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Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

In a suspenseful three-set encounter, not all points are created equal.  Few players recognize and exploit this truth more than Sharapova, who survived 11 double faults and 64 unforced errors to collect the title that painfully eluded her a year ago.  Trailing Jankovic by a set and a break in a final that resembled the nearby rollercoaster, the 2010 Cincinnati finalist sank her teeth into the match midway through the second set, holding serve twice to stay alive.  In the ensuing tiebreak, the serves and groundstrokes that had sprayed throughout the court suddenly found lines and corners with vintage precision.  Three times trailing by a break in the final set, Sharapova pinpointed her returns to erase each of the deficits in a final during which each player rarely led by more than one game or by more than one point in a game.  Never ahead between the seventh game of the first set and the seventh game of the third set, she allowed her sprightly opponent no room for recovery once she gained the initiative.   Amidst the unsightly statistics of double faults and unforced errors, another statistic proved the most relevant:  a stunning 11-0 record in third sets this season that testifies to her unsurpassed resolve when matches hang in the balance, as well as to her ability to overcome imperfections in a game designed for the pursuit of perfection.  Crushing Kuznetsova and Stosur earlier in the week, the three-time major champion scored a similarly valiant victory over Zvonareva after a dismal beginning to their semifinal.  With disappointments in Stanford and Toronto placed firmly behind her, she will travel to New York armed with a timely injection of confidence.

An even more dramatic confidence boost will have propelled the Cincinnati runner-up into the season’s final major.  A first-round loser at both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Jankovic had drifted beyond the edge of relevance this year as her 2010 slump on non-clay surfaces had deepened.  Although she profited from a walkover and an injured semifinal opponent (see below), the Serb seemed to recapture her affection for the sport this week.  Compensating for reduced foot speed with smarter anticipation, she showcased not only her lithe movement and keen instincts but the smile that accompanied her exploits during her ascent to #1.  On several occasions throughout the final and her third-round victory over Schiavone, Jankovic sprawled across the court to produce passing shots or unexpected retrievals, demonstrating her natural athleticism and racket-head control.  A potential narrative of the final would cast it as a potentially uneventful straight-set win that she let escape her, like Sharapova in last year’s final, but she battled an increasingly determined Sharapova with courage and concentration until the last two games.  Whatever one’s response to the polarizing Serb, one still can appreciate the player if not the person.  Not realistically a genuine contender at the US Open, she might provide a fascinating foil for the power-hitters atop the WTA if she can build upon this result.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

As desperate as Sharapova to forget the foibles of the previous week, Murray had not won a match at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this year—until he won all of his matches this week.  An opening-round exit had terminated his Montreal title defense, appearing to distance him further from the top three.  Had he suffered another early loss, he would have struggled to acquire the optimism necessary for surviving the intense fortnight in New York.  By capturing the Cincinnati trophy, however, the world #4 reestablished himself as a serious contender in what has become a US Open men’s field surrounded by questions, none more notable than those concerning Djokovic’s shoulder.  Unable to compete effectively against the Scot, the world #1 already had played more matches than he did all of last season and may have suffered merely a case of aggravated fatigue as he did after Miami.  Nevertheless, the injury arrived at an inauspicious moment, offering a breath of hope for the other 127 players in the draw.  Despite an uneven performance in the semifinal, Murray also outlasted the most successful player of the summer in Mardy Fish, who has assumed the mantle of leading American with unexpected speed and ease.  That encouraging victory illustrated the Scot’s skill in defusing imposing servers, the type of player that normally profits from the fastest Slam surface of all.

In a week that witnessed the withdrawal of one former champion from the US Open, Cincinnati proved relatively unkind to most of the others.  Perhaps hampered by burned fingers, Nadal struggled with his first serve and forehand throughout his two victories before succumbing to Fish for the first time in his career.  In his three-tiebreak, 217-minute victory over Verdasco, the defending champion failed to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes for prolonged periods, a rare sight even on hard courts.  His confidence shaken by losses to Djokovic, Nadal’s abbreviated US Open Series left him additional time for much-needed preparation in New York.  Less surprising was Del Potro’s loss to Federer, for the Argentine had not defeated a top-three opponent since his return from wrist surgery and had grown oddly passive since Wimbledon.  The five-time US Open champion avenged his loss in the 2009 final with a performance as sparkling as any of his hard-court matches this year but found little of that form three days later against Berdych.  After his third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals or earlier, Federer will face a severe test in stringing together seven consecutive quality performances.  Not since February in Dubai has he reached a non-clay final.  To be sure, the Swiss won the US Open after losing early in Cincinnati three years ago, while the Czech defeated Federer twice and nearly a third time last year.

Having accomplished little of significance so far in 2011, Berdych overcame the 16-time major champion without facing a break point.  This achievement might have positioned him to threaten a fallible Djokovic on Saturday, had not an injury-caused retirement intervened.  When Djokovic himself fell victim to a shoulder injury a day later, the men’s tournament concluded with consecutive retirements.  From the women’s draw withdrew Serena and Azarenka, while Petkovic suffered a knee injury in her quarterfinal that impeded her perceptibly during her semifinal loss to Jankovic.  As the US Open approaches, one expects that some of these injuries will disappear (see S for Serena and A for Azarenka), but this rising trend on both Tours should cause them to investigate this issue further.  Despite the Roadmap, the post-Wimbledon break, and more intelligent scheduling by the players themselves, too many outcomes continue to hinge upon physical condition rather than tactics and execution.  The sport’s sprawling calendar thus remains a topic of concern.

***

We will return very shortly with capsules on the leading men’s contenders at the US Open, followed by a similar sketch of the women’s contenders.

 

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Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Murray:  Divided into three distinct acts is the mini-rivalry between the heirs apparent to the thrones of Federer and Nadal.  In Act I, from 2006 to early 2008, Djokovic won all four of his meetings against the man exactly a week younger than him while losing only one set.  A whiplash-inducing Act II began at the 2008 Rogers Cup and extended through three consecutive victories by Murray until the end of 2010.  At this year’s Australian Open, Act III signaled Djokovic’s burgeoning ascendancy with an emphatic, barely competitive straight-sets victory for the Serb.  In arguably his best match of the season so far, the Scot thrust the world #1 to the brink of defeat during their Rome semifinal before failing to serve out the match and succumbing in a third-set tiebreak.  Will this Act continue, or will the curtain rise on Act IV in Cincinnati?

Throughout this narrative arc, its contours have depended on the state of Djokovic’s game and mind rather than Murray.  The more assertive figure in both playing style and personality, the world #1 dominated the fourth seed during his initial breakthrough period, struggled against him during what now seems a sophomore slump, and restored his mastery during a second, more sustained, and much more spectacular assault upon the sport’s pinnacle.  One scarcely can imagine Murray playing even more brilliantly than during the last two sets of that Rome semifinal, yet still he faltered at the encounter’s climax, a pattern repeated from a similarly outstanding performance against Nadal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Against an opponent bursting with confidence, the Scot must quell the latent negativity that has hindered him from winning a major or from consistently threatening the top three at majors.  Having not won a Masters 1000 hard-court match until this week, though, he now has an opportunity to deliver an imposing statement in a situation when he has little to lose and much to gain.  Not quite sensational in the earlier rounds, Murray nevertheless will have gained momentum from overcoming sweltering heat and patches of erratic form to overcome summer sensation Fish.  Probably the only rival who can match Djokovic backhand for backhand, the Scot also shares his talent for returning serves with depth and precision.  At the net, he surpasses the Serb for deftness and placement, although perhaps not in agility.  While few players defend more effectively than Murray, he also has shown an increased readiness to finish points when presented with a meek mid-court reply.

Separating Djokovic from his challenger, however, is his superiority in the two most critical shots of modern men’s tennis:  the serve and the forehand.  In the former area, he has balanced power with percentage more reliably and has developed a sense for when risks will reward, exposing his second serve less often than does the Scot.  In the latter department, the Serb has developed a long-time weapon into a more consistent, technically solid shot over the past year.  Unlike Murray, Djokovic can strike effortless winners from that wing without massaging the rally as meticulously beforehand.  Once infamous but now famous, his fitness rises nearly to a level that matches the Scot’s rigorous training program, which has proven a central ingredient in the latter’s 2009 title.  Nevertheless, the top seed will have felt relieved to have received a semifinal retirement for the second straight week, since Monfils had depleted his reserves of energy on Friday evening.  Scheduled for shortly after noon in Cincinnati’s August torpor, this final should test Djokovic’s fitness as much as did the Miami final this spring.

Perfect in his first nine finals of 2011, the world #1 aims to record his third pair of consecutive Masters 1000 titles this year.  In his last three North American hard-court finals, Djokovic battled through a tense three-set final against an inspired opponent.  Spectators should anticipate similarly stern resistance from an opponent seeking his most significant title in over a year.  While one finalist has gorged himself on trophies and glory in 2011, the other finalist has starved by his normally sparkling standards.  Against the virtually irresistible wave of momentum that has deluged the ATP this season, therefore, stands a competitor with the appetite and Masters 1000 pedigree to impede or perhaps bar the Serb’s path.   If he does, the ATP top three might become a Gang of Four once again.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 6

Sharapova vs. Jankovic:  Amidst perhaps the best odd-numbered year of her career to date, Sharapova eyes a fourth final at the tournament where she fell just a point short of the title last year.  Reaching consecutive finals in the 2007-08 Australian Opens, she erased her disappointment on the first occasion by capitalizing on her second opportunity against a much less intimidating opponent.  Despite losing five of her last six finals, including her last three in the United States, the three-time major champion will bring considerable confidence from her dominance over Jankovic.  Only once victorious over Sharapova, the Serb has lost all four of their hard-court meetings and retired from two of them, including the 2009 Tokyo final.  On the other hand, Jankovic has spent much of her week settling old scores against Schiavone (her conqueror at Roland Garros) and Petkovic (her conqueror in Miami and Stuttgart).  Generally at her best when she has something to prove, this former #1 has not won a title since Indian Wells 2010 but seemingly manages to win at least one significant tournament each season.  Her preceding breakthrough occurred in Cincinnati two years ago, indicating that the fast courts relished by Sharapova do not trouble the counterpunching Serb.

