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Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

Lleyton Hewitt - Davis Cup - Australia v Switzerland: Day 3

Despite the mounting drama over the star-studded World Group semifinals, this Davis Cup weekend delivered the greatest drama in the playoff ties that determine which nations participate in World Group next year.  In a sense, the combatants at that level play with even more at stake than the semifinalists, who can expect to begin another charge towards the title in just a few months.  Needing to win only four rounds in a year, the World Group nations know that their fortunes in any given year can hinge upon a few external factors or serendipitous combinations of circumstances:  untimely injuries to opponents, home-court advantage, a more comfortable draw.  By contrast, the nations in the playoff round know that a loss postpones their dreams of the Cup until at least 2013, forcing them to play virtually a year of qualifications simply to gain this opportunity once more.  One could compare the playoffs to the final qualifying round at a major, after which the winners earn the opportunity to play in one of the sport’s top four tournaments while the losers recede into challengers and irrelevance.  For this reason, tightly contested ties at this stage often feature desperate heroics or memorable achievements, such as Mardy Fish’s two victories last fall on the high-bouncing, heavy Colombian clay.

Fraught with intrigue from the outset, the Australia-Switzerland tie featured chanting Aussies, clanging cowbells, and flaring tempers.  A collision more competitive than it seemed on the surface, the weekend extended into four days and became the only Davis Cup tie to reach the fifth set of the fifth rubber after each of the first three rubbers swung to the nation that lost the first set.  His appetite for battle undimmed, Hewitt supplied the central narrative of the weekend by charging within a few points of a two-set lead against Federer on Friday, led teammate Chris Guccione past the Olympic doubles gold medalists on Saturday, and wrested two of the first three sets from Wawrinka on Sunday before fading.  The two-time major champion had won only nine ATP matches this year as his career had waned, yet his returns and reflex volleys on the grass looked as sharp as his court coverage.  While the defeat will taste bitter to this fierce combatant, he will leave with the knowledge that he tested the Swiss far more sternly than they or anyone had anticipated.  One could say the same of the controversial Bernard Tomic, who rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome Wawrinka, and of the Swiss #2 himself, who became the hero of a tie in which Federer participated—no small feat.  Already having lost his first two rubbers of the weekend, Wawrinka might well have slumped dejectedly after he wasted five set points in the third set to edge within a set of elimination.  But the patience of his comeback suggested that he can summon a much greater tenacity than he showed in his recent defeat or in his farcical losses to Federer, the occasions on which fans see him most often.  Winning two of his three rubbers in unremarkable fashion, the Swiss #1 seemed to have imported his post-US Open angst to Australia, where he disparaged his doubles partner and harshly castigated the umpire.  As his prowess on the court inevitably wanes, Federer continues to age less gracefully off the court than one would have hoped and expected.

If the fading, battle-scarred veteran Hewitt defined the Australian weekend, an equally valiant youngster delivered all three of Canada’s points during a challenging tie in Israel.  Known for fans most positively described as “intense,” the home nation ironically hosted the matches in the Canada Stadium, named after its Canadian donors.  Ranked outside the top 100 but swiftly ascending, the 21-year-old Vasek Pospisil turned Canada Stadium into Canada’s Stadium and eventually clinched the decisive fifth rubber against similarly overachieving Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, who had overcome top Canadian Milos Raonic on Friday.  That victory had loomed large after Pospisil had outlasted Dudi Sela in a five-hour, three-tiebreak epic that opened the weekend with a crucially emphatic statement for the visitors.  Had the Canadian novice succumbed to his more experienced opponent, Israel likely would have capitalized upon the early momentum to seize control of the tie.  Instead, Pospisil partnered the ageless Daniel Nestor a day later to score a rare four-set upset over the formidable doubles squad of Ehrlich and Ram.  Despite playing nine sets in two days, he somehow returned physically and mentally fresh on Sunday to silence a crowd buoyed by Sela’s tie-leveling win in the fourth rubber.  As Djokovic’s resurgence has demonstrated, Davis Cup exploits can offer an sturdy foundation upon which to build a career, so the sport’s followers should remember Pospisil as 2012 approaches.

