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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?

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Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Preview

Devvarman vs. Murray:  Across the net from the Scot stands a diluted version of himself, a rising Indian star sometimes compared to Lleyton Hewitt.  Far less formidable than that former champion, Devvarman still should force Murray to unleash his upgraded offense in order to avoid an unnecessarily elongated war of attrition along the baseline.  Unwilling to play first-strike tennis even on fast surfaces, the fourth seed could profit from the opportunity to experiment with a more aggressive mentality here.  Although he clearly can outlast his overmatched opponent in a contest of counterpunchers, Murray should use this match to test tactics for sterner challenges ahead.  Critical in later rounds, his underestimated first serve should enable him to assert control should he maintain a solid percentage. For Devvarman, meanwhile, the experience of playing on the sport’s largest stadium against a top-5 opponent should prove both inspiring and educational.  Only by probing the limitations of his game can he return to this grand stage under more auspicious circumstances.

V. Williams vs. Lisicki:  Like Murray, Venus faces a foe who resembles a younger, less proven version of herself.  But Lisicki has achieved vastly more in her career than has Devvarman, winning two titles this summer in addition to reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  Both players exhibit an equally sharp contrast between her first and second serve, the latter of which projects only moderate power and remains vulnerable to double faults.  At Stanford, Lisicki appeared to crumble under the weight of Serena’s reputation, so one wonders whether she can rise to the occasion against Serena’s sister in Arthur Ashe.  Among the players who most often have troubled Venus before are not heavy hitters but agile movers like Suarez Navarro and Pironkova.  Nevertheless, the smiling German out-served Venus at Charleston two years ago, and she looked the more consistently impressive of the two ball-bruisers in the first round.  Determined to impose their authority from the first stroke, both women will take massive swings on returns and groundstrokes, especially their more explosive but less steady forehand wing.  More comfortable in the forecourt, Venus showcased her skills at both swinging and conventional volleys in her opener, whereas Lisicki frustrates her opponents with drop shots.  Ultimately, though, this extremely even match should turn towards the player who can uncork her first serve when she most needs it.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 US Open - Day 1

Sharapova vs. Yakimova:  In the first Slam match of her comeback, Sharapova rallied from a one-set deficit to overcome her compatriot at Roland Garros 2009.  Two years later, a reinvigorated champion faces Yakimova again after enduring a three-set opener for a second straight US Open.  Not a budding star like Watson, this unheralded Russian should muster less dogged resistance.  The 2006 champion should strive to advance more efficiently this time as an accommodating section of the draw beckons.  A day removed from Serena’s stunning opening statement, Sharapova surely would want to answer her fellow superstar with a commanding victory of her own.  Unlikely to face serious pressure even if she struggles, the WTA’s leading returner should use this undemanding encounter to build rhythm and confidence before the competition stiffens.

Vandeweghe vs. Stosur:  Not a factor at the first three majors of 2011, Stosur still can salvage her season with a second-week charge in New York.  Less suited to her game than the clay of Roland Garros or the slower hard courts of Melbourne, the US Open’s faster surface has hampered her attempts to run around her backhand to hit forehands.  The Australian cloaked that weakness last year en route to a quarterfinal in which she had multiple chances to establish a stranglehold on eventual champion Clijsters.  A year removed from her breakthrough season, Stosur continues to dominate Zvonareva but has scored no other victories over genuine contenders.  On the other hand, she finds herself situated in a quarter without Serena or permanent nemesis Sharapova—and with a likely tense Zvonareva.  Stifled by Lisicki’s booming serve at Stanford, Stosur will confront a similar assault from Vandeweghe’s first delivery.  In contrast to the German, this occasionally dangerous American has struggled to consolidate the momentum from her successes.  Despite her athletic pedigree, she lumbers around the court with ungainly strides and loses the timing on her forehand too often.  With an ardent American crowd behind her, however, Vandeweghe might rattle the notoriously fragile Stosur’s nerves for a set or so.

Baghdatis vs. Isner:  Reprising their three-setter during the US Open Series, the charismatic Cypriot and the bland American embody their divergent playing styles.  An imaginative ball-striker with a flair for the unexpected, Baghdatis strikes groundstrokes that barely skim across the net when at their best.  A more ambitious fitness program during the offseason has produced only a mediocre 20-20 record in 2011, as those groundstrokes have sunk into the net more often than skimming across it lately.  Yet victories over Del Potro, Murray, Lopez, and others have reminded audiences that this dark horse once charged to the Australian Open final.  While few would say that Isner captures the imagination, his functional style and emotional composure have propelled him to an excellent summer bookended by  a final in Atlanta (when he held match points) and a title in the inaugural Winston-Salem tournament.  Observers might expect the flashier Baghdatis to outshine a more muted opponent at this Slam of spotlights and sparkle.  In a fifth-set-tiebreak triumph over Roddick two years ago, though, Isner proved that he could thrive at the major best aligned with his playing style.

Bartoli vs. McHale:  After Ryan Harrison’s Open ended almost before it began, the brightest talent among the home nation’s young women may gain additional attention. Extended to three sets in her opener by Wozniak, McHale displayed courage and maturity in rallying from the disappointment of a second-set tiebreak.  Wins over Wozniacki and Kuznetsova this summer may have heralded the rise of a counterpuncher with just enough power to seize the initiative in rallies when the opportunity presents itself.  Somewhat fallible in the first set of her opener, Bartoli hopes to regain the form of her last two Slams rather than the tepid performances of her losses in Toronto and New Haven.  Among her most potent weapons is her return, which will punish McHale for serves that fail to land deep or near the corners.  An enigmatic player who can oscillate sharply from one match to the next, Bartoli often has produced her finest tennis when least expected—and vice versa.  Can the young American compete as tenaciously as the Frenchwoman, who has emerged triumphant from many an epic battle?  The partisan crowd should not unnerve Bartoli but instead might even motivate her to swat those returns with redoubled vigor.

 

Serena Williams Serena Williams of the United States celebrates after winning championship point against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during the women's singles finals on Day 14 of the 2008 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2008 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

First quarter:  Unlike Djokovic atop the men’s draw, Wozniacki does not tower but rather totters above her rivals.  But a fourth consecutive title in New Haven will have elevated her confidence at a critical moment following opening-round losses at the two Premier Five events, while the type of player who typically challenges the Dane does not lie in her immediate vicinity.  Looking more like her comfortably counterpunching self last week, the top seed should find that understated style sufficient to outlast erratic competition like Gajdosova, whom she defeated routinely at Wimbledon.  Potentially aligned to meet her in the fourth round, however, is one of two volatile dark horses.  Amidst a noteworthy clay-grass season, Hantuchova terminated Wozniacki’s Roland Garros campaign in startlingly emphatic fashion.  An enigma for most of the last two years, 2004 champion Kuznetsova compiled a pair of wins in Cincinnati before crumbling against Sharapova and dropping her New Haven opener to the underpowered Christina McHale.  Nevertheless, Sveta extended Wozniacki to a third-set tiebreak when they met two years ago at the US Open, so she could trouble the world #1 if she manages to avoid a stumble herself beforehand.  At the base of this section lies reigning Roland Garros champion Li Na, who has struggled to win consecutive matches since that fortnight until she came within a tiebreak of the New Haven final.  Her decision to take a wildcard into that minor tournament suggests a renewed level of commitment that bodes well for her fortunes in New York.  So does her tranquil draw, which could feature an entertaining third-round meeting with Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Much more consistent than Li this summer, Petkovic would await her early in the second week.  As we learned in Melbourne, though, the Chinese veteran’s more balanced style offers few holes for the less disciplined German.

