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Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 5

Nadal vs. Murray:  As he seeks to capture his first 2011 title on a surface other than clay, the Tokyo top seed perhaps can empathize with the plight faced by his opponent.  While Nadal has failed all season to solve the challenges posed by Djokovic, Murray has suffered a parallel futility in his four meetings with Nadal, including semifinals at every major except the Australian Open.  Just as the Spaniard has enjoyed fleeting moments of supremacy over the Serb this year, the Scot has won sets from his nemesis on three of four occasions and played three highly competitive sets on the fourth.  Just as Nadal has experimented with nearly everything imaginable in the effort to trouble Djokovic, moreover, Murray has veered from the ultra-aggressive to the ultra-conservative in his attempts to crack the seemingly impenetrable conundrum before him.  Although the world #4 never dominated Nadal as Nadal had dominated Djokovic, he accompanies Djokovic as the only player to defeat Rafa at multiple majors.

Perhaps the most recent turning point in their rivalry, or non-rivalry considering the Spaniard’s 13-4 advantage, came at the World Tour Finals on Murray’s home court in London. Breaking Nadal when he served for the match, the Scot then held a lead in the third-set tiebreak and came within two points of mounting a spectacular comeback in this semifinal classic, by far the best match of the tournament.  But Murray missed first serves late in the tiebreak and lacked clarity in his shot selection, confused as in their other encounters about the appropriate moments to pull the trigger in rallies. Burdened with such uncertainties only against Djokovic, Nadal has mounted in confidence throughout his current five-match winning streak over this rival.  Intimidated by Murray’s two-handed backhand during the first half of 2010, he looked alarmingly comfortable during much of their US Open semifinal in 2011, when he anticipated and retrieved most of his opponent’s offensive gambits with ease while rarely conceding control over a point once he had gained it.  The Scot attained an outstanding level of performance during the third set and early in the fourth, casting aside his fatalism and momentarily disconcerting Nadal with fearless and unpredictable aggression.  Much like the Spaniard’s performance in the third set of the US Open final, though, one hardly could imagine Murray playing a higher level of tennis—and yet he still lost, unable to sustain it throughout the course of an entire match.  This week, he has looked slightly the sharper player of the two rivals after surviving an opening-round threat from Baghdatis.  Demolishing the dangerous Ferrer on Saturday, he rarely looked ruffled as he struck both groundstrokes early and moved inside the baseline in a demonstration of confidence and commitment to offense.

In order to threaten Nadal on this slow hard court, Murray will need not only the first serve that has betrayed him this year against the Spaniard but the forehand that initially dazzled at Wimbledon before crumbling.  Throughout his semifinal, he repeatedly startled Ferrer with crackling forehands down the line, far from the risk-averse forehands that he normally directs cross court.  Seeking his third title in four tournaments, Murray hasn’t lost a match at a non-major since an opening-round defeat to Kevin Anderson at the Rogers Cup.  Perhaps the momentum from this streak has inspired him with the confidence necessary to trample his nemesis, and the goal of reaching #3 by the end of the season should add further motivation.  But Nadal has won every final that he has played this year against opponents other than Djokovic, responsible for more than half of his 2011 losses, while his frustration from those six setbacks may inspire him to redouble his determination when an opportunity beckons to claim a title without facing his nemesis.  In the absence of Djokovic and Federer from the Tour, the Tokyo final likely will foreshadow the final at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai next week.  After Nadal defends this week, Murray defends that title.  Can each man protect his 2010 conquest from the other?

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Winless in four intersections with the Pole, including two this summer, Petkovic augmented her already growing Internet notoriety with a frantic dash off court to vomit during their San Diego semifinal.  Although she blamed food poisoning, Radwanska’s multifaceted arsenal often proves an adequate source of vertigo itself.  Dominant in a semifinal against a resurgent Pennetta, her returning precision continually subjected her opponent to pressure in service games that eventually bore fruit when the Italian served for the set and the match.  Once content to retrieve and rally in neutral positions, the Tokyo champion has developed more comfort with offensive shots such as a backhand down the line with which she thrust Pennetta out of position.  While Radwanska never will become an elite shot-maker, her willingness to accept more risk more often would complicate the task of her rivals, who formerly could relax in the expectation of an offensive monopoly.  In contrast to the elongated strokes of Petkovic, the Pole’s crisp, compact swings perhaps deny her a little explosiveness but also enable her talent for deception by masking direction and pace until the last moment.

Nevertheless, Petkovic has impressed throughout her route through the Beijing draw, vanquishing a variety of opponents throughout the spectrum from power to finesse.  Heavily favored in her semifinal with Niculescu, she handled that situation with composure despite her lack of experience in these late stages of key tournaments.  With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Petkovic permitted the overmatched Romanian no ray of hope in an effort focused and methodical from start to finish.  As a result of its depleted field, this Premier Mandatory tournament often has seemed neither Premier nor Mandatory in most senses, providing neither premier-level tennis nor must-watch entertainment. But it remains the most important match in the careers of both women to date, causing one to wonder how both will handle the situation.  The more battle-hardened Radwanska would appear to enjoy the advantage in intangibles as she pursues her eleventh straight victory and first pair of consecutive titles.  On the other hand, Petkovic has embraced much more intimidating challenges and overcome much sterner odds several times this year.  The most distinctive personality in a Tour filled with distinctive personalities dominated Sharapova in a Slam night session and halted Wozniacki’s five-tournament winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments.  If she can accomplish those breakthroughs, Petkovic certainly can vault the Pole as well.

