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Julia Goerges - WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis  Championship - Day Five

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  Crushed by Sharapova at the Australian Open, Kerber rebounded to defeat the Russian at the Paris Indoors less than a month later.  Her compatriot Goerges will aim to accomplish the same feat after an ignominious loss to Radwanska in Melbourne, where she reached the second week of a major for the first time.  Combined with that unfamiliar situation, the canny ball placement and varied shot selection of the Pole exposed the unvarnished quality of the German’s game.

Like Kerber, Goerges probably has learned from her first meeting with an opponent whom few others resemble.  As in her semifinal victory over Wozniacki, she can discomfit her rival for the title with high-bouncing groundstrokes that push Radwanska behind the baseline, where her lack of power often translates to a lack of depth on the reply.  Following the same model as Kerber and Lisicki last year, Goerges must maximize the advantage that she holds over the world #6 in the point-starting areas of serve and returns.  To exploit this advantage, she should return aggressively not only against second serves but against some first serves as well, while she can frustrate Radwanska’s crisp return game by varying the placement on her own serve.  In a two-set semifinal that lasted over two hours, Goerges proved that she could surpass Wozniacki’s celebrated focus through multiple-deuce games, which many would have expected the more experienced player to win.  That trait will prove essential again when she meets the stingy Radwanska, but she still needs to seize as much control over the rallies as soon as she can, suffocating the Pole before she catches her breath from the first blow.

Even more inferior to Goerges in overall firepower than was Wozniacki, Radwanska poses a sterner challenge in some respects.  Whereas the former #1 strikes a steady rhythm from the baseline, the world #6 can vary spins and speeds in ways that disturb the German’s more programmatic style.  Recalling her success in the Asian fall season was her relative willingness to take chances and finish points when the opportunity presented itself, especially with her compact backhand.  In her victory over Jankovic, she survived a torrid stretch from an opponent who could not maintain the momentum for more than a set.  When she plays for the title, Radwanska again will stay positive through such spells from a superior aggressor—an improved ability of hers—and wait alertly for a likely lull.  The Pole’s skill at absorbing and redirecting pace, sometimes by striking groundstrokes on one knee, will pose compelling questions for Goerges to answer as balls return with more depth than she might expect.  A semifinalist or better at five of her last seven non-majors, Radwanska displayed sparkling form in winning all three of her 2011 finals from elite opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Overall, her 7-2 record in title tilts suggests a player who rises to rather than shrinks from the occasion.  But an outstanding performance in the Stuttgart final indicated the same of Goerges.

With a title in Dubai, Radwanska would reach the top 5 for the first time in her career, an accomplishment that looked improbable just a year ago.  With a title in Dubai, Goerges would join Kerber as the second German champion of a February Premier event, underscoring the ascent of a nation that now has placed four players in the top 20.  Their trans-Oder battle also offers an opportunity for each woman to establish herself as a plausible dark horse when the contenders reconvene in Indian Wells and Miami next month.  To increase the intrigue there, one hopes that both say goodbai to the Gulf in style.

***

Also on Saturday is a pair of promising men’s semifinals, one in Marseille and one in Memphis.

Tsonga vs. Del Potro:  Few leading ATP players obey Murphy’s Law more scrupulously than does Tsonga, at his best when most neglected  and at his worst when most expected to excel.  Considering his dismal exit in Melbourne, therefore, a strong performance in Marseille should take no observer by surprise.  Nor should it surprise considering his pattern of shining under the lights in his home country, a thread that connects previous titles here, in Metz, and at the Paris Indoors, where he reached a second final as well.  Eight of Tsonga’s thirteen finals have occurred on indoor hard courts, the surface most suited to his style of spontaneous combustion.  As he seeks another indoor final, the Frenchman will want to impose his explosive, relentlessly athletic tempo upon a more leisurely Argentine opponent.  Whereas Tsonga struts around the court with barely contained energy between points, Del Potro ambles with a mellow ease dissonant from his equally fierce weaponry.  Winning most of his points from the baseline, he likely will seek to uncover the inconsistency in his opponent’s backhand, a shot neutral at most under pressure.  Neither man dazzled for extended stretches during quarterfinal victories that became more eventful than necessary.  After Tsonga needed to scramble from falling behind an early break to the anonymous Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Del Potro might well have lost both sets to Gasquet if not for the latter’s reliable unreliability in key moments.  Sinking to the level of their inferior competition, neither new member of the 200-win club can afford to leave anything behind on Saturday.  With all due respect to Tipsarevic and Llodra, this match feels like a de facto final.

Melzer vs. Stepanek:  Living dangerously throughout his week in Memphis, the Austrian lefty has survived not one but two third-set tiebreaks.  But Melzer always has lived on the edge, striking his groundstrokes with minimal net clearance and hurtling towards the net at the slightest invitation.  Both there and at the baseline, his keen reflexes earned him an upset over the top-seeded Isner in the quarterfinal.  Winning an astonishing 33% of the points on the American giant’s first serve, Melzer twice recovered from a minibreak in the tiebreak and scorched the opposite baseline with a pinpoint return on match point.  As sizzling as he looked then, he can turn frigid without warning, so many of his matches unfold in the fashion of a rollercoaster.  Ever ready to ride on a rollercoaster is his playful semifinal opponent, Stepanek, a fellow veteran whose vitality never seems to dwindle with age.  A former champion in San Jose and finalist in Memphis, the 33-year-old Czech historically has sparkled in the United States, where his quirkiness perhaps finds a more appreciative audience than in most venues.  Like Melzer, Stepanek relishes opportunities to reach the forecourt and darts around the court to create clever angles.  For what they lack in discipline and raw power, these two wily veterans compensate in entertainment and eccentricity.

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

In this sequel to our WTA review, we continue to wrap our minds around perhaps the most thrilling tournament that we ever have had the privilege to witness.

Novak Djokovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 14

Djokovic:  For the undisputed world #1, the surprising has become commonplace, the shocking mildly interesting, and the superhuman almost predictable.  Reeling from fatigue midway through the fifth set, Djokovic looked doomed when he meekly surrendered his serve to trail 4-2, yet nobody (including Nadal) seemed surprised to see the Serb erase the deficit with another improbable burst of energy.  Throughout each of his last three matches in Melbourne, he played with increasing conviction and audacity with every hour that passed, surviving the brutal endurance test posed by the trio of Ferrer, Murray, and Nadal.  Whenever an opponent verged on seriously threatening him, Djokovic responded with his most courageous tennis, scarring lines with 100-mph forehands or locating lobs in corners.  Forcing opponents onto the defensive during their service games, his return has become the most valuable weapon in men’s tennis today and perhaps one of the most brilliant shots in the history of the sport,  Dragged into deuce after deuce on their own serve, Djokovic’s victims exhaust so much energy in the effort to hold that little remains to challenge his own serve.

En route to his third Australian Open title, he defeated three top-five opponents and withstood a signature performance by his leading rival—all while lacking his best form for significant stretches.  By starting the Slam season as brightly in 2012 as he finished it in 2011, the Serb silenced any suspicion of a post-breakthrough regression and marched further towards a Novak Djokovic Era.  While much can happen in the next four months, a wraparound Slam looms as a distinct possibility when the Tour reaches Paris.  After all, it’s only a superhuman accomplishment.  Valedictorian

Nadal:  Like Djokovic, Nadal started this year in a similar fashion to the way that he ended last year:  clearly the world’s second-best player in both senses of the term.  The runner-up to the same rival for a record-breaking third straight major final, Rafa also stood head and shoulders above his other great rival in the semifinals.  That convincing four-set victory reasserted his complete command over Federer at majors on all surfaces while showcasing tennis as confident as he ever has shown on a hard court.  Also impressive were the last three sets of his quarterfinal victory over Berdych, the type of muscular ball-striker who can trouble Nadal with flat, penetrating strokes.  But perceptions of the Spaniard’s tournament inevitably will hinge upon his performance in the final, where he fell excruciatingly short of ending his losing streak to the world #1 after missing an open passing shot, the type of stroke that he never would miss against anyone else.