Once the most supple mover in the WTA, Jankovic has declined in that salient strength while improving her most notable flaw, her serve.  In the semifinal against Petkovic, she saved seven of eight break points, while her third-round victory over Schiavone featured several serves that effectively spun wide to open the court for her first groundstroke.  Not having played the Serb for nearly two years, the Tour’s leading returner may need to adjust to the improved pace of this stroke that she formerly devoured with impunity.  Breaking her opponents in more than half of their service games this season, Sharapova has relied upon an even more staggering rate (over 60%) in Cincinnati to compensate for the occasional stumble on serve.  Such stumbles usually have occurred at inconsequential moments during her victories over Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Zvonareva, whereas the unceasing pressure from her returns drew untimely double faults from the last two adversaries.  Encountering minimal adversity as she thundered through her first three matches, Sharapova suffered another of her inexplicable lulls in the first set of the semifinal but recovered immediately after consulting with her coach.  Buoyed by both his advice and his reassuring presence during his visits all season, this fiercely independent figure in fact may have gained as much from the WTA’s coaching experiment-turned-reality as any of her rivals.

Less impressive in finals than Sharapova, Jankovic reeled off eight of her twelve titles in 2007-08 during the stretch that witnessed her rise from outside the top 10 to year-end #1.  Although she has declined sharply since then, the Indian Wells and Cincinnati championship runs testify to her continued viability as a dark horse just outside the central corps of contenders.  One should not forget that the Serb with the glittering smile reached her only Slam final at the US Open three years ago, confirming her affinity for North American hard courts.  Almost as fond of fashion and glamor as her opponent on Sunday, the less intense Cincinnati atmosphere may have allowed her to focus upon tennis.  For much of the season, Jankovic looked disenchanted and lethargic during her matches, but that suspenseful triumph over Schiavone appeared to have reawakened some of her appetite for competition.  Like Sharapova, her most impressive and most reliable stroke remains her backhand, unleashed down the line and cross-court with equal vigor.  Both finalists thus will face a decision between constructing rallies around their stronger groundstroke or their opponent’s weaker wing, which mirrors their own.  More likely to redirect balls early in the point, Sharapova will seek to temper her aggression with a judicious sense of timing.  Maneuvered out of position more easily than in former years, Jankovic still covers the court more adeptly than any of the Russian’s earlier opponents.  Those defensive skills will test the consistency of Sharapova’s offensive barrage much as Sharapova’s penetrating blows will challenge the Serb’s counterpunching abilities, offering a valuable test for two divergent players as they prepare for New York.  While the 2006 US Open champion has bolstered her already legitimate status as a contender this year, the 2008 finalist has renewed her relevance at an unexpected moment.  When the scene shifts to the season’s last major, both will encounter elevated expectations and the attention that accompanies them.

***

We return to review the events in Cincinnati before launching the US Open preview series during the coming week.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Murray vs. Fish:  A day after his spirit-lifting first victory over Nadal, Fish now seeks to topple an elite opponent against whom he has enjoyed considerably greater success.  In fact, the American’s four triumphs over the world #4 include a scintillating quarterfinal victory at last year’s tournament.  That encounter climaxed with a third-set tiebreak during which Fish’s serving advantage proved decisive, earning him more free points than the Scot.  Unbroken by a weary Nadal, the home hope has not lost serve in the tournament on a slick surface that suits his aggressive style more than Murray’s counterpunching.  Nevertheless, the 2008 champion has struck his serve with authority during his last two matches and elevated his first-serve percentage in a routine victory over the dangerous Simon.  If Murray can retain that rhythm during his service games, he should gain the confidence necessary to seize the few opportunities that he earns on his opponent’s serve.  If his percentage falters, by contrast, the American’s ambitious return should punish one of the weakest second serves in the top 10.

Although Fish has won their last three encounters, his strengths should play into the Scot’s greatest weapons:  his returns and passing shots, among the finest in the ATP.  Striking forehands heavy on spin and light on power, both players possess more potent point-ending weapons from their two-handers, both of which can redirect the ball at will. Whereas Murray has played just four matches since Wimbledon, Fish already has clinched the US Open Series title by winning 14 of his 16 encounters this summer as he stands within one victory of a fourth straight final.  Likely to outlast the American from the baseline, the fourth seed has honed fitness still superior despite his opponent’s improvements in that area.  The length of the exchanges thus should hint at the outcome of this semifinal.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Near the halfway point of his quarterfinal against Monfils, the world #1 looked more vulnerable than he had for most of the season.  As unforced errors flew from even his reliable backhand, one sensed that his stirring streak at Masters 1000 tournaments would not survive an evening in which the Frenchman’s focus had not strayed.  But a double fault at 4-4 in the second set gave Djokovic the only opening that he would require to reverse the momentum, not relinquished thereafter.  Fortunate to escape the near-debacle, the top seed waxed in confidence during a formidable final set.  That confidence will serve him well against an opponent who has surrendered his serve only once this week, facing only a single break point in his last two matches and dropping just five first-serve points in an emphatic triumph over Federer.  Overwhelmed by Berdych at Wimbledon a year ago, Djokovic has swept their past four meetings and ten of their last eleven sets.  The Czech’s mighty serve can trouble even the Serb’s potent return for prolonged periods, though, resulting in two tiebreaks earlier this year.

Having conceded his own delivery no fewer than eight times in three matches, Djokovic must seek to improve that rate during the semifinal.  Repeatedly under pressure from Monfils, he preserved a steady percentage but found himself forced to play longer and more neutral rallies than usual in his service games.  After that enervating victory on Friday evening, the world #1 must collect himself before late Saturday afternoon in order to withstand Berdych’s penetrating first strike.  Although that task seems challenging in the torrid Ohio summer, Djokovic did regroup effectively from an even longer, more exhausting victory over Murray in Rome before defeating Nadal a day later.  He probably need not expend such vast reserves of energy against a player who does not win from counterpunching or endurance.  Several notches below his best on Friday, the Serb still navigated through a potentially perilous encounter with a top-10 foe.  Intimidating to all but his most formidable rivals, the aura of invincibility that he has accumulated this season has guarded him like a shield throughout the last two weeks.  Will Berdych have gained sufficient impetus from his best win of 2011 to puncture that shield?

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Sharapova vs. Zvonareva:  Among the sport’s most alert opportunists, Sharapova wasted little time in capitalizing upon Serena’s withdrawal from her section of the draw.  Yielding just five games apiece to two accomplished opponents, the Russian recaptured the thunderous returns and groundstrokes that propelled her to last year’s final.  Suffocated by her baseline bombardment, neither Kuznetsova nor Stosur held serve with adequate consistency to assert themselves against an adversary who minimized the inevitable lapses of her own serve.  Sharapova has broken opponents in 17 of 25 return games this week, often assaulting first serves with as much savagery as second serves.  Sturdy in the first sets of her victories, her serve faltered occasionally in the second set but did not fluster the three-time Slam champion or deplete her confidence on returns.  A respectable albeit not outstanding server, Zvonareva hopes to hold with greater frequency and can absorb her countrywoman’s first-strike velocity more effectively than her previous two victims.  On the other hand, Sharapova has won five of her last six meetings with the world #2 and served for the match in her only loss to Vera since 2004.

Winning Baku and reaching the final in San Diego, Zvonareva has thrust untimely defeats at Roland Garros and Wimbledon behind her as she prepares for the US Open.  Hampered by few flaws from the neck downwards, she can strike winners from both groundstroke wings, cover both the baseline and the forecourt with near-equal comfort, transition smoothly from defense to offense, and display a keen court sense when constructing points.  That last attribute can fade when her composure deserts her, though, as has happened too often in close matches against more accomplished opponents.   Since she covers the open court so effectively, Sharapova may attempt to hit behind her and force her to reverse direction, challenging footwork rather than foot speed.  Despite the recent trajectory of their rivalry, most of their sets have stayed highly competitive, generally decided by only a single break of serve.  When a set or match hinges upon a few key points, the player who trusts her tactics and execution more firmly holds the advantage.  That greater clarity of mind formerly has belonged to Sharapova, but her post-surgery serving struggles and Zvonareva’s 2010 breakthrough may have brought them to more similar levels of self-belief.

Petkovic vs. Jankovic:  Twice already have they met in 2011, with the higher-ranked but less familiar German emerging victorious both times.  Winning the first set resoundingly on both occasions, Jankovic lost the second set just as resoundingly and could not quite recover in a more competitive third set.  Gifted a quarterfinal walkover by Peng, the 2009 Cincinnati champion will profit from the respite as she attempts to rebound from the physically and emotionally draining marathon against Schiavone a day before.  Entering the tournament on a three-match losing streak, Jankovic appears ready to spring one of her sporadic, phoenix-like ascents to ambush a draw of unwary rivals, who nearly had forgotten her presence.  She no longer possesses the stirring tenacity that captivated international audiences, especially on clay, but her talent for producing the unexpected still beguiles.  Often inspired by evening sessions, she should relish the moment as much as her even more flamboyant opponent.

The first player ever to win an evening match from Sharapova at a major, Petkovic has displayed the swagger that shines under the lights.  Full of riveting twists and turns, breaks and break points were the two previous meetings between these natural entertainers, neither of whom dominates on their serve.  While Jankovic has enhanced her least formidable shot over the past year, she continues to rely more heavily upon her movement and timing.  Likewise among the WTA’s crisper movers, Petkovic strikes her groundstrokes with less spin and thus less margin for error but defends more effectively than one would expect for a player centered around offense.  All the same, the German will aim to dictate most of the rallies from the baseline, organizing points around the forehand where she enjoys a clear advantage over the Serb.  The former #1 will hope to pin Petkovic far behind the baseline, luring this relatively inexperienced opponent into low-percentage shot selection.  Seeking what would represent the most significant final of her career, the German must control her emotions should she maneuver herself into a promising position.

