her year-long absence, Serena’s relentless competitive appetite propelled her as much as her serve towards a title that she relished more than one would have imagined.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point against Marion Bartoli of France during the final of the Bank of the West Classic at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on July 31, 2011 in Stanford, California.

Will that hunger carry her to a third US Open crown?  Tempering enthusiasm over her week at Stanford is the realization that she defeated only one genuine contender in New York there (Sharapova), and her dominance over the Russian merely continued a pre-existing trend.  Serena did not face any of this year’s Slam champions at Stanford, nor did she confront current #1 Wozniacki or an in-form Azarenka, both of whom have troubled her before.  At the Premier Five events that lie ahead, we may gain a clearer understanding of where she fits into the field at a wide-open Open, for Li or Kvitova might well prove more formidable challenges than those that she faced last week.

Not the only unseeded champion of the US Open Series, Serena accompanied a most unlikely figure in her charge to a California champion’s podium.  Notorious for his slothful work ethic, this inveterate ambush artist triggered memories of past upsets over Federer and Djokovic with his quarterfinal victory over Del Potro.  In the past, though, Gulbis generally had failed to extend the impetus from those stunning accomplishments; before this week, he had won only one title at a tiny event in Delray Beach.  Breaking from that precedent here, he scored his first victory over a top-10 opponent in a semifinal or final in a tense, compelling encounter with Atlanta champion Fish.  The first set unfolded much as a cynic might have scripted it with the pampered, profligate Latvian wasting opportunities to break before double-faulting on set point.  But the narrative crumbled midway through the second set, when Gulbis declined to content himself with an excellent week and turned the tide decisively.  Although he nearly wasted a 5-1 lead in the final against a visibly tiring opponent, but the three consecutive winners with which the match ended suggested an uncharacteristic poise under pressure.  Perhaps the shift to a new coach, the equally enigmatic Guillermo Canas, has provided Gulbis with a temporary injection of motivation that will anesthetize him against complacency for the next few months.

As Fish continued to accelerate from his Wimbledon quarterfinal into a successful summer, Ryan Harrison also built upon his fine effort at the All England Club in a five-set loss to Ferrer.  In his second straight semifinal, the swiftly rising American teen dueled Fish far more convincingly than during their Atlanta meeting.  Undeterred by a first-set bagel, Harrison clawed himself back into the match against a far more experienced opponent and came within a few points of his debut final.  The outlook for American men’s tennis no longer looks so bleak, especially considering his successes this year against Raonic and Berankis, contemporaries likely to rival Harrison for significant titles in two or three years.

Challenging Nadal throughout their suspenseful four-setter at Wimbledon, Del Potro appeared to have regressed somewhat in Los Angeles. Somewhat like Sharapova, his unremarkable week stemmed in part from the vagaries of a draw that placed him near the eventual, unexpected champion.  Nevertheless, the 2009 US Open champion not only struggled at times to dispatch the faded Blake but should have found a way to at least hamper and harry Gulbis as Fish did.  Notwithstanding the Latvian’s eventual title and history of victories against elite opponents, Del Potro must summon stronger performances against these dangerous dark horses in order to reassert himself as a contender.

After one week of the US Open Series, more questions have been asked than answered.  We look forward next week to untangling the leading storylines from San Diego and Washington, following a preview of the now simultaneous Canadian tournaments.

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Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka of Belarus celebrates after defeating Maria Sharapova of Russia during the finals of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford University on August 1, 2010 in Stanford, California.

Inaugurating the US Open Series for the WTA is the 28-player tournament at Stanford’s intimate stadium, where four top-10 players and three Slam champions converge.  Like the overstuffed draws at Sydney and Eastbourne, this tournament’s small scale and sterling entry list combine to produce fascinating encounters from the opening round onwards.

Top half:  Returning as the top seed and defending champion, Wimbledon semifinalist Azarenka hopes to extend her first-half momentum from what has become the finest season of her career.  Since a bye instantly moves her within one win of the quarterfinals, she could face top-20 opponent Cibulkova in her second match of the tournament.  The Slovak bedeviled Vika for prolonged stretches of their Miami meeting, which she led by a set and a break before fading.  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, Cibulkova also has enjoyed one of her most successful seasons but faces a tricky opener against Date-Krumm.  Eliminating Safina and winning a set from Dementieva here last year, the ageless Japanese legend struggled throughout the first few months of 2011.  Nevertheless, she rebounded brilliantly at Wimbledon to collaborate with Venus on a second-round classic that illustrated her uncanny knack for exploiting the geometry of the court.  Also mounting a comeback in this section is Mirjana Lucic, who troubled Cibulkova at Wimbledon.  The Croat opens against Christina McHale, perhaps the brightest ray of hope for the future of American women’s tennis although far from a future superstar.