Quarterfinal:  Li d. Wozniacki

Second quarter:  While Azarenka and Schiavone may bookend the draw, the most prominent name here would intersect with the Belarussian in the third round.  Sensibly withdrawing from Cincinnati, Serena will arrive in New York with a 12-0 hard-court record this season as she seeks a third consecutive title.  Rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski might prove an entertaining challenge for a set or so in her opener, but the three-time US Open champion never has lost her first match at a major.  Tasked with sterner resistance in the heavy serve of Canada’s Rebecca Marino, Azarenka will need to keep her composure and focus on holding serve.  Nearly falling to the Belarussian at the 2010 Australian Open, Serena must raise her intensity immediately for a challenge that should prepare her well for the rest of the fortnight.  A fellow former #1 and Slam champion might intersect with the American in the fourth round, should Ivanovic extend her encouraging upward trend from the summer hard courts and build confidence from her partnership with Nigel Sears.  In order to reach Serena, however, the Serb might need to overcome Wimbledon nemesis Cetkovska, who charged to the New Haven final with consecutive victories over Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li.  Positioned near Schiavone once again is the other Serb, Cincinnati runner-up and 2008 US Open runner-up Jankovic.  Falling in the first round at three of her last four tournaments, “JJ” should survive through at least her first two matches before meeting Pavlyuchenkova, who conquered her in the Monterrey final and earned her first Slam breakthrough by reaching a Roland Garros quarterfinal.  In that quarterfinal, the former top-ranked junior fell to Schiavone after squandering an immense lead.  She should gain an opportunity for revenge here, although the Italian has fared better than one would expect in recent visits to New York.

Quarterfinal:  Serena d. Schiavone

Third quarter:  Headlined by the two Wimbledon finalists, this section features an intriguing first-round battle between the two Radwanskas.  Recapturing her form with a San Diego title and Toronto semifinal, the more famous sister hopes to rebound from a nagging shoulder injury to reverse past defeats against the less famous sister.  As did Li Na following her first major title, Kvitova has accomplished little since winning Wimbledon while playing only two tournaments.  Winning just one match at each of them, she showed little motivation in straight-sets losses to Petkovic.  Sometimes susceptible to fellow Czhecs, she would confront left-handed compatriot Safarova in the third round before progressing to a meeting with Radwanska, who regularly punishes the unmotivated.  Anchoring the lower half of the section, Sharapova will clash with a British youngster for the second straight major after vanquishing Robson at Wimbledon.  After Heather Watson, the 2006 champion’s route remains uneventful except for a possible but highly unlikely third-round collision with Oudin.  As the second week begins, Sharapova could test her precision against one of two players whom she defeated at majors earlier this season.  Mounting a formidable challenge in their three-set Melbourne encounter, Goerges attempts to awaken from a summer swoon after breakthrough performances in the clay season.  Armed with a crackling serve and forehand, the second-ranked German twice hit through Wozniacki this spring but will find her consistency tested once more by Peng Shuai.  In the shadow of Li’s brilliance, the Chinese double-fister has compiled the finest season of her career but will struggle to survive Sharapova unless the Russian’s accuracy deserts her.  One could say the same about Radwanska, winless in their meetings since her 2007 victory over the then-defending champion in New York.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova d. Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  In the absence of Clijsters, Zvonareva has become the player with the greatest pressure upon her to repeat last year’s accomplishments.  Succumbing to Pironkova early in her Wimbledon final defense, the second seed could face an intriguing early test in the form of Laura Robson, a lefty unflustered by her elite peers.  A champion in Dallas last week, Lisicki has reached the semifinals in four of her last five tournaments as she has surged forward from her Wimbledon success.  En route to her first notable title in Charleston two years ago, the German overcame Venus in a match filled with booming serves and bereft of extended rallies.  They could clash again in the second round, just the 12th match of the 31-year-old American’s season and her second since Wimbledon.  Often troubled by potent servers, Zvonareva has won two three-setters from Lisicki during the last few months, so she could bring more confidence into that match than into a potential fourth-round encounter with Cibulkova.  A quarterfinalist in New York last year, the diminutive Slovak has amplified her deceptively powerful groundstrokes during a season that has witnessed victories over Wozniacki, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Likely to proceed through the less impressive upper half of this section is two-time 2011 Slam quarterfinalist Bartoli, who suffered a few unexpected losses during the US Open Series after reaching the Stanford final.  Embedded near the Frenchwoman, Christina McHale aims to register a promising victory or two to consolidate her status as the leading American women’s hope of the future.  College Park champion Petrova and 2010 US Open quarterfinalist Stosur should duel in a third-round match of veterans with similarly traditional styles, after which the victor should contrast with Bartoli’s eccentricities.  Long feckless against Stosur, Zvonareva will hope to gain an opportunity to extend her long-time dominance against the Frenchwoman.

Quarterfinal:  Zvonareva d. Bartoli

Semifinals:  S. Williams d. Li; Sharapova d. Zvonareva

Final:  S. Williams d. Sharapova

***

We return shortly with a preview of Day 1 at the US Open, which features action from the top half of the men’s draw and the bottom half of the women’s draw.

Serena Williams Serena Williams celebrates match point to win the tournament against Samantha Stosur of Australia on Day 7 of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank at the Rexall Centre on August 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Serena:  Undefeated on hard courts since early 2010, the younger Williams restored order to the chaotic WTA with consecutive titles at Stanford and the Rogers Cup.  At those tournaments, she displayed renewed appetite for competition while conquering not only veterans like Sharapova, Bartoli, and Stosur but rising stars like Lisicki and Azarenka.  Don’t expect a Cincinnati “injury” to trouble the US Open favorite in New York, where she will arrive eager to erase the memories of her controversial 2009 exit.  If Serena finds Toronto worthy of her attentions, she should bring her fiercest form to the US Open.  Often playing to the level of her competition, the American has dominated all of her leading rivals for this title and merely should accelerate in momentum as she reaches the second week.  And not since 2004 has Serena let a Slam final escape her against someone other than her sister.

Sharapova:  For once, the US Open Series made sense as the two leading Open contenders split the two most important preparatory tournaments.  Adding Cincinnati to Rome in her 2011 titles, Sharapova lost little time in rebounding from a one-sided loss to Serena at Stanford and an early defeat in Toronto.  Plowing past four top-15 opponents last week, she compensated for her chronically wayward serve with a return game perhaps unparalleled in its ferocity.  The 2006 champion has not reached a quarterfinal in her three appearances since then, but Sharapova stands tied for the WTA lead in Slam matches this year after overcoming her apparent nerves at majors with a Roland Garros semifinal and Wimbledon final.  She almost certainly will continue to fall (very) short against Serena, though.

Azarenka:  Finally reaching her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, the brash Belarussian competed well there before injuries and erratic form hindered her summer hard-court campaign.  After a disappointing 2010, she has enjoyed the best season of her career in 2011 by winning Miami and consistently charging deep into top tournaments.  If she can avoid her notoriously frequent injuries, Azarenka should improve significantly upon her concussion-induced departure last year.  A more mature Vika also has allowed her temper to overheat less often lately when the pressure rises.  Like Sharapova, Azarenka has few answers to a healthy, focused Serena; she played excellent tennis for most of their Canadian semifinal—and still won only six games.

Li / Kvitova:  Largely dormant since their Slam breakthroughs, the Roland Garros and Wimbledon champions look content to bask in their glow of their accomplishments.  In theory, both could threaten on the hard courts, especially the volatile serve-forehand combinations of Kvitova.  While Li lost to the mildly intimidating Stosur in Toronto and Cincinnati, Kvitova suffered consecutive, resounding losses to Petkovic.  Of the two, the Chinese star showed more inclination to escape her hangover by entering the New Haven tournament Neither champion expressed much disappointment after those underwhelming results, perhaps still disoriented by their dramatically elevated stature.

Wozniacki:  Without a Slam and without a coach, the world #1 resembles a genuine contender less than an inviting target for an upstart.  Unless she receives another comfortable Slam draw (and perhaps even if she does), Wozniacki should head straight for another deflating defeat.  Increasingly confused on the court, she needs to decide whether to commit to aggression or return to counterpunching before she can collect that maiden major.

Zvonareva:  As one might expect from a player so fraught with nerves, her Wimbledon final defense ended in the third round.  On a surface more congruent with her strengths, the US Open final defense should extend longer, for Zvonareva enjoyed an unexpectedly solid sequence of summer hard-court results.  A champion in Baku, a finalist in San Diego, and a semifinalist in Cincinnati, she looked more consistent and composed than she had since February.  Her lack of evident weakness accompanies her lack of an overpowering weapon, though, without which few champions have won in New York.

Venus:  Since the last US Open, the elder Williams has played just 10 matches.  Not since 2001 has she won a North American hard-court tournament, moreover, while desultory grass-season performances suggested an unruly game increasingly out of rhythm and focus.  Of equal note, the gap separating her from her sister in competitive determination has widened as they have aged.  Nevertheless, the 31-year-old came within a tiebreak of last year’s final before untimely errors derailed her, and her formidable serve should continue to stifle at least a few opponents.