Rafael Nadal - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Nadal vs. Fish:  Having spent nearly five hours on court the day before, the second seed will find his powers of recovery severely tested if he seeks to continue his mastery over the top-ranked American. Burdened with a similar task in Chennai after an epic victory over Moya three years ago, Rafa faded quickly against Youzhny a day later.  Uncharacteristically erratic during much of his twelfth straight victory over Verdasco, Nadal now targets his seventh consecutive victory over Wimbledon quarterfinal victim Fish.  A finalist at his last three tournaments, the American regrouped swiftly from his Rogers Cup disappointment to conquer Davydenko and Gasquet without losing his serve in either match.  Failing to serve out a match against Benneteau, Nadal’s service frailty extended into his grinding battle with Verdasco.  In few other departments does Fish surpass the Spaniard, however, while the latter’s crackling passing shots will challenge him on approaches or serve-volley gambits.  Despite his improved stamina, he still cannot attempt to outrun or outmaneuver the Spaniard, as he should have learned in his Wimbledon loss.  Strikingly, though, the American’s most successful Masters 1000 tournament has proven Nadal’s least successful, the only event of this stature where he has not reached the final.  An unexpected loss to Baghdatis in a 2010 quarterfinal extended that futility and snapped an unbeaten streak against that distinctly inferior foe, whereas Fish’s second finals appearance here followed from victories over Murray and Roddick.  Nowhere else would he seem more likely to ambush Rafa, moreover, than on a fast hard court in his home nation with the ten-time major champion still searching for confidence.

Federer vs. Berdych:  Into their first meeting this year, both men will bring memories of their three notable collisions in 2010.  Bookending Berdych’s upset of Federer at Wimbledon, their two Masters Series encounters ended in third-set tiebreaks that they split in Miami and Toronto.  The two-time defending champion has looked arguably the most formidable player in the men’s draw this week, exacting revenge for his 2009 losses to Del Potro with superb serving.  Less remarkable was a predictably comprehensive victory over Blake that left the GOAT’s energies minimally depleted for Friday.  Yet Berdych also impressed by losing just four games in his last three sets, two of them against world #11 Almagro.  Still seeking his first Masters 1000 semifinal of the season, the Czech may feel liberated by the prospect of a second half in which he defends relatively few points.  Both players often rely on running around their backhands to strike inside-out forehands to the opponent’s backhand, so the battle for the middle of the baseline will prove critical.  Despite the Cincinnati humidity, Federer has looked especially agile and keen of instincts this week, while his effective returning of Del Potro’s serve bodes ill for Berdych.  Relying on that shot to set up his heavy groundstrokes, the eighth seed needs to assert himself early in rallies before Federer outmaneuvers him and disrupts his rhythm.

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Precisely a week ago, they met in a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup that scarcely felt like a battle between two top-10 players.  A battle it was not, in fact, for Djokovic won ten of the last eleven games from the disengaged Frenchman and improved his record against him to 7-0.  While the world #1 pockmarked the baseline with his groundstrokes, Monfils focused on entertaining the crowd the occasional improbable retrieval or dramatic, leaping smash.  Even more unpredictable than his compatriot Tsonga, he has begun to win the matches that he should win more often but continues to lose almost all of the matches that he should lose.  Clearly intimidated by Djokovic’s almost error-free play, Monfils lamented after last week’s debacle that he had no weapons with which to challenge the Serb.  A more accurate account would ascribe that outcome not to his lack of weapons but to his reluctance to use them.  Noted by former coach Roger Rasheed, Monfils’ curious passivity has prevented him from exploiting his offensive potential to the utmost, necessary against elite foes.  A casual, loose-limbed eccentric, he enjoys rallying endlessly from behind the baseline too much to finish points at the first opportunity or in a manner less than artistic.  Although still a pleasure to watch, Djokovic’s more functional, efficient style requires opponents to adopt a similarly determined, gritty mentality in order to challenge him—something of which Monfils rarely seems capable.

Simon vs. Murray:  Both preferring to defend rather than attack, these quarterfinalists display similarly symmetrical groundstrokes and an aversion to risk.  Relying on high-percentage shot selection and stingy consistency to frustrate Ferrer, Simon has vaulted into the threshold of the top 10 as he has distanced himself from the injuries that hampered him last season.  Quarterfinals in Dubai and Miami have accompanied two minor titles, telegraphing the Frenchman’s renewed presence just outside the elite group of contenders.  Losing his last six encounters with Murray, however, Simon has suffered from the disparity between their first serves.  When the Scot gains at least a modest success rate on that shot, he can prevent his service games from developing into the wars of attrition that the Frenchman’s service games often become.  When the percentage dips, the rest of his game can spiral downwards, as his opening win over Nalbandian illustrated.  Surely relieved to have avenged his Miami loss to Bogomolov, Jr. with a 12-ace barrage on Thursday, Murray needs a sturdy week in Cincinnati before the next Slam arrives.  He has much more to lose than to gain in this match, which suggests that tentative ball-striking might define it.  On the other hand, his nemeses typically overpower rather than outlast him, and Simon’s legs may have grown weary following consecutive three-setters filled with epic rallies.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 4

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  Winless in eight clashes with the statuesque Siberian, Stosur has found her indifferent backhand exposed and her kick serve neutralized by this opponent.  Normally jumping above the comfort level of most WTA returners, the latter shot leaps into Sharapova’s strike zone and allows her to hit down on the ball, flattening it into a powerful point-starting blow.  The three-time major champion has won the last nine sets that they have played by exploiting the asymmetry in Stosur’s groundstrokes, which contrasts with her weaponry on both wings.  After a third-round exit in Toronto, Sharapova recaptured glimpses of her spring form with a resounding victory over Kuznetsova, who has the innate athleticism and elastic movement that has troubled programmatic shot-makers like Maria.  Like that Roland Garros champion, the former Roland Garros finalist will hope to hit as many forehands as possible but must avoiding exposing too much court to her opponent’s lasers.  Unlike Kuznetsova, Stosur can create significant pressure with her opening shot, finishing points as swiftly and decisively as Sharapova does when she has the opportunity.  Since neither player wishes to spend the morning patrolling the baseline, most exchanges should end with an aggressive blow from one player or the other that permits her slow-footed opponent no time to restart the rally.  In two relatively uneventful victories this year, Sharapova delivered that terminal blow much more often than did Stosur, and decided the clear majority of points on her own terms.  On the fast surface where she reached the final last year, the WTA’s most fearsome returner will aim to assault both first and second serves, requiring the Aussie to summon all of the confidence accumulated during her run to the Rogers Cup final.

Hantuchova vs. Zvonareva:  Aided by Bartoli’s 16 double faults, Hantuchova nevertheless deserved credit for outlasting the tenacious double-fister in a match that lasted exactly three hours.  Dazzling in her two 2011 meetings with Zvonareva, the elegant Slovak halted the Russian’s title defense in Pattaya City before nearly forestalling her title run in Doha.  On both of those occasions, her clever angles tested Zvonareva’s lateral movement and drew her away from her safe haven along the baseline into uncomfortable positions.  Notoriously fragile in close matches, Hantuchova predictably faded late in the third set of their Doha thriller, and fatigue from Thursday might compromise her energy.  Meanwhile, the second seed has continued an encouraging post-Wimbledon surge with a pair of routine victories.  As she prepares to defend her US Open final, Zvonareva would benefit immensely from an impressive week in Cincinnati, where the fast courts would seem to undermine her naturally counterpunching style.  On the other hand, the relaxed atmosphere of the American Midwest may soothe her easily ruffled emotions, deflating whatever pressure she encounters.

Petrova vs. Petkovic:  Saturated with drama was their only previous encounter, which thundered into a third-set tiebreak at last year’s US Open.  Although her prime lies several years behind her, Petrova remains an occasionally formidable force on serve and at the net, skills that have aided her in doubles as well as singles.  Overcoming Ivanovic in the second round, the College Park champion can feel fortunate to have avoided Wozniacki a round later, dispatching the Dane’s latest nemesis with scant difficulty.  Unlike her opponent, Petkovic fought her way to this quarterfinal over compelling opposition in Gajdosova and Wimbledon champion Kvitova, whom she has defeated in consecutive weeks after struggling against her early in 2011.  Neither the Russian nor the German plays with much margin for error, suggesting that viewers will see significant quantities of unforced errors if their timing falters.  While Petkovic rarely has earned the opportunity to reach a semifinal at an event of this significance, Petrova will realize that she can expect few more such chances as her career wanes.  More dominant from her forehand than her backhand, the world #11 will aim to target her opponent’s forehand, less reliable than her two-hander.  The stolid veteran and the cheeky upstart should offer an intriguing contrast of personalities in a match that should prove well-contested and compelling, if not star-studded or aesthetically picturesque.

Peng vs. Jankovic:  Doubtless buoyed by her three-set triumph over Schiavone, Jankovic showcased some of her finest tennis this season, including imaginatively angled passing shots, alert anticipation, and timely serving (although facing 19 break points).  Although she twice failed to serve out the match against the indomitable Italian, the former #1 ultimately reveled in avenging her reverse at this opponent’s hands in Roland Garros.  More revenge might lie ahead with Australian Open conqueror Peng aligned to intercept the Serb, but Jankovic has lost their only two meetings since 2008.  Victorious in their six preceding encounters, however, she smothered Peng with her balanced groundstrokes and a court coverage that comfortably withstood the Chinese star’s meager power.  Amidst the most impressive season of her career, the world #15 has achieved that career-high ranking by winning nearly 50 matches not long after the year’s midpoint.  Peng typically bombards the center of the baseline with her groundstrokes, attempting to elicit errors from opponents pressed into a position that prevents them from creating angles.   Not likely to succumb to such a tactic when at her best, though, Jankovic more often relies upon similarly heavy north-south hitting that wears down the durability and patience of her victims.  Once again flashing her signature smile towards the end of her hard-earned Schiavone victory, the 2009 Cincinnati champion has not won a title this year after having won at least one notable tournament in each of the previous four seasons.  Can Jankovic muster just enough momentum to unleash an unexpected charge here?

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland holds the trophy after defeating Mardy Fish during the finals on Day 7 of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters at the Lindner Family Tennis Center on August 22, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A week after audacious saboteurs tore down the towers of the sport, will Cincinnati more closely resemble the usual blueprints?  The last significant event before the US Open, it will play an especially crucial role this year as contenders who lost early in Toronto strive to accumulate valuable pre-major preparation.  Meanwhile, though, the Serenovak juggernaut rolls on to another city with accelerating speed, causing one to wonder whether anyone can blunt its momentum before New York.  (On the other hand, does the Djoker really fancy that hideous trophy above?)

