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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

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

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

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

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Group II:

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

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

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

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

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Serena

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

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Petra Kvitova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

Stuffed with nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20, the WTA draw in Sydney features spectacular entertainment and fascinating collisions from the first round onwards.  As Ivanovic discovered in an opening-round loss to Safarova, a draw so small and so star-studded offers almost no place to hide.

Top half:  Like Kvitova in the bottom half, Wozniacki receives a bye into the second round that will allow her to regroup from a moderately encouraging week in Hopman Cup.  Defeated by Kvitova and tested by Pironkova there, the world #1 improved as that exhibition progressed and should bring confidence into a meeting with her conqueror in Sydney last year, Cibulkova.  Also in Wozniacki’s quarter, though, are two top-10 players in Petkovic and Radwanska.  The top-ranked German did not distinguish herself at Brisbane while struggling to hold serve, perhaps still rusty from a knee injury that hindered her late in 2011.  In the first round, Petkovic would meet her projected quarterfinal opponent in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova, who likewise looked unimpressive there.  With an Australian Open quarterfinal soon to defend, the world #10 surely would welcome an opportunity to gain more match practice.  Fortunate to draw a qualifier in her first match of 2012, Radwanska aspires to begin this season as brightly as she ended last fall, with consecutive titles at marquee Asian tournaments.  The intriguing Pole might reprise her Beijing final against Petkovic before once again meeting her friend Wozniacki, who has dominated her for most of their careers.

Like Radwanska, Azarenka lifts a racket with malice in her heart for the first time this year when she faces a qualifier in her opener.  Considering Jankovic’s entertaining battle with Schiavone last week, the best match of the Brisbane tournament, the Serbian former #1 might challenge the third seed if she can escape Julia Goerges.  Nevertheless, Azarenka ended last season on an especially encouraging note and may have accumulated too much momentum to succumb to an occasionally dangerous dark horse like Jankovic.  In her quarterfinal awaits the unpredictable Bartoli, who enjoys perhaps the most comfortable draw of all, starting with a qualifier and continuing with the long-faded Dokic.  Although she finished the Hopman Cup with a 1-2 record in singles, the double-fister nearly defeated a resurgent Li and severely tested Kvitova for a set while mercilessly double-bageling Gajdosova.  Of her nine matches against Azarenka, though, Bartoli has emerged victorious from only a retirement and a meaningless round-robin matches at the year-end championships.  On most surfaces except grass, the Belarussian’s balanced style will outlast her.

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Bottom half:  Whereas the top half seemed the stronger section in Brisbane, the lower half looks more imposing in Sydney.  Hoping to improve upon her early exit here last year, Zvonareva confronts the challenge of facing Kuznetsova just after the erstwhile two-time major champion reached the semifinals in Auckland.  The task of defeating a compatriot often has flustered Russian woman, and neither of these two has proved themselves exactly steely under ordinary circumstances.  But the route of the winner grows briefly smoother thereafter with the streaky Safarova blocking them from the quarterfinals.  By that stage, defending champion Li Na hopes to have consolidated a promising performance at the Hopman Cup, where she lost only one set in three singles matches.  With vast quantities of points soon to descend upon her shoulders, she can ill afford a slump as Melbourne looms.  Having lost four of her last five matches to Zvonareva, including the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, Li might bring extra determination to a clash with another player who must defend a significant result at the Australian Open.  If this battle of backhands should happen, it might provide insight concerning whether either or both of these women might become a genuine contender during the following fortnight.

Aligned to meet in the first round are two recent Slam champions in Stosur and Schiavone, both of whom first tasted greatness relatively late in their careers.  Although less notable, the meeting between Vinci and Hantuchova might offer comparable intrigue with the contrast in styles between the biting slices of the Italian and the smooth swings of the Slovak.  Can Schiavone rebound physically from her draining week in Brisbane, and can Hantuchova rebound mentally from her demolition in the final?  At the base of this section lies Kvitova, who could reach the top ranking with a title here.  While we would not expect the pressure of that possibility to unnerve her, we also would not expect it to infuse her with additional purpose.  After winning all four of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, Kvitova eyes an accommodating path to at least the quarterfinals with Lisicki’s withdrawal.  But week-to-week dominance has eluded her so far.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

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

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

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Petra Kvitova - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Four

Kvitova vs. Stosur:  Clearly the most impressive player of the round-robin phase, Kvitova blazed a trail past the world #1, a two-time Slam finalist, and the WTA’s leading performer of the fall without surrendering so much as a set.  Showcasing her electrifying arsenal on the laboratory-like indoor surface, the Czech dissected her opponents by ruthlessly changing the direction of the ball and slapping shots over the high part of the net with ease.  Able to hit any shot from any position here, Kvitova often has caught her opponents oddly flat-footed as she did at Wimbledon, perhaps a combination of her distinctive lefty angles and overwhelming pace.  As she would be the first to admit, her game remains a work in progress, and she sometimes makes the easy look as hard while making the hard look easy.  In her tiebreak against Radwanska on Friday, Kvitova scorched a brilliant backhand winner past a frozen foe before missing the same groundstroke into an open court a few points later.  Her dual capacity for reeling off several straight unanswerable winners or several straight perplexing errors means that few leads or deficits are insurmountable in her matches.  Like Federer, her rapid tempo during and between points only accelerates the momentum shifts caused by her mercurial fluctuations in form.

