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Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Sydney International - Day 6

This article marks the first in a daily series that highlights the most interesting matches, in our opinion, from each order of play at the Australian Open.

Azarenka vs. Watson:  After playing the last women’s match on Ken Rosewall Arena this year, Vika will play the first match on Rod Laver Arena.  While the Sydney title should bolster her confidence, she has won consecutive titles only once in her career (Miami-Marbella last year) and often has followed an outstanding performance with a disappointment.  A product of the Bolletieri Academy, British teenager Watson scrambles effectively while striking penetrating although not explosive groundstrokes.  An upset seems highly improbable in any circumstances, but Azarenka may not escape from the midday heat as soon as she would wish if her weekend title leaves her unfocused.  As a true title contender, she should aim not just to win but to win efficiently, a goal that sometimes has eluded her in early rounds. 

Tomic vs. Verdasco:  Expect legion of chanting Australian fans for the most intriguing men’s match of Day 1.  Both players should perform at a reasonably high level, considering that each reached a semifinal at a preparatory tournament.  Reaching the second week at last year’s Australian Open, former semifinalist Verdasco enjoyed the best run of his career here in 2009.  Meanwhile, Tomic nearly gained a seed here after needing a wildcard in previous appearances, as barely a dozen rankings spots separate two careers headed in opposite directions.  While Verdasco will enjoy the high bounce and additional time to set up his superior weapons, the court speed will favor the more versatile Tomic.  And the Australian crowd may rattle the easily flustered Spaniard. 

Pervak vs. Li:  More and more dangerous as she progresses deeper into a tournament, Li lost six opening-round matches last year and may share Azarenka’s post-Sydney lull.  A rare lefty from Russia, or now “Kazakhstan,” Pervak led Schiavone early in their Brisbane meeting before retiring with a migraine.  Although she lacks significant power on her serve or return, she reached the second week of Wimbledon last year and certainly can threaten Li if the latter’s mind wanders.  On the other hand, the Chinese star experienced little trouble while dispatching a much more talented lefty last week in Safarova. 

Dellacqua vs. Jovanovski:  The often injured Dellacqua reached the second week of the Australian Open four years ago after defeating former champion and former #1 Mauresmo.  Buoyed by the support of her compatriots, she will rely upon her experience against the new face of Serbian women’s tennis in Jovanovski, who extended Zvonareva to three sets here a year ago.  Since the Serb still searches for a more potent serve, Dellacqua will want to take chances on return and use her left-handedness to frustrate the rhythm-based, relatively monochromatic opponent.  In a neutral baseline rally, though, Jovanovski’s superior depth and pace should prevail. 

Robson vs. Jankovic:  Meeting on the British teenager’s home court in Wimbledon 2010, these feisty personalities engaged in a surprisingly competitive battle considering Robson’s youth.  While Jankovic registered only three total wins in Brisbane and Sydney, she showed flashes of her former self during a fiercely contested loss to Schiavone.  Not granted a wildcard, Robson earned her berth through three convincing victories in the qualifying draw, showing that she has recovered from a stress fracture in her leg last fall.  Showcasing her underrated shot-making and serving, the pugnacious Brit should not hesitate to attack Jankovic relentlessly and create her own opportunities.  The Serb’s movement has declined in recent years, as have her results at majors, although she never has lost in the first round here through nine appearances. 

Mattek-Sands vs. Radwanska:  Sometimes daunted by imposing servers, Radwanska feasts upon players with tendencies to donate swarms of unforced errors.  In this eccentric American, she will face an opponent with a modestly imposing serve and a talent for finishing points at the net, taking valuable time away from counterpunchers like the Pole.  But she also will face an opponent who sometimes struggles to convert routine shots and falls well short of her in tactical prowess.  Which trend will define the trajectory of this match?  Among the top eight seeds, Radwanska seems probably the most susceptible to an upset.  At her last two majors, she lost in the second round to players ranked #81 and #92, and she survived a first-round reverse here last year by the narrowest of margins.  While she reached the Sydney semifinal, though, Mattek-Sands fell in Hobart to the long-irrelevant Cirstea. 

Fish vs. Muller:  Like his fellow eighth seed, the top-ranked American looks the ripest for an upset among his fellow elite contenders.  Injured for much of last fall, Fish endured a disastrous week in Hopman Cup that included an uncharacteristic altercation.  While he has accomplished nothing of note for the last few years, the lefty Muller caught fire a few US Opens to reach the quarterfinals.  This contest should center around the two impressive serves on display, perhaps featuring more tiebreaks than breaks.  If he can survive the point-starting shot, Fish holds a clear advantage with his relatively more balanced array of weapons.  But the towering lefty from Luxembourg might cause the American’s already sagging spirits to sink further by recording holds with his frustrating delivery. 