First quarter:  A semifinalist in consecutive weeks at Atlanta and Los Angeles, Ryan Harrison will bring that momentum into Cincinnati—and a probable second-round encounter with an opponent who has lost only one match this year.  Also in this area lurk Washington champion Stepanek and Atlanta runner-up Isner, who has come within a point of defeating two different top-10 opponents this summer.   Situated near Wimbledon conqueror Feliciano Lopez, Roddick begins his recovery from his most recent injury against Kohlschreiber, often remembered for his five-set victory over the American at the 2008 Australian Open.  From a champion in Los Angeles to a qualifier in Cincinnati, Gulbis displayed uncharacteristic perseverance in emerging from the pre-event to arrange a main-draw meeting with Dodig.  Anchoring the section is Washington runner-up Monfils, a disappointment in his Rogers Cup quarterfinal against Djokovic when he appeared to tank after losing the first set.   But none of these hopefuls, veterans, or dangerous floaters appears likely to ambush the top seed should he arrive at the year’s seventh Masters 1000 tournament in peak condition.  Often bothered by the heat before, Djokovic succumbed to Roddick in a listless quarterfinal here last year.  His improvements in diet, fitness, and mental staying power encourage greater optimism this time, as do the distinctly fallible, one-dimensional opponents around him.  Nevertheless, Cincinnati has halted the momentum of many an ambitious Rogers Cup champion before.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  After the two-time defending champion in Canada dropped his opener, the two-time defending champion in Cincinnati could fare likewise against Del Potro.  Eyeing this formidable opening task, Federer must regroup from his consecutive losses to Tsonga, who overpowered the Swiss legend much as Del Potro did in their 2009 meetings at the US Open and the year-end championships.  A baseliner rather than a net-rusher like Tsonga, though, the Argentine did not impress in straight-sets losses to Gulbis and Cilic in Los Angeles and Montreal, respectively.  Formerly at his best during the summer hard-courts, he appears to have regressed from a spring in which he won two titles, and he has not defeated a notable opponent other than Soderling during his comeback.  Federer should ease through the third round much more comfortably this week against either the decaying Blake or the spineless Troicki, but an intriguing test could await in the quarterfinals.  Battling Berdych in three memorable meetings last year, the third seed suffered stinging defeats in Miami and Wimbledon before claiming a measure of revenge in a Rogers Cup thriller.  Before reaching Federer, the Czech must maneuver past the inflammable Almagro or perhaps Karlovic.  While Berdych theoretically should win those matches, he routinely lost an equally winnable quarterfinal to Tipsarevic in Canada.  Also complicating Federer’s path to a record-extending fifth Cincinnati title is his summer preparation.  Rather than train in scorching Dubai, he chose to stay in temperate Switzerland, a decision that benefited his children but may remove the fitness advantage that he long had held over his rivals in the torrid Ohio summer.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Third quarter:  Like all of the Big Four outside Djokovic, Murray faces the task of rebounding from a severely disappointing week.  A crossroads for the fatalistic Scot, Cincinnati either could mire him deeper in  what could become a post-Wimbledon hangover—or it could lift him out of his doldrums in time to inspire a deep run in New York.  Still seeking his first victory at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this season, Murray aims to snap that winless streak against Nishikori or Nalbandian, both more dangerous than some of his  previous 2011 Masters nemeses.  His rocky path will steepen further against the winner of a fascinating encounter between Tsonga and Cilic, assuming that a Montreal injury does not hamper the Frenchman.  Although he possesses 5-1 records against each of those heavy servers, Murray has struggled to defuse them on stages such as Wimbledon or the US Open.  Absent from the Rogers Cup, the ever-grinding, ever-unassuming Ferrer should flourish in the Cincinnati heat, as should his equally indefatigable third-round opponent Gilles Simon.  Entrenched in the top 10 when the season began, Melzer has drifted back into his familiar position of ambush artist and now hopes to unsettle the Frenchman in the first round.  Should Murray maneuver into the quarterfinals, he should gain confidence from his hard-court mastery over Ferrer.  Whether he will arrive there seems open to doubt, though.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  A player who relies upon match practice to prepare for a major, Nadal got little of it in Canada and thus must hope to compensate for that lack here.  Curiously, he might open against Garcia-Lopez or Benneteau, the former of whom defeated the reigning US Open champion on a hard court in 2010 and the latter of whom came within a point of doing so.  Wedged into his compatriot’s section once again, Verdasco will open Monday’s action by contesting an all-lefty battle with Bellucci, whose victory over him on clay this spring underscored the Spaniard’s woefulness this year.  Seeking to repeat his epic Rogers Cup victory over Youzhny, Llodra adds another lefty to this section but not a Rafa-upset threat.  Instead, the most probable challenge to the Spaniard’s semifinal route will come from three-time US Open Series finalist Fish, who bravely battled Djokovic in Canada before falling short yet again.  That disappointment appeared to weigh heavily upon the top-ranked American and may have drained him emotionally before a tournament where he twice has charged within a set of the title.  Lurking in his vicinity are Murray-killer Kevin Anderson and Federer-killer Gasquet.  Neither of them has both the weapons and versatility of the world #7, yet either could exploit a day when his serve dips or his feet grow sluggish.  Solving Fish in all six of their meetings, albeit only once in the last three years, Nadal probably will not stumble against him here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

At the Rogers Cup trophy presentation, Fish playfully teased Djokovic that the rest of the tour has “gotten tired” of the Serb’s supremacy.  Just as playfully, Djokovic retorted “I’m not getting tired of this.”  Until the top seed and undisputed king of the ATP hill does,…

Champion:  Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Kim Clijsters (R) of Belgium and Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with their individual trophies during the singles final match on day seven of the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open on August 15, 2010 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

First quarter:  After a modest first half in 2010, Wozniacki caught fire at the stage of this season and lost only two matches thereafter.  Having suffered a demoralizing loss to Vinci in her Rogers Cup opener, the great Dane should experience few difficulties with the inexperienced McHale or the underpowered Pironkova, virtually just a Wimbledon threat.  Forestalled in Toronto, a potential third-round meeting with Ivanovic could occur in Cincinnati, but poised to repeat her upsets one or both of the glamor girls is Vinci once again.  Wimbledon champion Kvitova may pursue revenge against Canada conqueror Petkovic, who built upon her San Diego semifinal with a quarterfinal last week.   Intelligently deconstructing the erratic Czech, the WTA’s lead dancer may find her swagger tested by the imposing serve of Gajdosova, who won a set from her earlier this year.  Of minor note in a section of three Slam champions and perhaps a future champion in Petkovic, Rebecca Marino possesses a thunderous serve that might trouble even Kvitova if her percentage stays high.  Kvitova pummeled Wozniacki at Wimbledon this year but has proved as inconsistent as the Dane has stayed steady (at least until recently).  Should they collide, one might favor the more businesslike Wozniacki in the unremarkable environment of Cincinnati, yet the fast courts should tilt in Kvitova’s favor.  A similar dynamic would define a potential meeting between the top seed and Petkovic, who conquered her in Miami.

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

Second quarter:  Bookended by a pair of flamboyant competitors, this section could several clashes of personalities.  Projected to reprise their Roland Garros duel are the counterpunching, movement-centered styles of Jankovic and Schiavone, both of whom have looked as flat as the American Midwest since the clay season.  On the other hand, Julia Goerges will fancy her chances of repeating last week’s thrashing of the former #1, her only win so far in the US Open Series.  More impressive this summer than her countrywoman, Lisicki followed her outstanding grass-court campaign with a Stanford semifinal before threatening Zvonareva in San Diego.  Absent from Toronto, she arrives more rested than her peers and certainly more confident than Peer, her first-round opponent.  A battle of blondes could occur in the second round between Lisicki and Azarenka, who restored order following her opening-round Stanford loss.  While falling to Serena in a routine semifinal, Vika nevertheless showcased sparkling groundstrokes and an improved sense of point construction that would have served her better against an opponent with a less overpowering serve.   If she can tame Lisicki’s similarly mighty delivery, she should advance more comfortably into a winnable quarterfinal.  More powerful than Schiavone, more motivated than Jankovic, and more consistent than Goerges, Azarenka may find that her path grows more accommodating rather than less as the week unfolds.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  How many more matches does Serena need before New York?  The answer appears to be zero, judging from her 11-match winning streak since her Wimbledon loss, and one wonders whether her focus will start to drift in her third preparatory event.  On the other hand, her champion-stuffed quarter might inspire Serena’s energies even if her brain counsels caution.  As early as the second round, the American might collide again with Sunday victim Stosur, while Roland Garros champion Li Na could await a match later.  Like Kvitova, Li may continue to struggle with adjusting to her sharply elevated status, especially outside China.  Desultory in her Rogers Cup loss, she has faltered often against both Serena and Stosur, who should prefer the faster Cincinnati courts.  Meanwhile, Sharapova will anticipate the daunting prospect of a second quarterfinal against the American in three tournaments.  Fallible this summer, the Wimbledon runner-up needs a momentum boost to catapult her into stronger contention at the US Open.  Fellow Russian Slam champion Kuznetsova could await in her second match, having won four of their nine previous meetings and a set from Maria here last year.  Whereas this season has witnessed a Sharapova resurgence, Sveta’s promising start has given way to deepening doldrums.  Just when one discounts her, though, she tends to deliver something remarkable.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Fourth quarter:  Among the most surprising upsets early in Toronto was the demise of Bartoli, who, like Sharapova, had surged through impressive fortnights at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  The Stanford runner-up  coped with the heat better than one might have expected last year, defeating Wozniacki before falling to recurrent nemesis Sharapova.  Also impressive during the European spring, Hantuchova should encounter last year’s semifinalist Pavlyuchenkova in the second round in a battle of inspired shot-makers and indifferent movers.  Following her horrific week of 53 double faults in Baku, the Russian aims to recapture the promise that she displayed against Zvonareva and Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Dormant since reaching an Indian Wells semifinal, the 17th-seeded Wickmayer has struggled to curb her emotions under pressure but still owns an authoritative serve-forehand combinations reminiscent of Stosur and a natural athleticism reminiscent of Kuznetsova.  Resting rather meekly at the base of this draw, Zvonareva burst from a spring skid to reach the San Diego final before fading with consecutive losses to Radwanska.  In her last tournament before defending her 2010 US Open final appearance, the Russian needs all of the confidence that she can accumulate in order to steel herself for the scrutiny and pressure of New York.  Opening against one of two lefties, Martinez Sanchez or Makarova, Vera must impose her baseline rhythm upon their arrhythmic style.  Zvonareva may have caught a bit of luck in avoiding Jankovic, replaced by Wickmayer after Radwanska’s withdrawal, and she has enjoyed repeated success against Bartoli, including a Miami victory this year.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

In 2008, Serena swept consecutive tournaments in Bangalore, Miami, Charleston, a stretch during which she defeated five different top-five opponents.  A triple crown here would represent a feat no more impressive, especially since executed on the same surface (her favorite) and the same continent (where she lives).  The voice of reason says “Serena can’t win so many consecutive matches so early in her comeback.”  The voice of instinct says “When she plays at this level, who can beat her?”