Berdych vs. Cilic:  Like Radwanska, the Croat has reached his second final in Bejing after falling one match short of the 2009 title.  Also like Radwanska, Cilic has benefited from a benign draw in which he has not faced a seeded opponent but instead fellow giants Anderson and Ljubicic.  Those victories will have prepared for a third straight serving shootout with the third-seeded Berdych, who has not won a title since seizing Munich over two years ago.  The longest current drought in either top 10, that stretch has featured a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final as well as victories over Djokovic, Federer, and Soderling, but Berdych repeatedly has failed to string together victories or capitalize upon brackets that open for him.  This year, for example, he lost semifinals to Petzschner in Halle and Wawrinka in Chennai—both winnable matches that his superiority in overall talent should have tilted in his favor.  Also among the Czech’s four semifinal disappointments at minor tournaments was a defeat to none other than Cilic in Marseille, the Croat’s first victory over Berdych following two losses in 2009.  Equal to his opponent with five career titles, Cilic hasn’t collected a trophy since Zagreb in February 2010, so this Sunday in Beijing will bring long-awaited relief to one participant while extending the late-tournament frustrations of the other.  Whereas the Croat enjoys a more balanced groundstroke repertoire with a smooth two-hander, the Czech probably can unleash more potent first strikes from his first serve and forehand.  Not uncommon in the fall season, this final between second-tier threats will have few if any broad repercussions for the next season or those ranked above them.  Depleted by injuries and withdrawals, the ATP event in Beijing stands in the shadow of the Tokyo tournament rather than claiming equal status in the crescendo towards Shanghai, which we preview tomorrow.

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Vera Zvonareva - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 5

Radwanska vs. Zvonareva:  Starting with her mid-career breakthrough last summer, Zvonareva reached the concluding stages of several pivotal tournaments:  Wimbledon, the US Open, Beijing, and the Australian Open.  Yet the intelligent, volatile Russian settled for best supporting actress at the first three of those events and succumbed in the semifinals of the fourth, continuing a habit of falling just short when a momentous triumph seemed within her grasp.  On the other hand, Zvonareva bowed only to the elite on those occasions, losing all four times to players who have held the #1 ranking and to Slam champions in three of the four defeats.  Her highly documented struggles in finals thus may stem in part from the opposition with which ill fortune has confronted the former #2, who could regain that lofty ranking if she wins Tokyo.  Amidst titles in such minor bastions of the WTA as Pattaya City and Baku, the Russian has claimed few noteworthy laurels since Indian Wells in 2009.

At first glance, Zvonareva’s opponent would seem a comparatively comfortable challenge far from her more formidable nemeses.  Upon closer examination, though, Radwanska has won their last two meetings this summer with the sort of gritty tenacity that can trouble emotionally fraught competitors like Zvonareva.  In the San Diego final, the Pole’s much-critiqued serve never deserted her as she never conceded a single break while capitalizing upon the few opportunities that she earned.  Unlike ferocious shot-makers who can afford to drift mentally or grow negative at times, Radwanska can defeat elite opponents and maximize her potential only by maintaining her keen focus and her confidence.  When she struggled during the first half of the season, a slump exacerbated by injuries, her lack of confidence prevented her from unfolding her distinctive style effectively late in close sets and matches.  Like Wozniacki, her decision to distance herself somewhat from her father has breathed new life into her game and her appetite for competition.  Snapping a three-year drought without a title at San Diego, she rebounded impressively from a US Open disappointment to win three-setters over Jankovic and Azarenka here.  Much as with the Belarussian, she can fluster Zvonareva by exploring not only the lateral but the vertical dimensions of the court.  Although more multifaceted and more consistent than Azarenka, the fourth seed still prefers to wage war from the baseline with a similar pace and spin on most strokes.  Exposed in her losses to Radwanska this summer were her reluctance to improvise and adjust in unfamiliar positions or situations, where she often looked marooned as the Pole outmaneuvered her.

From her performance against Kvitova in the semifinals, by contrast, emerge promising omens for Zvonareva’s fortunes in this final.  When she slipped deep into a first-set deficit, Vera did not disintegrate as she has in so many earlier encounters, petulantly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Perhaps aware of her adversary’s inexperience and chronic inconsistency, she instead stayed calm and forced her opponent to earn what seemed a predestined first-set victory.  After saving several points and reversing the tide, Zvonareva then offered the volatile Czech no second chances but rather accelerated her meltdown by subtly applying pressure.  A thoughtful and sensitive tactician at her best, she carefully exposed Kvitova’s (few) weaknesses, such as her movement towards her backhand or her haste in creating nonexistent angles on deep balls near the center of the baseline.  Despite her counterpunching instincts, she interwove her standard game with timely bursts of aggression—a pummeled backhand second-serve return here, an unexpected net approach there—to keep her victim uneasy and reeling.  Zvonareva certainly will need to return more aggressively than in her two previous 2011 encounters with Radwanska, but otherwise she should remain mostly inside her low-risk comfort zone.  While the Pole possesses slight advantages in footwork and speed, the Russian should neutralize those edges on most occasions with her superior power, especially on the serve, and equal consistency.  If this match stays competitive, as it should, each player must carefully decide when to cast aside her habitual aversion to risk and when to wait patiently for a misstep from across the net.  Against Radwanska’s spontaneity stands Zvonareva’s programmatic style, but both favor the elongated rallies that require multiple shot combinations to win.  Moreover, both have developed a talent for uncovering an opponent’s most significant flaws and scraping away at them like a shoe on a blister.  Will the Russian become the third Tokyo titlist from her nation in the last seven years, or will the Pole record the most remarkable accomplishment of her career to date?

