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Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.

Samantha Stosur - Samantha Stosur of Australia beats Serena Williams of USA to win the women's US Open in New York

Stosur:  According to the inverted logic by which the WTA has operated for much of this year, the understated Aussie should have seemed a tournament favorite.  Absent from the second week of the season’s first three majors, she had not won a title since Charleston 2010 and shouldered a 2-9 record in finals prior to Sunday.  The longest title drought in the top 10 then crashed to an emphatic halt with a stunningly composed performance from a player long known for her mental fragility.  As Serena loudly exhorted herself, excoriated the umpire, and ultimately spun out of control, the quiet personality across the net simply went about the business of playing a tennis match.  So calm was Stosur amidst the maelstrom of drama across the net that one might not have noticed the tactically superb tennis that she played in attacking Serena’s second serve, capitalizing on every opportunity to approach the net, and constructing rallies around her forehand whenever possible.  When the match’s climactic moments arrived, Serena and everyone else in the stadium surely expected her to show a lack of nerve.  Instead, she showed a lack of nerves, delivering the most spectacular Slam-ending shot that we can recall.  From a nation where tennis lies deeply embedded in the popular consciousness, Stosur will deserve all of the accolades that she will receive when she returns.  Not since Sharapova at Wimbledon, seven long years ago, has anyone other than her sister toppled Serena at her own game in a Slam final.

Serena:  Through six rounds, the three-time US Open champion had crafted a compelling comeback story, only to lose the plot on the championship Sunday.  Before that abrupt collapse, though, Serena captivated audiences with the type of athletic shot-making that she and her sister brought to the WTA over a decade ago.  As her victories over a host of younger opponents revealed, many of the sport’s rising stars have emulated that style but cannot quite equal it.  Until the final, Serena’s serve catapulted her far above her rivals and created matches in which breaks of serve actually held significance, a rarity in the WTA.  Never finding her best form throughout the fortnight, she nevertheless cruised past two top-5 opponents and two seeded foes without losing a set.  Moreover, her delirious dances of joy when she won demonstrated just how much each victory meant to her after her comeback.  One had begun to believe that her extended absence had awakened a more sympathetic, more mature dimension in Serena’s personality as the final approached.  But her harsh, arrogant underside merely lurked in hiding until the first genuine bit of adversity emerged.  Once again, her dazzling display of power and dismal display of petulance forced fans to draw lines in their opinions between the player and the person.  On the other hand, Serena’s courteous post-match demeanor towards Stosur in the midst of her disappointment hinted that she might have developed some maturity after all.

Wozniacki:  An encouraging fortnight on the whole, her third straight semifinal appearance at the US Open erased most of the negativity that had mounted during the spring and summer.  Liberated from her father in a coaching sense if not otherwise, the world #1 played smarter tennis than she had since Indian Wells as she returned to her counterpunching roots.  In her fourth-round comeback against Kuznetsova, audiences saw the finest traits of Wozniacki on full display:  her indefatigable defense, her tenacity, her steady focus for even the least significant points.  Two rounds later against Serena, audiences saw the reason why she has become a living refutation of the saying that defense wins titles, at least as applied to tennis.  No player yet has won a major while playing not to lose, and her failure to legitimize her #1 ranking looks increasingly inexcusable with every first-time Slam champion who hurtles past her.

Kerber:  From the shocking semifinal run of the world #92 emerge two possible narratives, not necessarily mutually exclusive.  On the bright side, this lefty German’s five-match winning streak at the year’s final major demonstrated the depth in a WTA populated by increasingly opportunistic journeywomen.  Perhaps inspired by Schiavone’s Roland Garros heroics, Kerber slugged her way past Radwanska and Pennetta in draining three-setters when one might have expected her will to falter.  On the less bright side, her appearance in the final weekend testified to the feckless fumbles of the top women in her section, especially Kvitova and Sharapova.  During the last several years, the Slams seemed an oasis of order from the waves of upsets that swept across the draw of lesser women’s tournaments.  One wonders whether the Slams have become no different from the rest of the calendar in this sometimes thrilling, some frustrating era of parity-turned-anarchy, where any Kerber can have her day.

Petkovic / Pavlyuchenkova:  When thinking of the cyclone of dances and practical jokes known as “Petkorazzi,” the adjective “steady” rarely springs into one’s mind.  But Petkovic became the only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals in 2011, and she displayed feisty competitive spark in rallying from a first-set breadstick against Wozniacki to nearly steal the second set.  Just as promising was the accomplishment of former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova in reaching her second Slam quarterfinal of the seasons.  For a full set, she traded baseline bombs with Serena and seemed to surprise the American with her ball-striking power.  While Petkovic’s undisciplined shot selection and rudimentary sense of point construction ultimately undid her, Pavlyuchenkova’s serve requires significant attention.

Zvonareva:  Much superior to her Wimbledon form, the defending US Open finalist survived until the quarterfinals and the eighth consecutive edition of Stosur’s odd voodoo spell over her.  Her loss to the defending champion looked more justifiable in retrospect, while her victory over Lisicki featured some of the most sparkling tennis on Arthur Ashe in the women’s tournament.  Against the type of powerful server who often troubles her, Zvonareva stayed thoroughly in command of her composure despite the magnitude of the stage.  Previously prosperous in the fall, she has positioned herself for another run to the year-end championships where she has thrived before.  Vera rarely wins a title, but she has acquired a curious knack for losing (at least on hard courts) to the player who does.

Kuznetsova:  Through a set and a half against Wozniacki, she displayed flashes of her vintage self that allowed viewers to understand how she won this tournament in 2004.  Despite the unforced errors that sprayed from her racket throughout that match, its early stages showed a Kuznetsova whose combination of shot-making and athleticism could hit through the WTA’s leading defender.  The second half of that match illustrated why she has fallen from the list of Slam contenders and outside the top 10.  In command at 4-1 in the second set, Kuznetsova gagged more appallingly than Pennetta did in the New York heat and dropped 11 of the last 13 games in farcical fashion.  Nevertheless, she made Arthur Ashe a livelier place for the three hours that she spent on it, which contrasted pleasingly with the yawn-inducing routs of the first week. 

Azarenka:  The victim of the USTA’s obstinacy and the imbalanced draw that ensured, Azarenka played with surprising spirit in a virtually unwinnable encounter against Serena in formidable form.  In her previous loss to the American this summer, she slumped in dejection during the match’s final phases.  At the brink of defeat this time, by contrast, Vika mustered her most penetrating groundstrokes and constructed a series of court-stretching rallies that nearly forced a third set.  Within two points of that goal in the tiebreak, she grew tentative again while allowing Serena to step inside the baseline, but the last several games of the second set revealed an Azarenka physically and mentally capable of competing with the best in the sport.  At the end of a generally promising Slam season, this gallant defeat bodes well for her future. 

Venus:  The elder Williams has enjoyed a career filled with glittering moments and classy sportsmanship while plagued with nagging injuries.  One hopes that this latest, disquieting illness does not close the door upon a champion who represents a completely different and more appealing side of competition than her younger sister.

Lisicki:  On the heels of a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki suggested that she could consolidate upon her breakthroughs by reaching the second week of the next major.   Her increasingly reliable game should adapt convincingly to any surface, although one expected her to cause Zvonareva more trouble than the 2-and-3 dismissal in the fourth round.  When she faces opponents less balanced than the Russian, her nemesis three times this year, Lisicki should earn more free points from her serve than anyone in her generation and accumulate a substantial intimidation factor.  If the German can stay healthier than she has so far, a top-10 berth looks nearly certain.

Pennetta:  We always appreciate the type of effort that leads a player to spill her guts (literally, almost) on the court as this Fed Cup superstar did in her epic victory over Peng Shuai.  Effective against the streaky as well as the steady, Pennetta generally held her nerve through the third set of her upset over Sharapova, one of the more surprising upsets in an upset-riddled women’s draw.  In both of those matches, she showed how effective a clean, crisp style can prove under pressure.  Falling to Kerber in a three-set quarterfinal, she showed how much better she performs as the underdog rather than as a favorite.  Opportunity knocked for this veteran to reach a first Slam semifinal, but Pennetta allowed someone else to walk through the door.