Bartoli:  Steadfastly unflustered by Serena or anyone else, the Frenchwoman withstood immense pressure by reaching the semifinals of her home major and then taking a Wimbledon tiebreak from the 13-time Slam champion.  In the Stanford final, Bartoli showed signs of repeating the feat before fading.  Adding additional sting to her serve this year, she creates unexpected angles with her double-fisted strokes while moving more efficiently than one would think at first glance.

Schiavone:  A surprise quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, the Italian brings a decidedly European panache to the domain of more straightforward power hitters.  Having defeated Azarenka here before, Schiavone relies on her veteran wiles to overcome the WTA’s rising stars.  Demonstrated in Australia, her fitness and mental tenacity spring from a contagious enthusiasm for the sport.  Her serve remains a liability, though, and Schiavone has made little impression on hard courts in 2011.

Petkovic:  Currently the most consistent of the three rising Germans, Petkovic reached two semifinals and a quarterfinal in three US Open Series tournaments.  Her breakthrough (and the Petko-dance’s birth) occurred during a lively run to the second week of last year’s Open, which suits her charismatic personality. Hovering just outside the top 10, Petkovic recorded two Slam quarterfinals this year together with victories over Sharapova, Kvitova, Wozniacki, and other contenders.

The rest:  Reaching the quarterfinals unexpectedly last year, Stosur resurfaced from a season-long slump with a final in Canada.  Similarly disappointing for much of 2011, Radwanska recalled more successful moments with a San Diego title and two wins apiece over Zvonareva and Petkovic.  Fresh from a Wimbledon semifinal, Lisicki continued to impress at Stanford and can dominate behind her serve if its percentage stays high.  Nor should one entirely forget the two Serbs, Jankovic a Cincinnati finalist and Ivanovic a San Diego semifinalist who competed courageously against Zvonareva.  Neither a title threat, they have combined for three first-round Slam exits and one second-week appearance this year, but each former #1 might craft one modest memory of note before heading to Asia.

Ana Ivanovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 1

With the season half completed, we revisit the 11 predictions with which we began 2011.  Have we struck more aces or double faults so far? After reviewing the initial calls that we made in December, Halftime Hawkeye delivers its verdicts….

Rafael Nadal (L to R) Finalists Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland pose for the cameras prior to the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.

1)      Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  That “one more Slam final” did occur at Roland Garros, and their tepid Miami semifinal illustrated the overall decline of this rivalry, so the note of nostalgia struck here sounds apt in retrospect.  But the Roland Garros final edged the Wimbledon final in drama and intrigue, suggesting that Djokovic-Nadal has not quite overtaken Nadal-Federer as this prediction had hinted.

2)      Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  Fortunately, we buried that line about Djokovic’s Wimbledon chances so deep into the paragraph that most of you probably didn’t notice it. 

3)      Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  The Scot did leave his counterpunching comfort zone during the European spring, surpassing our expectations.  On the other hand, his mental state remains in the “quicksand between believing and not believing” that we described above.  Murray prefers the US Open to all other majors and always flourishes most on hard courts, but it’s difficult to imagine him defeating two of the top three in best-of-five matches on consecutive days.

4)      Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Let.  The Argentine left little impact at the Australian Open, but he bounced back faster than we expected with an Indian Wells semifinal.  The clay season did play a major role in the process as noted, highlighted by wins over Soderling and Verdasco en route to the Estoril title.  Still, the vital “finishing strong” part of the prediction remains open to conjecture, so we must wait a little longer for an official ruling.

5)      Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Double fault.  Remind us never again to underestimate Spain in Davis Cup competition,after the Rafa-less squad proved superior to the American A-team with two top-10 singles stars.  We still will have “a scintillating match” in the Davis Cup final, though, if both Spain and Serbia collect another win in September.  Halfway through the season, #5 is our only prediction that already has no chance of fulfillment.

6)      Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Wozniacki’s tireless schedule indeed has earned her a stranglehold on the WTA #1 despite ignominious defeats at the last two majors and a generally unimpressive European spring.  But Nadal did “relinquish his dominance” over grass and much of clay, while a worthy #1 rose to supplant him.  With another Slam title and the year-end championships final still to defend, Rafa will struggle to validate the ATP half of this prediction.  He defends more points than Djokovic does at the key second-half tournaments; the Serb should outdo him there in 2011 and merely consolidate his grasp on #1.

7)      Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  If anything, we underestimated the depth of Zvonareva’s sophomore slump, which has included six losses to players outside the top 20 and pre-quarterfinal defeats at the last two majors.  Federer’s season has unfolded mostly according to expectations with a few glittering moments punctuating the overall spiral of decline.  One struggles to imagine him overtaking either Nadal or Djokovic, considering his 1-6 record against them this year.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  This prediction sounded bold when the year began but came true in rather anticlimactic fashion.  With both sisters effectively crippled for the first two majors, they had to sweep the last two.  Despite their miraculous comebacks before, one week at Eastbourne couldn’t catapult them back into Wimbledon contention in an invigorated, increasingly less intimidated WTA.

9)      Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  One of our least ambitious predictions, Kim’s Australian Open title arrived after slightly more suspense than most had anticipated.  Required to defeat none of the “primary challengers” mentioned above, she nevertheless came within three games of defeat against Li in the final.  Previously, though, Clijsters enjoyed an uneventful route through the draw against thoroughly overmatched opponents, including the aforementioned Zvonareva.  Since the younger generation now has ceased “to tread tentatively,” she may find her future routes to Slam glory more arduous.

10)   Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  While she may not have won a major, the blazing-eyed Belarussian achieved her highest career ranking this year as she captured Miami for the second time.  Azarenka also became one of only three players to reach the second week of every major, attaining her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  With Wozniacki somewhere between stagnation and regression, her burgeoning rivalry with Kvitova could become one of the key narratives in the second half.  Injuries and retirements do continue to accumulate at an alarming rate, however, raising questions about her training regimen.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Following an erratic first half littered with opening-round losses, Ivanovic led the WTA in bagels served but excelled in few other statistical categories.  Since her ranking has remained in virtually the same position where it ended 2010, the gap separating her from her countrywoman has narrowed almost entirely as a result of the latter’s shortcomings.  Currently at her lowest ranking since 2007, Jankovic won four total matches at the first three majors but has many fewer points to defend during the second half.  Conversely, Ivanovic defends two fall titles and a pair of strong North American runs in Cincinnati and New York, so the gap may not narrow further.

***

Well, we fared a bit better at the service notch than did Pavlyuchenkova in Baku.  This weekend, we return with a preview of Stanford, one of the most star-studded small tournaments in the WTA calendar.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Twelve

In the first half of 2011, the Williams sisters played three total tournaments, Henin retired in January, and Clijsters nearly vanished after March.  So what went right for the WTA so far this year?  Quite a bit, in fact.  A new champion rose, an old champion rose again, another champion brought 100 million new fans to the sport, and two more champions fought a duel to the death (well, almost).  We reflect upon the most memorable and meaningful matches from a first half that compensated in drama for what it lacked in star power.

5) Sharapova d. Dulgheru (Miami):  At first glance, many readers might have imagined that this often excruciating ordeal would land on the less glamorous list below.  In the longest match of Sharapova’s career, she overcame 17 double faults, 76 unforced errors, an ankle injury late in the third set, and an unexpectedly determined opponent.  With a return to the top 10 at stake, however, the three-time major champion refused to let those obstacles halt her as her lasers grazed the line in the final moments of both tiebreaks.  Earlier in her comeback, Sharapova had lost these tortuous affairs to players like Oudin, Zheng, or Kirilenko.  This time, her renewed steeliness propelled her to victory on a night when almost nothing else could.  While Sharapova delivered much more stunning tennis later in the spring, arduous, hard-earned triumphs like these played a more important role in fueling her revival than any of her emphatic routs.  Many players can win when they strike their strokes to perfection, but few can win simply by refusing to accept any other outcome.