Champion:  S. Williams (or Azarenka over Zvonareva in the final if she withdraws)

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

At the verge of victory, the pressure suddenly descended on Novak Djokovic.  Even after his stunning Wimbledon title, and even after he took a 40-0 lead in the final game, the new #1 visibly tightened when he stepped to the service notch at triple championship point.  A forehand plunked into the net, a point-stopping challenge turned against him, a second serve trickled off the net into a near-double fault, and another routine forehand floated aimlessly well over the baseline.  As the three championship points melted away, Djokovic’s ball bounces multiplied and his typically penetrating groundstrokes fell shorter and shorter inside the court, sometimes barely beyond the service line.  The sunless Montreal sky glowered down at him, ominously reminiscent of the Paris evening when he suffered his only loss of this superhuman season.  Meanwhile, the enterprising, still hopeful Fish refused to donate a match-ending error, defying his reputation for erratic play.  When Djokovic missed his first serve at deuce and settled into another protracted point, an implausible comeback started to seem plausible. But after an anxiety-laden exchange from both sides of the net, Fish finally sailed a standard backhand—his strength—over the baseline.  That one glimpse of fallibility sealed his fate, for the Serb capitalized upon his second chance with an unreturnable first serve.  In a week when he faced none of his leading rivals, Djokovic’s main challenge ultimately came from within.  Just as impressive as his nervelessness on occasions like his Wimbledon victory this summer was his ability to subdue and survive his nerves when a match tottered on the brink of turning against him.

Suffering yet another gallant defeat in a Masters 1000 final, Fish nevertheless consolidated his status as the tour’s top-ranked American.  In fact, his steady reliance on fundamentals and businesslike demeanor reminded us of his predecessor during his most dangerous years.  Not the most colorful or exciting player to watch, he can rattle the premier contenders with his rare net-rushing style and unpredictable shot-making from both groundstroke wings (Whether he can actually win against them remains an open question, though.)  Unless Roddick rebounds to shine in Cincinnati, Fish clearly has transcended his compatriot and will become the home nation’s principal standard-bearer at the US Open.  Like Schiavone and Li in the WTA, his late-career surge should inspire other chronic underachievers to redouble their efforts in the hope of future rewards.  On the

Crowned in Toronto was a champion ranked much lower than Djokovic but equally expected to collect the title.  Similar to many of her most memorable title charges, Serena’s tournament started modestly with three-setters against Zheng and Safarova before accelerating into commanding performances against Azarenka and Stosur.  Since she might well face the former late in the US Open, her nearly flawless semifinal performance especially dazzled.  Following her success at the relatively minor tournament in Stanford, we still wondered whether Serena could maintain that form into New York and against her leading challengers.  Toronto advanced some distance towards answering that question, confirming the American’s status as the favorite to capture another US Open.  Like Djokovic, however, Serena never faced most of the players whom one might expect to bar her path in New York.  The central storylines of these two tournaments consisted of the astonishing upset epidemic that had convulsed both draws by Wednesday and Thursday.  Beyond Djokovic and Serena, almost none of the familiar names remained immune.  The rest of this article considers the most notable ambushes of the week and their possible impact on the tournaments ahead.

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

Murray (l. to Anderson):  Had he lost two tiebreaks to Kevin Anderson, the towering South African’s upset would look less stunning.  But instead Murray won just four games from an opponent whom he had routed in a previous meeting.  Like Wozniacki, the Scot looked uncomfortable in almost every department of the game, even his normally seamless movement and crisp backhand.  The loss marked a third opening-match exit at Masters 1000 tournaments this year, departing alarmingly from his usual excellence at these events and especially on North American hard courts.  Fortunately for Murray, the concurrent stumbles of Nadal and Federer diminished what otherwise would have seemed a confirmation of the gulf separating him from the top three.  Nevertheless, the Scot risks losing the momentum accumulated during the clay and grass seasons if he allows this loss to deepen the gloom of his Wimbledon disappointment and produce a malaise similar to his post-Australian Open slumps.  Also like Wozniacki, he needs a noteworthy week in Cincinnati to convince himself that he can contend in New York and validate his recent commitment to a more aggressive mentality.

Wozniacki (l. to Vinci):  In March, the world #1 looked on the verge of justifying her ranking after she had come within a point of the Australian Open final and won the year’s first Premier Mandatory tournament at Indian Wells.  Five months later, pre-quarterfinal losses at Roland Garros and Wimbledon punctuated a disappointing European spring of stagnation or even regression.  When the battlefields shifted back to hard courts again, Wozniacki desperately needed an infusion of positive energy.  She didn’t get it.  Squandering a 5-1 lead against Roberta Vinci in her Toronto opener, she unleashed an uncharacteristic string of double faults and then just as uncharacteristically assisted an anxious Vinci with unforced errors when she served for the upset.  The setback heightened the ongoing debate over her (un)worthiness to hold the top ranking and turned Cincinnati into a vital week for her before the US Open.  Renowned for dominating this level of tournament and consistently suppressing the rank-and-file of the WTA during her ascent to #1, Wozniacki can ill afford to start opening the door just as those below her grow more confident and others in her generation (see K for Kvitova) start breaking through at majors.

Clijsters (ret. vs. Zheng):  Winning the only completed set that she played in Canada, the Belgian fell victim not to an opponent but to her fourth injury of 2011.  Gone from Cincinnati but “hopeful” for the US Open, she aims to recover from an ailing wrist, ankle, shoulder, and abdomen in time to defend her title.  When she enters New York, she will have played only three matches since Miami and will lack the rhythm upon which she relies.  Clijsters won the US Open as just the third tournament of her comeback, but rust posed a far different and far more easily solved problem than the myriad injuries encircling her.  In order to mount a creditable title defense, she will need a comfortable draw free of dangerous floaters, but the odds of her battered body surviving the fortnight in prime condition look slim.

Zvonareva (l. to Radwanska):  Conquered by Radwanska in straight sets for the second consecutive week, Vera floundered helplessly on her serve this week but still should not have lost twice to an opponent like the Pole on a hard court.  When she won her first nine matches at Wimbledon, one wondered whether she had emerged from the rollercoaster of the last few months.  An error-strewn final in San Diego suggested otherwise, and an early loss in Canada continued her 2011 pattern of underachieving at significant events.  Having fallen in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense, her US Open finals defense looks equally precarious.  On the other hand, Zvonareva collided with an opponent enjoying one of the most successful stretches of her career, hardly an anonymous journeywoman like several of this week’s other ambush artists.  The top-three ranking also probably inflates her status and thus the magnitude of her defeats.

Maria Sharapova - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Sharapova (l. to Voskoboeva):  Just 2-2 in the US Open Series, the Russian appears to have witnessed the climax of her spring surge at the Wimbledon final.  In her four hard-court matches this summer, Sharapova soared through a few brilliant passages but recurrently sank into mediocre and sometimes abysmal stretches.  Often subdued in manner at the Rogers Cup, she may still have felt the sting of her sixth straight loss to Serena.  Moreover, her motivation may have ebbed following her outstanding European campaign.  During her comeback, Sharapova has relied more than ever upon determination and willpower to propel her through matches.  Without those traits, her diminished serve and low margin for error leave her vulnerable to anyone on a day when she lacks her competitive will.  The three-time major champion has suffered much more discouraging reverses over the past few years, however, and has sprung back eventually from each of them with redoubled vigor.  For the post-surgery Sharapova, streakiness has become a way of life, leading to both equally stunning heights and depths.

Nadal (l. to Dodig):  Not since 2008 had the Spaniard fallen in his opening match at a Slam or Masters 1000 tournament, although Isner had startled him in the first round of Roland Garros.  While Ivan Dodig delivered the performance of a lifetime, Nadal routinely has survived the mightiest thunderbolts that ordinary adversaries can hurl at him.  Dominant through a set and a half, the second seed let an opponents escape a one-set deficit for the fourth time this season, causing one to wonder whether his five losses to Djokovic have drained his morale more generally.  But beware of extrapolating too much from a single setback.  After Nadal last lost an opener at a Masters 1000 tournament, he rebounded to win not only the next Masters event but the next two majors, a run culminating with the unforgettable Wimbledon 2008 final.  Inadequate preparation stemming from a nagging foot injury also may have undermined him when the match drifted deep into the Montreal night.

Li (l. to Stosur):  Following her surprise appearance in the Australian Open final, she failed to win a match until the clay season.  Following her even more surprising run to the Roland Garros title, a parallel hangover has ensued that has exacerbated the inconsistency inherent throughout Li’s career.  Although Stosur eventually reached the final, the sixth seed should have found a way to win more than six games in a match when she played “like a junior,” by her own admission.  All the same, one can easily forgive her this lapse when one considers the degree to which her life has changed off the court since that Sunday in Paris.  Projected to become the second-highest-earning woman in sports, Li may not adjust to her new celebrity status for months to come.  If the season ended today, she still would be the WTA player of the year, followed closely by the next name on this list.