Before that final momentum shift, though, Nadal engineered an almost equally improbable comeback of his own.  After Djokovic dominated the second and third sets, he buried Rafa in triple break point at 4-3 in the fourth.  With the conclusion seemingly foregone, Nadal refused to accept defeat.  On the one hand, he played the best hard-court match of his career and still could not solve the Serb.  On the other hand, his gallant resistance turned this final into a classic encounter remembered less for the last point than for all that came before.  A+

Murray:  Overshadowed by the immortal sequel, the semifinal that the Scot contested with Djokovic demonstrated how far he had advanced since the embarrassment in last year’s final.  While Murray should not have let the fourth set slip away so easily, especially allowing Djokovic to serve first in the fifth, he showed uncharacteristic resolve in rallying from a daunting deficit near the end.  Much more promising than his losses at majors last year, the five-hour affair revealed a Murray confident in his ability to duel toe to toe with his more successful peers.  Throughout the tournament, in fact, his positivity on the court and after his matches reflected a competitor secure in his self-belief.  Perhaps fueling that trend, his partnership with Ivan Lendl already has reaped rewards and should continue to blossom further unless he suffers a post-Melbourne slump for the third straight year.  The two most vulnerable areas of his game, the serve and forehand, rarely have stayed as steady through a fortnight as they did in Melbourne.  A

Federer:  Now a serial semifinalist at hard-court majors, the four-time champion in Melbourne fared exactly as expected by advancing without difficulty through the first five rounds before bowing to Nadal for the eighteenth time.  Untested by his first four opponents, one of whom never entered the court, Federer dazzled in a comprehensive quarterfinal victory over Del Potro that displayed his vintage artistry.  Just when he raised the hopes of his fans, though, reality returned a round later with a semifinal loss to his archrival that showed flashes of inspiration but little sustained effort.  After he won the first set in a tense tiebreak, Federer tossed away the momentum with a tepid second set.  After he earned a break to lead 4-3 in the crucial third set, he returned the advantage immediately and played an error-strewn tiebreak soon afterwards.  At this stage in his career, Federer will not win another major unless he can find more sustained intensity against the top two, or unless someone ambushes one of his rivals earlier in the draw.  Either of those events could happen, especially the latter, but little comfort comes from relying on the performance of others.  A-

Nishikori:  One of three first-time quarterfinalists in this year’s tournament, Nishikori quietly outlasted Tomic, Raonic, and others around whom much more anticipation centered.  His unprepossessing game equips him ideally to outlast flamboyant shot-makers who can veer from torrid to frigid without warning.  Fortunate to draw two Frenchmen, he not only hung onto a five-set rollercoaster more tightly than Tsonga but snatched a crucial third set from Benneteau after the latter had served for it three times.  Displaying the poise of a veteran, he capitalized upon whatever momentum shifts turned his way to record a performance that must rank as an overachievement.  A-/B+

Lleyton Hewitt - 2012 Australian Open - Day 8

Aussies:  A worthy coda to a valiant career, Hewitt’s victory over the younger, more explosive, and much higher-ranked Milos Raonic allowed the Aussies one more chance to appreciate a champion of whom they paradoxically have grown fonder as his results have waned.  In his sixteenth Australian Open, the two-time major champion did not submit without resistance even to the world #1, winning a set against all of the odds.  At the opposite end of the age spectrum was perhaps the Tour’s most talented rising star, Bernard Tomic.  The teenager played both the most compelling match of the first round (a five-set upset over Verdasco) and the most compelling match of the first week (a five-set upset over the equally mercurial Dolgopolov).  Seemingly able to hit every shot in the tennis manual, Tomic sometimes made perplexing decisions and complicated the narrative of his matches more than necessary.  But one remembers Murray tracing the same route towards maturity, and two second-week appearances in the last three majors demonstrated an auspicious taste for success on the grand stage.  B+

Ferrer:  In some ways, he traced a parallel route to Radwanska during the tournament.  Extricating himself from first-week peril against Ryan Sweeting (cf. Radwanska vs. Mattek-Sands), Ferrer played himself into better form with each match, culminating with a comprehensively dominant demolition of Gasquet.  When he reached the quarterfinals, he threatened to win each of the first two sets from the eventual champion before fading towards the end, much as Radwanska did against Azarenka.  While he lacks the weapons to challenge a top-four opponent on most occasions, Ferrer continues to quietly preserve his position just below them by losing few matches that he should win.  The world #5 represents a study in contrasts with Tsonga, the player ranked just below him.  B+/B

Del Potro:  Following an indifferent second half, a quarterfinal appearance that equaled his previous best result in Melbourne seemed like a significant step forward.  With each round that he played, the 2009 US Open champion assembled the massive but often wayward elements of his game more effectively, ultimately sweeping aside the dangerous Kohlschreiber.  Through a set against Federer, Del Potro hovered on the verge of seriously testing the man whom he once had dominated.  But he faded too fast in the last two sets to rank him a worthy rival to the top four.  Neither the tentative introvert of his earlier years or the free-swinging gunslinger of his prime, Del Potro returned to the top 10 but continues to occupy a mezzanine level poised between contenders and pretenders.  B

Berdych:  A sparkling 7-1 in tiebreaks during the fortnight, he reached the quarterfinals for the second straight year in a performance that built upon his semifinal at the year-end championships.  Notorious for jagged oscillations in form, Berdych would benefit from improving his consistency.  Within a point of a two-set lead against Nadal, though, he blinked at the brink by missing a difficult but not impossible backhand volley in a recurrence of his characteristic inability to carpe the diem against an elite opponent.  All the same, his resolute effort suggested a competitive bravado unexpected in a player who had lost nine straight matches to the Spaniard.  Berdych’s most stirring performance against Almagro, when he won three consecutive tiebreaks from a player ranked only a few notches below him.  Somewhat tarnishing this sturdy effort was the non-handshake after the match, a dubious decision by one of the Tour’s more prickly players.  That odd denouement cost him considerable crowd support and a small increment in our grades.  B

Frenchmen:  Spearheading their charge was the explosive Tsonga, who had inflated the hopes of his compatriots by winning the Doha title to start the season after he had reached the Wimbledon semifinal and the final at the year-end championships.  But his opponent in that match was none other than the perennially underachieving Monfils, who played a perplexing match even by his standards in a five-set loss to Mikhail Kukushkin.  Thoroughly unfocused in the first two sets, Gael summoned some last-minute discipline to force a fifth, at which point he looked certain to overcome his overmatched opponent.  But instead, after flirting with opportunities to take a lead, he lost the match with two wild double faults in the last three points.  A round later, Tsonga suffered a similar fate against the steady Nishikori.  After he won the first set comfortably, the world #6 seemingly lost interest  until he trailed by two sets to one, when he reversed the momentum with a solid fourth set.  Rather than closing out the match with confidence, though, the top-ranked Frenchman lost the plot for the final time.  Far in the draw from Djokovic and Nadal, Tsonga and Monfils squandered golden opportunities through sheer carelessness, a word that starts with an appropriate letter.  C