4) Venus d. Date-Krumm (Wimbledon) / Lisicki d. Li (Wimbledon):  Often criticized for eccentric scheduling decisions, Wimbledon redeemed itself in part by placing both of these second-round thrillers on Centre Court.  Opposing competitors from different generations, the two epics featured scintillating contrasts of styles between the artful angles of Date-Krumm, the baseline resilience of Li, and the massive first-strike firepower of their conquerors.  While the Goliaths eventually slew the Davids, these suspenseful matches illustrated the surge in quality experienced by the WTA this year, which has led to early-round encounters more entertaining than ever.  In probably her final Wimbledon, the Japanese star nearly unhinged the five-time champion with her inspired improvisations and pinpoint placement.  Even more noteworthy was the courage of Lisicki, whom few would have blamed for conceding to the Roland Garros champion late in the third set.  Proving herself as tough as one of the tour’s toughest veterans, however, the German did not flinch on the sport’s grandest stage.  While a former Wimbledon champion won one of these matches, a future Wimbledon champion may have won the other.

3) Kvitova d. Azarenka (Madrid):  Dwarfed by the Wimbledon title that followed two months later, Kvitova’s performance in this Premier Mandatory final underscored her precocious competitive determination.  No less remarkable than her blazing winners was her refusal to retreat when her ambitious shot-making misfired.  Seizing her fate in her own hands, Kvitova separated herself from the fragile debutantes who have flirted with WTA breakthroughs before faltering.  This match also separated her from one of her most talented potential rivals, a distinction confirmed in the Wimbledon semifinal.  Nevertheless, Azarenka delivered more than enough blows to the Czech on both occasions to suggest that an engaging rivalry might develop between these feisty aggressors.  After witnessing so many recent WTA finals lost by nerves or unfocused play, one relished the sight of a title tilt decided (largely) by timely excellence rather than untimely frailty.

2) Li d. Wozniacki (Australian Open):  The stakes stood high for both players in a semifinal that often felt more like a final, pitting Li’s attempt to become the first Chinese Slam finalist against Wozniacki’s attempt to legitimize her #1 ranking at a major.  Throughout most of its three grueling sets, both players held firm under the pressure as they traded weapons from two of the tour’s most balanced groundstroke arsenals.  As with Kvitova, this preliminary triumph may fade in the glow of what Li accomplished at the following major, but none of her Roland Garros wins so clearly showcased her ability to guard her baseline while unleashing strategic flashes of offense.  Averting a match point with a flamboyant forehand winner, she ground down the WTA’s ultimate grinder by patiently constructing her opportunities.  Although this defeat exposed Wozniacki’s notorious lack of firepower, it also demonstrated the degree of sustained physical and mental effort required to conquer her on a hard court.  Her decision to diverge from the winner-wild mentality in women’s tennis may or may not lead to major titles, but her baseline fortress often separates contenders from pretenders and diversifies a somewhat stylistically homogenous WTA.

1) Schiavone d. Kuznetsova (Australian Open):  In the first month of 2011, this clash between two Slam champions set the standard extremely high for the season that followed.  Less notable for the quality of the strokes than the quality of the competition, the 284-minute women’s sequel to Isner-Mahut proved infinitely more fascinating to watch than its predecessor.  Representative of their nations were the contrasting styles of the Russian and the Italian, one of whom pummeled forehands with reckless abandon while the other parried these blows with elegant slices and unexpected assaults on the forecourt.  Those who dismissively labeled Schiavone a “one-Slam wonder” should have gained greater respect for her following this demonstration of indefatigable will.  Meanwhile, the often fallible Kuznetsova earned honor in defeat by battling with undimmed vigor even as match point after match points slipped past.  Like the other matches in this list, moreover, “4:44” was won rather than lost—not a statement that often applies to these scoreboard-straining marathons.

From the zenith to the abyss…we recall the most unforgettably forgettable performances of the first half.

3) Wozniacki d. Kuznetsova (Dubai):  Among the reasons why Kvitova’s Madrid triumph appeared above was woeful WTA finals like this desert debacle.  After an eye-opening Australian Open highlighted not only by “4:44” but by a victory over Henin, Kuznetsova seemed poised to reverse her 2010 futility when she reached the final at the next significant tournament.  But then the feckless Sveta of old resurfaced in a final once again, holding serve only once and winning less than a third of her first-serve points.  Her avalanche of errors failed to put any consistent pressure on the world #1, who looked as bored as the audience.  Since that limp performance, Kuznetsova has shown scant sign of reclaiming her January momentum, which now appears less breakthrough than anomaly.

2) Azarenka d. Zvonareva (Miami):  Another Russian known for frailty at crucial moments, Zvonareva had advanced a considerable distance towards shedding that reputation in 2010.  Although she has distinctly surpassed Kuznetsova this season, her inner sense of inferiority has resurfaced on occasions such as this dismal semifinal in which she won only three games.  Against an opponent with less experience, less prestigious accomplishments, and a parallel tendency for implosions, the Russian had little excuse for a disappearing act that presaged her limp exits at the next two majors.  Despite clinging to her top-5 status, Zvonareva rarely carries herself with the poise of an elite contender.  If she doesn’t believe in herself, why should anyone else?

1) Safina d. Stosur (Indian Wells):  A lovely sight after her months of adversity, Safina’s smile nearly obscured the farcically horrific tennis that unfolded here—but not quite.  Second serves sank into the bottom of the net or flew into the doubles alley, drop shots bounced before reaching the net, and overhead attempts threatened Larry Ellison’s safety in the first row behind the baseline.  While one could understand and even empathize with the Russian’s anxiety, one’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion over Stosur’s incompetence on the most routine shots against an opponent seemingly eager to assist in her own demise.  Able to win just two games from Sharapova with a similar display a round later, Safina somehow managed to win two sets from a top-10 foe. Or rather Stosur somehow managed to lose two sets, for rarely has an elite player snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with greater determination.  If the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open finalist has regressed this year, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist has sped well ahead of her down the highway to oblivion.

Novak Djokovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Thirteen

Djokovic:  The undisputed monarch of all that he surveys, the new #1 cemented his ascendancy by triumphing on the most prestigious stage of all.  Expanding his empire to a second surface, Djokovic confirmed that his Roland Garros loss represented a temporary wobble rather than a return to the old order of Federer and Nadal.  This champion’s credentials rise significantly with his conquest of a major outside the less glamorous Australian Open and his first career victory over the Spaniard in a best-of-five format.  Twice dominating the opposition in Melbourne, Djokovic proved in London that he could maneuver through a draw without delivering his best tennis from start to finish.  His unremarkable performances against players like Baghdatis and Tomic disappeared from memory after his emphatic victory over the defending champion.  Especially notable in the final were the improvements to the Serb’s two former weaknesses, his serve and volleys.  While he did not concede a single break point to the Spaniard in the first two sets, he manufactured the only championship point that he needed with an expertly knifed volley that Nadal could not touch.  Maintaining his composure when the top seed mounted the inevitable rally, moreover, Djokovic rebounded from an ugly third set to recapture the momentum immediately in the fourth.  As he travels to the North American hard courts, the new #1 must fancy his chances of becoming the third player since 2000 to win three majors in a season.  Valedictorian

Kvitova:  When the much-awaited younger generation of the WTA finally broke through at a major, neither Wozniacki nor Azarenka scored the vital blow.  Those two competitors now find significant pressure heaped on their shoulders after a feisty 20-year-old lefty snatched the Wimbledon title with a fearlessness reminiscent of Sharapova’s 2004 surge.  Seemingly immune to pressure herself, Kvitova seized the initiative from famously aggressive opponents in the semifinal and final.  Accustomed to dictating rallies, Azarenka and Sharapova instead struck only nine and ten winners, respectively, as they struggled to withstand the Czech’s baseline barrage.  Beyond the fierce groundstrokes that have become de rigueur in the WTA, Kvitova owns a serve with pace, variety, and consistency; that shot separates her from the underpowered deliveries of Azarenka and Wozniacki and the erratic deliveries of Sharapova and Clijsters.  Whereas first-time finalists frequently wilt under the spotlight, the Czech served out the match at love against a legendary opponent.  Beneath her tranquil demeanor lies a degree of confidence remarkable for a player whom few knew before her semifinal appearance here a year ago.  Many of her peers have remained essentially the same players through time, combating the same weaknesses with little success.  In contrast, Kvitova has learned from her setbacks and developed into an increasingly complete competitor.  If she can adjust to her newfound celebrity, a kingdom could await.  A+