Kvitova (l. to Petkovic):  Much like Li, the sudden surge in her renown likely will distract her in the coming tournaments.  First among her peers to claim a major title, Kvitova came down to earth with a thud as she collected just three games from Petkovic, whom she had defeated comfortably in the Brisbane final.  The defeat exposed her lack of versatility or alternatives when her formidable weapons misfire, but one could say the same about most of her offense-oriented peers.  If Kvitova accomplishes nothing the rest of the year, she still has accomplished more than almost all of her rivals, and the recognition of that fact may understandably sap her motivation.

Federer (l. to Tsonga):  For the second time in two tournaments, the GOAT looked listless, tentative, and often disinterested against Tsonga’s assertive physicality.  One might have expected him to vigorously seek revenge for his unprecedented Wimbledon defeat after holding a two-set lead.  Instead, Federer wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of a first set that he ultimately lost, and he oddly vanished after rallying to force a third set, when the momentum lay in his favor.  But only one position in the rankings matters to Federer in his fourth decade, and only four tournaments on the calendar. Three years ago, he lost his opening match at the Rogers Cup to the then-unfamiliar Gilles Simon, an opponent much less accomplished than Tsonga.  A month afterwards, he held the US Open trophy.

***

We return shortly with the previews of the Cincinnati tournament, the last major event before the last major of 2011.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Fish:  Halfway through this historic season, the world #1 aims to break another record and become the first player to win five Masters 1000 titles in one year.  In each of his previous four title runs, Djokovic contested at least one compelling three-setter against opponents such as Nadal, Federer, and Ferrer.  By contrast, this week has witnessed the emergence of no serious challengers for the Serb after the first set of his first match.  Recovering from a deep deficit to win that set, Djokovic has lost his serve only once thenceforth and has displayed little tension in his three successive straight-sets victories.  The raised eyebrows and bemused shrugs of Monfils and Tsonga, two spectacularly gifted Frenchmen, demonstrated not only the degree to which the Serb has risen above the competition but also the degree to which he intimidates even high-quality foes.  Having won all six of his meetings with his opponent in the final, the tournament seems headed towards an anticlimactic conclusion.

Or will it?  For his part, Fish has reached three consecutive finals for the first time in his career and will contest his fourth Masters 1000 final.  On these relatively fast hard courts, Fish has executed his serve-reliant style to excellent effect and more often than not has attacked the net at judicious moments.  (In an upset-riddled draw, however, Fish has defeated no opponent more imposing than Wawrinka, far from a hard-court threat.)  During the Indian Wells final three years ago, moreover, the top-ranked American rebounded from a lopsided first set to alarm the Serb’s fans by extending him to a final set.  Likewise unruffled by facing Federer in last year’s Cincinnati final, he came within a tiebreak of what then would have seemed a stunning upset before suffering another gallant defeat.  Nevertheless, in a sport where outcomes still matter most, the key word remains “defeat.”  A dismal 6-13 in championship matches, Fish rarely has summoned his finest tennis on Sundays but instead has contributed to his conqueror’s cause with untimely unforced errors or unwise shot selection.  Most tellingly, Fish’s most impressive tournament in 2011 halted with a lopsided loss at the hands of the Serb.  Having defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinal, the American clawed just four games away from Djokovic despite earning multiple opportunities to play an active role in their encounter.

In order to inflict the second loss of Djokovic’s season, therefore, Fish probably must hope for a fallible performance from the top seed.  Victorious in all eight of his finals this year, the Serb faces an opponent outside the top five for just the second time on a championship Sunday.  He has dropped just one of his last 63 matches to opponents in that category, a tribute to a versatile game that lacks any element upon which an adversary can prey.  When battling Federer, opponents know to attack his backhand; when dueling with Nadal, they can expect vulnerability on his serve.  Somewhere between solid and stunning in every department, meanwhile, Djokovic can combat Fish’s outstanding serve with one of the ATP’s finest returns, the product of agile footwork and reflexes.  Also essential in this final for the Serb is his movement and his passing shots, for the American will stand little chance in a contest of protracted exchanges from behind the baseline.   As Tsonga learned in the semifinals, however, only commanding approach shots can prevent Djokovic from finding an angle to force a difficult volley attempt.  All the same, Fish can rely on the underdog’s nervelessness and remind himself that he has nothing to lose, perhaps allowing him to swing more freely.  If he can stay within range in the early stages, the Serb might feel pressure from the unfamiliar situation of playing a close match.  Should Djokovic gain an early lead, conversely, he almost certainly will not allow the American a second life, as he did in their Indian Wells final.  An increasingly inexorable front-runner when he holds the advantage, the Serb still has not suffered a dip in motivation as he seeks to continue his march into history.

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Serena vs. Stosur:  Terminating the nine-match winning streak of the San Diego champion in the semifinals, the suddenly resurgent Stosur attempts to terminate the ten-match winning streak of the Stanford champion in the final.  Their past encounters offer the Aussie reason for hope, especially a Roland Garros quarterfinal last year.  Despite the magnitude of both the stage and the opponent, Stosur summoned the courage to outplay Serena on crucial points deep in the third set, normally when the 13-time Slam champion becomes most dangerous.   Also inspiring hope in her supporters is a three-set victory during the 2009 US Open Series at Stanford, which marked her first breakthrough against an opponent from whom she previously had won sets.  Since losing the opening set of her tournament to Morita, Stosur has lost her serve only three times in the eleven sets thereafter, subjecting her opponents to immense pressure on their own service games.

Better equipped than any other potential opponent to handle that pressure, however, is the most formidable server in the WTA.  Against the outstanding return game of Azarenka, Serena faced only two total break points and rarely trailed in a service game.  Just when the fourth seed seemed on the verge of asserting herself early in the second set, Serena cruised through a service game in which she hit only one groundstroke (a routine forehand into the open court) together with two aces and a service winner.  Typically associated only with the ATP, that sort of overwhelming serving has worn down opponents mentally as much as physically.  One could observe even the highly accomplished Belarussian grow progressively more discouraged until she finally capitulated.  Not much less impressive, Serena’s second-serve return has unleashed a cascade of flagrant winners throughout this tournament, so Stosur either must aim for a high first-serve percentage or add ample kick to her second serve.  Considering the American’s modest stature, that kick serve could prove one of the keys to the final if it consistently veers above her favored strike zone.  Yet in few other areas does the Aussie have weapons that can trouble Serena.  More balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Serena should find ways to target her opponent’s backhand and perhaps stretch her wide to the forehand in order to expose the backhand corner.  In the semifinal, though, she curiously directed the majority of her groundstrokes towards her opponent’s stronger wing—the backhand—and still managed to prevail while matching strength with strength.

Although both players prefer the staccato, first-strike tennis that showcases their imposing power, Serena probably has a slight edge in movement and defense.  As she smothered Azarenka, spectators could notice that she often forced the Belarussian to hit an additional shot or two when the rally’s conclusion seemed foregone.  Whereas the fourth seed could not always finish those points, the 13-time Slam champion almost invariably finished when she had the opportunity.  That type of focused, precise play should allow Serena to exploit the occasional crack in Stosur’s serve when it does arise and edge past an opponent who, like Fish, rarely finds her highest level in finals.  Juxtaposed with the American’s sparkling 38-14 record in championship tilts is a statistic that illustrates her opponent’s contrasting fecklessness on those occasions.  A finalist ten times but a titlist just twice, Stosur has not acquired the mixture of scorching intensity and steel focus that champions like Serena personify.

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We return shortly with Cincinnati previews and a review of the most memorable upsets in Canada.

Samantha Stosur - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Stosur vs. Radwanska:  Seeking her tenth straight victory, the deceptively unprepossessing Pole already has defeated consecutive top-10 opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  A champion in San Diego, Radwanska surprisingly won her only hard-court meeting Stosur, whose far superior serve should allow her to assert early control over their exchanges.  In her four wins so far this week, the slumping Australian conquered a series of versatile opponents from the counterpunching of Morita to the shot-making of Li Na to the craftiness of Vinci.  After she rallied from a one-set deficit in her opener, Stosur has not lost her serve in her last seven sets this week while saving 11 break points.  One senses that the loss of her lofty status may have allowed her to relax and focus on fundamentals by removing the spotlight that appeared to unhinge her over the past year.

Against an opponent who has registered 33 consecutive holds, Radwanska will shoulder the weighty burden of protecting a delivery that rarely reaches triple digits in speed and has decelerated further following a shoulder injury last week.  Facing 18 break points in two sets against Zvonareva, the Pole relied on her return game in a 13-break encounter.  The prospect of matching Stosur hold for hold seems a daunting task indeed under those circumstances, although the balance of power will tip in her favor should she survive the Australian’s potent first strike.  In neutral rallies, she can vary her shot selection, target her opponent’s erratic two-handed backhand, and expose her clumsy footwork.  Despite striking few winners, she has developed a knack for placing her shots in unexpectedly awkward locations.  With many more arrows in her quiver, Radwanska will hope that her all-court prowess can disrupt Stosur’s programmatic point construction and unsettle her mind.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Between two Australian Opens in 2009 and 2010, these ferocious combatants engaged in four noteworthy battles.  In Act I, Azarenka kept the greatest player of her generation pinned behind the baseline for a set before the heat caused her retirement.  Trading lopsided victories in Acts II and III, the brazen Belarussian devoured an injured Serena at Miami and then succumbed to an overpowering assault by the four-time Wimbledon champion at the All England Club.  Most intriguing of all, though, was Act IV at the following year’s Australian Open, when Azarenka thrust the former #1 to the brink of the precipice—a situation in which she often has thrived.  Once again, Serena roared back from 4-6, 0-4, deuce to claim the critical second-set tiebreak and sweep through a commanding third set.  This Rogers Cup semifinal, the third of Azarenka’s career, represents the sequel to that memorable rollercoaster of court-stretching rallies and furiously flourished fists.