As Tokyo prepares to crown a first-time champion, Beijing beckons with the final WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of 2011.  We return to preview that draw tomorrow before discussing the two ATP 500 events on Sunday.

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.

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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.

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Regularly rewarding the Russians who have set foot in its arena, Beijing crowned three Olympic medalists from that nation in 2008 and Kuznetsova in 2009.  Already expelled from this year’s tournament, however, Sveta will surrender her crown to a colleague hungry to conclude the season on an emphatic note (and with an avalanche of rankings points).  Opportunists should beware, however, for the 2009 champion struggled mightily throughout 2010.  Which emboldened competitor believes that she can reverse that trend?

First quarter: Poised within two victories of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki may face a third-round encounter with Wimbledon nemesis Kvitova before sealing her grasp upon the top spot.  Before then, though, the Czech lefty will reprise her Wimbledon quarterfinal with Kanepi, during which she saved multiple match points before prevailing 8-6 in the third.  An almost identical scenario unfolded when they met in Memphis, where Kvitova saved a match point and then seized a third-set tiebreak, so this second-round clash ranks among the most intriguing in the draw.  Although a quarterfinal rematch of the Tokyo final might loom in the quarterfinals, Dementieva will need to navigate past the evergreen Date Krumm, who led her by a set and a break in her Stanford opener.  Almost as likely to meet Wozniacki in the quarterfinals is her Cincinnati conqueror Bartoli, who retired from Tokyo last week but tends to be most dangerous when least discussed.  Nearly undefeated since Wimbledon, the top seed might suffer a letdown if and when she clinches the #1 ranking.  Yet she remains the steadiest competitor in this section, and her conscientious work ethic should shield her from such a lapse.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

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Second quarter: Despite exiting before the quarterfinals of her last seven tournaments, Jankovic somehow has claimed the third seed in this prestigious draw.  The fading Serb trailed 4-2 in both sets of her opening win over Zakopalova but should enjoy more comfortable passage in an all-Serbian clash with the promising Bojana Jovanovski.  In fact, tournament probably will witness Jankovic’s first final-eight appearance since Roland Garros, for her immediate vicinity features none of the overpowering shotmakers who typically trouble her.  On the other side of the section lies much more compelling drama, including a potential rematch of the epic duel between Sharapova and Azarenka in last year’s tournament.  During most of her opener, Russian scalded her groundstrokes with much greater authority than Tokyo and approached the forecourt more aggressively; nevertheless, her serve can lurch from sublime to hideous and back within the course of a few points, while her confidence visibly wavered late in both sets.  If she can dispatch Tashkent finalist Vesnina, Maria will need her trademark intensity to overcome Azarenka, who similarly struggled with her serve and her confidence in Tokyo.  Vika has regularly alternated excellent results with premature exits throughout the summer and fall, so her Tokyo semifinal appearance might suggest early disappointment in Beijing.    But Azarenka’s competitive desire seems to burn more brightly than Sharapova’s at the moment.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter: After leading 5-2 in the third set, fourth-seeded Stosur ultimately fell to a qualifier and thus further opened this already wide-open section.  An opportunist at the majors this year, Petrova performed impressively in last year’s event but remains an enigma from one day to the next.  In a productive partnership with Safina’s former coach, Cibulkova continued her resurgence with an emphatic win over the wallowing Wickmayer; her baseline consistency and explosive moment could trouble Nadia if her serve falls short of its best.  Last year’s finalist Radwanska doesn’t exactly tower atop the section, although the deities of the draw have handed her a pair of exceptionally friendly opening rounds.  But the name that leaps out of this odd cast of characters is ninth seed Li Na, who launched an unforgettable semifinal run in this stadium during the 2008 Olympics.  Forced to withdraw from Tokyo with a gastrointestinal illness, the Chinese warrior thumped Tashkent champion Kudryavtseva in her opener.  If she can outslug the ever-dangerous Kleybanova in the second round, she should repeat her comprehensive Wimbledon triumph over Radwanska.  Expect the home crowd to lift Li to a memorable performance again.

Semifinalist:  Li

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Fourth quarter: Featuring the most intriguing first-round match in the draw, this section already has witnessed the departure of the defending champion, another Premier Mandatory champion (Rezai), and Hantuchova.  Ever eager to seize the spoils of war, Schiavone probably will profit from the debacles of others to prance into the quarterfinals with minimal ado.  But the question of whom she will face at that stage remains murky.  Fellow upset artists Dulko and Kirilenko engage in a stylish second-round meeting, while the winner of the Safina-Zvonareva clash confronts future top-20 player and top-10 personality Petkovic.  Although all-Russian matches generally defy predictions, they often offer riveting melodrama through vertiginous momentum shifts and entertainingly overt expressions of angst.  Still searching for her first marquee win since back surgery, Safina will hope to reproduce the 2009 Australian Open semifinal but probably lacks both the consistency and the self-belief to outlast Zvonareva.  Nevertheless, Vera displayed vulnerability during two wins and a straight-sets loss in Tokyo, during which she resembled her former, star-crossed self more than a two-time Slam finalist.  Both players comfortably overcame Petkovic on the American hard courts, so the winner probably will advance to the quarterfinals.  Once there, they possess more than enough weaponry to conquer Schiavone, although the Italian’s artistry could frustrate these fragile Russians.  On the other hand, Safina and Zvonareva will derive confidence from the 2008 exploits on this court, where they claimed the silver and bronze medals for their nation.