But perhaps the greatest drama of the playoffs came from deep in south-central Russia, where the historic city of Kazan set the stage for the weekend’s only comeback from a 1-2 deficit.  The principal author of that script, the stylish, mentally fallible Youzhny delivered the first rubber for the hosts uneventfully before finding himself locked in a struggle for survival against Brazilian #1 Bellucci.  Notorious for his mental fallibility, the Russian rallied from within a set of elimination during the longest match of any tie, saving two match points in a 26-game final set.  As he served to stay in the match eight times, Youzhny surely knew that any misstep would lead to his nation’s defeat at the hands of the talented Bellucci, yet he survived the escalating pressure with a fortitude reminiscent of his comeback victory over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final.  Earlier this year, “Misha” had announced his withdrawal from Davis Cup competition, so his compatriots will have greeted his renewed participation with relief.  His heroics then allowed the famously canny Shamil Tarpischev to execute one of his characteristic and almost invariably successful substitutions, inserting Tursunov for Andreev in the deciding rubber.  Saddled with erratic, temperamental competitors for much of his Davis Cup career, Tarpischev has excelled in extracting some of their finest performances on this stage.

Guy Forget - Serbia v France - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Three

Quite unlike the Russian captain’s cunning was another bizarre decision from his French counterpart, Guy Forget, that contributed to the thoroughly forgettable clash in Cordoba.  A year ago, France had shut out Spain in a Cup quarterfinal, and the home nation’s revenge this year proved even more resounding, albeit not a shutout.  Admittedly without top-10 resident Gael Monfils, Forget decided to stake his team’s fortunes on an all-or-nothing gamble that involved sacrificing Gasquet to Nadal in the opening rubber, relying on Simon to defeat Ferrer in the second rubber, taking the lead in the winnable doubles, and substituting Tsonga at maximum rest in one of the reverse singles rubbers.  Only one of these stratagems unfolded according to plan, an absurdly lopsided doubles victory fueled by the Berlocqian inability of Feliciano Lopez to hold serve.  Rarely do doubles teams manage to win only three games in three sets, but Spain easily forgot that embarrassment when its singles players surrendered only 19 games in 11 sets (16 games in live rubbers).  By effectively donating the first rubber, Forget allowed a visibly weary Nadal to settle comfortably into that weekend and accumulate confidence.  Moreover, he subjected Simon to undue pressure by thrusting him immediately into a must-win situation against an opponent much superior in Davis Cup.  On the other hand, Tsonga’s ghastly performance in singles may have negated any scheme concocted by Forget, for he would not have defeated any member of the Spanish team on clay with the sort of low-percentage shot selection that he unleashed on Sunday.  And the cohesive home squad has proven an almost insurmountable challenge at home in the Nadal era, when they can rely upon receiving at least two rubbers and thus need find a way to collect just one more.

That mission now will fall to Argentina, thus far the best nation never to win a Davis Cup title and Spain’s victims in the 2008 final.  Ridiculed for their internal disunity on that occasion, the squad led by Del Potro and Nalbandian displayed noteworthy grittiness in sweeping the first two rubbers from top-20 Serbian opponents inside the boisterous Belgrade Arena.  The defending champions saw their hopes dwindle sharply, though, when Djokovic could not contribute meaningfully to the tie after his exertions in New York.  To his credit, the world #1 submitted a valiant effort for a set or so against Del Potro on Sunday before yielding to a back injury.  Far from his slightly dubious retirement in Cincinnati, this premature termination stemmed from clear necessity.  Less to Serbia’s credit were the bizarre statements of captain Bogdan Obradovic, evidently a conspiracy enthusiast who attributed the team’s loss to Djokovic’s absence (plausibly), in turn to the Monday finish of the US Open (somewhat plausibly), and in turn to the deliberate plot of the USTA to refrain from building a roof over Arthur Ashe in the hope that a late finish to the tournament would undermine other nations and especially Serbia (ludicrously).  One suspects that not even Forget could have devised such a serpentine scheme.

Since neither of the fourth rubbers in the World Group semifinal extended beyond three sets, both semifinals concluded with the odd “dead rubbers” that remain a fixture in Davis Cup, concluding ties clinched before the fifth rubber.  Under the new 2011 rules, captains can agree to omit these irrelevant matches only if the fourth rubber remains live and lasts at least four sets.  As a result, Tipsarevic and Monaco played a listless set in Belgrade before the Argentine retired, while Verdasco and Gasquet played a pair of equally tepid sets in Cordoba.  Amidst the ITF’s efforts to preserve the Cup’s relevance through a rapidly changing era, it should consider dispensing entirely with these anachronisms.  Only the most fervently nationalistic fans would take pride from watching a compatriot win a meaningless match, while the dead rubbers produce an anticlimactic conclusion far from the flag-waving finish that a clinching victory would achieve.  Yet the ITF generally has opposed any attempts for significant reforms, even contemptuously flicking aside Nadal’s plea for a less ruthless schedule as “inconsistent” and self-contradictory.  When this organizations shows such little respect to one of its greatest assets, one must wonder about the future of Davis Cup in a world where the sport’s elevated physicality permits elite contenders to play fewer events than they once could.  Considering the outstanding efforts of Hewitt, Pospisil, Youzhny, and others, however, this competition relies less upon the marquee names than do the individual tournaments.