Conceding just six games in six sets this week, the fourth seed has become the only member of the WTA top 10 to reach the semifinals.  Gifted with an especially accommodating draw, Vika has encountered less intense opposition than Serena, forced to rally from one-set deficits on consecutive nights against Zheng and Safarova.  Not quite the invincible force of nature that she seemed at Stanford, the 13-time Slam champion has endured a few more precarious service games in Toronto as well as more frequent stretches of errors caused by lingering rust.  Two weeks ago, she perceptibly sharpened her focus when elite competition barred her path, however, pinpointing the lines with greater precision and arranging her feet more meticulously.  Just a month removed from her first Wimbledon semifinal, Azarenka has enjoyed the most impressive season of her career thus far, so Serena cannot escape a tentative, diffident, or uneven performance.  The American has shown her trademark appetite for competition, augmented by her enforced absence, but one wonders whether her prolonged encounters from the past two days will have exacted a physical toll.

Mardy Fish Mardy Fish celebrates match point against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 11, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Fish vs. Tipsarevic:  Overshadowed by the evening semifinal, this battle of contrasting personalities will supply a first-time finalist for the Rogers Cup.  Yet Fish has reached three finals at Masters 1000 tournaments in North America before, whereas Tipsarevic contests the first Masters 1000 semifinal of his career.  Lately, the Serb has gained almost as much notoriety for his off-court adulation of his countryman Djokovic as for his on-court achievements, although he has reached finals at the minor events in Delray Beach and Eastbourne.  Earning his third consecutive victory over Berdych, Tipsarevic burnished his reputation as a perpetual thorn in the side of more notable foes.  In consecutive three-set victories over Gulbis and Wawrinka, Fish displayed occasional frailty on serve before escalating his intensity towards the conclusion of those matches.  Broken five times in the first two sets by the Swiss #2, he will want to find the rhythm on his serve sooner against an opponent more alert to punish a mediocre performance.

On the other hand, the top-ranked American navigated a route to victory despite the unreliability of his mightiest weapon, suggesting his ability to seek alternate options and improvise during a match.  Following an Atlanta title and a Los Angeles final, a final at this much more prestigious tournament would heighten Fish’s self-belief before his home major.  Still deferential towards Roddick’s greater accomplishments, this unassuming competitor will attempt to defuse the flamboyant, bespectacled eccentric who rarely has lacked in confidence.  Will substance conquer style, or can Tipsarevic translate his swagger into an intimidating display of courage that unsettles the understated favorite?

Djokovic vs. Tsonga:  In the absence of his two principal rivals, the world #1 gazes down from the mountaintop upon the penultimate obstacle to a fifth consecutive Masters 1000 crown.  For the second straight tournament, Djokovic faces the dangerous Tsonga two days after the Frenchman ambushed Federer.  Carrying that momentum into a dominant performance against Almagro, the Wimbledon semifinalist never lost his serve  during the quarterfinal and suffered none of the concentration lapses that have undermined his consistency.  Best known for his serve, forehand, and net acrobatics, Tsonga has struck his backhand with authority this week.  That shot’s steadiness will prove crucial when he confronts the finest backhand in the ATP, for Djokovic surely will hammer his own two-hander cross-court into the Frenchman’s weaker wing.  Curiously, Tsonga has won four of their five previous meetings at non-majors, but those triumphs sprang in part from the Serb’s meandering malaise of late 2008-early 2010.  Depleted in confidence and uncertain on serve during that stage, Djokovic struggled to match the Frenchman hold for hold—no longer a disadvantage for him in their rivalry.

After a wobbly start to the second half, the new #1 has elevated his level with each successive performance as a talented trio of adversaries (Davydenko, Cilic, Monfils) threatened him initially before wilting under the relentlessness of his baseline barrage.  Towards the end of his quarterfinal, Djokovic turned the world #7 into a quasi-hitting partner much in the manner that Federer embarrassed his most prominent rivals at his zenith.  Tsonga’s superior serve and greater commitment to aggression should result in a more competitive encounter, however, similar to their four-set Wimbledon semifinal.  On that occasion, the Frenchman nearly snatched the first set before an untimely brain cramp.  Against an opponent as physically and mentally impenetrable as Djokovic, any such stumble would prove fatal.  Nobody other than Nadal or Federer has won so much as a set from the Serb at a hard-court Masters 1000 tournament this year.


 

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates winning a point against Jie Zheng of China on Day 4 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 11, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Far from Canada’s frozen north, Toronto and Montreal still have proven inhospitable habitats for elite contenders in both Rogers Cups.  Defending champions Murray and Wozniacki?  The three WTA Slam champions this year?  The two most dominant ATP players of the past decade?  Together with defending US Open finalist Zvonareva and former #1s Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Jankovic, all have departed to more humid surroundings in Cincinnati.  Scraping through the rubble after the avalanche of upsets are a host of talented, often under-appreciated figures—in addition to a reigning #1 and a thirteen-time Slam champion with carnivorous streaks.

Vinci vs. Stosur:  Glancing down the WTA rankings, few would suspect that the world #22 has won more tournaments than eight members of the current top 10.  But Vinci has enjoyed a modest counterpart to the late-career surge of her compatriot Schiavone, capturing three titles in 2011 and baffling more notable opponents with her deceptively penetrating backhand slice.  Among the baffled this week were two former #1s, Wozniacki and Ivanovic, who struggled to find a rhythm against the Italian’s unpredictable mixture of slices, chops, and spins.  Although this quarterfinal seems a serving mismatch on paper, Vinci protected her underpowered delivery with considerable success against the excellent return games of the Dane and the Serb.  Facing only one break point in her second 2011 victory over Li Na, meanwhile, Stosur has responded to the loss of her top-10 status with one of her most encouraging performances this year.  Nevertheless, she now must shoulder the burden of the favorite in a half stripped of the Roland Garros champion, the Wimbledon champion, the defending US Open finalist, and the reigning world #1.  Often fragile under pressure, Stosur may require time to adjust to a distinctive game that she never before has faced and that may threaten her composure unless she can assert her dominance in the early stages.

Radwanska vs. Petkovic:  Less than a week ago in San Diego, they met in a semifinal defined mostly by Petkovic’s nausea-induced sprint from the court.  Drained of energy by that experience, the top 10’s newest inhabitant mustered scant resistance thenceforth against a foe who has won all three of their encounters and excels at eroding the physically or mentally vulnerable and.  Radwanska repeated her Sunday victory over Zvonareva on Thursday, suggesting that her first title in over three years has boosted her confidence.  Regularly impressive during the US Open Series, the San Diego champion often has thrived on faster surfaces that add an ounce of extra sting to her serve.  Halting Kvitova in the previous round, Petkovic benefited considerably from the Wimbledon champion’s errant groundstrokes but deserves credit for staying crisp and focused rather than allowing her opponent’s waywardness to infect her.  At the core of this quarterfinal are Radwanska’s serve and Petkovic’s return, which could savage the Pole’s second delivery if she fails to maintain a high first-serve percentage.  Able to maneuver through rallies reasonably well when healthy, the German must resist the temptation to pull the trigger too aggressively too early in the point.  At the same time, she will want to keep Radwanska stretched along the baseline, preventing her from constructing her clever combinations at leisure.

Voskoboeva vs. Azarenka:  If one of the other quarterfinalists wins this tournament, they will have needed to collect only five or six victories.  Voskoboeva already has won five matches here, having progressed through qualifying, and has defeated two top-10 opponents in Bartoli and Sharapova.  Sometimes flustered by unknown challengers before, Azarenka suffered such a fate when she lost to Erakovic in her Stanford opener.  Far more impressive are her first two performances in this tournament, when she conceded three total games in four sets against home hope Dubois and former nemesis Martinez Sanchez.  Despite Voskoboeva’s stunning run to this stage, fatigue may hamper her as she confronts a player more consistent than those whom she previously has ambushed.  The Kazakh has spent nine hours on court this week compared to just two for the Belarussian, who seeks her third semifinal at one of the Canadian tournaments.

Safarova vs. Serena:  A rematch of a 2009 quarterfinal, this meeting would seem to offer little drama.  Riding an eight-match winning streak into a clash with an opponent who never has defeated her, Serena has wasted little time in establishing herself as the leading contender for the US Open.  Since Wimbledon, she has conquered not only veterans like Sharapova and Bartoli but some of the WTA’s more promising younger stars, such as Lisicki and Goerges.  The root of Serena’s success remains a serve that has distanced itself ever further from the competition, resulting in a streak of 24 consecutive holds between Stanford and Canada.  After a series of emphatic victories, though, the former #1 faced ten break points and lost serve twice in a tense three-setter against Zheng Jie, a valiant competitor but a fading force in singles.  One wonders whether that scratchy performance signaled an ebb in Serena’s momentum or a dip in her motivation.  On the other hand, she survived a similarly unimpressive performance against Kirilenko in the same round at Stanford before roaring to life when the title neared and the opponents grew more worthy of her attention.  Having overcome Schiavone in two routine sets late on Thursday, Safarova may have gained a burst of self-belief that she can use to challenge an opponent who has not faced a lefty in over a year.  Should Serena find her trademark determination, though, the flaky Czech probably will show little appetite for battle.

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

Djokovic vs. Monfils:  Aiming to move 50 wins over .500 just 52 matches into the season, the top seed and only surviving member of the Top Four must fancy his chances of a fifth Masters 1000 crown.  Undefeated in six previous meetings with Monfils, the Serb has won ten of their last eleven sets, including emphatic victories at the US Open and Davis Cup final last year.  This authoritative head-to-head underscores the gap separating the Frenchman from the players above his inflated ranking of #7.  Lucky to survive a third-set tiebreak against Troicki on Thursday, Monfils lost the Washington final to Stepaek and has not shed his reputation of an unreliable competitor whose mind wanders from one point to the next.  Once smeared with a similar reputation, Djokovic can attribute much of his spectacular season to his elevated commitment and maturity, a lesson that his ultra-talented opponent could learn.  Nevertheless, the world #1 struggled in his opener against Davydenko and should have felt fortunate to evade a three-setter when he trailed by two breaks and later faced set point.  Although his serving improved during a Thursday victory over Cilic, the first set remained tighter than one might have expected.  On both occasions, Djokovic merely accelerated to steamroll his opponents once he earned the one-set lead, and Monfils should anticipate no more mercy if he relinquishes the initiative.