Americans: An almost unmitigated disaster in the singles draw, none reached the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time since the 1970s, before it changed to a seven-round format.  While one can blame daunting draws (Harrison vs. Murray in the first round) and injuries (Roddick ret. vs. Hewitt) for some of their misfortune, other Americans can lay claim to no such excuse.  Foremost among them was the eighth-seeded Fish, who failed to win so much as a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla in an irritable and generally mindless second-round debacle.  Meanwhile, the three-time defending champions Bob and Mike Bryan fell in the final to the same team whom they had defeated in Sydney two weeks before.  F

Leander Paes:  As he nears his fifth decade, the ageless doubles specialist finally completed the career Grand Slam in doubles, partnering Stepanek to a significant upset over the Bryan Brothers in the final.  Paes also reached the mixed doubles final but fell a match tiebreak short of becoming the only player to win two titles at the Australian Open.  Honorary Degree

Sharapovanovic:  Filled with uncertainty, the first major of a new season presents a particular challenge for predictions.  Nevertheless, we correctly foresaw three of the four finalists, while the fourth lost a three-set semifinal.  Less remarkable for its foresight was our preview of the men’s final, which offered the following concluding statement about the thirtieth meeting of Djokovic and Nadal:

Djokovic and Nadal never have played a fifth set against each other, and this match should not break from that trend.  Expect one of these two battle-hardened combatants to claim the early momentum and weather a series of dangerous surges by the opponent before mastering Melbourne in four compelling but not quite classic sets.

Not even Hawkeye could overrule that unforced error.  Your Grade Here

***

We return in a few days with a preview of the Fed Cup World Group and World Group II ties.

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

Thrilled to reach the second week at the Australian Open for the first time since 2008, Ivanovic overcame a spirited challenge from Vania King as well as a lingering virus to arrange a rendezvous with a—perhaps “the”—tournament favorite.  Announcing that she had accomplished her goal for the fortnight, she cheerfully cast herself in the role of an underdog against a player who has not defeated her in three meetings.  During much of her post-2008 woes, Ivanovic continued to perceive herself as a leading contender at virtually every event that she entered.  Her recent definition of herself as someone who can “play a great match” or “upset a top player” (essentially, a dark horse) represented a welcome recognition of reality that likely will help her rebuild her game and confidence.

In the same round of  the US Open last fall, the former #1 faced a similar sort of obstacle in Serena but competed valiantly despite absorbing the loss.  Ivanovic hammered more winners than the 13-time Slam champion during that match, stepped inside the court whenever she could, and even swung freely at her opponent’s justly feared serve.  Now, she must deploy those tactics again.  Practically oozing a Serena-like power, Kvitova launches massive first strikes on her serve and return as well as her other groundstrokes.  Unable to track down balls with the alacrity of a Suarez Navarro, a player of Ivanovic’s type simply must aim to pull the trigger and decide the point before the Czech can.  After an unforeseen second-round wobble against the aforementioned Spaniard, Kvitova settled back into her groove against Kirilenko and should relish the steady rhythm of a fellow heavy hitter like Ivanovic.  Expect plenty of explosive shot-making from both sides of the net before the former #1 gracefully demurs to the future #1.

Murray vs. Kukushkin:  In one of the tournament’s most disorderly matches, Kukushkin blew a two-set lead against an oddly disinterested Monfils before weathering a comeback from the Frenchman, his own fatigue, and a curious disruption in the final game to preserve his perfect record in five-setters.  Also overcome by this opportunistic anonymity in a fifth set was Troicki, not an outstanding competitor on major stages but still much more talented than his nemesis.  Suffice it to say, therefore, that Murray will not want to tempt fate by letting his unseeded foe linger into a final stanza.  After losing the first set to Kukushkin in his first match of 2012, their only meeting so far, an irritable Scot recovered to control the encounter thenceforth. Under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl, the world #4 survived a four-set opening battle with Ryan Harrison that may have steeled him for the challenges ahead.  In his last two rounds, Murray looked scarcely more troubled than Djokovic as he subjected his opponents to the tennis version of death by a thousand cuts.  Although he occasionally has struck his forehand with more authority and has hinted at a greater willingness to approach the net, he has not needed to leave his counterpunching comfort zone thus far.  Murray should not need to exert himself or attempt anything extraordinary to reach a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, where the resistance might stiffen suddenly.

Makarova vs. Serena:  Into the second week for the second straight Australian Open, the Russian lefty banished her countrywoman Zvonareva with a combination of well-placed serves and blistering down-the-line groundstrokes.  A round before, in fact, Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi with even greater ease despite a surface suited more to the Estonian’s style.  Only once has she met Serena, losing routinely in Beijing on a somewhat slower court.  Rarely tested by any of her first three opponents, the woman who has won more Australian Open titles than any player in history did not find herself forced to play her best tennis during the first week.  Serena looked bored at times in her third-round victory over Greta Arn, while her greatest concern so far surrounds the insects that visit Rod Laver in the evenings.  Although she has played with heavy wrapping on her legs and ankles, her movement has looked reasonably efficient on the few occasions when her thunderous weapons do not win her the point within three or four shots.  Mustering surprising resistance to eventual champion Clijsters in the same round a year ago, Makarova will bring more self-belief than Serena’s previous opponents.  The Russian’s lefty groundstrokes will stretch the American along the baseline and may offer her less time to prepare her shots.  But Serena loves to create angles with her returns and groundstrokes, exploiting her natural athleticism to hit her most dangerous lasers while racing along the baseline.  Despite staying competitive for much of the match, Makarova never will threaten to win it.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  In the third game of the second set in Sharapova’s second-round match, something remarkable happened:  her opponent held serve without facing a break point.  All of her other 22 return games resulted in at least one break point—and 20 of them in a break.  Ravaging her opponent’s delivery with impunity, the 2008 champion has protected her own serve more smoothly than she has for much of her comeback.  Early in the second set of each match, though, Sharapova suffered a lull in her serve and the rest of her game after a nearly flawless first set.  At that stage occurred her two lost service games of the tournament, in addition to the bulk of her unforced errors.  For a set and a few games of Lisicki’s meeting with Kuznetsova, one expected an all-Russian meeting in the fourth round.  To the German’s great credit, though, she rebounded from a woeful start to steadily assert her mastery behind a massive first serve.  She will need that weapon to fire more regularly than during her previous meetings with Sharapova, who mauled her much less fearsome second serve in victories at Miami and Wimbledon last year.  Even when the Russian suffered a poor serving day at the All England Club, she still defeated Lisicki comfortably.  Those precedents suggest that her second meeting with a German in the fourth round of the Australian Open will unfold more successfully than its predecessor.  All the same, we have not seen Sharapova respond to pressure during this tournament as she has sizzled through matches while losing no more than two games in a set.  Lisicki could place her opponent in the unfamiliar situation of a competitive match, testing her under pressure, if she can survive the initial bombardment.  But it’s easier said than done.