***

In our coming posts, we will discuss the Asian fall season, which began last week in Tashkent with Pervak’s first career title. What can each of the stars gain by shining as the sun sets on 2011?

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

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

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

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

Semifinal:  Azarenka d. Bartoli

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

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

Semifinal:  S. Williams d. Lisicki

Final:  Azarenka d. S. Williams

***

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

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

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point during the Men's Singles Final match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 4, 2010 in London, England.

Gentlemen:

First quarter:  Just one major after he narrowly escaped from Isner, Nadal may find himself forced to topple two more giants in the precocious Raonic and the resurgent Del Potro in order to reach the quarterfinals.  The world #1 at least can settle into the tournament with two comfortable rounds before confronting the Canadian, whose thunderous serve and deft forecourt touch should pose compelling threats on grass.  Least comfortable on this surface, Del Potro may struggle against the more compact strokes of Simon in the third round despite his vast advantage over the Frenchman on serve.  At the base of this quarter lies 2010 runner-up Berdych, a first-round loser at two of the three majors since that breakthrough.  The sixth seed crumbled quickly when defending his Roland Garros semifinal, and the pressure of defending 1,400 points will weigh heavily on his fragile mind.  Nevertheless, Berdych should progress comfortably to the second week unless an opportunistic journeyman like Julien Benneteau can emulate Stephane Robert’s feat at Roland Garros.  Like Del Potro, Verdasco displays his least convincing tennis on grass and has watched his ranking slide inexorably downwards during a season-long slump.  Perhaps most likely to clash with Nadal in the quarterfinals, therefore, is tenth-seeded Mardy Fish.  Despite sporadic injury struggles, the American has shone on grass before but lacks the versatile arsenal to upset the top seed.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Greatest threats:  Raonic, Fish

Second quarter:  As Murray-mania descends upon Wimbledon once again, the Centre Court crowds may grow familiar with anonymous figures like Gimeno-Traver and Kavcic.  Probably the softest quarter, Murray’s section contains no fewer than six qualifiers and two wildcards.  But it also contains 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist Gasquet, who has returned to relevance this year with an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Rome semifinal, and an unprecedented second-week run at Roland Garros.  Three years ago, the Scot entangled the Frenchman in a memorable five-setter on these lawns in which his superior fitness and fiercer competitive desire ultimately overcame his opponent’s superior artistry.  Among the intriguing openers in this section are the all-Croatian clash between Ljubicic and Cilic and the intra-Balkan clash between Tipsarevic and Karlovic.  Barely a presence since Indian Wells, world #10 Roddick benefited considerably from Wimbledon’s grass-court formula to gain a top-eight seed and avoid a fourth-round meeting with a contender.  Nevertheless, the three-time finalist may tangle with the dangerous Feliciano Lopez, who hammered 35 aces while extending the American into a third set at Queens Club.  Thoroughly dominated by Murray at that tournament, Roddick might gain confidence from his victory over the Scot in their 2009 semifinal.  In the last two years, though, illness, injury, and erratic play have exposed the American’s one-dimensionality, which he shares with most of the players around him.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Greatest threat:  Roddick

Third quarter:  Drawn in the same half with Djokovic for the fourth straight Slam, Federer should arrive in their semifinal without excessive exertions.  Fading towards retirement, notorious underachiever Nalbandian probably cannot challenge the Swiss over the course of five sets.  Equally unlikely to mount a convincing challenge is Almagro, who fell in the first round of the Dutch Open as the top seed and struggles to fit his elongated swings to the grass.  Nor is the Spaniard the only clay-court specialist in this section, for seventh-seeded Ferrer would face Federer in the quarterfinals should all unfold according to plan.  A plausible candidate to disrupt that narrative, Tsonga reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year behind his electrifying first-strike weapons.  Edging within a tiebreak of the Queens Club title, the Frenchman collected a morale-boosting victory over Nadal before severely testing Murray.  Although injuries and dips in motivation have prevented his evolution into a consistent contender, Tsonga still possesses the ability to unleash a crescendo of inspired performances at a major.  In the third round, he might face the winner of an intriguing opening duel between Dolgopolov and the aging Gonzalez, which will pit fluid grace against raw power.  Once extending Nadal to five sets at the All England Club, Youzhny might collide with Federer on the second Monday if he can overcome Isner.  The towering American cannot generate more headlines than he did at the last Wimbledon, but he will hope to record a few more wins.