Projected to meet Azarenka in the semifinals is 2009 champion Bartoli, reinstated in the top 10 following stirring surges at the European majors.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, the eccentric double-fister ambushed former champions in each of those tournaments (Kuznetsova and Serena, respectively).   But she failed to blunt Lisicki’s serving power on the grass and will face one of two imposing servers on this fast hard court, either Canada’s Rebecca Marino or home hope Coco Vandeweghe.  In the quarterfinals, Bartoli might reprise her meeting with Ivanovic at last year’s tournament, should the former #1 progress past Morita and a qualifier.  While those victories would seem well within range, recent losses to opponents like Larsson and Cetkovska suggest that anything could happen when the Serb takes the court.  Early in her partnership with Nigel Sears and Scott Byrnes, Ivanovic will hope to draw emotional stability from the secure support team around her.  If she does reach Azarenka in the semifinals, she will have more positive memories to bolster her confidence than does Bartoli, repeatedly dominated by the Belarussian.

Semifinal:  Azarenka d. Bartoli

Bottom half:  In arguably the weakest section lies 2010 semifinalist Radwanska, who has relished the extra jolt of pace with which this slick surface endows her underpowered strokes.  The Pole has suffered a series of uncharacteristic setbacks this year, however, as a souring relationship with her father-coach may have contributed to her depleted confidence.   Also searching for a momentum boost is Stosur, last year’s top seed but now hovering at the fringes of the top 10.  Banished from the first week of every major this season, the former Roland Garros runner-up has found her limited game exposed by those with a more balanced range of weapons.  Still a threat when she finds her first serve regularly, Stosur defeated Serena here two years ago but likely will open against doubles partner and Wimbledon semifinalist Lisicki.  The mightiest server of her generation, the German should score yet another upset and perhaps proceed to a quarterfinal against Radwanska that would showcase a dramatic contrast of styles.  In the aftermath of her Wimbledon breakthrough, though, will Lisicki suffer a lull in her motivation?

Wedged uncomfortably into the lowest quarter are the two greatest attractions of the draw, responsible for collecting 16 of the 17 majors owned by Stanford participants.  Thirteen of those belong to an unseeded player currently ranked outside the top 100, who will ignite her campaign against the woefully overmatched Rodionova.  Among the most intriguing first-round matches in the draw is the encounter that pits Goerges against Kirilenko to decide Serena’s second-round foe.  After a sparkling clay season that included a title and two wins over Wozniacki, the German receded from the spotlight during the grass season as her compatriot Lisicki shone.  If she can find the consistency to outhit Kirilenko, her penetrating first-strike power could challenge Serena, still rusty at Wimbledon.  Eyeing a probable opener against Hantuchova, Sharapova seeks to move a round further than at her last tournament and her last Stanford appearance.  Excelling on the specialty surfaces this year, she must conquer an opponent who also scored notable albeit more muted accomplishments in recent months.  The three-time major champion stands alone among the top 20 in winning two or more matches at every tournament this year, but she probably must snap a five-match skid against Serena to continue that streak.

Semifinal:  S. Williams d. Lisicki

Final:  Azarenka d. S. Williams

***

Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina kisses the championship trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the Countrywide Classic finals in Straus Stadium at the Los Angeles Tennis Center-UCLA on August 10, 2008 in Westwood, California.  Del Potro defeated Roddick 6-1, 7-6(2).

Casting a brief glance at the relatively meager ATP draw in Los Angeles, a few defining characteristics emerge.  The most prominent figure here, 2008 champion Del Potro, already has rejoined the top 20 and will hope to elevate his ranking further during his most successful period of the season.  Among his rivals is the enigmatic future star Grigor Dimitrov, who continues to alternate flashes of brilliance with inexplicable lapses.  In fact, the LA draw features a host of such unpredictable competitors, from former Australian Open finalists Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Gulbis and Malisse.  Forgotten figures like Haas and Tursunov also hope to snatch a few fleeting moments of glory as their careers dwindle.  Hoping to build upon his Atlanta semifinal, top American prospect Ryan Harrison will confront fellow rising star Ricardas Berankis in the first edition of what may become a recurrent rivalry.  Fresh from defending his Atlanta title, Fish looks likely to appear in a second straight final, where he will find Del Potro a taller task than Isner in tennis if not in literal terms.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

At first glance, the numbers look more than respectable.  Few eyebrows would furrow over a 33-11 record that included two titles and five total finals across the span of just thirteen tournaments.  While  seven of the eleven losses came against players who have reached the top 10, four of those seven losses came against a current #1 (Serena), two former #1s (Henin, Clijsters), and a soon-to-be #1 (Wozniacki).  Yet circumstances converged to ensure that we will remember Sharapova’s 2010 campaign more for what she didn’t accomplish than what she did.