Semifinalist:  Safina-Zvonareva winner

***

A counterpoint to the marquee WTA tournament, the concurrent 500-level ATP event has compiled a draw much more imposing than its significance would suggest.

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Top half: Seemingly fond of Djokovic-Berdych collisions, the deities of the draw have arranged another quarterfinal clash between two players who met in the Wimbledon semifinals and the Davis Cup semifinals just after the US Open.  En route to that rendezvous, the revitalized Serb eyes a tranquil path past a Chinese wildcard and the winner of Fish-Tipsarevic, both of whom have often won sets from him but neither of whom has defeated him.  Not unlike Wawrinka, Tipsarevic generally cedes the spotlight to a colleague whom he enthusiastically labeled the greatest athlete in Serbian history, while Fish has yet to prove that he can export his success from his bastion on American hard courts.  Underwhelming since Wimbledon, Berdych might fall in the second round to 2009 US Open nemesis Querrey or Metz champion Simon, who has won their last two meetings.  Even if the Czech does reach the quarterfinals, the medium-speed Beijing hard courts favor Djokovic’s hybrid of offense and defense, which carried him to the title here a year ago.

Opportunity knocks for the players in the second quarter, bookended by the staggering Davydenko and the unreliable Verdasco, who both lost early last week to players outside the top 50.  Waging five-set slugfests against Kohlschreiber in their previous two meetings, the Spaniard might succumb in his opener against the German.  Desperately hoping for a positive end to a dismal 2010 campaign, 2009 finalist Cilic begins against the talented yet mentally brittle Bellucci; then, he probably would confront Davydenko in a contest between two players whose confidence has dwindled low in recent months.  Has Isner recovered from his Wimbledon marathon?  While the courts might not play as swiftly as he would prefer, the American constitutes a threat to implode any draw that he enters.  From the comedy of errors that probably will develop in the section, though, will surface a semifinal opponent much to Djokovic’s taste.

Finalist:  Djokovic

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Bottom half: Another Wimbledon rematch might impend between Ferrer and Soderling, who should have intersected in Kuala Lumpur last week but instead fell to Golubev.  Although few potential Golubevs lurk in their vicinity, Almagro will seek to reprise his victories over the Swede in Madrid and Gstaad this year.  More heavily favored against the Spaniard on the Beijing hard courts than on the clay of those events, Soderling nevertheless might struggle with those negative memories and his personal dislike for Almagro; like most players, the world #5 doesn’t deliver his best tennis when inflamed with emotion.  Meanwhile, Ferrer opens against New Haven finalist Istomin, an upwardly mobile baseliner with a crisp two-handed backhand.  If Soderling does reach the quarterfinals, he will find his consistency arduously tested by an opponent who extended him to five sets on grass this year.

Crowned the Kuala Lumpur champion today, Youzhny may enter Beijing weary from playing three consecutive three-setters in the Malaysian capital.  A slightly disquieting obstacle awaits in the first round with Ljubicic, although the Croat has receded rather quietly since acquiring the Indian Wells title.  Among the ATP’s more mercurial and charismatic inhabitants, Baghdatis will clash with the almost equally mercurial Dolgopolov before meeting Youzhny, whom he nearly defeated in Kuala Lumpur.  Anchoring the base of this half, Murray seeks to erase the memories of another early departure from the US Open.  Will the Scot rebound from that disappointment more swiftly than he did from his loss in Australia?  He has few fond memories of Beijing, having fallen to Yen-Hsun Lu in the first round of the 2008 Olympics.  In the aftermath of Melbourne, moreover, Soderling thoroughly dominated Murray at Indian Wells, a surface that should have suited the Scot.

Finalist:  Soderling

***

We return in a few days to discuss the quarterfinals!

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After a three-hour semifinal that featured 17 service breaks, Wozniacki staggered into a Tour-leading sixth final of 2010. Having won her last four championship matches, the top seed will be favored to overcome Dementieva, whom she narrowly edged in the New Haven semifinal days before the US Open.  If the Dane does capture this Tokyo title, she will find herself firmly positioned to capture the #1 ranking with a modest quarterfinal showing in Beijing.  (A glance at the draw there reveals no obstacle more formidable than Pavlyuchenkova, whom Wozniacki expertly dismantled in Tokyo.)  And, although Premier Five events don’t substitute for majors, another elite title might dull the knives that skeptics already are sharpening should the 20-year-old become the third Slam-less #1 since 2008.

At stake for Dementieva is no such grand prize, but the 2005 champion could gain crucial self-belief after a season that started promisingly with two early titles but that has been blighted with untimely injuries.  Now in the twilight stage of her career, the Russian surely realizes that her window of opportunity is shrinking swiftly.  Reasserting her relevance at key tournaments, an uplifting conclusion to her 2010 campaign could lay the foundation for a resurgent 2011.  Even without a compelling incentive, though, Dementieva competes rigorously on all stages and has maintained an exemplary work ethic.  Advancing to the final without dropping a set, she has already dispatched two higher-ranked opponents here (Zvonareva and Schiavone).