Djokovic vs. Hewitt:  Soaked with emotion was the Australian veteran’s triumph over mighty prodigy Raonic under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  After losing the first set for the second straight match, Hewitt weathered several miniature momentum shifts in the three sets that followed as he defused the Canadian’s power, exploiting his low first-serve percentage.  What reward does the home hope receive for his labors?  In order to stay competitive, he will need to play even better tennis than he did while winning his first three matches.  To win a set from Djokovic, Hewitt must find his first serve whenever he needs it, finish points at the net, and pepper the baseline with both of his groundstrokes.  At his age, such a complete display of offensive ability probably lies behind his grasp, even with the Australian crowd vigorously supporting him.  Throughout his career, Djokovic has played especially fine tennis when he has not one but thousands of opponents to conquer; among examples, one might reflect back to his victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open or his victory over Tsonga when he won in Melbourne for the first time.  If he senses especially fierce opposition on Sunday night, then, he merely will redouble his efforts to crush it.  Surrendering just ten games in nine sets so far, the world #1 has stayed relaxed without slipping into carelessness as he openly uses his matches to work on less impressive facets of his game.  Although Hewitt won a set in each of their Wimbledon encounters, Djokovic recorded a routine straight-sets victory when they met four years ago in the same round on the same court.  During the four years that have passed, the Serb has grown infinitely more dangerous, while Lleyton has faded nearly as sharply.  Neither of those trends bodes well for the survival of the last Australian remaining in either draw.

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Nishikori vs. Tsonga:  When they collided for the first time last fall, the top-ranked Japanese man stunned the top-ranked Frenchman in one of the latter’s few disappointments during the span from Wimbledon to the year-end championships.  Extending his momentum through the offseason, Tsonga collected the Doha title uneventfully and has won 13 straight matches against opponents other than Federer as he seeks his fourth consecutive final.  In the section of the draw that lacks a member of the Big Three, he must fancy his chances of reaching his third semifinal at the major where he has enjoyed the most success.  Celebrated much more for his athleticism than for his focus, Tsonga often wobbles at some stage during the first week against some unheralded foe.  This year, by contrast, he has rolled through three matches while losing only one set and growing more impressive with each round, much like Del Potro.  Dropping the first two sets to Matthew Ebden before mounting a comeback, Nishikori lost the first set to Benneteau and should have counted himself fortunate not tot trail by two sets to one.  That lesser Frenchman served for the third set no fewer than three times, at which moment the Bolletieri product demonstrated remarkable resilience by refusing to relinquish his toehold on it.  Breaking Benneteau’s resolve as well as his serve, Nishikori returned fearlessly even when in danger, a trait that should benefit him against Tsonga.  But his own delivery remains relatively benign by ATP standards, so he fares best in a match of breaks and long rallies.  The sixth seed enjoys neither of those events, preferring to dominate behind his serve and hurtle towards the net to finish points.  Despite the modest speed of these hard courts, Tsonga should impose himself upon the underdog once more.

Gasquet vs. Ferrer:  During a fine first half of 2011, the Frenchman surged towards the threshold of the top 10 and recorded victories over four top-10 opponents while reaching an Indian Wells quarterfinal, a Rome semifinal, and the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Much less productive in the second half, Gasquet slipped to the edges of the top 20.  Such ebbs and flows have characterized his career, whereas Ferrer has embedded himself in the top 10 with the same relentlessness that he has shown on the court in contesting each point.  To no surprise, then, the Spaniard has won five of their six meetings in a rivalry that has not featured a single final set or any encounter in which the winning player lost more than seven games.  In the best-of-five format at a major, where they have not played before, Ferrer’s tenacity and superior fitness would seem to place him at an even greater advantage.  Although the extended length allows Gasquet more time to strike one of his patented flawless streaks, it also allows the Spaniard more time to recover from it.  Forced to five sets by Ryan Sweeting, last year’s semifinalist did not dominate as resoundingly as one would expect in the first week.  By contrast, Gasquet has grown increasingly imposing with a sequence of victories that led to a straight-sets demolition of Tipsarevic, admittedly not at his best that day.  One need look no further than their respective backhands to understand their contrasting approaches to the game, Ferrer’s a compact model of efficiency and Gasquet’s an aesthetic wonder worthy of an artist.

Errani vs. Zheng:  Fortunate to reach the fourth round of a major, Errani marched through the section that once contained Stosur and would become a most improbable Slam quarterfinalist, even by recent WTA standards.  The Italian doubles specialist lacks any noteworthy weapons and instead wins matches through consistency as well as fine forecourt skills, which she has showcased for her nation in Fed Cup.  Also a greater presence in doubles than in singles, Zheng did reach the semifinals here and at Wimbledon behind her streamlined groundstrokes and alert anticipation.  Compensating for her tiny physique with crisp footwork, she uses the full weight of her body behind shots that penetrate the court more effectively than one would expect.  Nevertheless, neither of these players can compensate for serves that earn them virtually no free points, or for second serves that properly should have a bow tied around them.  A superior returner to Errani, Zheng might capitalize more skillfully upon this weakness that they share.  She also enjoys the advantage of momentum, accumulated through an eight-match winning streak that culminated with an upset over Bartoli.  Through her first three matches, Zheng has defeated opponents with a variety of experience and playing styles, ranging from the double-fisted strokes of the Frenchwoman to the biting backhand slices of Vinci and the straightforward power tactics of Madison Keys.  When she faces the relatively bland Errani, that experience should help her adjust to whatever the Italian will offer.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after he won match point against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Absent from most of the preliminary tournaments, Djokovic should ease comfortably into his draw without facing serious opposition until the second week.  At that stage, though, the competition might rise significantly if he meets the winner of a third-round serving duel between Roddick and Raonic, who contested a suspenseful final in Memphis last year.  Also in their vicinity is Hewitt, perhaps playing his last Australian Open and likely hoping to record at least one more memorable triumph in the genre of his late-night victories here over Baghdatis and Safin.  Defeating Djokovic at the 2009 Australian Open, when he also attempted to defend a title, Roddick has achieved repeated success against the Serb throughout their careers.  But the world #1’s ascendancy in 2011 accompanied the American’s decline, suggesting that this trend might not continue.  On the opposite side of the quarter are Ferrer, a semifinalist here last year, and Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist at the US Open.  Both seeds will benefit from the slow Australian hard courts, although Gasquet might build upon his strong performance in Hopman Cup to threaten the Serbian #2 in the second round.  At the year-end championships, Tipsarevic and Ferrer each toppled a beleaguered Djokovic despite their underpowered styles.  In a best-of-five format against a refreshed top seed, though, their gallant resistance probably will fall short.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Assigned the most difficult early task of the title contenders, Murray must navigate past rising American Ryan Harrison in one of the most intriguing first-round encounters.  While his route grows more gentle thereafter, the perpetually unpredictable Gulbis might meet him in the third round and the almost equally unpredictable Monfils when the second week begins.  Having defeated Nadal en route to the Doha final, the Frenchman often has disappointed at majors, including first-week exits at both hard-court majors in 2011.  Nevertheless, he has troubled the Scot in three of their last four meetings and becomes especially dangerous when buoyed by the momentum of recent accomplishments.  The most entertaining of the potential quarterfinals in the men’s draw, a clash between Murray and Tsonga would reprise their meeting at the 2008 Australian Open, won by the Frenchman early in his unforeseen march to the final.  Before anticipating that match too confidently, though, one should remember the presence of Nishikori as a possible fourth-round foe for Tsonga.  The Japanese star upset the Frenchman last fall and could lure him into a war of attrition that could sap his concentration.  Should Simon instead intercept his compatriot in that round, he would pose a similar challenge.  As he showed while capturing the Doha title, however, Tsonga has not allowed his focus to waver lately as often as he once did.  That quarterfinal with Murray should prove a very even match, but the guidance of Ivan Lendl may need a bit more time to percolate before the Scot can profit from it fully.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Third quarter:  Together with a 20-match winning streak, Federer brings a slightly dubious back to the season’s first major.  Yet few serious obstacles should present themselves in his first three matches, unless Karlovic recaptures the serving impenetrability that once undid Federer in Cincinnati.  Assuming no such revival, the Swiss master should glide to the quarterfinals past an opponent like Dolgopolov, who has not proven consistently that he can sustain his timing and rhythm throughout an extended encounter with an elite opponent.  Victories over Tsonga and Soderling at last year’s Australian Open did reveal the Ukrainian’s prowess on these courts, which might help him if he meets the declining former semifinalist Verdasco in the third round.  Likely fancying his chances of upsetting the Spaniard in his opener, meanwhile, is leading home hope and Brisbane semifinalist Bernard Tomic.  Generally able to score at least one creditable victory in each of his previous appearances here, Tomic appeared to enjoy his breakthrough moment with a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  Despite his inexperience, he threatened Federer in the Davis Cup playoff and could produce scintillating tennis against him again should they meet in the second week.  Towering over the other side of this quarter is Del Potro, an enigmatic force since his comeback from injury.  The Argentine has mixed impressive efforts against leading rivals with disappointing losses to unfamiliar names last season, but here he would face no player more imposing than Fish en route to Federer.  In large part because of injury, the top-ranked American has underachieved since August, so viewers should anticipate a rematch of the 2009 US Open final in the quarterfinals—although not the same result.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Fourth quarter:  Among the most compelling questions of this Australian Open are those revolving around Nadal.  Has he developed a new strategy for solving Djokovic?  How much, if at all, will his heavier racket and supposedly strengthened serve help his hard-court game?  How much has his motivation dipped?  But we may learn the answers to none of those questions until at least the semifinals, for Rafa’s section features players either far inferior in talent, currently playing well below their potential, or notably futile in their resistance to him.  In the former category, one finds players like his compatriots Lopez and Almagro, arguably better on hard courts than on clay yet still no match for a healthy Nadal’s far more balanced game at any major.  In the intriguing middle category are players like Nalbandian and Davydenko, both of whom have frustrated the Spaniard repeatedly earlier in their careers before age eroded them into shells of their formerly brilliant selves.  Spearheading the last category is projected quarterfinal opponent Berdych, who has lost nine consecutive meetings to Nadal on every surface since 2007 while winning just one total set.  All the same, a few names still deserve mention, such as former finalist Baghdatis and towering server Isner.  Although he succumbed to Benneteau in a Sydney semifinal, the charismatic Cypriot can ambush a weary or deflated Nadal and will enjoy rousing support.  The main protagonist of “70-68” led the world #2 two sets to one on clay last year in a Roland Garros clash that both men surely will remember.  In short, Nadal probably will reach the semifinals but probably not without losing a set somewhere.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Looming less than a week ahead, the Australian Open arrives not a moment too soon for tennis fans awaiting the next episode in the ATP’s scintillating trivalry.  Will the dominance of the top three continue, or will one of their challenges steal the show?  We discuss the five title favorites in Melbourne.