Rezai vs. Peng:  The best season of Peng’s career began last year when she upset Jankovic at the Australian Open and fought deep into a three-setter against Radwanska.  Across the net stands a player who recorded her greatest accomplishments two years ago, drawing as much attention for her volatile groundstrokes and flashy shot-making as for her volatile temper and flashy outfits.  (Well, almost as much attention.)  Beset by crises of confidence and personal setbacks since then, Rezai has lost much of her swagger.  The steady Peng, accustomed to pumping deep balls down the center of the court, might become a nightmare for the flamboyant Française.  Just as she would prefer, though, Rezai will have the opportunity to determine her own fate.  Look for her to hit far more winners and far more unforced errors. 

Hercog vs. Goerges:  While Goerges retired from Sydney with an illness, Hercog suffered a back injury in Brisbane, so both limp into this otherwise intriguing encounter.  After an impressive clay season, Goerges never quite assembled her intimidating but often wayward weapons as her countrywomen eclipsed her.  Yet she battled courageously against Sharapova here last year in one of the first week’s most compelling matches.  A six-foot Slovenian who turns 20 during the tournament, Hercog broke through in 2010 when she won a set from Venus in the Acapulco final.  Curiously for a lanky, power-hitting player, all three of her singles finals have come on clay.  We expect a match with a staccato rhythm that alternates bursts of brilliance with spells of slovenliness. 

Chardy vs. Dimitrov:  Searching for his notable run at a major, Dimitrov turned heads by severely testing eventual semifinalist Tsonga at Wimbledon.  Modeled on Federer, his game bears an eerie resemblance to the Swiss star in not only his one-handed backhand and other strokes, but his movement and footwork.  At the Hopman Cup, he thrashed Fish and delivered a competitive effort against Berdych.  Dimitrov has developed a habit of playing to the level of his competition, regrettably, and lost matches to players outside the top 200 soon after threatening Tsonga.  In the second tier of Frenchmen who populate the ATP, Chardy has underachieved when one considers his penetrating serve-forehand combinations.  Like many of his compatriots, he appears to have suffered from a lack of motivation and competitive willpower.  Both men should feel confident about their chances of winning this match, which should result in an entertaining, opportunistic brand of tennis. 

Pironkova vs. Mirza:  Dimitrov’s partner at the Hopman Cup, the willowy Pironkova enjoyed noteworthy success there herself while winning a set from Wozniacki  Her understated style contrasts starkly with the uncompromising aggression of Mirza, the top-ranked Indian woman but now a part-time player following her marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoab Malik.  Ripping forehands with abandon from all corners of the court, she even stymied Henin for a set last year in the last tournament of the Belgian’s career.  Known mostly for her Wimbledon accomplishments, Pironkova rarely has distinguished herself at the other majors, and she has won just five matches in six Melbourne appearances.  On the other hand, she won the first match that she ever played here against a player who enjoyed a reasonably solid career:  Venus Williams.

Safarova vs. McHale:  Initially overshadowed by her peer Melanie Oudin, McHale likely will surpass her before their careers end.  The American teenager tasted significant success for the first time last summer with victories over Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, and Bartoli.  Limited by her modest height, McHale does not share Safarova’s ball-striking capacity and must substitute for that disadvantage with intelligent point construction.  One wonders whether she can protect her serve as effectively as the Czech, who holds regularly when at her best.  In a tournament where the WTA’s young stars seem ready to shine, McHale represents the principal American hope for post-Williams relevance.

 

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Juan Martin Del Potro Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina reacts tot a play during his fourth round match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Seven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2011 in London, England.

Not among the highest achievers of 2011, these players nevertheless merited briefer discussion during the off-season.  Having discussed the best of the season, we now reflect upon some of the other players who caught our attention, for better, for worse, or for both.