Nadal:  Reaching the Wimbledon final in his fifth straight appearance, the top seed comfortably overcame his two most notable rivals outside Djokovic.  After he battled through a four-set epic against Del Potro, prevailing in two tiebreaks, his triumph over Murray showcased some of the most compelling tennis that Nadal has delivered during a season a little below his lofty standards.  Counterpunching with imagination and conceding only one service game, the defending champion illustrated the competitive mercilessness that has carried him to ten major titles.  A round later, the hunter became the hunted as Nadal’s tentative performance at crucial moments in the final revealed his psychological frailty against Djokovic.  At the two most important junctures of the match, Rafa played two abysmal service games.  At 4-5, 30-15 in the first set, a blistering Djokovic forehand clearly unnerved him and led to two missed first serves followed by two routine errors, including a needless miss into an open court on set point.  At 3-4 in the fourth set, following a love hold by the Serb, the Spaniard uncorked a double fault and three more groundstroke errors to donate the decisive break.  Cast in the role of Federer to Djokovic’s impersonation of Nadal, the Wimbledon runner-up faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career so far.  Still, he has lost only one match since January to an opponent other than the scorching Serb.  A

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Ten

Sharapova:  Absent from the grass preparatory tournaments for only the second time, the 2004 champion showed little rust in roaring to the final without dropping a set.  Although skeptics will note that she faced no top-15 opponent in those six matches, Sharapova nevertheless navigated with ease past a diverse array of stylists, from the lefty Robson to the double-fister Peng to the jackrabbit Cibulkova to the mighty server Lisicki.  Having suffered only one pre-semifinal loss since the Australian Open, the Russian has proclaimed her return to the circle of elite contenders (albeit not the champion’s circle) by translating her momentum from the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami to the clay of Rome and Paris to the grass of Wimbledon.  Still fickle at inconvenient moments, her serve contributed to her demise in the final by lowering her confidence in the rest of her strokes.  As Kvitova effectively out-Sharapovaed Sharapova, one wonders whether Maria’s mind drifted back to her own emergence here as a 17-year-old, when she defeated Serena at her own game.  In both of those encounters, spectators expected the veteran champion to mount a valiant comeback that never happened as they succumbed to defeat with uncharacteristic meekness.  But the cathartic, self-vindicating experience of again starring on the sport’s grandest stage after a seven-year absence surely will inspire Sharapova to a sparkling second half on the hard courts that best suit her strengths.  A

Lisicki:  Amidst an engaging fortnight of women’s tennis, the single most inspiring story came from a player who had narrowly survived a career-threatening injury and had seemed unlikely ever to reproduce her bombastic best.  Perhaps the next generation’s grass-court specialist, the former Bolletieri pupil built upon her Birmingham title with victories over top-10 opponents Li and Bartoli.  Despite her relative inexperience, she displayed encouraging composure in saving match points against the reigning Roland Garros champion.  While the WTA’s age of parity has produced plentiful upsets, few of their perpetrators have extended the momentum from their breakthroughs as did Lisicki when she reeled off three more wins after defeating Li.  The German’s raw, less balanced game, heavily reliant on her serve, may prevent her from rising into the echelon of regular Slam contenders, but she should remain a threat at Wimbledon—and on the faster hard courts—as long as she stays healthy and positive.  A-

Tsonga:  Many are the players who have stared at two-set deficits against Federer and mentally submitted to the inevitable, but Tsonga refused to follow their path.  Erratic for much of the first week, the Frenchman suddenly soared near the tournament’s midpoint into the irrepressibly athletic shot-maker witnessed only sporadically since the 2008 Australian Open.  As he pounded forehands and slashed volleys past the six-time champion, he began to appear a legitimate contender at the major that most favors short points.  Djokovic then restored order in the semifinals, not without difficulty, after Tsonga’s fickle mind floated out of focus once again.  While he probably cannot summon the stamina necessary to win a major, his ebullient insouciance offered a refreshing antidote to the grimly intent top four.  Rarely does tennis look more like a sport and less like a business than when watching Tsonga.  A-

Azarenka:  Falling to the eventual champion for the second straight major, the Minx from Minsk finally capitalized upon a farcically cozy quarterfinal draw to reach her first Slam semifinal.  Contrary to the expectations of some, Azarenka did not collapse at that stage despite an unimpressive first set but instead battled to reverse the momentum, albeit temporarily.  Sometimes vulnerable to upsets against streaky opponents, she also impressed by defusing the recently scorching Hantuchova under the Centre Court roof.  Unruffled by the most prestigious arena in the sport, Azarenka largely controlled her emotions throughout the fortnight and ultimately lost not because of her shortcomings but because of her conqueror’s brilliance.  Yet her serve remains a less imposing weapon than one might expect from a player of her height, while her groundstrokes penetrated the court rather than exploding through it.  A-

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eleven

Murray:  Strikingly similar to his Wimbledon performance last year, the Scot wove an eventful route around second-tier opposition en route to another mildly competitive loss to Nadal.  That four-set defeat in some ways felt more disappointing than last year’s straight-set loss, for Murray had challenged the top seed on clay earlier this spring and opened this encounter in sparkling form.  Within range of a set-and-break lead, though, a few minor stumbles sufficed to shatter his self-belief for good.  While he must ground his confidence more firmly in order to halt Great Britain’s drought of futility at majors, Murray continued to handle the microscopic scrutiny that he endures at every Wimbledon with poise and maturity.  Moreover, the glimmers of aggression that surfaced during this natural counterpuncher’s clay season emerged again on grass.  The Scot now must display his characteristic stubbornness in retaining that more offensive mentality even when it yields ambivalent results.  A-/B+

Bartoli:  Unlike Federer, the Frenchwoman surged from her Paris exploits to a notable accomplishment at Wimbledon, where she expelled the two-time defending champion.  Not known for her serving excellence, Bartoli kept Serena at bay with that stroke late in the second set, when the greatest player of her generation threatened to mount one of her patented comebacks.  Despite the rust evident on the American’s game, a triumph over this fabled competitor ranks among the highlights of the double-fister’s career, similar to her victory over Henin here in 2007.  Having conquered Serena, though, Bartoli fell immediately afterwards to Lisicki as her questionable fitness betrayed her in a third set.  One might have expected Monday’s magic to last a little longer than a day.  B+

Pironkova:  Seemingly designed by the gods to vex Venus at every possible opportunity, last year’s semifinalist fell only one round short of repeating that implausible accomplishment.  In addition to dispatching the American by an eerily identical scoreline, the Bulgarian won a set from eventual champion Kvitova and flattened defending finalist Zvonareva for the loss of only five games.  Some players excel far more at one tournament than any other, and Pironkova certainly has chosen her spot of sunshine wisely.  B+

Cibulkova:  Similar to Bartoli, the Slovak watched a magnificent Monday turn to a tepid Tuesday as a stirring comeback over Wozniacki preceded a rout at the hands of Sharapova.  Few Slam quarterfinalists have eaten four breadsticks in the tournament, as did Cibulkova, but she illustrated a different route to success on grass than the huge serves and huge returns pioneered by champions like the Williams sisters or Sharapova.  Clinging tightly to the baseline, the Slovak chipped away at the top seed and earlier victims with low, darting groundstrokes.  Nearly toppled by Lucic in the first round, she competed through three three-setters against more powerful opponents with admirable durability and concentration.  B+/B

Federer:  The fashionable pre-tournament choice for the title (and not just because we chose him), the Roland Garros runner-up could not extend that momentum to the site of his most memorable accomplishments.  Undone in part by the Frenchman’s ball-striking power and in part by his wayward return, Federer resembled more than ever a genius from an earlier age.  Although Tsonga unleashed some of the finest tennis that he ever has displayed, the 16-time major champion formerly weathered those tempests and simply refused to permit such a blot upon his escutcheon.  Much more courteous in defeat than last year, he sounded strangely content with his tournament for a competitor who generally demands perfection from himself.  Perhaps even Federer has begun to accustom himself to the world after Federer—good news for his psyche but bad news for his viability as a contender.  B

Tomic:  Stealing the spotlight from his youthful contemporaries in the ATP, the controversial Aussie prodigy strung together the sequence of victories for which his languishing compatriots had hoped.  As events unfolded, Tomic tested Djokovic more than any opponent before or after him, although he faced a diluted version of the Serb far different from the tornado that swept away Nadal’s title defense.  At just 18, he has developed a surprisingly versatile array of weapons but, like Murray, sometimes outthinks himself when choosing among them.  A straight-sets victory over a two-time Slam finalist en route to a Wimbledon quarterfinal will earn the teenager ample attention over the summer.  Not adept at handling scrutiny and hype previously, has he matured mentally as well as physically?  B