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From that labyrinthine collision with Azarenka spring causes for concern that might imperil Wozniacki a day later.  A commanding first set complete, the top seed suffered an uncharacteristic lapse in her consistency; even her trusty backhand deserted her and capriciously darted outside the doubles alley.  Justifiably perplexed by the situation, Wozniacki waged a largely futile battle with herself for most of the second set, which wouldn’t have reached a tiebreak had Azarenka not wobbled just as severely.  The stark momentum shift that occurred early in the third set then testified to the Dane’s capacity for rebounding from adversity and exercising what we have termed “the art of amnesia.”  Steady and poised once again, she marched into a seemingly insurmountable 5-0 lead…and then nearly let this three-break advantage evaporate.  When the top seed finally served out the match on her third attempt, she profited significantly from hasty errors donated by her friend.   Thus, while Wozniacki again demonstrated her admirable survivor skills, she also revealed periods of frailty similar to those that she endured against Zvonareva at the US Open.  An experienced veteran like Dementieva will pounce upon such opportunities more efficiently and judiciously than did the still-raw Azarenka.

Rewinding to her New Haven meeting with the Olympic gold medalist, the Dane’s supporters should feel more sanguine about her chances.  A more reliable server than Dementieva (admittedly no great distinction), Wozniacki generally held more comfortably when the match became close.  After a dismal first set that recalled her second set against Azarenka, she regrouped just as she did in the third set of her semifinal here.  Meanwhile, the Russian proved unable to summon her crispest tennis deep in the final set of their New Haven clash, failing to serve out the match and surrendering an early lead in the deciding tiebreak.  Mentally much sturdier than the veteran, the 20-year-old more easily casts aside her more egregious miscues.  When she squandered multiple match points before the tiebreak arrived in New Haven, she never slumped into defeatist resignation.  On a more technical level, Dementieva often found herself mired in backhand-to-backhand exchanges, which clearly favor Wozniacki.  Stepping around her backhand to unleash her more potent forehand, the Russian risked surrendering crucial court positioning; this factor might resurface on Tokyo’s fast courts.

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Crafting parallel styles, Wozniacki and Dementieva have built their reputations upon rhythmic, high-percentage baseline ball-striking, buttressed by crisp movement and alert anticipation.  Both players often recoil from taking the initiative, so the conventional wisdom that the more offensive player will prevail may not apply here.  In New Haven, Dementieva resolutely forced the issue and decided the majority of the points, yet she fell excruciatingly short.  Several months earlier in the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki sought to seize command of the rallies against fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, a strategy that appeared to cloud her mind and stifle her instincts.  The Tokyo title may be won not by the bolder shot-maker, therefore, but by the player who lures her opponent from her comfort zone and exposes her limitations more effectively.  In such an encounter, minimizing weaknesses could be as crucial as maximizing strengths.

What are those strengths and weaknesses?  We outline a shot-by-shot breakdown of who has the edge:

Serve:  Wozniacki

Return:  Dementieva

Forehand:  Dementieva

Backhand:  Wozniacki

Volleys:  Neither

Movement:  Both

Mental:  Wozniacki

***

While the final chapter of Tokyo remains unwritten, the first pages of Beijing are about to be penned.  We march into the Chinese capital with a quarter-by-quarter preview tomorrow.

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With all due respect to the veterans featured in the second semifinal, the first semifinal bears far more intriguing implications that range beyond this Premier Five title.  Rising to prominence almost simultaneously, Wozniacki and Azarenka have elevated themselves above their peers as the leading contenders of their generation.  Close friends outside the arena, they have honed divergent playing styles and crystallized into distinct personalities, thus providing the key ingredients for a scintillating rivalry.  The gentle, understated Dane patiently maneuvers her opponents into awkward positions, whereas the fierce, flamboyant Belarussian bristles with competitive vigor as she cracks her groundstrokes amid Sharapova-esque shrieks.  After the Williamses and the Belgians drift away, Wozniacki and Azarenka will find themselves at the reins of the WTA, so their semifinal collision in Tokyo presages future collisions in championship matches around the world.

Split at 2-2, their current head-to-head record traces the contrasts between their respective pathways towards the top.  Polished into a complete player earlier than Azarenka, Wozniacki comfortably eased through their initial clash at the 2008 US Open, but the Belarussian’s outstanding 2009 witnessed a pair of lopsided victories over the Dane.  Almost a year ago, they collaborated on one of the most memorable matches at the year-end championships.  Fully in control for a set and a half, a merciless Azarenka looked poised to deal a third consecutive blow to her friend’s self-belief.  Clawing back into contention with one grinding rally at a time, however, Wozniacki eroded Vika’s patience and unlocked her notorious temper.  Eventually, the Belarussian’s brittle façade of ruthlessness crumbled into a rubble heap of smashed rackets, code violations, and tears of rage.

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Whereas the placid Wozniacki has steadily climbed upward in the rankings, the volatile Azarenka has surged as dramatically as she has sagged.  Since the end of May, Vika has lost in the first round of Roland Garros, reached the Eastbourne final, lost in the third round of Wimbledon, won the Stanford title, lost in the first round of Cincinnati, reached the Rogers Cup semifinal, and quite literally knocked herself out of the US Open.  Considering these oscillations between peaks and valleys, one shouldn’t be surprised that she has arrived in the semifinal one event after that US Open disaster.  Meanwhile, the Dane gradually accumulated momentum after a tepid start to 2010.  Building upon her home title in Copenhagen, she captured the Premier Five crown at the Rogers Cup, reached the US Open semifinal, and now threatens Serena’s grasp upon the top ranking.  While her tempestuous friend has ridden an elevator up and down the rankings, moreover, the second seed has firmly entrenched herself within the top 5.  Yet many observers believe (rightly, we think) that Azarenka’s explosive offense will garner more majors than Wozniacki’s indefatigable but relatively power-drained counterpunching.  Although Vika often will fall lower than Caro, she also can soar higher once she matures.