Del Potro:  A tale of two seasons for the former US Open champion, 2011 began promisingly with a pair of minor first-half titles and encouraging runs at more significant tournaments.  Competitive against Nadal in an Indian Wells semifinal and even more competitive in the fourth round of Wimbledon, perhaps a match that he should have won, Del Potro also tested the then-undefeated Djokovic when they met at Roland Garros.  Over the summer, his charge towards the top 10 stalled unexpectedly on the North American hard courts where he had scored his greatest successes.  One of the more enigmatic champions in recent years, Del Potro faded meekly away throughout the fall with the exception of Davis Cup.  Having assisted Argentina to a victory over Serbia in Belgrade, he spared no effort in the final hosted by the heavily favored Spain.  Although he lost both of his rubbers, Del Potro severely threatened both Ferrer and Nadal with a competitive tenacity too little seen from him since 2009.  The question remains as to whether he can build upon those gallant defeats and reconstruct his tattered aura.  Entering 2011 with great uncertainty surrounding him, he will enter 2012 with his status as a contender almost equally unclear.

Soderling:  After a relentless succession of injuries and illnesses halted his 2011 campaign, viewers might not remember that the Swede started the season 19-1 with three titles in his first four tournaments.  But he played only 27 matches the rest of the season, winning just one more title, and entered only one tournament after Wimbledon.  Serving the role of a gatekeeper to the top, Soderling finished 0-3 against top-five opponents and 5-0 against opponents ranked sixth through tenth.  Few players ever quite recover from mono, especially those who rely so heavily on ball-striking power, so the Swede may struggle to recapture his magnificent form of 2009-10.  On the other hand, he did finish his half-season in sensational fashion by allowing just five total games to Berdych and Ferrer at his home tournament in Bastad, an intimidating performance that surely comforted him during the absence that followed.

Roddick:  As dependent on his serve as ever, the American now wins fewer free points on it than ever before.  That trend stems in part from the improved returning skills of even second-tier opponents and in part from his own diminishing energies.  Averaging just two wins for each loss in 2011, Roddick suffered straight-sets Slam losses to Wawrinka and Lopez, the type of talented but unexceptional opponent whom he would have dispatched with ease two or three years ago.  He also compiled a losing record at Masters 1000 tournaments (6-7) and failed to qualify for the year-end championships for the first time since winning his first major.  On the bright side, Roddick delivered his best tennis for the home audience when he upset Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals and won a thrilling final in Memphis over the rising Raonic.  He should collect a few more of those vintage wins while his ranking ebbs slowly but surely.

Almagro:  The only inhabitant of the top 10 who did not appear on our “Best of 2011” list, Almagro reached all five of his finals on clay tournaments at the 250 or 500 level.  Then, he lost to the lowly Lukasz Kubot in the first round of Roland Garros, illustrating the inconsistency that has troubled his adherents.  With more first-round losses than second-week appearances at majors, Almagro unquestionably built his inflated ranking by feasting on low-hanging fruit.  His powerful serve and groundstrokes should earn him more than 13 hard-court wins in a season, the remarkably low number that the world #10 recorded this year.  Still, his choice to play three consecutive minor clay tournaments after Wimbledon tells you everything that you need to know about his priorities.

Monfils:  Whenever and wherever he flickered onto the screen, Monfils briefly enlivened the lives of everyone who watched.  Rallying from a two-set deficit in the first round of the Australian Open, he outlasted Ferrer in a 14-game fifth set at Roland Garros and then succumbed to Ferrero in a four-hour epic in the first round of the US Open.  Dizzy and out of breath?  We haven’t even started to discuss the non-majors, where he nearly let the Stockholm final slip away against the underwhelming Nieminen, did let the Washington final slip away against the aging Stepanek, played final sets against the world #1 and the world #112, and contested eleven match-ending tiebreaks.  In short, the Monfils rollercoaster often impressed, often disappointed, and almost always entertained.  Just when he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious threat, he vanished.  Just when one gave up on him, he leapt back into relevance.

Dolgopolov:  Like Monfils, the mercurial Ukrainian attempted to hit virtually any shot from anywhere on the court—and succeeded much more often than one would have expected.  In his marathon first set against Djokovic at the US Open, Dolgopolov befuddled the world #1 as much as any other player did this year, ceaselessly changing pace and rhythm while looking for angles to exploit.  His most impressive achievement of the year came at the beginning, though, when he defeated Soderling and Tsonga in consecutive five-setters to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals.  Hampered by a chronic medical issue, Dolgopolov cannot maintain his momentum for long even if he could maintain his focus.  His smooth, seemingly effortless game nevertheless captures the imagination when he times his shots crisply, more than compensating for his inexplicable early-round losses.