Rising American women:  When this tournament began, talk centered around Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, John Isner, and the multiplying posse of American men poised to brand their imprint upon their home major.  As fate decreed, the women stole the show with unexpected victories from Falconi (d. CIbulkova), Stephens (d. Peer), and McHale (d. Bartoli).  Eagerly seeking an answer for an unanswerable question, American fans now wonder whether any of these three young women will carve out an accomplished career.  To hazard a guess, we will say “no,” “yes,” and “maybe.”  A non-entity until this tournament, Falconi became far from the first unfamiliar name to upset Cibulkova and snatched just one game from Lisicki a round later.  Despite her modest stature, Stephens not only possesses a promising serve and inside-out forehand but has a crystallizing sense of how to construct points, a skill often underestimated among this nation’s players.  Even in her loss to Ivanovic, she displayed a technically solid game that didn’t break down under the pressure of the circumstances.  Although McHale scored the most impressive upset from a rankings perspective, the highest-ranked teenager in the sport wilted on Arthur Ashe for the second time in three years, this time against the far from intimidating Kirilenko.  Unlike Stephens, she has yet to show more than flickers of the firepower that usually translates into WTA success.  Those doubts notwithstanding, the outlook looks far brighter for women’s tennis here than it did a year ago.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 5

Sharapova:  Late in the best odd-numbered year of her career, Sharapova arrived at the US Open with momentum from a Wimbledon final and a title in Cincinnati, where she defeated four top-15 opponents.  For her fourth straight appearance in New York, however, she fell before the quarterfinals amidst a cascade of unforced errors and double faults, exploited by a steady but not spectacular opponent.  Over her last four matches, including the Cincinnati final, Sharapova has struck 205 unforced errors as her movement and footwork lost their crispness.  For the first time this year, the 2006 champion failed to extricate herself from a third set despite mounting a characteristically ferocious comeback.  After winning so many hard-fought battles in a season that has catapulted her from outside the top 15 to #2 in the world, Sharapova may have exhausted her emotional reserves.  One wonders whether she can regroup in time for a fall season that suits her playing style, especially the year-end championships where she has not played since reaching the 2007 final.

Ivanovic:  Although she won only two matches here, benefiting from a second-round walkover, the Serb enjoyed her first career exposure under the lights of Arthur Ashe.  In a situation that one might have expected to rattle her nerves, she played stylish and generally composed tennis to halt the hopes of Sloane Stephens before an American crowd.  One of the Open’s most moving moments came when she dedicated her opening victory to her dead grandfather.  Perhaps inspired by his memory, Ivanovic acquitted herself impressively in two competitive sets against a heavily favored Serena Williams.  Refusing to wilt against the intimidating champion as she did against Clijsters last year, she pounded more winners than her fabled opponent and attacked the WTA’s most formidable serve with impressive courage on her return.  The latest in a procession of abortive coaching experiments, Nigel Sears finally may have given her the stability and reassuring guidance for which she has longed.

Li / Kvitova:  As the winds of controversy swirl around Wozniacki’s Slamless #1 status, commentators and spectators have argued that the Slam champions de facto are the best players in the sport.  After the ragged performances of these two 2011 titlists, that argument becomes more dubious if not downright unconvincing.  To be sure, few expected Kvitova to follow her first major crown with an immediate sequel, nor did Li Na seem likely to suddenly spring from a tepid summer into glory on Super Saturday.  But one also expected more than straight-sets losses in the first round to a pair of Romanians, Dulgheru and Halep, whose modest talents played less role in the outcome than did the thoroughly disheveled games of the champions.  For Li and Kvitova, their sudden burst into international celebrity status continues to disorient them and probably will linger through the rest of the season.

Mother Nature:  Although she arrived a bit late at the season’s final major, the rain goddess wasted no time in imposing her presence upon the second week.  Just when the tournament seemed ready to escalate to a thunderous climax, deluge upon deluge enforced an embarrassing ceasefire.  Enhancing its own embarrassment, the Open tournament director and the USTA then insisted upon dragging players onto court for 15 minutes of tennis while desperately begging the clouds to desist.  They didn’t, and the clamor for a long-overdue roof grew louder as the schedule grew increasingly distorted.  If a bastion of tradition like Wimbledon already has bowed to pragmatism, why must the allegedly progressive US Open submit itself to the whims of the elements?

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia (L) shakes hands with Rafael Nadal of Spain after winning his final round Gentlemen's match on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 3, 2011 in London, England.

A day after Stosur ambushed the heavily favored Serena Williams, the men’s defending champion hopes to spring a sequel to that surprise upon world #1 Djokovic, who has won 63 of his 65 matches this year.  Under normal circumstances, a title defense for this 10-time major champion would seem anything but surprising, but 2011 has witnessed a series of five consecutive losses to the Serb in finals on every surface.  Culminating in the Wimbledon title that accompanied his rise to the top ranking, Novak has won nine of his last ten sets from Rafa as the latter’s empire shrank to the clay bastions of Monte Carlo and Roland Garros.  After he rebounded from one-set deficits in finals at Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic jerked the balance of power further in his direction by straight-setting the Spaniard twice on his beloved terre battue before that emphatic victory at the All England Club.  Never before has Nadal looked so thoroughly uneasy against an opponent, missing routine shots during critical stages in their matches.  On the last five occasions when he served to stay in a set or match against Djokovic, he has failed in the attempt.  Asked after Wimbledon what he planned to change in his strategy, however, the dethroned #1 sounded determined to conquer this greatest challenge of his career, even as he acknowledged wearily that he might need several months to develop his riposte to the blows that he has absorbed.

On Saturday, Nadal struck a brighter note in his post-match interview when he recalled his four-set victory over the Serb on this court in last year’s final and asserted that he knew how to repeat that outcome.  Tactical confusion had hampered his efforts against Djokovic in their last few meetings, so greater clarity in that regard would help the Spaniard emerge from a swamp of self-doubts similar to the quagmire into which he plunged Federer.  Early in the Wimbledon final, Rafa gained success by hammering forehands down the line into Djokovic’s forehand, a stroke more technically vulnerable than his backhand despite its power.  Since his looping cross-court forehands flew into the teeth of the Serb’s explosive two-hander, he should engage less frequently in that type of rally, which ended more often than not in his rival redirecting a shallow groundstroke with a backhand down the line.  The lower-percentage strategy of striking forehands and backhand down the line requires greater confidence, perhaps something that Nadal has acquired from his uplifting victories over Roddick and Murray.  Expecting the Spaniard’s high-percentage, high-bouncing forehand directed into their backhands, the two Andys repeatedly froze unprepared when the defending champion instead flattened out that shot and deployed it more aggressively.  During most of those last two matches, moreover, Nadal served with greater authority than he had in the first week.  Outside a third-set lull against Murray, the stroke that won him the 2010 US Open played a key role in extracting him from early deficits in service games.  Somewhat less impressive was Nadal’s backhand, which has proved no match for Djokovic’s forehand in cross-court rallies this year.  Although his two-hander improved as the semifinal progressed, the defending champion resorted too often to the sort of neutral shot unlikely to trouble the Serb, who will not donate many errors merely from a change of pace or spin.