Elevating expectations before the season even began, victories over Venus and Wozniacki in January exhibitions extended Maria’s momentum from a Tokyo title the previous fall.  In a section of the Melbourne draw far from the Williams sisters, her recurrent nemeses, she seemed destined to reach the semifinal or perhaps the final of the major that she conquered in 2008.  On the first day of the tournament, however, Sharapova endured one of the longest and ugliest matches of her career.  This first-round defeat to Kirilenko hinged less upon her much-dissected serve than upon her groundstrokes, which erred by margins proportional to the significance of the points.  Equally ominous was Sharapova’s failure to tuck away a first set that seemed well within her control as Kirilenko served at 2-4, 15-40.   But the wasted opportunity would have receded into irrelevance had Maria completed the comeback that she began when Kirilenko served for the match.  Breaking her compatriot with fiery returns, she could not capitalize upon this momentum shift, as she had in a comparably epic Melbourne opener three years ago; instead, she meekly surrendered her own serve a game later at 4-5.

After this limp denouement, Maria marched into Memphis with much to prove.  Five mercilessly masticated opponents later, the Siberian lioness collected the second title of her comeback but had not defeated any foe more impressive than future Newcomer of the Year Kvitova.  Nevertheless, Sharapova surely arrived at Indian Wells hopeful that the tide had turned and that her Australian debacle was no more than an untimely hallucination.  Fortunate to escape an error-riddled opener against Dushevina, she then suffered an elbow injury in the third set of a battle with the tenacious Zheng.  Audiences would not see the Russian again until shortly before Roland Garros, when she broke from her routine by adding Strasbourg to her schedule after a premature return in Madrid.  At Strasbourg, Sharapova claimed her first career title on red clay, the surface that famously has baffled her throughout her career.  As in Memphis, she did not overcome a marquee opponent, but a three-set semifinal victory over clay specialist Medina Garrigues augured well for the fortnight in Paris.

Contrasting with her placid Melbourne draw, Sharapova’s draw at Roland Garros resembled a minefield, littered with not only Serena but four-time champion Henin and the surging Stosur.  Armed with a seven-match winning streak, she entered a third-round collision with the Belgian that thoroughly justified the anticipation surrounding it.  Extending over two days, this memorable encounter illustrated the potential congruency between the surface and Sharapova’s gritty determination, which enabled her to reverse the momentum after a disappointing first set and snap Henin’s 40-set winning streak at Roland Garros.  With her jaws firmly fastened around the Belgian as the latter served at 0-2, 0-40 in the final set, however, the Russian let those three pivotal break points evaporate and dropped six of the next seven games, unable to hold her serve again.

Maria Sharapova Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia shake hands after the women's singles third round match between Justine Henin of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 30, 2010 in Paris, France.

Her competitive appetite undiminished, Sharapova built upon this valiant effort when the season shifted to grass.  Although she fell to Li Na in the Birmingham final, her serve crackled with renewed vigor throughout her preceding matches there; she also scored a satisfying revenge against her 2008 Wimbledon nemesis Alla Kudryavtseva.  When the All England Club released its draw, all eyes turned towards the uppermost section, which scheduled a Monday meeting between Sharapova and three-time champion, world #1 Serena Williams.  While Serena had resoundingly dispatched Maria in their most recent Slam final, British spectators recalled the Russian’s stunning upset over the American in the 2004 Wimbledon final.  As the Centre Court audience had hoped, Maria rose to the challenge during a first set defined by percussive serves and terse, emphatically terminated rallies.  In one of the season’s most meaningful tiebreaks, the two champions dueled on equal terms through the first eighteen points, three of which offered keys for Sharapova to unlock the first set.  At 9-9, however, a double fault and a Williams ace brought this suspenseful set to its conclusion, leaving the Russian to ponder what might have unfolded had she converted one of her three set points.  Although another set remained to play, the excitement soon ebbed as Serena secured the only break that she would need to escape this tense encounter.  Threatened much less severely by her later foes, she exploited the carnage that occurred at this year’s wildly unpredictable Wimbledon.  In retrospect, therefore, not only a match but perhaps a fourth major title might have slipped through Sharapova’s fingers with that pivotal tiebreak.  Had she eluded Serena, one would have fancied her chances against the trio of Li, Kvitova, and Zvonareva, whom the American defused in her place.