Djokovic:  A clear but not overwhelming favorite, the world #1 seeks his third Melbourne crown and third consecutive major title, which would position him to claim a “Novak Slam” in Paris.  More than any of the other majors, the Australian Open suits Djokovic’s talent for transitioning from defense to offense with movement as explosive as any of his other weapons.  Although he chose not to play any preparatory ATP tournaments, he delivered a fierce opening statement by demolishing Federer and Ferrer in an Abu Dhabi exhibition.  Having won 10 of his last 11 meetings with his two leading rivals, Djokovic owns an especially keen psychological edge over Nadal and swept Federer in straight sets during their two most recent Australian encounters.  Less auspicious for a title defense is the heat of Melbourne, which undid him in 2009.  Meanwhile, the pressure of defending last year’s spectacular performance may weigh upon a player for whom perfection lately became commonplace.

Nadal:  At the last three majors, the Spaniard accumulated a 19-0 record against all opponents other than Djokovic, including four victories against the top five.  Having resolved to spare no effort in solving the riddle suddenly presented by the Serb, Nadal selected a heavier racket over the offseason to enhance his serve, unimpressive since the 2010 US Open.  But that critical change may need time to evolve, as the second seed mentioned when suggesting that he wanted to display his best tennis between Indian Wells and the Olympics.  A champion here in 2009 following a five-set victory over Federer, Nadal may wish to atone for his disappointing quarterfinal exits in his past two appearances.  Considering his perfect record against Federer and Murray through the US Open last year, nobody should bet against him if Djokovic falters before the final.

Federer:  Not since 2003 has Federer lost at the Australian Open to a player other than the eventual champion, winning four titles during that span.  The Swiss legend arrives in Melbourne with a 20-match winning streak that included yet another title at the year-end championships, but he has not won a major in two years and has lost to Djokovic in three straight hard-court Slam semifinals.  Still, Federer became the only player to overcome the Serb at a major during 2011, unleashing a nearly flawless display of shot-making at Roland Garros.  Falling just one point short of repeating the feat in New York, he showed remarkable resilience by rebounding during the fall.  Beyond a nagging back strain, Federer’s main challenge may surround his ability to deliver the coup de grace against talented opponents.  In both of his last two majors, his focus and game evaporated after he held a two-set lead.

Murray:  While he may prefer Wimbledon and the US Open, Murray has enjoyed his best results at the season’s first major, where he has reached two finals before losing in straight sets both times.  Following an encouraging fall season, the Scot astutely selected Ivan Lendl as the coach who could ignite the first the Slam title run of his career.  Healthier than Nadal and Federer at the moment, he competed courageously in his last two clashes with Djokovic.  Despite the lack of worthy opposition, a Brisbane title should have injected him with positivity on the eve of Melbourne.  As Murray edges into his mid-20s and towards the midpoint of his career, though, the expectations of his compatriots will grow ever more intense.  Can he handle them more confidently than in the past?  With his arduous playing style, consecutive collisions with two of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer would pose a supreme test of fitness.

Tsonga:  After the most consistently impressive season that he has recorded so far, the flamboyant Frenchman returns to the scene of his only previous Slam final, four years ago.  Sparked by a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, his momentum rarely slowed through the rest of the second half and would have carried him even further had he not lost four matches to Federer.  A Doha title consolidated his progress, which has brought him to the threshold of the top five.  On this medium-speed hard court, his relentlessly aggressive style leaves him more vulnerable to counterpunchers equipped with crisp passing shots, while his insouciant personality rarely stays in check for an entire fortnight.  Having constructed a less balanced game than the players ranked above him, Tsonga will need to serve exceptionally well and construct the vast majority of points around his forehand—not an easy effort to sustain on a medium-speed surface.

***

We return tomorrow with the next article in our preview series on the first major of 2012.

 

 

 

 

Daniela Hantuchova - 2012 Brisbane International: Day 1

Overshadowed by far more famous figures at their respective tournaments were the women’s finalists in Brisbane and the men’s finalists in Doha.  But, on the first weekend of 2012, these four players have come from shadow into light.

Hantuchova vs. Kanepi:  After the dust settled on a draw with five Slam champions and four #1s, two unseeded entrants will contest the Brisbane final.  Predictably unpredictable considering recent events in the WTA was Hantuchova’s march through an upper half that contained Serena, Clijsters, Stosur, and Ivanovic.  To be sure, injuries played a central role in her recent progress, which included a walkover from Serena (ankle) and a retirement from Clijsters (hip) after the Belgian had won the first set.  Nevertheless, Hantuchova competed with often uncharacteristic fortitude through much of her semifinal despite an 0-9 record against Clijsters.  As game upon game stretched to deuce upon deuce, one would have expected the more accomplished player to prevail, but instead the Slovak won a five-deuce game on her opponent’s serve and an eight-deuce game on her own serve.  Imaginatively exploiting the geometry of the court, Hantuchova served and returned impressively for extended spans.  Those areas play an especially significant role for a player whose indifferent movement prevents her from losing the initiative early in points.  But her opponent also does not display great agility, so she can finish points more efficiently than she did against Clijsters, without stringing together so many audacious groundstrokes.