Fortunate to forestall Federer in a classic semifinal, Djokovic owes his berth in the final to a stunning return-of-serve winner on match point that illustrated his talent this year for summoning the sublime when suspense soars highest.  Central to the world #1’s ascendancy is that return of serve, constantly subjecting opponents to the pressure created by the inability to win free points.  In order to keep Djokovic off balance on his returns, Nadal will want to vary the placement of his serve, but both of these players will rely less upon that shot than upon their groundstrokes.  Determined to win the battle of court positioning, the world #1 will step inside the baseline whenever possible Not quite at its spectacular best throughout the tournament, Djokovic’s forehand broke down at a potentially decisive moment late in the fifth set against Federer, as did the serve that had looked revitalized for most of 2011.  Although he escaped that lapse by the narrowest of margins, the Serb surely will want to avoid a similarly dire situation against an opponent less likely to let a late-match lead evaporate.  In the first major title that he won this season, Djokovic thundered through the draw with the invulnerability of a tank, losing no sets at all in the second week of the Australian Open.  Not an inexorable juggernaut at Wimbledon, he dropped sets to four different foes—including Baghdatis and Tomic—before arriving at the same destination and delivering his finest performance of the fortnight in the final.  In fact, Djokovic won none of his record-setting five Masters 1000 crowns this year without losing a set, while ten of his victories came in final sets.  As these numbers suggest, his undisputed dominance has emerged in part from his greatly improved resilience in adversity, a dimension that formerly separated him from the rival whom he has surpassed.  Both physically and mentally drained from an eerily identical victory over Federer in last year’s semifinal, he should recover more fully than he did a year ago.

In a testament to the rigidity of the ATP hierarchy, Nadal and Djokovic have occupied six of the eight finalist berths at the calendar’s four most important tournaments.  Just a year after the former won three majors in a single year, moreover, the latter now hopes to duplicate that feat against the only other player to win a Slam this season.  After tomorrow, the top two will have combined to win seven consecutive majors in a dual stranglehold that has succeeded the Federer-Nadal era.  When this Slam season began, the conversation circled around the possibility of a Rafa Slam.  When it ends, will the discussion have shifted to the possibility of a Novak Slam?  Or will the “Novak-Novak-Novak-Novak era” envisioned by Dijana Djokovic resemble a “Novak-Rafa-Novak-Rafa era?”

Serena Williams - 2011 US Open - Day 13

As she comfortably brushed aside the world #1 on Saturday night, Serena emanated a steely resolve that wavered only briefly in her final service game and dissolved only with her euphoric victory celebration.  Almost more intimidating than her fist pumps was the imperturbable, clear-headed calm (“serenity?”) with which she dispatched Wozniacki, the type of fleet-footed defender who has troubled her before.  With a fourth US Open crown and 14th major title within range, the three-time champion will hope to maintain that composure into a Sunday encounter seemingly less likely to test her nerves.  Although she has lost twice to Stosur, including once at a major, Serena conquered her with ease in the Rogers Cup final this summer and has lost only one Slam championship tilt to an opponent other than her sister.  The former #1 cracked 11 aces and several service winners against Wozniacki, almost always delivering her first serve when she most needed it.  While her flat bombs down the center service line won plenty of free points, her swerving serves out wide opened up huge swathes of court and kept opponents as agile as the Dane or Azarenka off balance.  Behind such a formidable shot, Serena should control most of her service games against an opponent with limited defensive skills.  In fact, this final should feature relatively few breaks of serve, for across the net stands a server more imposing than anyone whom she has encountered in the fortnight.  Setting up her heavy forehand, Stosur’s kick serves thrust her victims out of their comfort zone by forcing them to swing above their normal contact point.  Like Serena, moreover, the Australian possesses a penetrating but still safe second serve that rarely falters under pressure.

Less steady in that regard is her two-handed backhand, which likely will prove the decisive factor in the title bout. Although Stosur has struck that shot with greater authority here, Serena still enjoys a substantial advantage in that department and can expect to win the vast majority of backhand-to-backhand rallies.  In their previous meetings, the world #10 sometimes has concealed that glaring flaw by running around it to hit forehands, but more often than not that tactic has exposed too much court to the American’s scintillating shot-making prowess.  A bold shot-maker as well, Stosur will want to ensure that she strikes a winner or a near-winner in situations when she hits a forehand from the backhand side of the court, for no player can produce offense from a defensive position as easily as Serena.  The three-time US Open champion almost seems most dangerous when she uses her instincts and reflexes to strike shots on the run, propelling her muscular frame into the ball.  Armed with a similarly bulging biceps, Stosur excels when she has more time to set her feet and position herself at the ideal distance from the ball, a task that comes less naturally to her.  Serena thus will seek to stretch her laterally along the baseline in fast-paced exchanges that showcase natural athleticism over programmatic point construction.  To best threaten the American, Stosur should consider hitting behind her at times rather than always aiming for the open court.  Not the most adept at reversing direction, Serena covers most angles with aplomb before crafting an even more vicious angle herself.

Emerging triumphant from three three-setters during this eventful fortnight, Stosur has set the record for the longest US Open women’s match and the longest US Open women’s tiebreak.  Those statistical achievements illustrate the effort that she has expended in reaching the final weekend, and this understated, very human Aussie can feel confident that she has earned her berth in the final.  Struggling with self-belief at significant moments in her career, Stosur also can reflect upon her victory over Serena at Roland Garros last year, when she erased a match point before prevailing in a three-set epic.  She owns more victories against the American than all of the latter’s previous opponents combined, for she also overcame her on North American hard courts at Stanford in 2009.  On days when her serve strikes its targets, Stosur can compete with anyone in the WTA, and she came within a point of a 5-4 lead against Serena in the first set of the Toronto final.  Offering her a ray of hope is the fragility that the younger Williams has shown sporadically when finishing matches or sets.  Three times, Serena dropped serve when serving for the set or match against Azarenka and Wozniacki.  Despite her substantial lead at the Rogers Cup, she also wobbled when securing the championship-clinching game.  If Stosur can stay within range until that time, therefore, those uncharacteristic nerves might return to fluster Serena.  On the other hand, no player has won more than seven games from her this tournament or held a lead of more than one game.  En route to the final, Stosur never has played a match on Arthur Ashe following perverse scheduling by the USTA.  Likely daunted by the magnitude of both the surroundings and the opponent, she faces a towering task in breaking through the shell of serenity around Serena.

Serena Williams - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Wozniacki vs. Serena:  Finally, the moment of truth has arrived.  For almost a year, WTA fans have the match that they have craved between the gentle yet controversial Dane atop the rankings and the greatest women’s player of her generation.  While Serena’s fans will salivate over the prospect of the American systematically thrashing another overmatched pretender to the throne, they should not rub their palms too gleefully.  Gifted with a useful talent for survival, Wozniacki appeared to gain in confidence by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Kuznetsova in the fourth round.  Generally dominant against Petkovic in the quarterfinals, she even struck her less impressive groundstroke, the forehand, down the line with authority and redirected the ball more ambitiously than she had fro most of the spring and summer.  Like Serena against Azarenka in the third round, the world #1 struggled to deliver the coup de grace in her quarterfinal and narrowly avoided a third set, but once again her knack for tightening her technique and concentration on key points shone through.  In one of her two previous meetings with the American, she extended her to a third-set tiebreak, a narrow defeat from which she should extract the belief that she can conquer her.

Tested only sporadically in her first five rounds, Serena has not lost a set this fortnight and brings a 16-match into this highly anticipated encounter.  With the exception of Ivanovic, all of her victims have gulped down a bagel or a breadstick as they hastily retreated from the three-time champion’s assault.  Slightly uncertain in the first sets of her last two matches, her serve remains essential to her confidence and her efforts to play a match centered around holds rather than breaks.  If Serena can hold comfortably and quickly with the finest serve in the women’s game, the pressure on Wozniacki’s service games will mount.  When returning the current #1’s serve, the former #1 must decide between swinging for lines and corners immediately while accepting the errors that will come with that aggression, or delivering a penetrating first strike that nevertheless allows the Dane to maneuver into a rally.  For first-serve returns, at least, we would recommend the latter alternative, since Serena’s physical talent and natural athleticism will enable her to stay in baseline exchanges with Wozniacki longer than most WTA power-hitters.  While the Dane should direct her heavy groundstrokes down the center of the court, the American also might prioritize pace over angles, denying her opponent the scampering retrievals that she relishes and wearing her down with sheer power until she draws a mid-court ball.