Del Potro:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, he had every opportunity to claim a two-set lead against Nadal.  Allowing the Spaniard’s unfortunately timed treatment request to unglue him, he gave further credence to suspicions of competitive fragility.  From a broader perspective, though, his ability to battle the world #1 on equal terms throughout three tense sets augurs well for a comeback that remains a work in progress.  B

Berdych:  While he didn’t implode in spectacular fashion as he did at Roland Garros, a straight-sets loss to Fish on Manic Monday did little to counter the impression that his 2010 campaign stands as a unique moment in a career of underachievement.  Since reaching the Wimbledon final last year, Berdych has won seven matches in four majors as his introverted personality has shrunk from the expectations placed upon him.  His lowered ranking may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing him to collect himself under the gaze of fewer eyes.   B-

Caroline Wozniacki - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Seven

Wozniacki:  When the Dane dines, she must prefer the appetizer to the main course.  Winning New Haven in the week before the US Open, Brussels in the week before Roland Garros, and Copenhagen in the week before Wimbledon, Wozniacki failed to reach the final at any of the aforementioned majors.  Almost entirely a hard-court threat, she perhaps can explain her premature exits in Paris and London as a product of the surface.  Had a champion like a Williams or a Sharapova fed a breadstick to a sub-20 opponent, though, one feels confident that they would not have let their victim wriggle free.  Moreover, Kvitova’s breakthrough underlines and italicizes the question mark hovering above Wozniacki’s #1 status.  Meanwhile, Bastad beckons…  B-

Zvonareva:  Not expected to duplicate her finals appearance from last year, the tempestuous Russian at least should have earned herself an opportunity to face Venus in the fourth round.  But she slumped to an embarrassingly lopsided defeat against Pironkova, whose counterpunching skills might trouble a shot-maker as inconsistent as Venus but should not have troubled an opponent as complete as Zvonareva.  Although her top-5 position survived the avalanche of sliding rankings points, the early upset does not bode well for her attempt to defend the same result at the US Open.  C+

Soderling:  After winning three titles in the first two months of 2011, he has vanished almost entirely from relevance in the wake of injuries, illness, and allegedly a bout of food poisoning at Wimbledon’s new pasta bar.  Understandably surly in defeat, the Swede probably senses that his window of opportunity will pass swiftly as rivals emerge who can match his firepower while surpassing his movement and versatility.  Alone among the top five, he exited the European majors with his credibility dented rather than burnished.  C+

Roddick:  Perhaps Feliciano Lopez played the match of his life in their third-round encounter, dismissing Roddick in three sets less competitive than the scoreline suggested.  But it seems as though the American’s monochromatic style more and more brings out the best from more multifaceted, flashy opponents.  Never quite recovering from his mono last year, the three-time Wimbledon finalist lacks much spark or direction as his career inexorably wanes.  C

Williams, Inc.:  By far the more encouraging return came from the younger sister, who revealed an encouragingly human side after her opening victory over Rezai.  Two uneven victories later, a rusty Serena nearly scratched and clawed into a third set against Bartoli.  Even in defeat, the defending champion displayed the trademark intensity that could propel her to Slam glory again if she stays healthy.  On the other hand, she may struggle to intimidate a WTA that has grown increasingly opportunistic and populated with players who don’t know enough about Serena to fear her.  After she collaborated with Kimiko Date-Krumm on one of the tournament’s most thrilling encounters, Venus dismissed the dangerous Martinez Sanchez with aplomb.  But then she flunked the consistency test posed by Pironkova for the second straight year.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,…?”  Incomplete

Li:  Suffering the misfortune of a second-round meeting with Lisicki, the Roland Garros champion repeated her post-Melbourne stumble of failing to convert match points en route to a loss, the third time that she has accomplished that dubious feat this year.  Since few expected her to complete the Channel Slam, though, the early loss largely just repeated the precedent set by Schiavone and Stosur here after their Paris breakthroughs last year.  Had Wimbledon followed Roland Garros by more than a few weeks, a different narrative might have unfolded.  Excused Absence

Manic Monday:  Replete with upsets in the women’s draw, the busiest day on the tennis calendar felt like an embarrassment of riches better enjoyed in moderation.  By introducing matches on the middle Sunday, Wimbledon could ensure that spectators see and appreciate more of the fascinating action that generally unfolds in the final 16, when dark horses often trample the top seeds.  Furthermore, dividing this round into two days would allow the tournament to include both men’s and women’s matches on each of the following days, not a possibility at present because it would require men to play best-of-five encounters on consecutive days.  Ticket holders and television viewers alike probably would prefer the variety of seeing two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on both Tuesday and Wednesday, as they do at the other majors.  (Also on our list of convention-bending reforms:  night sessions.)  Expulsion

***

We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals and on an article on the most entertaining matches of the first half.

Andy Murray - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Five

Murray vs. Gasquet:  If history offers a reliable guide, this opening clash of Centre Court’s second week should tie Judy Murray’s stomach into knots.  At two previous majors, Gasquet led the British home hope by two sets to none before the latter turned the tide at the eleventh hour.  One of the signature moments in Murray’s early career, his five-set victory over the Frenchman at Wimbledon 2008 revealed a fiery competitor behind his sometimes dour façade.  Gasquet has arrived at the second week of consecutive majors for the first time in three years and has not reached a Slam quarterfinal since this tournament four years ago.  Noted for breathtaking grace, timing, and spontaneity, his effortlessly fluid brand of tennis contrasts with Murray’s more mechanized, functional style.  Despite his lack of overwhelming first-strike power, Gasquet has delivered many of his finest performances on grass, but the Scot also habitually rises to the occasion on the shoulders of his enraptured compatriots.  Through the first week, the Frenchman has sparkled more brightly than Murray, who nearly entered a fifth set against the aging Ljubicic.  If the fourth seed can weather Gasquet’s sporadic barrages of inspired shot-making, though, the best-of-five format should assist him in outlasting an opponent with inferior stamina on both physical and emotional levels.  Still struggling to convince himself that he can challenge the elite, the Frenchman defeated an erratic Federer in Rome but mustered scant resistance to Djokovic at Indian Wells or Roland Garros.

V. Williams vs. Pironkova:  Expected to meet Jankovic in the third round, the elder Williams faced Martinez Sanchez.  Projected to intersect with Zvonareva on the second Monday, she instead eyes the player who expelled her from Wimbledon last year.  After a narrow escape from Date-Krumm, Venus returned in the third round to the confident ball-striking of her opener.  Yet Pironkova has troubled her on more than one prior occasion, forcing her deep into the third set at an Australian Open. The reserved Bulgarian seems an improbable nemesis for Venus, considering her average serve and generally unremarkable groundstroke offense.  On grass, furthermore, the court coverage that assists her on slower surfaces should prove a less notable asset.  Startlingly emphatic was Pironkova’s victory over Venus on these lawns last year, however, and she upset the second-seeded Zvonareva a round ago in equally routine fashion.  Certain players do establish special, rationally inexplicable zones of comfort at specific tournament, as Venus herself could attest.  Even if she struggled at other tournaments throughout the calendar, the five-time champion always could expect to produce a memorable fortnight at Wimbledon.  After Pironkova denied those expectations last year, Venus surely will bring an additional level of focus to the sequel.

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Until the former US Open champion completes his inexorable rise towards the top 10, contenders will face a towering challenge earlier than they would have preferred.  After the duty of defusing Del Potro fell to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal earned the least enviable pre-quarterfinal assignment at Wimbledon.  Although he defeated the Argentine at Indian Wells this year, that semifinal offered more compelling tennis than the scoreline suggested.  Still relatively early in his return, Del Potro already has defeated worthy opponents including Soderling and Verdasco as he regains the confidence to swing freely on his nearly unanswerable forehand.  Specializing in finding answers for the unanswerable, Nadal eked out two tiebreaks against Muller’s veering lefty serve to reach the second week at Wimbledon without losing a set for the first time.  While that match will have prepared the Spaniard for blunting the Argentine’s imposing delivery, Rafa may find his opponent’s baseline arsenal a sterner test.  Court positioning early in points should prove vital for both players and especially Del Potro, as Nadal attempts to restrain him from stepping inside the court to launch his forehands at penetrating angles.  After an indifferent serving performance at Roland Garros, the top seed elevated his serve during the first week to a weapon that won him several key points outright.  Perhaps drained by extended encounters in the first week, Del Potro must assert himself in the initial stages to open a crack in Nadal’s confidence.  Always uncomfortable against the ATP’s towers of power, the Spaniard has scored recent successes in that category that may help maintain his calm under pressure.