Isner:  One of the most boring players to afflict the ATP in recent years, the towering server played no fewer than 58 tiebreaks.  In four matches, he played three tiebreaks or more as the inefficacy of his return symmetrically balanced the impenetrability of his serve.  Riding that latter shot to a US Open quarterfinal, Isner unhinged many an opponent with the steadily mounting pressure caused by his routine holds.  Perhaps his most notable performance came in a loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, when he lost just four points in the two tiebreaks that they played and closed within a set of a world-shocking upset that would have cast Soderling into shadow.  As mind-numbing as we find his monochromatic style, he has proven it effective even against the elite and has asserted himself as a dark horse in any draw on any surface.

Verdasco / Davydenko:  Both of these players peaked in 2009, when the Spaniard edged within six points of the Australian Open final and the Russian won the World Tour Finals with victories over Federer and Del Potro  Since then, their stock has fallen dramatically.  Despite his excellent shot-making skills and other fast-court talents, Verdasco reached only two hard-court quarterfinals this year and suffered one embarrassing stretch of six losses in seven ATP matches.  His descent still paled next to the disappearance of the now 41st-ranked Davydenko, who posted a 25-25 record this year in a perfect illustration of mediocrity.  But at least the Russian has a convincing alibi of a wrist injury from which he never recovered, whereas the Spaniard’s struggles live largely above the neck.  Jesting aside, it’s curious to observe the different paths that decline can take.  The steep trajectories charted by Verdasco and Davydenko contrast with the more gradual routes traced by other veterans.

Cilic:  Although he accomplished little of note at the majors, the lanky Croat distinguished himself during the fall and on indoor hard courts.  He might continue to reap rewards during that season and on that surface, far from the spotlight of more important events.  Or Cilic might use a promising fall as a springboard towards 2012, capitalizing upon the talent that once seemed likely to embed him in the top ten.  Considering his plethora of weapons and unruffled demeanor, few reasons explain his underachievement over the past two years, save perhaps an ornate technique on his forehand or possibly a lack of competitive intensity.  For now, he remains a bland enigma.

Bogomolov:  To some observers, his decision to play Davis Cup for Russia rather than the United States suggested a traitorous ingratitude to the USTA.  While surprising, Bogomolov’s decision didn’t offend us to that extent.  He hardly would have appeared in anything but a dead rubber for the American squad (or the Russian squad, most likely), and the USTA has suffered much more serious slights at the hands of other recipients of its generosity, like Donald Young.  That controversy aside, Bogomolov’s upset over Murray galvanized him to a string of results that his most optimistic followers could not have predicted.  He stands on the verge of receiving a seed at the Australian Open after 15 victories over higher-ranked opponents, including Murray and Tsonga.

Raonic/Tomic/Harrison:  Of this rapidly rising trio, Raonic recorded the most consistent success by reaching the second week of the Australian Open as a qualifier before rampaging to his first title in San Jose and another final in Memphis.  After he bombarded opponents with an ATP-leading quantity of aces during the first half, the Canadian spent much of the second half convalescing from a hip injury.  Meanwhile, Australian hope Tomic astonished Wimbledon with a quarterfinal appearance that culminated in a tightly contested four-setter against eventual champion Djokovic.  A disappointment at the US Open, he still finished 2011 with a winning record at ATP tournaments for the first time and secured fall victories over three top-20 opponents while reaching the top 50.  Compared by some to an embryonic Roddick, the fiery Ryan Harrison lacked the second-week Slam appearances of his fellow prodigies but defeated Raonic in a compelling three-setter at Indian Wells.  Competing with confidence against opponents like Federer and Ferrer, the foremost American of the next generation gained valuable experience by reaching consecutive semifinals during the US Open Series.  All three of these talents must mature before rising into the upper echelon of the ATP, but fans should feel heartened to see such reassuring glimpses of the ATP’s future.

Bernard Tomic - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 1

Feliciano Lopez Davis Cup team captain Albert Costa (R), Feliciano Lopez (2nd R), Rafael Nadal (C), Fernando Verdasco (2nd L) and David Ferrer of Spain celebrate with the crowd after the last match during the third and final day of the semi final Davis Cup match between Spain and France at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas on September 18, 2011 in Cordoba, Spain.