Rather than relying on hitting through Wozniacki from behind the baseline, Serena probably will need to plant herself inside it and impose her intimidating presence before pouncing on opportunities to finish points in the forecourt.  Two years ago, she faltered against the seamless movement and crafty counterpunching of 2009 champion Clijsters, who bears some similarities to the Dane.  Confident that she can outhit any powerhitter who crosses her path, Serena occasionally lacks that rocklike certitude when she faces an opponent who can track down unexpected quantities of her shots.  Against Jankovic in the 2008 final, moreover, she escaped a third set by only one point when her focus sagged and disrupted the precision of her timing.  If her intensity stays elevated throughout, she can advance in straight sets past an opponent burdened by increasing pressure.  But don’t expect Wozniacki to crumble abjectly as have other Slamless #1s before her.

Samantha Stosur - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Kerber vs. Stosur:  The 92nd-ranked player in the WTA, Angelique Kerber had won seven total Slam matches prior to this tournament—one at the US Open—and never had reached the second week.  Two wins away from accomplishing the unthinkable, she has exploited a section that became the softest in the draw following early losses by Kvitova and Sharapova.  All the same, her three-set victories over Radwanska and Pennetta revealed a competitive sturdiness surprising considering her lack of experience.  While neither of those opponents can overpower their victims, their steady baseline arsenal and occasional bursts of variety posed tests compelling for a player unfamiliar with her exalted surroundings.  At this stage, Kerber will play with the fearlessness of an underdog who has both the momentum of recent upsets and the freedom that stems from the nearly insurmountable odds against her.  If she should maneuver herself into a winning position, though, one wonders whether she will continue to find the same composure that allowed her to rally from multiple deficits against Pennetta.

Or are the odds in fact so insurmountable?  Fragile for most of her season, Stosur rarely has excelled in the role of the clear favorite, which she clearly occupies here.  Toppled at Roland Garros by Dulko and at Wimbledon by Melinda Czink, she struggles to find solutions on days when her finest tennis deserts her.  Falling to lefties at two of her three majors in 2011, the Australian will not relish the thought of Kerber’s lefty serve and cross-court forehand slashing into her vulnerable backhand.  When opponents relentlessly pound away at her weakness, the rest of her game can disintegrate.  On the other hand, little in Stosur’s game looked on the verge of disintegrating throughout an intimidating performance against Zvonareva in the quarterfinals.  Despite her notorious dominance over the Russian, a match in which she never faced a break point and won over 80% of her first-serve points should strike terror into any opponent other than Serena.  Neither Radwanska nor Pennetta confronted Kerber with the sort of serving impenetrability that she probably will encounter in the semifinal, however.  In by far the most significant match of her career, the German must maintain her composure and stay competitive early, for Stosur should prove susceptible to nerves as the ends of close sets and matches approach.  Does Kerber become the most improbable Slam finalist in recent memory, or does the clock finally strike midnight on the US Open Cinderella?

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Djokovic vs. Federer:  In what has become an annual autumnal ritual in New York, the Swiss legend collides with the Serb who aims to supplant on the final weekend of the season’s final major.  Frustrated by Federer in their first three meetings here, Djokovic earned his revenge last year with an epic five-set comeback that signaled his current surge to the peak of the ATP.  But Federer also deserved a dollop of credit for that result with the inconsistent tennis that too often has marred his late-career performances.  Twice already in 2011 have this duo met in Slam semifinals, a brilliant straight-sets triumph by Djokovic in Australia and an equally stunning display by Federer at Roland Garros that remains the only completed match lost by the Serb this year.  From these three recent meetings, one can surmise that the current #1’s superior physicality, movement, and consistency will outlast the former #1’s peerless attacking skills unless the latter delivers an effort reminiscent of his vintage self and Djokovic proves slightly mortal.

On both counts, however, Federer fans have reason to hope that the five-time US Open champion will reach his seventh final here.  After he waltzed past a pair of unheralded opponents in his first two rounds, the top seed has benefited from competition that has not forced him to rise near the level of which he is capable.  Neither an error-strewn Davydenko, an entertaining but unfocused Dolgopolov, nor a gallant but ultimately exhausted Tipsarevic could fully test Djokovic’s combination of stifling defense and lightning-like transitions to offense.  Surrendering more service games than one would expect from a tournament favorite, meanwhile, the Serb exuded body language less positive than he has for much of the year while showing less relentless intensity than during his title run in Australia.  The sudden upward spike in the quality of his opposition may catch Djokovic off guard in the semifinal, as may the early court time.  On the other hand, he has played more daytime matches than Federer, leaving him more acquainted with afternoon conditions here, and he has subjected his opponents to pressure on serve greater than any of the Swiss master’s previous victims.  In a sport tilted increasingly towards slower surfaces, longer rallies, sprawling athleticism, and tests of fitness (physical and mental), Djokovic possesses an advantage over Federer in all of those categories.  No element of their games demonstrates the clash in generations here more strikingly than the contrast between the Serb’s two-handed backhand, a weapon equal to his forehand, and the former champion’s elegant but less explosive one-handed flick.

Nevertheless, Federer has accelerated through his first five rounds while dropping only one set, like Djokovic.  Conceding fewer service games than any of the remaining semifinalists, he avenged his Wimbledon loss to Tsonga in an emphatic quarterfinal that showcased his artistry from all corners of the court, especially the forecourt.  In that arena, as well as his serve, Federer still holds the edge over the world #1, so he should capitalize upon those strengths at judicious moments.  The Swiss star can reflect upon his five-set loss in last year’s semifinal and realize that he controlled his own fate through the first four sets.  Only because of his inexplicably erratic lulls in the second and fourth sets did Djokovic even survive to force a decider.  Surely ravenous for another Slam title after a drought that has lasted nearly two years, Federer should retain his focus more effectively this time.  Moreover, this fastest surface of all majors bolsters his attacking, less high-percentage style more effectively than the Australian Open court where Djokovic smothered him in January.  In contrast to Djokovic’s sometimes tepid or lethargic body language, Federer has looked self-possessed and unruffled through five rounds, no easy feat at a major for a perfectionist of his type.  No matter the outcome, one struggles to imagine this match ending in straight sets or without several bursts of spectacular shot-making at vital moments.  Two years ago, Federer set up a match point against Djokovic with the between-the-legs stab that instantly became famous and ubiquitously emulated (with mixed results).  A year ago, Djokovic hammered a monstrous inside-in forehand off a sideline to save a match point deep in the fifth set.  This year, who can find that flash of greatness upon which these evenly matched contests turn?  While Federer attempts to recapture a glorious past, Djokovic seeks to march forward into an equally glorious future—that may soon become the present.  In this transitional era for men’s tennis, however, the power shift from one generation to the next seems not quite complete.

Rafael Nadal - 2011 US Open - Day 12

Murray vs. Nadal:  An inadvertent, unfortunate, but potentially central factor in the second semifinal, fatigue from a third consecutive day of best-of-five clashes may sap the strengths of both combatants in key areas.  More aggressive with his serve against Nadal than against most opponents, Murray may lose a little sting on that weapon following a four-set victory over Isner.  For his part, the defending champion may not exhibit his full range of explosive movement, although his rout of Roddick ended in far less arduous fashion.  Yet the Spaniard and the Scot both enjoy outstanding fitness that leaves better prepared than almost any of their rivals to recover from this week’s exertions and engage in an encounter worthy of their talents.  At the 2008 US Open, Murray conquered Nadal in one of his two hard-court Slam victories over the world #2, who has dominated him on the Wimbledon grass but has not defeated him at a hard-court major since the 2007 Australian Open.  During that semifinal here three years ago, Murray pummeled Nadal’s forehand corner with cross-court backhands before opening up the court for a backhand down the line, his signature shot and the weapon that has undone the Spaniard in all four of the Scot’s triumphs against him.  Now more comfortable moving in that direction than in 2008, Nadal can thwart that ploy by redirecting his forehand down the line with the unexpected pace that has caught many of his opponents here off balance.  As he demonstrated against Muller and especially against Roddick, Rafa can comfortably withstand efforts to serve and volley or charge the net behind an average approach shot.  Trusting in his durability, Murray thus must explore his options, meticulously construct points, and adjust to patterns that emerge from across the net before selecting the most opportune moment to strike.