Tsonga vs. Almagro:  For the second time in four matches and for the second time in Montreal, the acrobatic Frenchman conquered Federer.  After those two earlier victories, Tsonga slumped to defeat a round later, so he must beware of another hangover against an opponent who arrived in the top 10 this year for the first time.  Less visibly talented than Tsonga, Almagro has enhanced his fitness this season and owns one of the ATP’s most elegant one-handed backhands, which he deployed to overcome fellow backhand artist and 2011 breakthrough story Gasquet.  The Spaniard and the Frenchman have tangled four times since the start of 2010, including a spectacular five-setter at the Australian Open last year that showcased not only shot-making skills but sportsmanship on both sides.  Especially ominous for the world #10, three of those matches came on the clay where he possesses much greater aptitude than does Tsonga.  His more elongated strokes require more precise timing than the compact, bludgeoned whacks of his opponent, who relies less upon placement than upon raw power.  Since the minds of both combatants can drift, though, a plot twist or two should enliven this narrative of stunning winners and stunning errors.

Fish vs. Wawrinka:  Unlike Federer, the top-ranked American avenged a recent defeat on Thursday when he reversed the Los Angeles final result against Gulbis.  Having withdrawn from Washington to rest his ankle, Fish found his caution rewarded with his second Masters 1000 quarterfinal of the season.  Expected to face Murray at the stage, he instead eyes an opponent whom he has not faced in four years and who should pose a much less formidable threat.  After consecutive Slam quarterfinals at the US Open and Australian Open, as well as an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Wawrinka has watched his results taper and his ranking rise stall.  Best suited to clay, his sturdy game rarely breaks down for extended stretches but conceals little of brilliance.  Much the opposite, Fish remains prone to inconsistency in his groundstrokes but remains an explosive server with sparkling touch around the net.  Considering that skill, one wonder why he does not approach the forecourt more frequently.  If Wawrinka lures him into baseline rallies, he could neutralize his disadvantage in first-strike power.  The American instead must hope to set the tone with his much brisker pace of play on serve while swinging freely on returns.

Berdych vs. Tipsarevic:  A beneficiary of Dodig’s monumental upset, Berdych has become the arguable favorite to reach the final from this half.  Last year, the Czech served for the match against Federer and has found the fast-but-not-too-fast hard courts a suitable venue for exploiting his serve while protecting his questionable movement and groundstroke asymmetry.  Contrary to expectations, Berdych has lost both of his previous meetings with Tipsarevic, who nearly choked away a match against Verdasco for the second time this year but managed to survive 12 double faults.  The Serb often raises his level to meet the competition, delivering his finest tennis when battling opponents like Federer and Roddick.  Against the Czech, Tipsarevic has compensated for his deficiency in power with relentless focus, a weapon against an opponent as mentally flaky as girlfriend Safarova.  His stellar 2010 spring and summer nearly forgotten, Berdych has reached a position where he must prove himself again to the ATP elite.  Another defeat to Tipsarevic would heighten impressions of him as a dangerous floater capable of wins or losses against anyone, while a first victory would fan hope that last year represented no anomaly.

Agnieszka Radwanska - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 7

From the relatively arid draws of San Diego and Washington emerge few signals for the Premier Five and Masters 1000 tournaments ahead.  In fact, Del Potro’s nudge past Verdasco from #20 to #19 marked the only change in the rankings of the ATP top 20.  Nevertheless, these tournaments featured some surprisingly intriguing and entertaining tennis, most notably from the quirky hero and heroine who wove artful paths toward the champion’s podium.

A fine hour for finesse:  Retired magician Fabrice Santoro would have relished watching Stepanek and Radwanska carve through their draws to comfortably dispatch a pair of top-10 opponents in the finals.  Even before his routine victory over Monfils, Stepanek had conquered the far more powerful and athletic Verdasco with similar ease.  For her part, Radwanska rallied from a first-set bagel against Hantuchova and another one-set deficit against Petkovic, relentlessly chipping away at her opponents until they crumbled.  Not known for their outstanding serves, neither the Czech nor the Pole lost their serve throughout their Sunday collisions with two outstanding returners.  Especially notable in this regard was Stepanek, who perceptibly heightened his focus at crucial moments and never faced a break point even as the nerve-inducing upset neared.  Likewise, Radwanska compensated for her lack of first-strike power with uncanny instincts and a keen sense of placement.  Exploiting every area of the court, including the net, both champions varied spins and speeds throughout rallies, leaving their more programmatic, rhythm-oriented opponents marooned in confusion.  While Stepanek carved sharply angled volleys and abruptly changed the pace on his groundstrokes, Radwanska looped moonballs, feathered drop shots, and lofted precise lobs.  To be sure, one hardly expects the 32-year-old Stepanek to become a factor at the prestigious Masters 1000 events ahead.  Nor will Radwanska threaten the WTA’s heaviest hitters, like Serena or Clijsters.  But, on a week when most top stars rested, their distinctive games offered an entertaining diversion from the status quo that enlivened these events more than one would have anticipated.

A tale of two top seeds:  While some #1 seeds tower above their draws, others perch there precariously.  Clearly in the latter category, Monfils and Zvonareva had looked vulnerable for much of 2011, so their mental frailty suggested that they might wilt under the pressure of their position.  Although both ultimately fell one round short, they recorded a handful of creditable victories in hard-fought contests.  The Frenchman impressed with his semifinal victory over Isner in a match delayed by rain during which he saved a match point in the third-set tiebreak.  An exuberant personality often lacking in competitive stamina or motivation, Monfils might have buckled under either the distractions of the weather or the American’s impenetrable serve.  By evading both of those pitfalls, the Washington top seed proved that a professional lurks behind the veneer of a charismatic performer.  As introverted as Monfils is extroverted, Zvonareva harbors a morose streak that might have undone her when she squandered a first-set lead against Ivanovic and ultimately lost the set on a double fault.  After she edged through a shaky second set on her seventh set point, though, the San Diego top seed revealed a champion’s DNA by asserting control early in the final set.  Zvonareva almost choked away another lead at the end, but the ability to choke and survive impresses at least as much as the ability to avoid choking at all.  Also praiseworthy was her victory over the streaking Lisicki in a three-set quarterfinal, during which she shrugged off multiple missed opportunities and steadied herself in the climactic moments.

The sluggish performances by both top seeds in the finals sprang in large part from fatigue, causing one to wonder the extent to which playing the Saturday evening semifinal places that finalist at a disadvantage against the finalist who played the Saturday afternoon semifinal.  Serena and Gulbis escaped that predicament last week, but they progressed much more comfortably.  Perhaps someone should research whether three-set Saturday night semifinals correlate inversely with success in Sunday afternoon finals, with additional variables for ranking, ranking of opponent, temperature, and magnitude of tournament….

Putting the US in the US Open Series: As so often happens, the American men have flourished this summer on their home hard courts.  Advancing to his first ATP semifinal in the Washington midsummer torpor, Donald Young raised eyebrows with a straight-sets victory over the dangerous but erratic Marcos Baghatis.  Within a point of his second final in the US Open Series, Isner elevated his ranking inside the top 30 and continued to menace opponents with far greater athleticism and natural talent.  Upsetting defending champion Nalbandian in the second round of Washington, Blake engaged in a second three-set epic with Isner that thrilled the local crowd, if not tennis purists.

In a much less frequent and thus more newsworthy development, American women flew their flag with pride at San Diego.  Despite falling a round short of last year’s quarterfinal appearance, Coco Vandeweghe mustered consecutive main-draw victories.  The fastest-rising teenager in the WTA top 100, Christina McHale likewise registered a pair of wins before succumbing to eventual champion Radwanska.  Rewarding the wildcard that the tournament offered her, Alexa Glatch ambushed the formidable lefty serve of Makarova, a challenge that has baffled many a more experienced player.  But the most remarkable accomplishment resonated from the racket of fellow wildcard Sloane Stephens, who repeated Vandeweghe’s 2010 feat by reaching her first WTA quarterfinal following a triumph over top-20 opponent Julia Goerges.  All of the above hinted that there might be life after death in American women’s tennis, or rather life after the retirement of the Williams sisters.

Briefly noted:

Welcome to the top 10, Andrea Petkovic!  Amidst the controversy over the divergence between rankings and reality in the WTA, the German’s rise and Stosur’s accompanying fall seemed to clearly reflect their recent performances.  A two-time Slam quarterfinalist in 2011, the German recovered from a dip during the grass season to reach another semifinal, from which she might have emerged had not her lunch decided otherwise.

Tremendously exhilarating at the moment, an unexpected title can poison a player’s ranking a year later.  Few would have picked David Nalbandian to win Washington last year, and his title defense stalled in his opening round this year.  As a result, an oddly inflated ranking tumbled 24 positions to the edge of the top 50, the difference between a seed and a lack thereof at the US Open.  The mercurial Baghdatis suffered a somewhat less precipitous plunge but also sagged well below that crucial 32nd position.  Although ample points await in Canada and Cincinnati, the current form of both players suggests that they will not recoup their losses.  Headed in the opposite direction was Stepanek, who halved his ranking as he climbed from outside the top 50 to inside the top 30.  If he remains active a year from now, though, he probably will suffer the fate of Nalbandian.

Inching upward to her highest ranking since 2009, Ivanovic erased the memories of a first-round Stanford exit with a San Diego charge that brought her within a set of the final. Not having defeated a top-3 opponent since winning Roland Garros three long years ago, the former #1 displayed impressive competitive resilience against Zvonareva and dominated 2011 breakthrough artist Peng.  Victorious in only two of ten three-setters this year, Ivanovic must aim to improve her fitness for these extended encounters.  Nevertheless, she appears to have committed to her new coach more than to his predecessors, and the situational stability should buttress her volatile game.  Most promising of all was her success in close sets.  Previously 2-10 this year in sets that reached 5-5, Ivanovic rallied from 0-5 to win a tiebreak against Stanford conqueror Morita and rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the first set against Zvonareva.  Those comebacks sketch a competitor increasing in confidence and now within striking distance of once again becoming the top-ranked woman from her nation.

Ana Ivanovic - Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical - Day 3

Which is not to say that, considering her dramatic ebbs and flows, one should not close one’s eyes and hope for the best.