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Will streaky conquer steady in Tokyo?  On the relatively fast hard court, the Belarussian’s formidable weaponry might penetrate the Dane’s defenses more effectively than in Doha.  Often practicing together, the semifinalists will enter their encounter familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Curious to contemplate is the choice that they will face between exploiting their sturdier groundstroke or targeting their opponent’s more vulnerable wing, for Wozniacki and Azarenka both prefer their backhand to their forehand.  Not among the game’s leading servers, the two friends have bolstered that shot in recent months but still will win many more points from the baseline than from the service notch.  More adept in the forecourt than the Dane, the Belarussian will hope to exploit her skill at the net in order to abbreviate rallies and exploit the opportunities created by her probing cross-court strokes.  When focused and poised, Vika showcases just as much intelligence with her shot selection and point construction as her friend and rival.  But if an extended match unfolds, as seems plausible, Azarenka must steel herself against succumbing to emotional fatigue again.  Don’t be deceived by Caro’s unassuming visage; her willpower runs as deep as Vika’s more overtly expressed determination.

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Perhaps the single most significant victory of Wozniacki’s career, her performance against Sharapova at the US Open might suggest that she should defuse a player popularly labeled as Sharapova’s descendant.  Yet the often overstated comparison between the Russian and the Belarussian provides only a limited tool with which to sketch the contours of the incipient rivalry between the Belarussian and the Dane.  Less willing than Sharapova to embrace risk at all costs, Azarenka strikes her groundstrokes slightly higher above the net and perceptibly further inside the lines.  Not quite as spectacular a shotmaker as the Russian, she moves much more fluidly and displays greater consistency in protracted baseline exchanges.  These qualities allow Azarenka to create openings gradually rather than pulling the trigger as early as did Sharapova in New York; in this case, Wozniacki can’t rely upon simply surviving the first few blows.  On a mental level, however, Vika hasn’t quite matched the unblinking intensity with which the three-time Slam champion assaulted every point and every shot when at her best.  Just as Wozniacki’s offense remains a work in progress, so is Azarenka’s mind.

Rather than recapitulating a familiar formula, therefore, the Wozniacki-Azarenka rivalry offers a distinctive spectacle with which tennis fans should acquaint themselves.  All signs suggest that we will witness many more such duels on stages grander than Tokyo.

***

Confronting Schiavone for the twelfth time, Dementieva targets revenge for their tense yet truncated Roland Garros semifinal.  On her favorite surface and restored to health, the Russian looks likely to reverse that outcome against an Italian probably weary from an epic victory over Kanepi.  Dominating three quality opponents in Shvedova, Pennetta, and Zvonareva, Elena has displayed some of her smoothest tennis in 2010.  On the other hand, Schiavone might undermine the steady, rhythmic ball-striking of Dementieva by refusing to give her the same stroke and spin throughout a rally.  While the Russian prefers to wage a lateral war of attrition from the backcourt, the Italian hopes that her sparkling forecourt skills can lure her adversary out of her baseline citadel.  Since both players have struggled on serve throughout their careers, we should see swarms of break points, enticing second serves, and a match in which no lead is safe.  Whatever the outcome, the Tokyo final will feature a tantalizing encounter between a seasoned veteran and a youthful upstart, charting a narrative that never fails to intrigue.  We explore that narrative tomorrow.

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Abdicating her Premier Five crown rather meekly, Sharapova strolls towards Beijing in the company of Stosur, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic.  Presented with the opportunity to succeed the Russian as a Tokyo champion, however, are a sprawling array of ladies-in-waiting with divergent playing styles and personalities.  We scan the ranks of these would-be Cinderellas and arrange them according to their chances of sliding into Maria’s vast slipper.

Azarenka:  Almost certainly a future Slam champion, the Belarussian regrouped sturdily from the concussion that prematurely ended her US Open.  After such an experience, one might expect hesitancy and awkwardness in a player’s next appearance, but Azarenka cruised past Safarova before benefiting from Bartoli’s retirement.  Vika has won two-thirds of her return games in the Japanese capital while saving 13 of 15 break points.  Similar to Sharapova in many respects, her playing style should suit the fast courts, and she might feel especially motivated to end the season impressively after a largely desultory 2010 campaign.  On the other hand, Azarenka has found herself threatened in numerous service games and may not be able to sustain this pressure when she confronts high-quality adversaries like Wozniacki.  Against Coco, she must seek to avoid the complacency that can arise from facing an unheralded foe.  Moreover, the Belarussian must restrain her volcanic temper when the American connects with unreturnable serves on key points.  If she accomplishes those two tasks, a semifinal spot beckons.  If her emotions don’t betray her through three more rounds, in fact, the slipper should fit her better than anyone else here.