For a set and four games in their Wimbledon semifinal, the Scot executed all of those perilous tasks in accumulating an early lead against Nadal.  At his best, Murray presents opponents with a game that holds no weaknesses, outside a second serve that should encourage the Spaniard to stand closer inside the court on his returns.  But this game without flaws remains a game without the overwhelming weapons of the other members in the top four.  That lack—and Murray’s awareness of it—became glaringly apparent when he pressed his steady but unremarkable forehand too far out of its comfort zone early in the third set at Wimbledon.  When he missed a relatively routine mid-court ball, that shot disintegrated and dragged his overall confidence into the abyss with it.  Unlike the breathtaking forehands of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, that stroke can break down under pressure and certainly should draw the majority of the Spaniard’s blows.  In a match between two players so thoroughly familiar with each other’s games, and who even practice together, weaknesses rather than strengths might determine the outcome.  Just as Murray will hope to protect his second serve and swing freely on his forehand, Nadal should seek to crack his first serve with greater pace and to assert himself more boldly on his two-handed backhands.  That shot looked progressively sharper as his quarterfinal victory over Roddick developed, although the American subjected him to so little pressure that the Spaniard could swing away at will.  Under the more rigorous scrutiny of Murray’s penetrating groundstrokes, Nadal’s backhand may prove necessary to keep the Scot at bay until his forehand can seize control of the rally.  If he surrenders too much territory by running around it to hit forehands, the balanced groundstrokes of his opponents will exploit the opening.

Murray and Nadal have played a range of matches over the years:  a few classics, a few wretched debacles, and several of the interesting-but-not-memorable variety.  Rarely have they summoned their best tennis at the same time, as they did in a semifinal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Unlike Federer-Djokovic, this rivalry still seeks the suspenseful Slam collision that would raise it to a higher plane.

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Isner vs. Murray:  Joining Tipsarevic in the ranks of Slam quarterfinal debutants here, Isner’s route to the last eight recalls Karlovic’s surge to a Wimbledon quarterfinal in 2009.  A titlist the week before the Open in Winston-Salem, this 26-year-old American may find his serve and first-strike power undermined by the experience of playing best-of-five matches on consecutive days after a summer filled with tense encounters.  Much less experienced than Murray at coping with fatigue, Isner previously has struggled to recover from protracted matches mentally as well as physically.  But his style of play adapts well to the tournament’s compressed format, for it favors many more abbreviated points than extended rallies.  Starkly in contrast, Murray plays a demanding style centered around movement, consistency, and versatility.  In this battle between Isaiah Berlin’s fox and hedgehog, the advantage will tilt distinctly towards the fourth seed if he can survive the first few blows from Isner’s racket.  A task easier said than done, corralling the American’s serve will test the limits of Murray’s return game with its towering bounces and unpredictable angles.  As with Karlovic’s serve, the Scot likely will make educated guesses and take calculated risks concerning its direction, then seek to step further inside the court to cut off the bounce before it jolts over him.

Equally significant is Murray’s own first-serve percentage, which has lain dangerously low throughout his career and exposed his only significant weakness, the second serve.  Since Isner will aim to crack penetrating returns off any second deliveries that he sees, the fourth seed should favor consistency over power in this encounter by denying his opponent short points whenever possible.  Not only will the longer rallies favor Murray’s more nuanced game, but he might chip away at the American’s stamina and competitive resilience by maneuvering him around the court.  Inclined to stay at the baseline rather than charge to the net behind his serve, Isner should maintain that strategic preference against an opponent who showcased his outstanding passing shots in a commanding victory over Lopez.  If one or more tiebreaks develop, as seems probable, the American’s depth of experience in that nerve-jangling genre should infuse him with confidence.  He won three tiebreaks from Simon to reach this stage and two tiebreaks from Nadal earlier this year.  In their only meeting to date, though, Murray managed to escape Isner when he served for the first set before outlasting him in a tiebreak and cruising thereafter.  Once again, the first set should play a pivotal role for the American as he enters Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time this year.  By gaining an early advantage, he can galvanize the crowd as he did in memorable encounters with Federer and Roddick on that court.  If Murray establishes his authority immediately, by contrast, the Scot’s suffocating impenetrability from the baseline should suck the energy out of the stadium.

Roddick vs. Nadal:  Featuring a pair of US Open champions, this more prestigious collision of the two quarterfinals should unfold in a manner similar to its predecessor.  Like his fellow American, Roddick possesses few advantage over his top-5 opponent except for his towering serve, which has grown less formidable with time, and his compatriot crowd, which should support him vociferously.  Placing few expectations upon himself when the tournament began, the 2003 champion surely has surpassed the form that he would have projected for himself.  After he avenged a Davis Cup defeat to Ferrer with a dominant four-set victory in the fourth round, his confidence should have soared to the height of a Manhattan skyscraper.  His own confidence faltering in recent weeks, on the other hand, Nadal has looked vulnerable during the early stages of the tournament, although he received from such early fallibility this year at Roland Garros to record his tenth major title.  More ominously, his comfortable triumph over Muller, including an emphatic tiebreak, displayed his return game, reflexes, and instincts at their finest against a relatively threatening server.  Those weapons have enabled him to defuse Roddick in the past much as Murray has defused Isner, Karlovic, and others.  Even when the American has maintained a solid first-serve percentage, Nadal has more often than not stabbed the ball back into play and outlasted him on the sport’s increasingly slow surfaces.  Like Murray, he will fancy his chances should the rallies extend beyond five or six shots, trusting in his superior consistency and movement to navigate through those points without undue exertion.

During their two meetings last year, however, Roddick broke free from the passive baseline (or far-behind-the-baseline) style that he has employed against less notable foes.  After a futile set in their Miami semifinal, he recognized that trading medium-pace groundstrokes from very long range would not allow him to penetrate Nadal’s defenses or rattle his nerves.  Accordingly, Roddick adjusted by flattening out his forehand, increasing his net approaches behind both first and second serves, amplifying his second serve, and swinging more assertively on his returns.  Against a Rafa reeling from his 2009 slump, these tactics bore fruit in a three-set victory.  Against a Rafa reinvigorated by three consecutive major titles, these tactics still brought Roddick within a tiebreak of victory at the year-end championships, albeit on the surface that perhaps most favors his strengths.  Nevertheless, that risk-embracing plan will grow harder to implement in a best-of-five format and at the majors where Nadal never succumbs without a titanic battle.  Although he has enjoyed an outstanding 2011 campaign by most standards, the defending champion has endured a series of Djokovic-induced disappointments that have forced his achievements below their familiar standards.  While Roddick hopes to salvage a year disappointing by any standard, Nadal also would relish the opportunity to reassert himself before the Slam season ends.  From both players, therefore, should spring an additional layer of intensity.

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  In his first Slam quarterfinal, one of the ATP’s most mercurial personalities faces a compatriot whose exploits have redoubled his own motivation.  Long known more for his off-court antics than on-court achievements, Tipsarevic has elevated his once dubious perseverance to raise his ranking inside the top 20 for the first time.  Overcoming the ageless Ferrero in nearly four hours a round ago, the third-ranked Serb broke through with a semifinal at the Rogers Cup after defeating Verdasco and Berdych.  His down-the-line backhand has sizzled this fortnight as it did a year ago when he upset Roddick, while he has learned to deploy his explosive but unruly forehand more judiciously.  Despite his unprepossessing physique, Tipsarevic projects unexpected power from behind the baseline by leaning into his compact strokes with sturdy balance and timing.  An idiosyncratic character who loves to entertain, he should enjoy the opportunity of playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium.  In addition to his upset over Roddick here last year, the Serb dazzled the Melbourne crowd in 2008 with an inspired, resilient performance against Federer.