Bartoli vs. S. Williams:  Still scorching as spring turns to summer, the top-ranked Frenchwoman charged from a Roland Garros semifinal to the Eastbourne title and now aims for a quarterfinal at the major where she broke through four years ago.  On that occasion, Bartoli defeated reigning #1 Justine Henin in one of Wimbledon’s more spectacular upsets before falling uneventfully to Venus in the final.  Although she since avenged that loss, the idiosyncratic double-fister always confronts a severe obstacle when facing the Williams sisters:  the discrepancy between their serves.  Bartoli has improved that most unorthodox component of her unorthodox repertoire, but it remains a shot that can donate strings of double faults at awkward moments.  By contrast, Serena has relied heavily on her serve to survive tense situations, although it lately has not approached the heights of her past two Wimbledons.  Having met the Frenchwoman only once in the last seven years, the younger Williams will need to reacquaint herself with the distinctive combinations created by Bartoli.  Since both players punish second serves with ferocious returns, first-serve percentage may hold the key to victory for either woman.  After a pair of edgy victories in the first two rounds, Serena eased into the second week with a dominant performance.  Meanwhile, Bartoli’s momentum appeared to have slowed when she saved match points in the second round and then endured a marathon against the floundering Pennetta.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Six

Sharapova vs. Peng:  Perched in the top 20 and still climbing, the second-ranked Chinese star has unfolded a season more consistent albeit less spectacular than the exploits of her countrywoman.  After she toppled Sharapova in Beijing two years ago, Peng extended her to three sets at Indian Wells this year.  At the root of that unsightly rollercoaster lay the Russian’s erratic serving, exacerbated by the wind and an apparent lack of focus.  From Sharapova’s spring successes have flowed renewed focus that has translated to her serve, still subject to occasional wobbles but vastly improved from its waywardness throughout much of her comeback.  A resilient counterpuncher with a talent for redirecting the ball, Peng does not shrink from powerful opponents and can trade flat, deep lasers with anyone from behind the baseline.  Less impressive than her groundstrokes is her serve, into which Sharapova can sink her teeth at will.  Not especially sharp in the third round, Maria will seek to improve her timing and shot selection as she enters the second week, recognizing opportunities to finish points without rushing to end them prematurely.   In that balance lies the key to unlocking her first Wimbledon quarterfinal berth since 2006.

Fish vs. Berdych:  Justifying his elevated seeding, the top-ranked American man edged through his first three matches with little fanfare against unheralded opposition.  Almost as unnoticed amidst the scrutiny surrounding the top four is last year’s finalist, who has accomplished little of note since that time.  After imploding in his Roland Garros opener, Berdych has delivered a series of considerably more composed performances despite the pressure of defending his 2010 result.  In a match that opposes two thunderous serves, one expects few extended rallies or closely contested service games.  Neither player should gain frequent opportunities to break, so a tiebreak or two looks probable.  If Berdych can orient the rallies from forehand to forehand, he should break down Fish’s less technically reliable wing.  If the American can target the Czech’s vulnerable backhand with his own brisk two-hander, conversely, he could score the mini-upset.  His rise in the rankings notwithstanding, Fish has not yet scored a resounding statement win this year outside his Miami victory over Del Potro.  On the other hand, neither has Berdych.

Petrova vs. Azarenka:  Vertigo and other physical woes behind her, the 29-year-old Muscovite mounted an encouraging charge to the second week that included a victory over compatriot Pavlyuchenkova, a decade younger than her.  Opposing another youthful ball-bruiser in Azarenka, Petrova will hope to rely on her  superior forecourt play and much superior serving to overcome an adversary with a greater array of weapons at her disposal.  Both players will recognize the significance of this situation, for a highly winnable quarterfinal against Paszek or Pervak awaits the survivor.  Ruffled by Hantuchova for much of two sets, Azarenka appeared to refocus during the rain delay.  No less important for Petrova is the psychological dimension, since she bears the scars of multiple disappointments at majors and probably has underachieved considering her talents.  At this stage, though, greater pressure probably weighs upon the Belarussian, whose narrative remains unwritten and her potential untapped.  Which of these volatile Russian-speaking women can restrain their inflammable temper more successfully?

Ferrer vs. Tsonga:  Like his compatriot Gasquet, this Frenchman revels in flamboyant bursts of inspiration and can hit any shot from anywhere on the court to anywhere else the court.  His talents shone at their most brilliant during a comprehensive victory over Gonzalez but often can flicker from one round to the next.  Reaching the second week on his least comfortable surface, Ferrer fell to the similarly flamboyant Monfils at Roland Garros.  In a five-setter that stretched across two days, he required all of his veteran wiles to outlast burgeoning American Ryan Harrison.  While the grass exposes his serve and meager first-strike capacity, the Spaniard’s compact strokes and crisp footwork represent less obvious advantages.  Pitted against Soderling in the same round last year, Ferrer caused the mighty Swede far more exertion than one might have envisioned considering the fast court.  When the Frenchman approaches the net, the Spaniard’s expertly placed passing shots should challenge his volleying skills.  If Tsonga retains the rhythm on his first serve that he found against Gonzalez, however, even the seventh seed’s scintillating return should inflict few dents upon his service games, leaving him free to concentrate upon breaking his opponent’s more pedestrian delivery.

Andy Roddick - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Three

Lopez vs. Roddick:  As a hail of aces rained off the Spaniard’s racket at Queens Club, the three-time Wimbledon finalist held his ground with a composure born of experience and waited for a chink in his opponent’s armor to emerge.  When it did, Roddick pounced and escaped a two-tiebreak, three-set serve-a-thon that hung in the balance until the final game.  Often outplayed by Lopez for sporadic stretches of their meetings, the American has relied on executing fundamentals with the consistency of a metronome.  In his two straight-sets wins here, he has conceded only a handful of unforced errors while suffocating opponents through impenetrable serving.  This third-round encounter may pivot upon tiebreaks, an area where Roddick declined sharply last year after a career of brilliance.  Improving in that category recently, he seemed encouraged by his Queens Club semifinal appearance rather than deflated by the lopsided loss with which it ended.  Still, his one-dimensional style leaves him vulnerable to lower-ranked, highly talented opponents like Lopez when they seize a sudden burst of inspiration.

Hantuchova vs. Azarenka:  An encounter certain to please male audience members, this typically glamorous Centre Court collision might feature engaging tennis as well.  Seemingly fading into a terminal spiral, Hantuchova reignited her career with a second-week appearance at Roland Garros that she followed with a Birmingham final and Eastbourne semifinal.  Not for years had this mentally fallible competitor compiled such a steady sequence of results, despite the relative insignificance of the grass tournaments.  Those three events included victories over Wozniacki, Ivanovic, Li, and Venus, a group encompassing three Slam champions and three #1s.  With those momentous victories behind her, Hantuchova should consider herself capable of expelling the fourth seed from the tournament a day after the third seed.  Azarenka has displayed formidable grass-court skills, though, ranging from a 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinal to a 2010 Eastbourne final and victory over Clijsters.  As suspect physically as Hantuchova mentally, she benefits from the extra jolt that the surface provides her powerful but not quite turbocharged weapons, especially her serve.  A lithe mover who can track down the Slovak’s angles, Azarenka might grow frustrated if dragged towards the net on disadvantageous terms.

Martinez Sanchez vs. V. Williams:  Like Roddick, his female compatriot faces a serve-and-volleying Spanish lefty with a dangerous propensity for catching fire at timely moments.  At this stage, Venus would have expected to face familiar Jankovic, but Martinez Sanchez halted the former #1’s path in an entertaining display of classic grass-court tennis.  Subjected to a similarly classic display in the second round, the elder Williams can count herself lucky to have survived the exhausting test mounted by Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Venus must recover swiftly in order to repeat a resounding Wimbledon victory over the Spaniard during which she struck the fastest women’s serve in tournament history.  Early in a comeback from injury, though, players often struggle with their reflexes and timing.  Against an opponent who favors rushing through points and towards the net, the American will need to hone the precision on her passing shots.  Gifted with an outstanding reach, Venus surrenders few aces but sometimes struggles to strike her returns with consistent accuracy.  Those two shots, in addition to her ability to recover from Wednesday’s marathon, will prove vital to her fate on Friday.