Outside a second-set wobble in her first match, though, Kvitova has restricted those fluctuations  to inconsequential moments even more effectively than she did at Wimbledon.  Against a player who serves so effectively, she will have less margin for error than against the three easily broken counterpunchers in her group.  When this rising lefty faced Stosur at the Australian Open this year, both players raced through service games en route to a first-set tiebreak, while the second set hinged upon a single break.  Slashing plenty of percussive serves herself in her three victories, Kvitova’s darting delivery into the ad court may suit the court’s low bounce more than her opponent’s high-kicking serve.  After the Czech swung with brazen abandon at even the first serves of her three previous victims, one wonders whether she will approach Stosur so audaciously.  Considering the heavy spin on the Australian’s serves, Kvitova may struggle to control her returns if she continues to play with such high risk.  In addition to their serves, both women parallel the ATP in their preference for forehands over backhands, although the topsin-smothered stroke of the US Open champion contrasts with the flat swings of the Wimbledon champion.  Therefore, their match may revolve around who can pin their opponent into her backhand corner with cross-court forehands, organizing the rally from weakness to strength.  More powerful and more balanced, Kvitova holds the advantage on returns and from the baseline, while Stosur enjoys an edge with her serve and at the net.  But in no area is either so far superior to the other that one woman can assume the role of the clear favorite.

Azarenka vs. Zvonareva:  A pleasant contrast with the first semifinal, the second match should feature many more breaks, much longer rallies, relatively few points won with the serve, and considerably more points decided from the baseline than in the forecourt.  Unlike Kvitova and Stosur, Azarenka and Zvonareva have compiled an extended, intriguing record as they approach their tenth meeting.  One can divide their encounters into roughly three phases.  First came the period of the Russian’s dominance from 2007 through 2009 over the still-raw, immature Belarussian (a description that some might find still apt).  After Zvonareva led by a set and a break at the 2010 Australian Open, seemingly en route to a fifth straight win in their rivalry, one of her infamous implosions set the stage for consecutive lopsided victories by Azarenka.  In the third, more unsettled phase, these two tempestuous competitors played two tight encounters in the second half of 2010 and an ugly rout in a 2011 Miami semifinal.  Perhaps tellingly, Zvonareva won the two former matches and lost the latter.  Whereas Azarenka’s nerve chronically fails her in suspenseful matches against the elite, she possesses greater psychological ability to reverse the trajectory of a match following a dismal beginning.  By contrast, Zvonareva has struggled with turning a tide that flows too strongly against her in the early stages.  But one of her career’s greater accomplishments represents her appearance in the final at the 2008 edition of this tournament, not to mention victories over Clijsters at Wimbledon and Wozniacki at the US Open last year.  Twice a champion in Miami, Azarenka has yet to mount a signature run at a major, and she contests a semifinal at the calendar’s fifth most prestigious event for the first time.

From some perspectives, a “contrast of styles” presents the most intriguing type of duel, like the gladiatorial contests in the Roman Empire that decided whether a Gallic swordsman or a Thracian spear-bearer reigned supreme.  While certainly not lacking in sharpened weapons or potential for drama, the second semifinals does not offer that form of entertainment.  Generally similar in their visions of the games, Azarenka and Zvonareva have developed their backhands into their signature shots and have built excellent transition games upon their ability to combine court coverage with penetrating groundstrokes.  Even when stretched wide along the baseline, both women can project sufficient depth to prevent the opponent from gaining a definitive advantage in the rally.  Their respective levels of execution thus will play the crucial role rather than any affinity for the surface or key matchup between the strength of one competitor and the weakness of another.  From the evidence submitted so far this week, one would tentatively rule in favor of Azarenka, who demolished Stosur and Li with disdain without losing her serve.  Not a notable shot, her delivery abandoned her several times against Bartoli in a meaningless march to nowhere that occupied two and a half hours on Friday, valuable time that Zvonareva will have used to refresh her energies after consecutive three-setters.  When she next takes the court after failing to convert three match points in a loss to Radwanska, the Russian may bear the scars of that cruel disappointment.  Or she may relax, grateful to have earned an opportunity to end her season on a more uplifting note.  Meanwhile, Azarenka must sharpen her focus from the virtual dead rubber of Friday now that the single-elimination weekend has arrived.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Li (1-1) vs. Stosur (1-1):  What a difference a day made for these two women. Less than 24 hours after they opened their week with solid victories over Sharapova, Azarenka thrashed the Roland Garros and US Open champions by identical 6-2, 6-2 scores.  Contributing to their swift transformation from predators to prey, Li and Stosur donated far more unforced errors to their opponent’s cause in their second matches, especially from the forehands on which both rely.  Nevertheless, the relative levels of performance attained by the injured, rusty Sharapova and the crisp, confident Azarenka also played significant roles in the whiplash-inducing turn of events.  Initially optimistic and then perhaps pessimistic, the two first-time Slam champions of 2011 should approach their collision through a realistic lens.  Simply put, the winner of this match earns a trip to a semifinal with the White Group winner (most likely Kvitova), while the loser earns a trip to their vacation destination of choice.  Since the year-end championships so often rest in the hands of computers and calculators, we find it refreshing to have a berth decided by a virtual quarterfinal or a single-elimination match.