Against the world #1, however, Tipsarevic can find few weaknesses to probe either physically or mentally.  Without even finding his peak form, Djokovic has eased through his first four matches without dropping a set—an intimidating thought for his second-week opponents.  More spirited than second-ranked Serb Troicki, Tipsarevic has won sets from his compatriot in both of their previous encounters but has dropped a bagel, a breadstick, and a 6-2 set among the four that he has lost.  Although the top seed’s return game has fallen short of its usual ferocity so far, he should have little trouble attacking his opponent’s benign second serve.  For every penetrating backhand that Tipsarevic can strike, Djokovic can deliver an even more formidable blow.  In the best-of-five format, his fitness should prove an advantage against an opponent who has played many fewer matches at majors, while his focus should stay the stronger of the two during a potential rain delay.  The last match before Djokovic confronts his genuine rivals, this quarterfinal should represent an opportunity to advance efficiently, regain his ball-striking rhythm after the odd Dolgopolov encounter, and accumulate confidence before Super Saturday, when he might face Federer for a fifth consecutive US Open.

Serena vs. Pavlyuchenkova:  Leading the eight WTA quarterfinalists in double faults, the 20-year-old Russian ranks second among them in breaks of serve (and ranked first until Kuznetsova capitulated in Monday’s third set).  From that pair of statistics emerges the narrative sketched by Pavlyuchenkova’s four victories here, defined by plentiful breaks, blistering returns, and fragile serving.  Quite the opposite are the statistics accumulated by her quarterfinal opponent, who leads the final eight in aces and in service points won.  Dropping her serve just twice in the tournament, Serena has allowed her opponents almost no margin for error.  In straight-sets victories over Azarenka and Ivanovic, the world #4 and former world #1 played some of the most impressive tennis that they can produce but still could not seriously threaten the three-time US Open champion.  Somewhat frustrated by the wind a round ago, Serena will enjoy the more settled evening conditions unless another storm arrives.  Her own hurricane of winners from serve and groundstrokes has dazzled with an effortlessness absent from the games of her rivals.  For the rising Pavlyuchenkova, a junior #1 and junior US Open champion, the task will prove especially intimidating considering her struggle to protect her own serve.

If this newest Russian talent aims to become the first player to defeat Serena on a hard court this year, she will want to step into her second-serve returns with aggressive positioning that signals her menacing intent.  This tactic worked relatively well for Ivanovic, who won more than half of the American’s second-serve points by taking more risks with her returns rather than allowing a rally to develop.  An indifferent mover at best, Pavlyuchenkova can contend only by playing offense for the majority of the rallies.  Armed with stinging groundstrokes on both wings, the Russian has the ability to thrust Serena behind the baseline if she can establish herself in the center of the court.  In order to dictate play, though, she will need to serve much more effectively than she has until this stage.  As shaky servers have learned before, Serena only waxes in confidence when she realizes that she can break regularly.  Rarely do her matches disintegrate into the type of break-fest where Pavlyuchenkova flourishes.  While they did play a three-setter in their only previous meeting, an ailing stomach and the inimical clay hampered Serena’s efforts on that occasion.  Nevertheless, the feisty Russian should provide a glimpse under the lights of the raw talent that has brought her to two Slam quarterfinals this year and that might eventually carry her to this title.

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Following their five-set Wimbledon quarterfinal, one wonders what sort of entr’acte to expect from players who personify clashing dimensions of the game.  Grace and artistry succumbed once again to undiluted power in a Rogers Cup three-setter this summer, tempting spectators to cast Tsonga as the 2011 version of what Berdych accomplished in 2010 and Del Potro accomplished in 2009.  When Federer lost consecutive matches to those ball-bruisers, however, he reversed the result in the following meeting with an especially sparkling performance.  And when he faced Soderling in a 2010 quarterfinal here, having lost to him in the same round at Roland Garros, an emphatic display of Swiss craftsmanship ensued.  To this stage, Federer still has not encountered an adversary worthy of his steel, although Marin Cilic mounted surprising resistance for two and a half sets.  In Wimbledon this year and at other majors, a sudden spike in the level of competition has unsettled or undone the 16-time major champion by forcing him to steeply elevate his own prowess.  Few could imagine a more comfortable fourth-round victory than his rout of a Juan Monaco complicit in own demise.  But Federer’s serve has looked outstanding throughout this tournament, offering an auspicious omen for a match that should feature few service breaks and at least a tiebreak or two.

In his last eight sets against Federer, Tsonga has lost his serve just twice, and he did not lose his serve at all across the last four sets of his Wimbledon upset.  Similarly efficient against Fish in the fourth round, the Frenchman suffered exactly one lull late in the third set and remained unbroken throughout the rest of that five-set rollercoaster.  Once again rallying from a deficit, Tsonga enjoys a 7-2 record in final sets at majors that perplexes considering his struggles with concentration and distinctly trumps Federer’s record in that category.  Unlike many of the ATP’s inveterate baseliners, both players often follow their serves or forehands towards the net in the knowledge that their crisp volleys can slash away most passing shots.  The arrhythmic quality of Tsonga’s spectacularly athletic style has troubled the Swiss master before, especially when he chips back average returns that his opponent can devour.  Too often content to let the Frenchman control points in his last two losses, Federer needs to exchange that passivity for a bolder strategy this time.  During the final stages of his career, he has delivered his most convincing efforts when most motivated, and the quest to avenge an embarrassing Wimbledon setback should spur his motivation as it did last year against Berdych.  A more confident competitor than the Czech, Tsonga will not assist Federer with poor shot selection or nervous execution when the match hangs in the balance.  Although he remains susceptible to passages of indifferent play, this maturing Frenchman lately has found a way to limit their damage and save his most formidable tennis for vital moments.  Should Federer survive this compelling challenge, therefore, he should feel ever more optimistic about his chances of contending for a 17th major title over the weekend.

Andrea Petkovic - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Wozniacki vs. Petkovic:  Fortunate to have reached this round at all, the controversial top seed seemed headed straight for disaster when she trailed Kuznetsova by a set and a break.  Courtesy of another signature Sveta collapse, Wozniacki survived after 182 minutes to play another day, but she cannot expect such generosity from Petkovic.  The only woman to reach three Slam quarterfinals this year, the multitalented German debuted the famous Petko-dance last year on the Louis Armstrong Stadium where she will face the world #1.  This athlete, musician, dancer, politician, and filmmaker found the time amidst her many pursuits to dispatch the Dane in a Miami three-setter before Wozniacki exacted revenge in Stuttgart a few weeks later.  Unlike so many of Caro’s other opponents, Petkovic doesn’t simply hit hard, harder, and hardest in an attempt to burst through the defenses of the WTA’s most impregnable counterpuncher.  More intelligent than many of her peers, she resolved in Miami to disrupt Wozniacki’s rhythm with heavy-spinning groundstrokes to her backhand that set up less penetrating responses for her to hammer into her opponent’s forehand corner.  Those ploys sufficed to topple the Dane on a day when her groundstrokes spewed unforced errors in uncharacteristic quantities, but the top seed has stayed stingier so far in New York.  In three epic sets against Kuznetsova, she committed only four more unforced errors than did Petkovic in two relatively routine sets against Suarez Navarro.