Nevertheless, Sharapova seemed less discouraged by the outcome than reassured by her ability to compete with the world #1 at a major.  Leveling her heavy-lidded glare at Indian Wells nemesis Zheng, she avenged that defeat in her Stanford opener before navigating through a three-set, 165-minute rollercoaster against Dementieva that hung in the balance until her last savage forehand.  Weary from consecutive evening epics, Maria would fall to Azarenka in the final, but the momentum from Stanford flowed into Cincinnati two weeks later.  On a slick surface friendly to her style, she outlasted newly crowned San Diego champion Kuznetsova and then trampled upon Radwanska and Bartoli with suffocating serving and impenetrable concentration.  Suddenly resembling her vintage self more than she had for most of her comeback, Sharapova reached a second straight final and a third meeting with a fellow Slam champion during a three-month period.

This momentous clash with Clijsters, however, set the stage for the frustrating performances that followed throughout the rest of 2010.  Racing through a comfortable first set, Sharapova looked nearly invulnerable on her own serve, while the off-key Belgian struggled to harness her strokes.  At 6-2, 5-3, victory lay within the Russian’s grasp as her opponent confronted three championship points.  Although Clijsters erased two of those chances with imposing serves, a relatively neutral rally evolved on the third point.  When an opening first beckoned, Sharapova didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice but hammered her favored backhand towards the edge of the line, hoping to end the match with one mighty blow.  The ball fell wide.  After a rain delay, the tide turned slowly but inexorably against the Russian, who suffered the most demoralizing defeat of her comeback so far.  Melancholy in its immediate aftermath, she showed scars of the disappointment in her unconvincing play at the season’s three remaining tournaments.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts after a point played against Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the women's singles match on day eight of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 6, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

A little lucky to escape the plucky Jarmila Groth in her 2010 US Open debut, Sharapova did record the second double bagel of her career during the middle weekend.  When she met top seed Wozniacki a round later, though, her performance sagged well below the level that she achieved against Henin and Serena at the two previous majors.  While the match stayed respectably competitive and featured numerous long games, Sharapova couldn’t summon her trademark precision and focus for more than two or three points at a time, playing into the hands of her tightly controlled opponent.  To Wozniacki’s credit, she maintained her poise as she sealed the most impressive single victory of her career thus far, but the inconsistency that infected almost every area of the Russian’s game reduced the pressure on the Dane.  As her season drifted towards a tepid conclusion, Sharapova won just one match in her last two events of 2010.  Her uneventful loss to Vesnina in Beijing seemed to come almost as a relief from the painful reverses that she had suffered over the preceding months.  When the offseason finally arrived, it provided a respite necessary to rekindle her appetite for the sport before a crucial campaign in 2011.

Although injuries, thorny draws, and other factors beyond her control played a perceptible role in her 2010 struggles, Sharapova never has relied upon excuses during adversity.  A mature competitor, she recognizes that champions design their own destiny rather than allowing fate to forge their fortunes.  In 2011, she must demonstrate that she still possesses the steely core of willpower and fortitude that propelled her to greatness and upon which she must rely in order to return there.

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We resume our look back at the year that was with a review of 2010 as experienced by the second half of our pseudonym!

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

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1) Roger Federer

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

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

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2) Rafael Nadal

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

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

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3) Andy Murray

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

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

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4) Novak Djokovic

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

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

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

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

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

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2) Maria Sharapova

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

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

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3) Venus Williams

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

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

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4) Victoria Azarenka

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

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

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

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

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Strengths:

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

1) Forehand

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

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2) Confidence against higher-ranked players

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

3) Mentality

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

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

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

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5) Steady upward mobility and potential

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

Weaknesses:

1) Backhand

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

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2) Net play

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

3) Inconsistency

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

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4) Self-expectations / self-pressure

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

5) Capitalizing upon success

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

—Alvaro Rama (edited by sharapovanovic)

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

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

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

1)      More ebbs and flows / less constant drama:

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

2)      Serves, returns more impressive:

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

3)      Court appears smaller:

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

4)      Time between points seems longer:

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

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