As December descends, most of the competitors who toiled so tirelessly through the labyrinthine tennis season enjoy a well-deserved respite.  But not quite all of them do.  Proving that this sport’s calendar, unlike all others, lasts twelve months a year is the Davis Cup final in Seville this weekend.  On the (red and gritty) surface, Argentina’s visit to the land of Nadal looks even more fruitless than Spain’s trip to the indoor hard courts of Mar del Plata three years ago.  Nevertheless, the Davis Cup final three years ago took more than one unexpected twist, reminding viewers that the team competition does not always fulfill expectations.  What key questions should we ask of the last men standing this year?

1)     Will Nadal repeat what he did in 2009?

Two years ago, the greatest clay player in tennis history had endured one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, including what remains his only loss in a five-set match on a favorite surface.  When Nadal slumped through a winless week in the World Tour Finals, many wondered whether his presence in Davis Cup would lift the fortunes of his team as significantly as he had in the past.  Assigned the task of facing Berdych on Friday, the Spanish #1 did in fact look uneasy through the first several games—before utterly demolishing the Czech once a set threated to slip away from him.  Although he earned only one victory in that tie, Nadal celebrated the title ecstatically with his team and compatriots.  This momentum-reversing triumph may have propelled him towards the most impressive season of his career so far in 2010, just as a Davis Cup title boosted Djokovic’s moral before his year to remember in 2011.  After another inconsistent second half and tepid performance in the World Tour Finals, a return to his homeland should raise Nadal’s spirits for the short term and could lift his game in the long term.

2)     Will Argentina repeat what it did in 2008?

In what became known as the Massacre of Mar del Plata, a Nadal-less Spanish team tiptoed into the Argentine beach town to face an ebullient home squad on indoor hard courts, the surface least suited to Spanish strengths.  All went according to script during the first rubber, an emphatic victory for Nalbandian over Ferrer.  As Del Potro edged towards a two-set lead over Lopez in the second rubber, a first Cup title looked almost a foregone conclusion.  But then Argentina’s rising star played a poor tiebreak before fading physically, the Argentine doubles team wasted multiple opportunities to seize control of the next rubber before fading physically, and suddenly the battered veteran Jose Acasuso found himself handed a must-win assignment against Verdasco.  Following a hideous five-setter, the Spanish lefty finally clinched the Cup for the leading ATP nation of the last decade.  The humiliation for the still Cup-less Argentines, meanwhile, reached staggering heights as reports of friction between Nalbandian and Del Potro bubbled to the surface.  This time, the same duo will hope to avoid the dissension that made their talented squad less than the sum of its parts.  Far from their compatriots, the away location of this tie may relieve some of the pressure that Del Potro especially seemed to sense in Mar del Plata.

3)     Will we see the Del Potro of the first half or the Del Potro of the second half?

Through Wimbledon, the Tower of Tandil had progressed promisingly and more swiftly than one would have expected.  Winning two small titles in Delray Beach and Estoril, he had reached a semifinal at Indian Wells, a quarterfinal at Miami, defeated Soderling twice, and won a set apiece from Djokovic and Nadal at majors.  Since he enjoyed an outstanding reputation on North American hard courts, the US Open Series offered the perfect platform to vault him towards what looked like an almost certain berth in the top 10.  But the summer did not unfold as one would have expected, combining losses to underachievers Gulbis and Cilic withan unsightly deluge of unforced errors in a first-week defeat to Simon at the US Open.  On the same court where he had dethroned Federer, Del Potro’s forehand suddenly lacked its characteristic explosiveness and his demeanor the quiet confidence that had intimidated his rivals.  Nor did the fall indoor season much improve his fortunes.  Looking much more like the tentative, brittle introvert of his pre-2009 self, he bookended a creditable loss to Tsonga in Vienna with unexpected stumbles against Blake and Granollers in Stockholm and Valencia.  A product of these early losses and a limited schedule, Del Potro’s second half has allowed him ample time to rest for Davis Cup, but rest may translate to rust.  In a must-win match against Ferrer on the first day, with Argentina almost certainly trailing 0-1, will the Spanish crowd unnerve a personality much less imposing than his physique?  Mentally inferior to Ferrer, Del Potro will need to rediscover his bullet serves and forehands for this tie to survive the first day in any meaningful fashion.

4)     Does Nalbandian have another miraculous moment left?