Nadal vs. Muller:  Spared the psychic ordeal of a clash with Raonic, Rafa must count himself fortunate to set his targets against an aging, rarely notable lefty from Luxembourg.  Or should he?  In his last pre-final loss at Wimbledon, Nadal fell to Muller at the 2005 tournament less than a month after winning his first major title at Roland Garros.  Nine majors and two Wimbledon crowns later, the world #1 has learned how to blunt the power of the towering servers who threaten the elite on grass, while the surface has slowed with every year and the balls become heavier.  All of those factors indicate a more routine result on this occasion, especially considering Nadal’s sparkling form in two straight-sets victories this year.  In 2010, he edged laboriously through the first week with a pair of five-setters, whereas no adjustment period appears necessary in 2011.

Tsvetana Pironkova Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in action during the Ladies Semi Final match against Vera Zvonareva of Russia on Day Ten of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 1, 2010 in London, England.

Pironkova vs. Zvonareva:  A surprise semifinalist last year, the willowy Bulgarian built her memorable Wimbledon run upon a stunning upset over Venus.  Virtually irrelevant since that breakthrough, Pironkova faces a dramatic rankings plunge should she fail to topple the player who halted the finest fortnight of her career.  Curiously, Zvonareva endured three sets and several tense moments on that occasion before overcoming a player with a far less formidable game, and she also has not capitalized upon her stirring 2010 to record a solid 2011.  Despite semifinals in Melbourne and Miami, the Russian has regressed in general towards a level not commensurate with her elevated ranking.  Extended to three sets by Riske and nearly by Vesnina, she looks ripe for an upset despite having recorded what should have proved a confidence-boosting victory over Serena in Eastbourne.  Nevertheless, Vera probably will survive for exactly one more round before Venus avenges the slight to her sister.

Monfils vs. Kubot:  Accustomed to loping along the baseline at his leisure, the Frenchman often finds the grass a little too swift for his counterpunching comfort zone.  If the surface forces Monfils into a more aggressive mentality, though, he could adapt his effortless power on serve and forehand to terminate points as abruptly as Tsonga.  A doubles specialist with a brisk return, Kubot followed earlier victories over titanic servers Roddick and Querrey with a routine win over the most formidable ace machine of all, Karlovic. From both his five-set victory over Querrey in Australia and his victory over the Croat here shone the Pole’s focus at pivotal moments and his early contact point on groundstrokes.  Although he often prefers time to assess a situation, Monfils must play a more instinctive brand of tennis against Kubot, an adjustment that could benefit him as he moves into the second week.

Wickmayer vs. Kuznetsova:  Similar in playing style albeit not in credentials, the Belgian and the Russian enjoy excellent athleticism and forehands much more potent than their backhands.  While Wickmayer owns the superior serve, Kuznetsova probably has cultivated greater prowess in the forecourt.  Both players can drift in and out of focus with alarming facility, resulting in matches with unpredictable mood and momentum swings.  Since each has disappointed hopes for most of 2011, a second-week appearance for either would mark a noteworthy achievement on arguably their weakest surface.  Thus, this match represents one of the rare Slam encounters with little to lose and much to gain for both contenders, a combination that should spawn crisp, compelling tennis.

 

Venus Williams Venus Williams of the United States in action during her first round match Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 20, 2011 in London, England.

Date-Krumm vs. V. Williams:  Commonly considered one of the WTA’s most seasoned veterans, Venus resembles a mere novice compared to her second-round opponents.  Still thirsty for competition into her fifth decade, Date-Krumm unleashed a stirring sequence of successes last year highlighted by victories over former #1s Safina and Sharapova.  In 2011, her miraculous rejuvenation waned as foes grew more familiar with her distinctive style and perhaps a bit less respectful of her age.  The Japanese star certainly cannot match Venus hold for hold, so her prospects for mustering a credible threat look slim indeed.  If she can embed herself in rallies, though, her short, flat, sharply angled strokes could test the five-time champion’s instincts and movement.  Kudos to the All England Club for featuring this classy pair of competitors on Centre Court.

Benneteau vs. Berdych:  Most dangerous on the fastest surfaces, the mercurial Frenchman defeated Federer at the Paris Indoors two years ago behind opportunistic forecourt attacks coupled with stinging down-the-line backhands.  Last summer, Benneteau held a match point against Nadal at the Rogers Cup, reminding spectators that this doubles specialist still can threaten the ATP elite in their mortal moments.  Surprisingly convincing in his opening win, Berdych eyes a reasonably comfortable draw en route to a quarterfinal with Nadal yet has struggled to capitalize on such situations before.  The 2010 finalist has not recaptured the form that earned consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic here last year, although Wimbledon’s calm atmosphere may help settle his nerves.   Dour and somewhat laborious, the Czech must forestall the Frenchman from rushing him out of his comfort zone on a wave of positive energy as another Frenchman did against Berdych at Roland Garros.

Del Potro vs. Rochus:  Dwarfed by the lanky Argentine, the Belgian struck fear into an adversary as lofty as Djokovic in the opening round of Wimbledon 2010.  Leading by two sets to one on that occasion, Rochus ultimately could not overcome the Serb’s superiority on serve and sheer pace of shot.  While a similar task confronts him against Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion rarely has imprinted his presence onto a significant grass draw.  In fact, Hewitt’s compact, far from overpowering style comfortably overcame the Argentine in straight sets during his last appearance here.  Normally an above-average mover among the ATP giants, Del Potro arranges his lanky limbs less naturally on grass, as a Queens Club loss to Mannarino illustrated.  With no points to defend through the rest of 2011, though, he can focus on accumulating points and momentum for the summer hard courts where his weapons have proved most lethal.

Dulgheru vs. Kuznetsova:  Far from top-10 quality for most of this season, Sveta could return to the top 10 with a second-week run here following her quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros.  Always fonder of clay than grass, she still reached the quarterfinal here in 2007 and plausibly could repeat that feat in a section with no rival more imposing than Kvitova.  Kuznetsova has entertained audiences with a rollercoaster career built upon momentum surges and sputters, so one wonders whether that Paris accomplishment will remain an anomaly or ignite another upward climb.  Suggesting the former was an unnecessarily complicated opener, and the Russian has faltered against non-threatening but persistent opponents like Dulgheru for much of 2011.

Muller vs. Raonic:  If at first you don’t succeed, serve, serve, and serve again.  Such a motto has defined the careers of Muller and Raonic, two monumental ace machines with compromised movement but reasonable skills at the net.  When the Luxembourg lefty meets Canada’s Ancic-like prodigy, few points should extend past three or four shots in a contest that resembles less a tennis match than a dart-throwing competition.  Nevertheless, Wimbledon still offers the best possible venue in which to observe this curious manner of playing the sport, which led to Isner-Mahut here last year.  Viewed as a future Wimbledon champion by bolder prognosticators, Raonic thus far resembles Isner more than Sampras.  Whether or not such glory lies in his future, he can only profit from the experience of playing an opponent with a game so parallel to his own.

Pavlyuchenkova vs. Petrova:  As one Russian wanes, another emerges to supplant her.  A former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Petrova possesses the heavy serve and aggressive mentality designed for success on grass.  Well past the apex of her abilities, however, she enters this match as an underdog against the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA.  Pavlyuchenkova reached her first Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros, where she thoroughly dominated Schiavone for a set and a half.  A baseliner with little affinity for the net except regarding swing volleys, her laterally oriented style may not adapt as impressively to grass as to clay, while her serve remains a work in progress.  From a breakthrough as significant as her Paris performance, though, she may have gained the confidence to believe in herself as a genuine contender and a threat to emerge from the weakest quarter of the draw.

Marino vs. Vinci:  Not unlike Raonic, his female compatriot can release a thunderous serve that Venus once compared to her own.  Also not unlike Raonic, Marino has a rough-hewn, raw game that requires considerable refinement before she can vault much higher in the rankings.  The WTA rewards the exercise of unbridled power more handsomely than does the ATP, however, especially on faster surfaces.  By winning the Dutch Open title last week against the heavy-hitting Dokic, Vinci demonstrated a different way to win on grass:  with sharply carved slices, artistic volleys, and swift reflexes.  But will any of those skills matter against Marino’s one overpowering weapon?