From a glance at their previous meetings, the conclusion seems foregone.  In five matches on hard courts, carpet, and clay, Li has won one total set from her fellow breakthrough artist.  Only once has Li won more than six games in a match from Stosur, but that one occasion came in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati, which unwound through three tangled, competitive sets and may hint at a potential shift in the balance of power following two routine encounters earlier in 2011.  At the core of the Australian’s dominance lies her much superior serve, which has trumped the Chinese star’s often devastating return.  While Stosur’s serve will present the single most potent weapon on the court, she also owns the second most potent weapon in her forehand, a shot that will win most of their forehand-to-forehand rallies.  As opponents typically have attempted before, Li will seek to orient the rallies around their two-handed backhands, where she holds a distinct advantage despite her foe’s improvements in that area.  If the match evolves into a rigidly serve-oriented contest with short points and few breaks, she will have few opportunities to crack the Stosur conundrum.  By contrast, Li may prevail if she can engage in a more fluid, varied contest that rewards her more balanced style.  Stosur broke through an 0-for-career drought against one opponent this week, extended an 0-for-career drought against another, and now must seek to prevent an opponent from snapping an 0-for-career drought against her.

Kvitova (2-0) vs. Radwanska (1-1):  Unlike the previous match, this duel of dissonant styles matters much more to one combatant than to the other.  By ending Wozniacki’s season in emphatic fashion, the Wimbledon champion assured herself a semifinal berth in her first career appearance at this event.  Kvitova thus will approach this third and, for her, meaningless match with minimal motivation or intensity, a factor that may play directly into the hands of her opponent’s hopes.  After a set of her Thursday battle with Zvonareva, those hopes looked frail indeed as Radwanska could not blunt the Russian’s superior weight of shot.  Down to potentially the last point of her 2011 campaign on two different occasions, however, the champion of Tokyo and Beijing refused to submit meekly to a heavier hitter once again.  As she has so many times before, Radwanska survived by eliciting unforced errors until she thrived by striking the deft, exquisitely placed winners that compensate in grace for what they lack in pace.  From our sideline perspective, moreover, the dogged abandon with which she dashes along the baseline and retrieves laser after laser looks as intimidating as the lasers themselves.  In order to defeat Radwanska, opponents must dig into the trenches for a mentally draining encounter.

On the grass of Eastbourne this year, Kvitova dug into those trenches for a third-set-tiebreak victory that contributed to her impetus on the eve of her Wimbledon triumph.  With virtually nothing at stake here, she probably will prove unwilling to commit the degree of focus or determination required by a game so strongly reliant on precision.  As her wayward patches this year have showed, Kvitova can lose to almost any challenger when her mind wanders and carries her vicious offensive combinations with it.  Needing to win only one set for that first career semifinal berth, Radwanska should fancy her chances of exploiting an indifferent opponent.  One of her greatest tests may consist of recovering from the labyrinthine path that she traced on Thursday to reach this stage, but she has mastered such tasks convincingly throughout the second half of 2011.  And at least the Pole can determine her own fate, a situation much more enviable than the position of waiting, watching, and wondering in which Zvonareva finds herself.

Azarenka (2-0) vs. Bartoli (alt.): One has no doubt of advancing, while the other has no hope of doing so.  Combining those ingredients in this virtual dead rubber, neither player has any real incentive beyond the points and prize money available.  Before the tournament, Azarenka emphasized the allure of the latter, but one would counsel caution with a weekend of vital matches looming on the horizon.  For Bartoli, not for the first time an alternate event, the potential windfall may beckon more invitingly.  Nevertheless, she suffered a double bagel against Henin in a similar dead rubber at the year-end championships, so she may join Vika in the awkward exercise of playing a match while not really contesting it, all too familiar from Davis and Fed Cups past.  Istanbul fans should consider leaving after the previous match and preparing for a magnificent day of (singles and doubles) semifinals on Saturday.

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