At the 2005 year-end championships, the Argentine with the smooth two-hander and dubious fitness rallied from losing the first two sets to stun Federer in a final-set tiebreak.  Just a few months later at the 2006 Australian Open, he carelessly let a two-set lead slip away against Baghdatis when victory would have allowed him to play for his first major title.  In such an erratic fashion has his long, injury-plagued career veered between spectacular success and spectacular collapses.  His Slam ambitions have long since evaporated, if they ever existed, but Nalbandian long has harbored hopes for his nation’s first Davis Cup crown.  A controversial figure in his home country as elsewhere, he would become a hero forever by snapping Argentina’s futility in Cup competition.  If Nalbandian plays as he did against Ferrer in the first rubber of the 2008 final, the Spaniards will have reason to furrow their brows if he meets Ferrer again in the potentially decisive fifth rubber.  (Although Argentina currently has scheduled Monaco for that match, one expects to see the Grouchy Gaucho riding to the rescue should their title hopes hinge upon it.)  Well past his prime, he still has amassed a formidable 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers that demonstrates his tendency to shine under national colors.  For Argentina to have any chance at all, Nalbandian must spearhead their doubles charge while conserving adequate energy to fluster Ferrer on Sunday.  The task looms large, but so do the stakes and likely the motivation—the only factor that has prevented him from becoming one of his generation’s elite contenders.

5)     Why don’t we have more questions about Spain? 

Unlike Argentina, the hosts have assembled a squad beyond Nadal that can accomplish more than the sum of its parts, especially at home and on clay.  Whereas uncertainty swirls around the visitors, one can expect an unwaveringly professional effort from Ferrer, who would serve almost any other country well as their #1 singles player.  One need only recall his five-set comeback against the then-imposing Roddick in the 2009 semifinal, or his five-set comeback against Stepanek in the 2009 final, to realize the value of his tenacity in this context, on this surface, and under the eyes of his compatriots.  Somewhat less steady are Lopez and Verdasco, but this flamboyant duo has competed valiantly throughout many a Cup campaign.  More likely than not, Argentina must defeat Ferrer twice and the two lefties once in order to claim its first Davis Cup title. Unless complacency strikes Spain in 2011 as it did Argentina in 2009, the visitors lack the depth and resilience to accomplish that mission.

Prediction:  Spain 3-1

***

Outside exhibitions, this weekend witnesses the last matches of the 2011 season.  We return next week to start reviewing the greatest performances from a fascinating season in both the ATP and the WTA.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

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

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

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

 

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point in the Men's Singles semi final match against Viktor Troicki of Serbia on day six of the Rakuten Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 9, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Viktor Troicki of Serbia 7-6, 4-6, 7-6.

Having previewed the WTA tournaments in the capitals of Japan and China, we revisit those venues to discuss the less significant but still noteworthy ATP events this week.

Tokyo:

Top half:  The top seed here for the second straight year, Nadal aims to defend a non-clay title for the first time in his career.  Potentially complicating his passage is second-round opponent Milos Raonic, who led the ATP in aces earlier this year.  Nevertheless, the Canadian of Montenegrin origins looked distinctly rusty during a four-set loss to an overmatched Israeli opponent in Davis Cup, his first event since hip surgery this summer.   In the quarterfinals, Nadal might meet the newly crowned Kuala Lumpur champion Tipsarevic, finally a victor in his fifth final after four unsuccessful attempts.  Embedding himself well inside the top 20 during recent months, Djokovic’s compatriot harbors an innate confidence with which he has troubled more familiar foes.  An unwary Rafa thus might encounter stiffer resistance than usual from Tipsarevic, unable to offer even a mildly compelling test in their two previous meetings.  Much less dangerous against the elite than Tipsarevic, yet another Serb stands poised to block Nadal’s route in the semifinals as he nearly did here a year ago.  Holding match points against Nadal on that occasion in a match that wound deep into a third-set tiebreak, Troicki still struggles with a fatalistic streak that hampers him when he finds himself in a promising position.  Nor can one pencil his name into that semifinal berth with too great certitude, for summertime storyline Mardy Fish will import much greater momentum to Tokyo.  Handed the assignment of Ryan Harrison for the third time since Wimbledon, Fish likewise could face Gulbis for the third time this year—and those dangerous opponents stand aligned to meet him in his first two matches.  If the fourth-seeded American survives those threats, he will have proved himself a serious contender who could cause Nadal concern on this fast surface.  Meanwhile, can Bernard Tomic accomplish something noteworthy after slumping to hideous losses in his last two tournaments?