Almost impenetrable on serve during her last three matches, Kanepi has conceded just one service game and faced four total break points against three top-20 opponents in Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic, and Schiavone.  Relying less on angles than on raw power, her weapons have penetrated this medium-speed hard court with ease, while her ability to hold serve so comfortably has allowed her to take more chances in return games.  The Estonian can expect to secure more comfortable holds if she uses her wide serve to open up the court for her first groundstroke, which Clijsters did too sporadically in the semifinal.  Graced with the longest pair of legs in the WTA, Hantuchova struggles to reverse direction and arrange her feet when rushed out of her rhythm.  Among her main advantages over Kanepi is her deftness in volleys and drop shots, key reasons for her three-match winning streak against the Estonian.  Since neither player has accumulated much success in finals (or much experience, for that matter), nerves from the unexpected circumstances may well surface.  Having lost a fiercely contested Moscow final to Cibulkova in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi surely will bring heightened motivation to avoid a similar fate in her first tournament of 2012.

Monfils vs. Tsonga:  Only three times has this pair of rollicking Frenchmen intersected, twice on indoor courts and all three during the fall season.  The recipient of a walkover from Federer, Tsonga began the week in unremarkable fashion before brushing aside an anonymous Spaniard in the quarterfinals more efficiently.  Tasked with a much less anonymous Spaniard in his own semifinal, Monfils delivered a surprisingly complete display against Nadal with only a few flashes of his familiar whimsicality.  Earlier in the tournament, though, the world #16 narrowly survived Benjamin Becker in the sort of erratic, puzzling display for which he long has gained notoriety.  When he faces his compatriot, he must aim for the former rather than the latter level of performance while clinging closely to the baseline.  Tsonga’s net-rushing tactics and constant aggression should reap rewards if Monfils slips into passive counterpunching, offering the world #6 ample time to construct his combinations.  Just 4-11 in finals, Gael will attempt to become the first player outside the top 5 to win a final from Tsonga, who has distinguished himself on such occasions even in defeat.

Like Kanepi, Tsonga ended 2011 by losing a tense three-set final, albeit on a stage of far greater significance than the Kremlin Cup’s sterile chamber.  Also like Kanepi, he will hope to start 2012 by holding the larger trophy this time.  Possibly satisfied by his upset over Nadal, Monfils may slide into a psychological lull for his next match just as he did after his previous victory over Nadal here in 2009.  Or Tsonga also may find his concentration dulled by the entertaining exhibition that replaced his semifinal.  While their match might not offer the drama or tension that one would wish in a major semifinal or final, it should offer a sprightly coda to this minor tournament on the Persian Gulf.  Despite their fame for fierce forehands and bludgeoned serves, both Frenchmen enjoy a talent—and taste—for finesse that can produce unexpected moments of inspiration.  While the player who adheres to his more straightforward strengths should prevail, his opponent might win the contest of aesthetics.  And, for many French players, that contest seems just as significant as the contest captured by the scoreboard.

Although Djokovic may have dominated the ATP throughout 2011, several other players recorded noteworthy achievements.  Beyond the world #1, who achieved the most in 2011?

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (Spain, blue shirt) beats Roger Federer (Switzerland, red shirt) in 4 sets, 7/5, 7/6, 5/7, 6/1, in the final to win the French Open 2011. Nadal:  Rarely has one player’s season been so inextricably intertwined with another player’s season.  Had Djokovic not transformed his career this year, Nadal likely would have won three major titles for the second straight year, ripped through the clay season undefeated for the second straight year, completed the Indian Wells-Miami double, and positioned himself to overtake Federer as the true GOAT in the near future.  Instead, the towering expectations upon the Spaniard combined with the Serb’s brilliance left many observers—and seemingly Nadal himself—disappointed with 2011.  When they gain perspective, they should recognize accomplishments such as seizing a record-tying sixth Roland Garros crown and reaching the final of three Slams on three different surfaces, an underrated feat.  While the Dodigs and Mayers of the world scored an occasional ambush in the second half, Nadal lost only one match between the Australian Open and Wimbledon to an opponent other than Djokovic.  Masked by his lack of a non-clay title this year, that near-impenetrability illustrates how little ground he actually has surrendered.  Unaffected by his struggles against Djokovic was his mastery over his other leading rivals, Federer and Murray (7-1 combined, 5-0 in the first half).  In 2009, a Davis Cup title launched Nadal towards the strongest season of his career in 2010, and he earned a similar momentum boost in 2011.  If the Serb flickers at all in 2012, the bull held at bay this year should charge.

Murray:  While time continues to trickle away in his pursuit of his first major, the Scot reached the semifinals or better of every Slam for the first time.  As the Ghost of Christmas Past said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “almost means nothing.”  But Murray’s ability to weather the early rounds more consistently than he had in previous seasons will bring him more opportunities to conquer the elite, and mere probability suggests that fortune will smile on him sooner or later.  After a woeful beginning to his Masters 1000 season with opening-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami, the world #4 showed unexpected courage in extending both Nadal and Djokovic to three sets on clay, his least hospitable surface.  Especially notable was his epic Rome semifinal against the Serb, who had crushed the Scot in Melbourne.  Demolished in a merciless first set, Murray rallied valiantly to within two points of victory.  His sweep through the Asian season probably looked more impressive on paper than in reality, considering the absences of Federer and Djokovic, although an emphatic victory over Nadal in the Tokyo final demonstrated the manifold challenges that he can pose when at his most confident.  Now he needs to translate that level of conviction to the majors, where his self-defeating fatalism surfaces most often.

Federer:  Through the US Open, the Swiss legend had looked relatively mortal with just one minor title in Doha and two two-set leads squandered at Slams.  All the same, Federer showcased his vintage form in the Roland Garros semifinals, when he halted Djokovic’s winning streak with timely serving and immaculate point construction.  After that triumph, his stumble against Tsonga one major later seemed especially unexpected and indicative of this champion’s depleted desire.  Even more surprisingly, Federer’s nerve betrayed him late in the fifth set of his US Open semifinal against Djokovic, a match that he often had dominated.  Responding to that bitter disappointment much as he had in 2010, he once again surged through the fall season when his younger rivals faltered.  His record-setting sixth title at year-end championships should have soothed  the sting of those setbacks against Tsonga and Djokovic, while his title at the Paris Indoors left him the only active ATP player to reach the final of every Slam and Masters tournament in his career.  Unable to preserve his momentum during the 2010-11 offseason, Federer hopes to handle a similar task in 2011-12.

Ferrer:  To no surprise was his continued excellence on clay, which included consecutive finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as a three-setter against Djokovic in Madrid.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s accomplishments on hard courts in 2011 did raise an eyebrow or two, especially his Australian Open semifinal appearance in which he severely tested Murray.  Whereas most clay specialists fade in the fall, Ferrer scuttled along the baseline with intensity undimmed and found himself rewarded with a second Masters 1000 final in Shanghai.  En route to that match, the diminutive Spaniard rallied from saving match point in the third round and fearlessly protected his modest serve through consecutive three-setters against Roddick and Lopez, much more impressive from the service notch.  It felt fitting, then, that Ferrer’s tenacity earned him a semifinal berth at the World Tour Finals, a tournament where he had failed to win a match just a year before.  In an era of glamorous superstars with nearly supernatural shot-making skills, his arduous brand of tennis has entrenched him in the top 5 and serves as a reminder of how far effort and attitude can substitute for innate ability.