Semfiinalist:  Federer

Greatest threat:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  Aiming to halt his one-match losing streak, Djokovic enters Wimbledon with scant grass-court preparation but looked impressive during pre-tournament exhibitions.  The Serb announced his determination to conquer the sport’s citadel last month despite his less confident movement on grass.  A two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, Djokovic might reprise an epic 2007 encounter with Baghdatis in the third round, while South African giant Kevin Anderson might lurk in the second round.  Should the second seed survive those obstacles, his path might grow smoother with docile compatriot Troicki or perhaps serve-and-volleying Frenchman Michael Llodra, who conquered him at the Paris Indoors last fall but could not trouble him in Dubai this year.  His route barred by only the eventual champion at the last two Wimbledons, Soderling hopes to rebound from a tepid spring by overcoming battle-scarred veterans like Hewitt and Davydenko.  A year after unsettling Federer in the first round, Alejandro Falla could trouble Melzer in the aftermath of an impressive French Open.  Joining heavy-hitting Russians Tursunov and Gabashvili are the formerly promising Gulbis and the still-promising Nishikori in a section of players with talent disproportionate to their accomplishments.  Yet Soderling remains the most probable candidate to progress through this wilderness of enigmatic competitors, presenting Djokovic with a quarterfinal opponent whom he has dominated on all other surfaces.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Greatest threat:  None

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Murray, Federer vs. Djokovic

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Roger Federer

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russian Federation celebrates a point during the women's singles round one match against Stephanie Foretz of France on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 24, 2008 in London, England.

Ladies:

First quarter:  Although world #1 Wozniacki perches atop this section, the most formidable contender prowls at its base.  Reaching the semifinals or better in four of her last five tournaments, Sharapova accumulated momentum this spring for the first time in her comeback.  Like Djokovic, the 2004 champion enters Wimbledon this year without match practice on grass, but she has routinely smothered opening-round opponent Chakvetadze.  Unless pugnacious British teen Robson can emulate Caroline Garcia in the second round, Sharapova should maneuver through a draw filled with powerful but erratic opponents such as Safarova. Although Stosur represents the Russian’s sternest competition on paper, the resilient Peng in fact might prove her greatest cause for concern.  Winning a set from Sharapova at Indian Wells in March, Peng extended the finest season of her career by reaching the Birmingham semifinal.  Nevertheless, Stosur reached the semifinals a week later at Eastbourne with a slightly surprising triumph over third-ranked Zvonareva.  Aligned against Wozniacki in a potential third-round clash is Jarmila Gajdosova, the type of heavy hitter who could prevent the Dane from finding a rhythm in short points.  On the second Monday, the top seed should face one of two contrasting opponents who have combined for three victories against her in 2011.  Whereas Cibulkova relies on her movement and compact strokes, Goerges showcases an outstanding serve and massive forehand in a game seemingly better suited for grass.  But only one player in this quarter has left an imprint on this surface before.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Greatest threat:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Whereas the first quarter features only one former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, this region features no fewer than seven who have attained that stage here before.  Possibly colliding in the second round are two of those figures, newly crowned Roland Garros champion Li Na and newly crowned Birmingham champion Lisicki.  Between them, however, stands volatile Russian Kudryavtseva, who upset Sharapova and nearly Venus on the lawns before as her high-risk title ignited at timely moments.  The survivor of Li-Lisicki then might collide with 2008 semifinalist Zheng, well below her best since a wrist injury last year but still a competitor of underestimated ferocity.  Although Ivanovic’s 2007 semifinal lies four long years ago, the Serb also reached the second week in 2009 and will have lifted her spirits after a Birmingham semifinal as well as an Eastbourne victory over Goerges.  Not quite a title contender, two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska has found surprising success on these fast courts, which reward her delicate touch and amplify her serve.  After thrusting into the Roland Garros semifinals, 2007 runner-up Bartoli extended her momentum with an Eastbourne title run built upon victories over Stosur and Kvitova.  Back in the top 10, the double-fisted Frenchwoman should face little opposition until the second Monday, when she would meet the defending champion.  If Serena stays fit and Li focused, they should reprise last year’s quarterfinal.  Both of those questions loom large indeed, however, considering their history.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Greatest threat:  Li