Wozniacki: Historically, the fall season witnesses few achievements from the relentless warriors who have ground through tournament after tournament on every continent throughout the season (see N for Nadal).  But Wozniacki defied that trend a year ago by reaching the semifinals in Doha despite a debilitating injury, although she may have performed better with the injury than she would have without it—more on that thought when we reach this year’s Doha.  Clinching her spot in the year-end championships, the Pole-Dane eyes an excellent opportunity to seize the top ranking without overcoming a Williams sister or a Belgian.  She surrendered just seven games in the four sets that she has played here so far, expending little more energy against Pavlyuchenkova than she expended against Miss Bye in the first round.  Unless her consistency evaporates as notably as it did in the US Open semifinal, one doesn’t expect her to be troubled by Radwanska’s paper-cut tactics.  In a semifinal against Azarenka, though, she will confront an opponent with greater power but only slightly less fluid movement and consistency; the matchup thus recalls her ill-fated meeting with Zvonareva at the US Open.  If Wozniacki’s tenacity can destabilize her friend’s precarious psychological equilibrium, however, she should capture her fifth title of the year.

Dementieva:  Swiftly overcoming her New York disappointment, the Olympic gold medalist looked as suffocating as ever when she demolished talented upstart Shvedova.  (Here’s your punishment for turning Kazakh, Yaroslava!)  While struggling to hold serve against Pennetta, Dementieva fought her way through the crucial games, found first serves when she most needed them, and never allowed the Italian to consolidate momentum.  Not a prototypical power hitter, the Russian relies upon her explosive movement and crisp footwork to control rallies on these fast surfaces; also, she anticipates her opponent’s gambits as well as anyone.  Yet a ghastly cascade of double faults always lurks around the corner, and the ensuing toll upon her self-belief has hampered her late in tournaments.  A win over Zvonareva might quell her inner doubts for the next few days, however, and provide her with the impetus required to score two more victories over credible but not intimidating opposition.  In the absence of top contenders, Dementieva has capitalized upon her opportunities more adroitly than many of the WTA’s rather maladroit opportunists.

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Zvonareva:  Encountering a pair of unprepossessing Italians, the two-time Slam finalist turned her first two matches into more complicated affairs than necessary by struggling to close out her service games.  As a result, what should have been a soporific cruise past Errani became an unsightly lurch from one break point to another.  In the second set against Vinci, Zvonareva finally translated “efficiency” into Russian with a satisfying bagel.  Unlike Jankovic, Vera doesn’t actively court drama, yet it seems to follow the lure of her piercingly blue eyes anyway.  Her all-Russian quarterfinal with Dementieva should feature plenty of drama, both visual and auditory.  Not sufficiently powerful to batter through her compatriot’s relentless defense, Zvonareva probably will fall a little short in an entertaining match littered with endless baseline exchanges and countless service breaks.  If she does navigate past Dementieva, however, she should reach the final, at which point anything can happen.  (It usually doesn’t for Vera, though, who is 1-4 in finals this year.)

Schiavone:  At a youthful 30, the top Italian continues to remind the tennis world that nothing is impossible.  Far in distance and time from her favored clay, she demonstrated her hard-court while halting the sentimental run of home hope Date.  Schiavone possesses both stronger mental resilience and a weaker set of offensive weapons than the other players in her half.  According to standard WTA logic, her week should end soon against someone with the capacity to outhit her from the baseline.  On the other hand, Schiavone has constructed a career out of defying such standards and expectations.  Her artful placement and uncanny knack for transitioning from defense to offense can unsettle players with more balanced, technically solid games.  Most importantly, she rises to the occasion rather than shrinking from it, a trait that distinguishes her from many of her rivals.  Although these factors usually aren’t enough to overcome her limitations, most notably an unimposing serve, they can spark unexpected moments of brilliance.  It’s unwise to count on her and equally unwise to count her out.

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Radwanska:  Last fall, the Asian hard-court season witnessed the crafty Pole’s surge to the Premier Mandatory final in Beijing.  Deceptively challenging on a fast surface, she strikes her groundstrokes early and revels in absorbing and redirecting the pace of her rivals. The fast surface also maximizes her improved but still underwhelming serve, allowing her to hold with greater regularity.  In order to progress deep into tournaments, however, the fleet-footed Radwanska usually relies upon clever counterpunching to extract untimely errors from her opponents.  While the Pole can frustrate impetuous shot-makers like Petkovic, she has yet to seize a significant title.  During the course of a six-round tournament, one of her more powerful foes almost always finds just enough consistency to overpower her from the baseline at key moments.  Against Wozniacki, Radwanska must find a way to outmaneuver the top seed, bring her to the net in uncomfortable situations, and outlast her in baseline exchanges.  Considering the relentless consistency of the world #2, it’s less than plausible that she can execute these tactics throughout an entire match.

Kanepi: Arguably the greatest surprise of the WTA season, the Estonian has become much more than just the best player from her nation.  Having reached consecutive Slam quarterfinals, Kanepi reprised her US Open ambush of 2009 finalist Jankovic in the third round after subduing Peer a day earlier.  Those two victories over capable counterpunchers confirmed her evolution from a mighty but wildly erratic ball-bruiser into a relatively complete player with reliable weapons on serve, return, and both groundstrokes.  Yet her patience will be thoroughly tested in a quarterfinal with Schiavone, who will be sure to drag Kanepi into uncomfortable positions on the court and force her to strike balls lower than the high contact point that she prefers.  Nevertheless, the Estonian’s style perhaps suits the surface better than the Italian, and her superior serve will allow her to win more free points.  Seeking her first Premier Five semifinal, Kanepi probably isn’t ready to overcome a series of experienced, versatile opponents.  At this stage, she remains a draw-detonating dark horse rather than a contender for prestigious titles.