Semifinal:  Nadal d. Fish

Bottom half:  Among the highlights of the 2008 US Open, the first-week battle between Ferrer and Nishikori twisted through five suspenseful sets before “Project 45” claimed the upset.  Reprising that contest on home soil, the often injured Japanese prodigy has honed a style strikingly similar to the grinding Spaniard.  Elsewhere in their section, the ageless Stepanek lilts into another clash of experience against youth when he tangles with Somdeev Devvarman, a lithe Indian with a crisp two-handed backhand somewhat reminiscent of Hewitt.  But few players in this section can mount a serious challenge on a hard court to Murray, who won Bangkok as the top seed last week.  Just when many of his rivals seem vulnerable to competitive ennui, Murray has managed to motivate himself with the objective of overtaking Federer as the year-end #3.  His identification of that goal should aid the Scot in sharpening his focus deep in a season of impressive peaks and gloomy valleys.   The architect of Murray’s demise in Rotterdam, Baghdatis reached the final in Kuala Lumpur last week with upsets over Melzer and Troicki.  If Murray reaches Tokyo weary or unwary, the Cypriot could spring an opening-round ambush with his precisely timed groundstrokes.  A few years ago, the fall showcased David Nalbandian’s mostly squandered talents at their finest.  Following another valiant effort in Davis Cup, this veteran again might stir from his nearly irrelevant state, although Murray comfortably dominated him at Cincinnati this year.  Perhaps more ominous is Juan Monaco, who split his two meetings with Murray last fall and resembles a diluted South American version of Ferrer.

Semifinal:  Murray d. Ferrer

Beijing:

Top half:  In the absence of defending champion Djokovic, the prolific tennis nation of France provides three of this tournament’s top eight seeds.  A champion in Metz two weeks ago, the top-seeded Tsonga may find that distinction less than enviable on this occasion, for he immediately encounters the temperamental Bulgarian shot-maker Dimitrov.  At Wimbledon, they engaged in a four-set rollercoaster of alternately head-turning and head-scratching tennis.  Much more predictable than his compatriot, Simon will rely upon his monochromatic style to seek a quarterfinal against Tsonga in which the relatively slow Beijing courts might assist him.  Before that all-French fracas, Gilles might meet the Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci, nearly the hero of his nation during the Davis Cup World Group playoff but eventually (and once again) disappointing home hopes.  Even if that disappointment does not weigh heavily upon him, though, he has failed comprehensively at breaking through Simon’s defenses before.  Either Tsonga or Simon should brace themselves for a semifinal with Berdych, despite a dangerous opening clash with Melzer.  Typically at his best when under least pressure, the Czech should relish the fall season as an opportunity to scarf down rankings points with minimal scrutiny.  His quarter features a trio of unreliable shot-makers from Verdasco and Kohlschreiber to rising star Dolgopolov.  Puzzling Djokovic throughout an epic first set at the US Open, the last of those figures seems the most plausible test for Berdych, whom he could trouble with his idiosyncratic timing and dipping backhand slices.  Remarkably, Berdych and Tsonga never have confronted each other on a court before; that lacuna should end this week.

Semifinal:  Berdych d. Tsonga

Bottom half:  Looming throughout this section are massive servers, two of whom collide in the first round when US Open quarterfinalist Isner meets Metz runner-up Ljubcic.  Both juggernauts acquitted themselves creditably here last year, and this year’s draw lies open for the winner to reach a semifinal.  Poised to intercept one of them is Almagro, but the Spaniard’s overstuffed schedule during the first half and focus on clay tournaments probably will have undermined his preparation for the fall.  On the other hand, the moderately paced surface should offer him more time to set up his elongated swings, and a tepid summer may have allowed him to refresh his energies.  In the first round, Almagro would meet Youzhny in a rematch of the infamous Miami meeting in which the Russian hammered not the ball but his head with a racket.  Both with exquisite one-handed backhands, they inhabit a quarter with two-handed backhands that vary from the clumsy—Roddick and Anderson—to the serviceable—Monfils and Fognini—to the potentially spectacular—Davydenko and Cilic.  None of those players has proven that they can contend consistently this year, so each match will offer a narrative without foregone conclusions.  Reaching a US Open quarterfinal with a sturdy victory over Ferrer, Roddick may carry that impetus into his next tournament, while Cilic showed signs of resurgence in a competitive loss to Federer and a dominant Davis Cup effort.  At the 2010 French Open, Monfils met Fognini in a protracted war of endless rallies, service breaks, and taut tempers, so one wonders what the first-round sequel here might bring.  Whereas Tokyo should build towards a stirring climax, Beijing might unfold a less linear storyline.