Tsonga:  Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year, the world #6 scarcely distinguished himself through May but then finished 2011 in sparkling style.  Within a single month, Tsonga scored comeback victories over both Nadal and Federer, holding his serve against the latter throughout the last four sets of their Wimbledon quarterfinal.  The charismatic Frenchman fused the past with the present during that classic encounter, interweaving vintage serve-volley tactics with ferocious forehands from behind the baseline.  Emboldened by that achievement, Tsonga repeated it at the Rogers Cup but could not at the US Open after an entertaining victory over Fish that extended his curious effectiveness in five-setters.  Two small titles in Metz and Vienna behind him, he surged into the last two tournaments of the year before losing to Federer three times in fifteen days.  That odd fact should not obscure a signature victory over a battered but determined Nadal in London, which vaulted Tsonga into the semifinals at the Spaniard’s expense.  Nor should it obscure his second appearance in the Paris Indoors final, where the expectations of his compatriots did not burden him but rather lifted his spirits.

Berdych:  Despite accomplishing little of note at the majors, he remained in the top eight after a steady second half that ended the longest title drought of any player in the ATP or WTA top 10.  Relatively bland in personality and playing style, Berdych recorded few memorable moments in 2011 but also generally avoided unsightly disasters, outside a loss to Stephane Robert at Roland Garros.  On only one other occasion did he lose his first match at a tournament (to Nishikori in Basel), while he registered sixteen quarterfinals or better.  At the year-end championships, Berdych might well have finished the round-robin stage undefeated had not his weapons deserted him in a third-set tiebreak against Djokovic.  He registered few other wins over top-10 opponents bud did overpower Federer in Cincinnati, and his lone title in Beijing followed a three-set victory over Tsonga.  When every element of Berdych’s unwieldy game fits together, he can conquer virtually any foe through his sheer ball-striking power. Yet his dearth of titles and meager success against the elite illustrates the rarity with which he can string together such matches, and his 2011 campaign fell well short of his 2010 breakthrough.

Fish:  Scanning the ATP rankings, it seems strange to see an American ranked higher than long-time flag bearer Roddick.  A first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals, Fish thoroughly deserved that distinction after an excellent campaign at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.  Buoyed by the American fans, he defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinals, while another semifinal appearance in Cincinnati featured his first career victory over Nadal.  Just as impressive was his performance the previous week in Canada, when he outplayed Djokovic for extended stretches of the Rogers Cup final before the Serb’s more balanced style prevailed.  Gifted with outstanding net-attacking skills, Fish poses his greatest threat when he seizes the initiative rather than rallying behind the baseline, as this relaxed competitor sometimes prefers.  Although he reached a Wimbledon quarterfinal, he did not distinguish himself at the hard-court majors in uneven losses to Robredo and Tsonga.  Leading the reeling Frenchman by two sets to one at his home major, Fish allowed one poor service game to derail his hopes for a second straight Slam quarterfinal.  Still, he represents American tennis with a poise and dignity absent from the man whom he supplanted as his nation’s #1.  Despite an injury, Fish competed with resolve during his three losses at the World Tour Finals, displaying a commendable professionalism in defeat.

Tipsarevic:  Cast into Djokovic’s shadow for most of his career, the second-ranked (and sometimes third-ranked) Serb had not won a tournament until this year despite scoring several notable upsets and near-upsets.   When his compatriot reached #1, though, Tipsarevic found the inspiration necessary to reach the top 10 for the first time while winning his first two titles and reaching five total finals.  Not aesthetically pleasing to watch, his functional style can produce a power belied by his compact physique on both his serve and his groundstrokes.  In contrast to Wawrinka and Troicki, moreover, his respect for the top-ranked player from his nation did not snuff out his competitive spark.  Before an injury halted him, Tipsarevic waged a fierce battle with Djokovic in a US Open quarterfinal and ended the world #1’s season in London.  His quirky personality will continue to fuel controversy, but it adds further texture to an already diverse top 10.

Nishikori:  Ranked well below the other players at a modest #25, Nishikori appears on the list as a result of becoming the highest-ranked man in Japanese history, a goal that he set for himself when his career began.  Moreover, he reached his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Shanghai, where he defeated Tsonga, and recorded his first victory over a reigning #1 in Basel.  Under the guidance of Brad Gilbert, Nishikori already has progressed further than many might have expected, and he finally has recovered from a series of injuries.  A counterpuncher in the mold of Ferrer, he now can set new ambitions for himself.

Kei Nishikori - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Seven

Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Seven

Undefeated since the US Open, Federer eyes a third consecutive title and a record sixth title at the year-end championships.  For the fifth time, he has marched to the final without dropping a match, and on only one of the four previous occasions did his opponent halt him on the final day of the ATP season.  When a historic achievement has hovered within Federer’s grasp before, he generally has seized the opportunity with both hands unless his archrival interposed himself.  No sooner did Nadal falter at Roland Garros, however, than the 16-time major champion secured the major that had eluded him for so long, completing the coveted career Slam.  And no sooner had he tied Sampras’ towering record for major titles than he surpassed it at Wimbledon with one of his career’s most memorable performances.  To be sure, Lendl’s record at the year-end championships does not rise near the stratosphere of those other goals, which have been compared not without reason to the holy grails of Federer’s career.  Nevertheless, his relentless brilliance at the event reserved for the sport’s elite still would testify to his greatness on a significant albeit lesser level.

Throughout this week in London, Federer has looked almost destined to win a title for which most favored him before the tournament began.  Buffeted by the confluence of injuries (Murray), fatigue (Nadal), and complacency (Djokovic), the rest of the top four withered and feel like the decaying leaves of autumn.  In the autumn of his own career, the Swiss master profited from his greater rest to escape a perilous three-setter against Tsonga and record a vintage display of shot-making against Nadal.  That latter demolition of his nemesis surely caused his confidence to soar, propelling him through his next two matches with an immaculate record.  When his forehand has wavered this week, as it did late in the first set of his semifinal, Federer leaned upon his serve to release him from pressure not just by earning free points but by opening the court for his first groundstroke.  He has varied the placement in both service boxes ingeniously, sometimes stretching opponents with angles and sometimes forcing them backwards with body serves.  Especially effective this week is his wide serve to both sides, which often has allowed him to step inside the baseline and approach the net with minimal risk.

Almost as impressive in London, Federer’s final foe has looked progressively more convincing with each match after falling to the Swiss in three sets last Sunday.  After a fiercely contested three-setter with Nadal clinched his semifinal berth, Tsonga suffered no letdown when he faced the less renowned Berdych two days later.  Although he let one second-set lead slip away, the Frenchman did not flinch when he served for the match, as he had against Rafa.  Eyeing an opportunity unprecedented in his career at stake, he showed the composure of a veteran in snuffing out the Czech’s last stand without drama.  Like Federer, he has served intelligently throughout the tournament and exploited the superior forecourt skills that have separated him from many of his rivals, although not from the Swiss.  Each man’s strengths mirror those of his opponent, for both have built their games around serves, forehands, and crisp volleys while protecting fallible backhands and often struggling with returns.  A contrast to the laterally oriented baseline battles that have defined the ATP, their meeting should feature plenty of points in which one or often both players maneuver inside the service line.