Vandeweghe:  Perhaps Melanie Oudin isn’t the future of American women’s tennis after all.  Unremarkable since that stunning US Open charge, the Georgian has ceded the spotlight to a brash Californian with a percussive serve and forehand.  Riding those strengths to an upset over Zvonareva in San Diego, Vandeweghe hasn’t yet learned how to harness her weapons consistently.  Nevertheless, she qualified for the tournament and then slashed past Seoul finalist Zakopalova as well as the sagging Rezai.  Friendly to mighty serves, the surface rewards her preference for abbreviated, arrhythmic rallies.  But the American remains a raw albeit promising competitor when juxtaposed with the smooth, textured, and balanced style that Azarenka has crafted.  Vandeweghe has never won a WTA title of any level, so a breakthrough here would be shocking.

***

Whether you’re getting up early or staying up late, enjoy the quarterfinals from Tokyo!

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Although the Slam season has ended, plenty of captivating action remains in the tennis calendar.  As the battlefields shift to Asia, the Tokyo event promises to reward the sport’s faithful followers.  We examine the promisingly balanced draw at the year’s final Premier Five event.

First quarter: Tantalizingly close to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki should enjoy a placid route to the quarterfinals after a bye, a qualifier, and probably Pavlyuchenkova.  After a dismal loss to Date in Seoul, the Russian teenager outlasted Cibulkova in the first round here but continues to struggle with her serve; moreover, she has lost all eight sets that she has played against the Pole-Dane, including six this year.  In the quarterfinals, Wozniacki most likely will face the enigmatic Kuznetsova, who will be favored to overcome Radwanska for the third time in five tournaments.  Before that potential third-round encounter, though, Sveta probably will need to navigate past the recently resurgent Szavay, previously a stern test for the Russian.  A 2008 finalist in Tokyo, Kuznetsova should relish the fast courts if she encounters Wozniacki, still centered around counterpunching despite a slightly enhanced offense.  On the other hand, the world #2 conquered the two-time major champion with ease at the Rogers Cup and edged her a year ago on another fast court—the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter: Stacked with fascinating first-round matchups, this section features two former #1s, three Roland Garros finalists, and no fewer than five 2010 titlists.  Of Bartoli, Wickmayer, Kleybanova, and Ivanovic, only one can reach a third-round collision with Azarenka, who must be eager to erase memories of her bizarre New York demise.  A near-ideal blend of power and movement, the Belarussian should prosper on Tokyo’s speedy surface, although she has lost both of her meetings with the Serb this year.  Injected with minor momentum after two quality wins in Seoul, 2008 champion Safina stares at a second-round meeting with Stosur.  The Aussie performed much more impressively than expected in New York, considering her historic aversion to fast hard courts and a mysterious arm injury.  Despite the Russian’s more balanced groundstroke game, Stosur should advance to a highly winnable clash with the weary Rezai.  Scheduled to meet Azarenka in the quarterfinals, Sam has never won a set from Vika in four meetings and has won just six games in the four sets that they have played this year.  Unless she serves exceptionally well, the Belarussian’s dominance should continue.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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Third quarter: Defending a title for the first time in her comeback, Sharapova finds herself in probably the weakest quarter of the draw.  If she stays alert to evade the ageless Date, Maria should ease past the ever-glamorous, ever-fragile Hantuchova to set up an intriguing encounter with Schiavone.  One of Sharapova’s six Tokyo victims last year, the Italian came closer than anyone to derailing that title run; she led by a set and 4-2 in the first round before fading sharply.  Fresh from an invigorating quarterfinal run at the US Open, she will seek to derail the Russian’s rhythm with artful placement, dogged defense, and a competitive intensity that almost (but not quite) matches Maria’s fabled ferocity.  A potential rematch of the 2009 final could lurk in the quarterfinals, yet Jankovic floundered ignominiously on the summer hard courts.  Before that round, in fact, she likely will need to defuse New York nemesis Kanepi, who seems determined to capitalize upon consecutive Slam quarterfinal appearances.  Despite a slightly disappointing US Open, Sharapova enters the tournament in distinctly superior form to the Serb, while the Estonian’s lack of subtlety would play directly into Maria’s hands.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Fourth quarter: Much ink has been spilled upon the perceived demise of the WTA’s Russian empire, but all three remaining seeds in this section are Russian, two of them hold Olympic medals, and one of them could gain the top ranking after Beijing.  In order to achieve that implausible objective, Vera must at least reach the final here.  After her Wimbledon heroics, she departed prematurely from her next two tournaments, so we won’t be surprised to see an early exit after another major final appearance at the US Open.  Rather than seriously targeting #1, Zvonareva probably will rest content with her unexpectedly stellar Slam campaign and drift quietly into Doha following an indifferent fall season.  She eyes a third-round encounter with Petrova, who reached the Seoul semifinals last week with three resounding victories…but then retired with an illness, not for the first time this year.  Removing a formidable dark horse threat, the withdrawal of Li Na eased the path of Dementieva, who suffered gallant losses against top-6 opponents in both New Haven and New York.  Familiar with the most excruciating forms of adversity, the resilient Russian should face the recently disappointing Shvedova and then Pennetta.  Probably more motivated than her compatriot to record a solid fall season, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist should trump the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist for the fifth time in seven meetings if they meet in the quarterfinals.

Semifinalist:  Dementieva

***

We will revisit Tokyo by the quarterfinals, if not sooner.  Before then, however, we will discuss key events from last week’s four small tournaments that might outline trends for the fall.  Another edition of (TW)2 lies ahead…