During an eight-match winning streak that started with a fourth straight New Haven title, Wozniacki has retreated from the forced aggression that had seemed so uncomfortable for her in Toronto and Cincinnati.  In order to win a major, she may yet need to tilt further along the spectrum towards offense and strike more than the six winners per set that she averaged in the Kuznetsova marathon.  Confronting the low-margin style of Petkovic, who has a -23 winners/errors differential here, Wozniacki still may find discretion the better part of valor.  Her epic victory in the previous round will have reaffirmed her faith that she knows how to manage these tense matches, so her body language may improve for the quarterfinal.  Sagging and deflated for much of those three hours on Monday night, the world #1 has looked more oppressed this summer than before by the scrutiny surrounding her Slamless condition.  In the second half of that fierce battle, though, Wozniacki found the inner calm that allowed her to outlast an opponent who couldn’t deliver the coup de grace.  Over the last two seasons, the German also has faltered chronically when finishing matches, and she allowed a thoroughly outclassed Suarez Navarro to climb almost all the way out of a 5-1 deficit in the second set.  With the resilience that Wozniacki displayed in stemming Kuznetsova’s tide, Petkovic cannot afford to stagger or meander if she takes a lead.  Can she forestall a tantalizing clash between the world #1 and the woman whom many feel should supplant her?

See the Day 9 article below for the matches postponed from a torrential Tuesday to a potentially waterlogged Wednesday.

 

Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Young vs. Murray:  One of four American men to reach the second week, the USTA’s prodigal son has delivered the most surprising sequence of victories.  Inciting a sudden surge of hope, the formerly discarded Young upset Wawrinka in a fifth-set-tiebreak encounter that may have represented a crossroads in his career.  Just as important was his ability to follow up that potential breakthrough with a convincing victory over Chela, a veteran who could have exploited a novice’s hangover.  But Young has tantalized fans before by launching putative breakthroughs before slipping back into frustrating underachievement.  At Indian Wells this spring, for example, he stunned a listless Murray in straight sets with opportunistic play and deft touch in the forecourt.  Then, he won just three games from the pedestrian Robredo.

When he enters Arthur Ashe for the first time in his career, this charismatic American will gain courage from the enthusiastic support of his compatriots.  A similar dynamic could not vault either Christina McHale or Sloane Stephens to unexpected victories, however, while Murray will relish the prospect of revenge.  Reversing his Miami defeat to Bogomolov during the US Open Series, the Scot will fancy his chances of halting Young’s aspirations with the same steady, stingy game that has proved impregnable against all but the most volatile shot-makers.  Still without an imposing serve, Young will not win many free points from his delivery and thus will engage in rally after rally during his service games.  Few players can outmaneuver or outlast Murray when at his best, for the Scot displayed his unsurpassed fitness once again in a five-set comeback against Robin Haase.  As his victory over Lopez proved, the fourth seed does not struggle with the distinctive traits of a lefty style, and Young cannot trouble him from behind the baseline.

Muller vs. Nadal:  Extending the world #2 to two tiebreaks at Wimbledon, the pride of Luxembourg even held set points against the Spaniard in the first set.  His wickedly slicing lefty serve threw Nadal off balance on the skidding grass, yet Muller has spent much of the season at the challenger level upgrading his ranking inside the top 70.  A quarterfinalist in his last appearance at the US Open, three years ago, he has found these fast hard courts suited to his serve-volley tactics in upsets over baseliners like Almagro and Davydenko.  Recovering from a one-set deficit against Los Angeles champion Gulbis, Muller has won all three of his tiebreaks at this year’s US Open and probably will concentrate upon holding his serve until he reaches the thirteenth game.  This (very) poor man’s Karlovic should not threaten Nadal in most return games, allowing the Spaniard to settle into a rhythm that will elevate his confidence.

Short of confidence for most of the summer, Rafa will have mounted in self-belief after a victory over Nalbandian that included a pair of tightly contested sets.  After he fell behind almost immediately, the second seed unleashed some of his vintage passing shots to recoup his losses.  His signature shot at many of his victories over Federer, those passing shots will prove vital to his efforts in dispatching this opponent without undue drama.   If the breeze continues to whip around Arthur Ashe, the conditions should favor the player who strikes balls with greater margin and relies less upon a single point-ending blow.  Often most vulnerable in the early rounds of majors, Nadal has benefited from a comfortable draw that has enabled him to settle into the tournament.   Unless Muller serves at an exceptionally high percentage, the defending champion will chip away at his questionable fitness and even more questionable consistency until his rough-hewn game crumbles.

Ferrer vs. Roddick:  When they collided in a Davis Cup quarterfinal this year, neither the home crowd nor the fast indoor surface could salvage a set for Roddick against the ATP’s most notable grinder.  Back in the top 5 as Soderling staggers, Ferrer left scant impact upon the US Open Series but rolled through the first week while conceding only a solitary set.  Even on hard courts, the Spaniard has earned repeated success against the American with two 2007 victories at Masters 1000 tournaments.  His expert returning skills should defuse Roddick’s dwindling serve, no longer the mighty juggernaut that intimidated all but Federer.  Despite the serve-friendly surface in New York, the 2003 champion has won his first three matches more through consistency and court coverage than by immense serving.

Having played only two matches since Wimbledon, Roddick seemed relieved to have reached the second week at the US Open for the first time in three years.  He has progressed to this stage past a pair of Americans and the erratic Benneteau, competition much less challenging than the tenacity with which Ferrer assaults his opponents.  Although his serve remains arguably the worst in the top 20, this fearless Spaniard will reap rewards by pounding his inside-out forehand into the American’s backhand corner, which produces few penetrating shots and virtually no offense.  In order to impose himself upon Ferrer, Roddick must flatten his forehand to add the additional jolt of pace that can carry it past this dogged retriever.  Outside his serve, he will struggle to either outhit or outlast the Spaniard without adopting a more aggressive attitude and striking the ball earlier than he has shown for most of this season.  On the stadium where he lifted the trophy eight long years ago, can Roddick recapture the explosive hitting that won him his greatest achievements?

Kerber vs. Pennetta:  One of these lucky women will become a Slam semifinalist for the first time.  On the other hand, Pennetta has earned this opportunity not just with luck but with an unexpected level of determination that caused a major upset over Sharapova and a minor upset over Peng.  Overcoming bouts of fallibility and a wobbly stomach in the latter match, the Italian now eyes a formerly anonymous lefty in her first Slam quarterfinal.   Unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated fans, Kerber has spent most of her career toiling on outer courts, in qualifying draws, and in tiny events scattered around the world.  Yet she has plowed through a section once inhabited by Kvitova and Radwanska, defeating the latter opponent in three sets.  The German lefty’s serve and cross-court forehand curl effectively towards a right-hander’s backhand corner, but Pennetta moves smoothly in that direction and should withstand that modest pressure comfortably.  A former quarterfinalist in New York, she has tasted victory against both of her potential semifinal opponents in important match, but she cannot afford to think too far ahead against an adversary who defines the cliché “nothing to lose.”  Unlike her previous two victories, Pennetta enters this match as the clear favorite.  How will she respond to this different dynamic?

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 US Open - Day 7

Zvonareva vs. Stosur:  In one of the oddest head-to-head records among the WTA top 10, Stosur has won her last seven meetings with the 2010 US Open finalist.  Seemingly unnerved by the Australian’s heavy serve, Zvonareva mastered a similar test with aplomb when she dismissed the equally imposing serve of Lisicki.  Striking her groundstrokes more confidently than she has since the Australian Open, the world #2 pinned her opponent behind the baseline with suffocating depth.  Although Lisicki did little to ruffle Zvonareva’s fragile nerves, she responded calmly to a potential turning point when she faced triple break point early in the second set.  In contrast to her flustered exit at Wimbledon, her US Open performance to date has not suggested that she feels undue pressure to repeat last year’s result.