Third quarter:  Alternately stunning and shaky in recent weeks, the seeds who bookend this quarter will have little time to settle into a groove.  Confronted by Dutch Open runner-up Dokic, Schiavone hopes to avoid her early 2010 exit at the major that exposes her offensive shortcomings from the baseline.  Tasked with powerful albeit feckless Slovak Rybarikova, Azarenka will attempt to rebound swiftly from her Eastbourne retirement.  Vika usually has followed those concessions with sparkling performances, though, springing back from an Indian Wells retirement with a Miami title and from a Stuttgart retirement with a Madrid final.  The leading headline of the preparatory events, Hantuchova has defeated Wozniacki, Ivanovic, and Venus in her last three tournaments before also retiring from Eastbourne.  If her injury proves insignificant, she might ruffle Azarenka’s composure in the third round.  Seeking her third consecutive Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic eyes a comfortable first-week draw with few potential foes who can match her self-belief.  Already extending Azarenka to two three-setters this season, meanwhile, budding Russian Pavlyuchenkova seeks to capitalize upon her quarterfinal (near-semifinal) at the previous major.  Pounding winners through the clay from both wings, she should find the grass even better suited to her power-heavy, movement-light style.  Pavlyuchenkova’s compatriot Makarova also stands poised to garner attention for her quirky left-handed game and forecourt skills, honed through her doubles experience.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Greatest threats:  Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic

Fourth quarter:  Spared an early-round meeting with her sister, Venus instead might collide with familiar foe Jankovic in the first week.  Outside the top 10 for the first time in four years, the Serb rarely has enjoyed her visits to Wimbledon, although she reached the second week last year.  The elder Williams looked initially impressive during her Eastbourne week with victories over Petkovic and Ivanovic before her first career loss to Hantuchova cast a pall upon those achievements.  At the bottom of this quarter stands 2010 finalist Zvonareva, likely to respond to the pressure of defending her points with little more resilience than her counterpart Berdych.  After an encouraging victory over Serena at Eastbourne, the second seed slumped to a demoralizing defeat against Stosur as a frustratingly inconsistent season continued.  Handed a relatively comfortable draw, Vera could reprise last year’s semifinal triumph over Pironkova in the third round before battling the winner of the marquee Venus-Jankovic collision.  Nevertheless, the most imposing threat may spring from the upper section of this quarter, from which Kvitova will launch her bid to reach a second straight Wimbledon semifinal.  If she can escape an early stumble, this Czech lefty will gather momentum with each round.  Falling only to eventual champion Li at Roland Garros, she remains less consistent than one expects from a contender but sufficiently confident to ambush a rusty Venus or a fragile Zvonareva.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Greatest threat:  V. Williams

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. S. Willliams, Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Final:  Sharapova vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Maria Sharapova

 

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Caro(usel) at the top: After the briefest of interregnums, Wozniacki marched into Dubai and terminated Clijsters’ one-week reign atop the rankings.  Although she nearly dropped sets to both Chakvetadze and Jankovic, the Dane ended her week in emphatic fashion by outclassing Kuznetsova in her seventh win across an eight-final span.  Wozniacki struck a blow for the WTA’s Generation Next against its aging aristocracy this week, but Clijsters may well regain the top ranking when she defends only third-round points at Indian Wells.  Tethered to finals points in the California desert, Caro perhaps could snatch the top spot back a fortnight later when the Belgian defends her Miami title.  Similarly unspectacular during last year’s clay and grass seasons, the prodigy and the veteran could trade the #1 ranking back and forth as spring turns to summer.  We don’t know where this rollercoaster will stop, but we expect to enjoy the ride—and the photo shoots that ensue each time that Wozniacki reclaims the top spot. 