Colliding for the eighth time this year, Federer and Tsonga have met on every surface in 2011 and at five of the calendar’s most important tournaments.  Two sets into their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Federer had won nine consecutive sets from the fiery French star.  Few anticipated the response from Tsonga, who produced one of the most startling headlines in a startling season by rallying to win that match and its Montreal sequel.  Amidst mounting murmurs of his decline, the Swiss master avenged those summer setbacks with an emphatic victory at the US Open, followed by his triumph in the Paris Indoors final two Sundays ago.  One Sunday ago, their rollercoaster meeting reflected traits familiar from watching both players.  Habitually a slow starter, Tsonga did not find his emotional intensity throughout a first set controlled by Federer.  Increasingly susceptible to mid-match lulls, Federer then faltered early in a second set dominated by Tsonga.  With both players finally fully engaged at the same time, the third set followed a pattern of service holds as neither could string together a series of penetrating returns to create pressure on the other’s serve.  Federer enjoyed the crucial advantage of serving first, though, and his assassin-like timing allowed him to strike for a match-ending break when Tsonga let his guard slip.

Among the questions for the final match of the ATP season, then, are whether the Frenchman can elevate his intensity earlier in their encounter and whether the Swiss can maintain his own intensity as the match progresses.  In a year filled with unpredictable narratives, a title for the mercurial Tsonga would seem a fitting finish.  On the other hand, a year dominated by two members of the top three would seem more complete with one notable statement from the third.

 

Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five

Federer vs. Ferrer:  The only undefeated player remaining in the tournament, its five-time champion looks poised to extend his perfect record into the final Sunday.  On hard court and clay, indoors and outdoors, Federer has throttled Ferrer in all eleven of their meetings, including an ignominious rout in the 2007 final of the year-end championships.  That match halted one of the finest weeks of the Spaniard’s career in emphatic fashion while marking the endpoint to one of the finest seasons not only the GOAT’s career but perhaps in tennis history.  During the four years that have passed since then, they have collided only three times.  Although Federer dismantled Ferrer once more in London last year, the diminutive counterpuncher extended him to a final set in their other two encounters.  As the Swiss master’s career wanes, his consistency has begun to ebb in occasional lulls that could play into his opponent’s hands.  After dominant first sets against Fish and Tsonga here, for example, Federer’s focus waned early in the second set and resulted in a victory less straightforward that it initially seemed.  But equally significant was his ability to regroup in the third set, especially on serve, and reaffirm his authority rather than letting the momentum turn against him for good.

With that ugly head-to-head record looming over his head, Ferrer shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that he can challenge the defending champion.  From the outset, most options lie closed to him.  Despite his improved serve, he cannot rely upon that shot to equal or surpass Federer’s deadly delivery.  Nor can he outhit the Swiss from the baseline in a battle of bruising forehands; the contest for court positioning inevitably will tilt in Federer’s direction, considering his far superior shot-making ability and heavier first strike.  If Ferrer scurries frantically behind the baseline, simply focused on retrieving everything that he can, he will allow Federer to close off angles and methodically finish off points at the net, an area in which he excels.  Instead, Ferrer must remain in the counterpunching mold (for he has little choice but to do so), but he must counterpunch intelligently with groundstrokes as deep as possible that keep his opponent moving and off balance.  For two and a half matches this week, the Spaniard executed those tactics to perfection by displaying uncanny anticipation and redirecting the ball down both sidelines with sparkling timing, albeit not pinpoint accuracy.  Meanwhile, his passing shots threaded needles that left Murray, Djokovic, and initially Berdych raising their eyebrows in grudging admiration.  His compact physique and efficient ball-striking can profit from the surface’s low bounce, a characteristic that Federer’s low contact point also exploits.

Rarely short of willpower, Ferrer proved this week that his game can succeed against elite if battered opponents on the surface least suited to it.  Few players would have rebounded from a disastrous 0-3 collapse in London, when he failed to win a single set, and marched within two service holds of a 3-0 record there a year later.  Nevertheless, he bitterly regretted letting Berdych slip away in a match when a victory would have allowed him to play Tsonga rather than his perennial nemesis.  Should he bring that fatalistic attitude to his semifinal, he will not seriously threaten Federer.  If Ferrer needs a timely injection of optimism, though, his coach could remind him of what happened to the Swiss star two years ago in a semifinal on this court.  Armed with a 12-0 record against Nikolay Davydenko, Federer stumbled to a shocking defeat that propelled his conqueror to the most significant title of his career.  Will another ambush await him against another of his long-trampled victims?

Berdych vs. Tsonga:  Down a set and twice down a break in the second set to the ATP roadrunner par excellence, Berdych certainly could have let his mind drift towards the offseason and 2012.  Then he Yet he swiftly broke back immediately after surrendering his serve both times and denied Ferrer any fresh hope in the third set.  After he had carelessly thrown away a tight second set to Nadal, Tsonga also could have wandered mentally when the tide seemed destined to flow against him decisively.  Yet he reeled off 11 of 12 points from a span that started in the second game of the third set and ultimately decided the match.  Not normally known for as much fortitude as each of their opponents, both the Czech and the French proved themselves unexpectedly durable in the efforts that earned them their first semifinal berths at this tournament.  Supplanting the ATP top two, who dominated most of the season, are two more mercurial but immensely talented figures who have approached this week with far more desire than either Nadal or Djokovic.  Their semifinal should compensate in substance for what it lacks in glamor.  Whereas a title here would add a relatively minor luster to Novak’s or Rafa’s resumes, it would represent the most significant achievement of Berdych’s or Tsonga’s career.

Only once have these sporadic ambush artists and sporadic underachievers collided on the court.  In a Beijing semifinal, they split two competitive sets before Berdych established control in the decider over Tsonga en route to his only title of the last two seasons.  Unlike the contrasting styles of Federer and Ferrer, the tactics of these two semifinalists distinctly resemble each other.  Both men will unleash explosive first serves that they complement with massive forehands.  Both men have built their accomplishments this week upon their ability to follow either a penetrating serve or forehand to the net, Tsonga more often than Berdych.  For significant stretches this week, both men have struggled with their timing on returns or their rhythm in rallies that lasted more than a few strokes, Berdych less often than Tsonga.  Neither possesses many alternatives if their serve falters or their fierce groundstrokes misfire, so each should hammer away with their trademark weapons regardless of results.

Among the factors that could separate them is the Frenchman’s vibrant imagination, which crafted exquisite drop shots that left Nadal helplessly marooned in the forecourt.  More straightforward in his approach, Berdych did display an acute sense of the court’s geometry with his volleys this week and during his semifinal run at the Paris Indoors.  Nevertheless, he lacks Tsonga’s ability to combine bone-crushing power with a feathery touch, a mixture probably absent from everyone else outside the top 5.  Berdych’s main advantage lies in his steadier focus, a factor separate from his (sometimes unsteady) nerve.  Although he can crack under pressure, the Czech generally does not let a lead escape him through the complacency that saw Tsonga donate three double faults as he served for the match against Nadal.  Deep into his third three-setter of the week, he delivered the coup de grace to a reeling Ferrer with minimal ado.  But will his accumulated fatigue haunt him as Tsonga stretches the court both laterally and vertically?  With players so evenly matched in strengths and weaknesses, the second semifinal should offer the superior suspense to justify its selection as the evening showpiece.

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