Finally relevant again after a dismal first half, Stosur built upon reaching the Rogers Cup final to record inspired victories over a pair of Russians, Petrova and Kirilenko.  Able to run around her meek backhand with surprising success on this fast surface, the former Roland Garros runner-up has inspired comparisons to the leading men with her serve-forehand combinations.  Once she gains the ascendancy in a rally, her opponents have struggled to survive more than a few of her explosive forehands.  In Zvonareva, however, she confronts a mover more agile and a ball-striker more solid than either of her two previous victims.  Likely to test Stosur’s lateral movement, the Russian should display the pace and placement necessary to expose that well-concealed backhand.  By contrast, the Australian should attempt to close off points at the net whenever she gains the opportunity, preventing Zvonareva from restarting the rally.  If their exchanges last more than a few shots, the Russian’s superior footwork and consistency should snap her seven-match losing streak against Stosur, who may lack energy after enduring consecutive marathons in the previous two rounds.  If this match also escalates into a final set, however, one might hand the psychological advantage to the Australian.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Schiavone:  A tiebreak from defeat in the previous round, the flamboyant Italian has grown accustomed to suspenseful three-setters during a year filled with epic encounters.  Among her more memorable triumphs was her quarterfinal duel with Pavlyuchenkova at Roland Garros, during which she lost 10 of the first 12 games.  In that whiplash-inducing rollercoaster, Schiavone then squandered a 5-1 lead in the final set, only to capture the two games that she needed.  At last year’s US Open, the Italian prevailed much less dramatically over a teenager who slumped through a second half of injuries and double faults.  Tested by rising Croat Petra Martic in the second round, Pavlyuchenkova enjoyed a more tranquil passage against 2008 finalist Jankovic, troubled by a back injury.

In a battle of youthful vigor against veteran cunning, the Russian will aim to take time away from Schiavone with penetrating cross-court groundstrokes into the corners that set up mild mid-court replies.  Not especially comfortable at the net, “Nastia” possesses the firepower to end points from the baseline or with a routine drive volley.  Unlike most practitioners of first-strike tennis, however, she has not honed an overwhelming serve or an especially explosive return.  Those shortcomings have forestalled Pavlyuchenkova from mounting higher in the rankings, but they may not hamper her against an opponent unremarkable in those categories herself.  An all-court artist who excels at tying her opponents in knots, Schiavone darted and dodged to consecutive Roland Garros finals by improvising unexpected gambits.  If she can parry Pavlyuchenkova’s initial assault, she might unsettle the relatively one-dimensional novice for the third time in five Slams.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Ivanovic vs. Serena:  Thrilled to reach the second week of the US Open for the third time, Ivanovic relished the experience of playing under the lights of Arthur Ashe as her thunderous forehand crackled through the sport’s largest arena.  From her victory over American hope Sloane Stephens emerged flashes of her vintage form, especially her ability to dictate play from her stronger groundstroke while shielding her weaker wing.  On this fast surface, this challenging task will grow ever more demanding when the smiling Serb confronts the greatest player in this era of women’s tennis.  Superior to Ivanovic in virtually all departments of the game, Serena sharpened her weapons with a victory over world #4 Azarenka that began as a rout and would have ended in that fashion had not one of her backhands landed an inch or two wide.  Drama then ensued, but the 13-time Slam champion enjoys nothing more than drama and once again demonstrated her superiority to the WTA’s next generation.

Likely to experience less suspense in this round, Serena will thrive whenever she directs her backhand into Ivanovic’s two-hander, a neutral shot at best and often a liability against elite competition.  Although the American has lost serve only once in the tournament, Ana still should swing freely on her returns in the effort to seize the initiative immediately in rallies.  Should she not deliver that first strike, Serena’s more natural athleticism will offer her few opportunities to assert herself thereafter, and the Serb will not win many points from her defensive abilities.  In her three fourth-round appearances at the fourth jewel in the sport’s crown, Ivanovic has drawn the daunting trio of Clijsters and the Williams sisters.  Giggling with disarming charm when the media discussed her next opponent, the clear-eyed Serb knows the magnitude of the task ahead and likely lacks the confidence to convince herself that she can conquer it.

Tsonga vs. Fish:  Heavy are the expectations that rest upon the top-ranked American man, especially in a tournament where many of his compatriots have surpassed their projected results.  Joined in the second week by Roddick, isner, and Donald Young, Fish continues to generate the most anticipation following a summer of two small titles, a Masters 1000 final, and a first career victory over Nadal.  Yet his performances to this stage have not inspired great confidence, littered with routine unforced errors and missed first serves.  In the previous round against Kevin Anderson, Fish needed four set points to seal the first set and five more to seal the second.  Hitting consecutive double faults at 5-4, 40-15 in the first set, he conceded consecutive backhand unforced errors at 5-4, 40-15 in the second set before losing his serve with another wayward groundstroke.  Unable to finish the match more emphatically, Fish instead came within a few points of losing the third set as well.

Not known for his competitive steeliness, Tsonga has advanced more confidently against arguably more imposing competition, including an authoritative straight-sets victory over former nemesis Verdasco.  Perhaps still buoyed by his Wimbledon semifinal, the Frenchman has struck even his less imposing backhand with conviction.  Nevertheless, Fish should hope to arrange rallies from backhand to backhand rather than forehand to forehand, for his two-hander should break down Tsonga’s stroke under sustained pressure.  As one ponders the seismic serves on both sides of the net, one wonders how many rallies in fact will develop.  Both players typically establish unrelenting control over a point from the first ball, while neither transitions impressively from defense to offense.  Still without a Slam semifinal, Fish has yet to prove that he can translate his ascendancy from best-of-three tournaments to majors.

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  In a fourth-round night match two US Opens ago, this pair of pleasant personalities waged a gripping war of attrition that culminated in a third-set tiebreak.  The 2004 champion showcased her natural athleticism in extended exchanges during which she steadily outmaneuvered the Dane from the baseline during the first set and a half.  As many of Wozniacki’s more recent opponents have discovered, the precision required to execute that strategy throughout an entire match eventually eluded Kuznetsova, fallible as always when the pressure peaked.  Since that crossroads, their careers have diverged in opposite directions with the Dane soaring to the top ranking and the Russian lurching to perplexing loss after perplexing loss.  Reflecting their relative fortunes are their last two meetings, during which Sveta won nine total games from a steady opponent who needed no more than patience and consistency to outlast her.

Despite losing to anonymous foes like Begu, Arn, and Halep at non-majors, Kuznetsova has saved some of her best tennis in 2011 for the most important tournaments on the calendar.  Reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals, she dispatched Henin into retirement at the Australian Open and then collaborated with Schiavone on the WTA match of the year.  The glittering lights of Arthur Ashe might spur her to unleash something memorable against an opponent in a state of flux.  Although she survived the first week with minimal difficulty, Wozniacki pursues her first major under constantly increasing scrutiny and with correspondingly increasing uncertainty over the best means to that end.  Only by staying within herself can she earn more opportunities to justify her ascendancy.

Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 6

Djokovic vs. Dolgopolov:  A classic example of the dark horse who can defeat almost anyone or lose to almost anyone at almost any time, Dolgopolov has recorded victories over Tsonga (twice), Soderling, Ferrer, and Wawrinka this year.  Yet he also has lost to Potito Starace, Jarkko Nieminen, Jose Acasuso, and Carlos Berlocq in 2011.  The last of those names should sound familiar, for it belongs to the opponent whom Djokovic mercilessly devoured in a second-round victory somewhere between exhibition and execution.  After reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals and excelling in the South American clay tournaments, Dolgopolov faded throughout the spring and summer before reaching his nadir with a first-round Wimbledon loss to Gonzalez.  With nowhere to go but upwards, the Ukrainian then won Umag and ousted the similarly budding Dimitrov at Winston-Salem.  His second-week appearance here comes as little surprise, therefore, while his ability to physically and mentally survive the towering serve of Karlovic in the third round bodes well for his future.

A carefree character who plays an effortless brand of tennis, Dolgopolov should not flinch from the towering odds confronting him against a player who has lost only one match to a player outside the top 20 since Wimbledon last year.  So overwhelming is Djokovic’s dominance that his resounding win over Davydenko, a former top-5 talent, seemed imperfect as well as unremarkable.  The best mover in the ATP, the world #1 should track down the spectacular angles that Dolgopolov creates with his sprawling retrievals, ultimately driving his challenger into attempting the impossible.  Beforehand, though, a series of court-stretching rallies and scrambles to and from the forecourt should unfold.

 

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