Sleeping giants stir:  Ascending from year-long obscurity, two towers of power delivered warning salvoes to their peers.  A week after upsetting Melzer in Rotterdam, Cilic unexpectedly reached his first final since Munich last May.  On the indoor hard surface where he has reached four of his nine career finals, the Croat swept past the seventh-ranked Berdych  and then battled past Youzhny before snatching the first set from a scorching Soderling in the final.  While Cilic’s technique still looks laborious and unwieldy at times, he can generate explosive power from both groundstrokes when he times his elongated swings effectively.   Before the battlefields change to clay, he will hope to buttress this recent awakening upon a few imposing wins in North America, although his lowered ranking could pit him against a top seed as early as the third round.  Seemingly both physically and psychologically sturdy, Cilic might rejoin the circle of contenders more swiftly than the other comeback artist of the past two weeks.

Sidelined and demoralized by a wrist injury, Del Potro showed flashes of his familiar self during a semifinal run in Memphis that included a comfortable victory over Isner and built upon his semifinal in San Jose a week before.  Thoroughly outgunned by Roddick as he was by Verdasco, the 2009 US Open champion still lacks a critical fraction of confidence in the groundstrokes that once jerked Federer around Arthur Ashe like a puppet on a string.  Once he regains that extra bit of sting in his forehand, though, the other elements of his game look ready to slip into their appointed places.  Also in Memphis, Querrey finally snapped an embarrassing six-match losing streak by rallying from within two points of defeat against Istomin.  Quarterfinal conqueror Fish labeled the lanky Californian “the future of American tennis,” but American fans should hope that this future lies well beyond the horizon.

What a difference a week makes:  Weary from their last week’s accomplishments, none of the players who excelled at those smaller tournaments could translate their momentum to the Persian Gulf.  Days after title runs in Paris and Pattaya City, Hantuchova and Kvitova dropped their Dubai openers to Chakvetadze and qualifier Ayumi Morita, respectively.  Less notably, Pattaya City finalist Errani pried one game away from Stosur, a player whom she previously had threatened.  Perhaps exacerbating their struggles was the contrast between humid Thailand, climate-controlled Paris, and the windswept desert in Dubai.  Not forced to make such adjustments, the four semifinalists at this Premier Five event participated in neither Paris nor Pattaya City, although Kuznetsova and Pennetta did play Fed Cup.  In the WTA’s geographically sprawling schedule this month, choosing battles became a crucial step towards winning them. 

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

What a difference a week doesn’t make:  Thrown into relief by the whiplash effect in the WTA, an exceptional degree of continuity prevailed in the ATP.  An ocean apart, Soderling and Almagro battered through their draws for the second consecutive week and overcame a resilient pair of opponents in their three-set finals.  Both the Swede and the Spaniard profited from the relatively benign draws in these 250 events, so one should not overstate their surges when the leading contenders reconvene at Indian Wells.  In Soderling’s case, though, the extra rankings points will further insulate his #4 position should Murray improve upon his meager 2010 results at the spring Masters events.

But the highest honors go to a player who fell just short of his second straight title after a riveting albeit stylistically one-dimensional final in Memphis.  Hammering 130 aces across five three-setters, Raonic demonstrated a fortitude remarkable in a player who just turned 20 in December.  More durable than one might expect for such a massive frame, the Canadian suffered many more dips in form than he did in San Jose, yet he rebounded sturdily from that adversity.  Unusually edgy in the first-set tiebreak against Roddick, he did not buckle in the second set but instead swatted away three match points in the 24-point second-set tiebreak.  Few would have faulted Raonic had he surrendered at 1-4, 30-40 in the final set, when he somehow clawed back onto even terms and saved another match point before the breathtaking denouement.  In the end, only the most spectacular shot of the season so far could subdue the Canadian.

The Russian bear growls:  While Davydenko, Sharapova, and Zvonareva all may have sagged recently, an implausible group of reinforcements arrived to bolster their nation’s pride.  Capitalizing upon her victory over Henin at the Australian Open and her ensuing Fed Cup exploits, Kuznetsova not only avenged her Melbourne loss to Schiavone but reached her most notable final since Beijing 2009.  Wedged into the top 20 after an eye-opening quarterfinal run, Kleybanova overcame compatriots Pavlyuchenkova and Zvonareva in imperious fashion before falling to recurrent nemesis Pennetta. Perhaps less surprising was the Marseille charge of Youzhny, who overcame not only a fiery Tsonga but a crackling French crowd to reach his first semifinal of the season.  Joining him in that round, however, was the forgotten Tursunov, fallen from the top 100 after nagging injuries but able to recapture just enough of his vintage firepower to record his first victory over a top-10 opponent since 2008.  As of this writing, however, all four Russians lost their openers this week in Dubai and Doha, so their caution seems advisable in projecting from the feats of last week.

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