Semifinal:  Roddick d. Isner

***

We return in a few days to preview the WTA quarterfinals in Beijing, perhaps with digressions to any intriguing ATP encounters that develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain looks on during his match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the Davis Cup World Group first round tie between Spain and Serbia at the Parque Tematico Terra Mitica on March 8, 2009 in Benidorm, Spain. Nadal defeated Djokovic in three straight sets 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1 sending Spain into the Davis Cup quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Serbia.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal

If their respective nations advance through the Davis Cup semifinals, the top two men in the world could meet in Belgrade on the final day of the 2011 season.  Less than a week after the US Open’s captivating conclusion, Spain and Serbia aim to conquer France and Argentina in home ties where they should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Losing consecutive Slam finals for the first time in his career, Nadal should find his recovery from a sixth straight loss to Djokovic boosted by a return to his nation and his favorite surface.  On the other hand, the transition from hard courts to clay late in an arduous season will test the Roland Garros champion’s battered physical condition.  During a similarly timed tie against the United States in Madrid, the greatest clay-court player of all time lost a set to the clay-averse Querrey before collecting himself.  Nadal has accumulated a sensational Davis Cup singles record, however, and he had won five of six meetings from probable Friday opponent Tsonga until the Frenchman reversed that trend at Queens Club this year.  Never have they met on clay, where the acrobatic shot-maker who has reached an Australian Open final and a Wimbledon semifinal rarely excels.  Lacking the patience for extended rallies, Tsonga will find that his net-rushing style plays into the hands of Rafa’s passing shots more on this surface than any other.  In the last five years, only Federer, Djokovic, and Soderling have toppled Nadal on the terre battue, so one struggles to imagine any of the famously fickle French winning three sets from him before a Spanish crowd likely to rattle their fragile nerves.

With two near-certain  rubbers from Nadal, assuming his full participation, Spain need collect only one further from the strong supporting cast of Ferrer and the doubles pairing of Verdasco/Lopez.  Although the world #5 has not played much tennis since Wimbledon, he showcased his continued clay excellence with a title and three finals on this surface, including the Masters 1000 tournament in Monte Carlo.  Battling Djokovic through a three-set semifinal in the Madrid Masters tournament, Ferrer has feasted upon the support of his compatriots in previous Davis Cup epics such as five-set victories over Roddick and Stepanek, the latter in a Cup final.  Yet curiously this tenacious competitor has lost all three of his meetings with Friday opponent Monfils, most notably a five-set rollercoaster that ended the Spaniard’s sojourn at Roland Garros this year.  Just two places below Ferrer in the rankings, the exuberant shot-maker also quelled him as part of a Davis Cup shutout when these teams met in France last year.  On both of those occasions, though, the boisterous French fans inspired their hero to a more sustained effort than he might produce before a crowd unappreciative of his showmanship.  Somewhat more successful over the past few months than the Spaniard, Monfils must continue his dominance in their rivalry for France to survive until Sunday, for the experienced doubles squad of Verdasco/Lopez should overcome whatever pairing Guy Forget assembles to face them.

Choosing to load his rifle with four top-15 singles players rather than bring doubles specialist Llodra, the French captain perhaps expected a post-Open withdrawal from Nadal, or else an excellent serving day from Tsonga or Monfils in doubles duty.  Although Lopez probably prefers faster surfaces, he has elevated his form this year to record a near-upset over Federer, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, and a scintillating five-set Cup victory over the much higher-ranked Fish in a dangerous Austin tie.  Far less impressive are the results produced by Verdasco, but his explosive lefty serve and raw forehand power should prove greater assets in doubles than in singles.  Unless the French secure the doubles, this tie will not extend to a fifth rubber.  Despite all of the talent that they have mustered, the visitors should consider themselves fortunate to avoid a reverse shutout.  Spain

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

The image of a tightly knit team during their Cup title run last year, Serbia has contrasted with the often dysfunctional squads assembled by Argentina.  An apparent feud (or at least disdain) between Del Potro and Nalbandian undermined their efforts in a 2008 home final against Spain that they entered heavily favored.  In the hostile, raucous confines of Belgrade Arena, any internal division would magnify into a crippling liability.  Like Spain, Serbia will hope to rely for two virtually automatic singles rubbers upon one of the greatest players of this generation.  Weary from his third Slam title during a historic season, however, Djokovic may find discretion the better part of valor in this instance and prefer to recover from recent injuries incurred during his grueling consecutive victories over Federer and Nadal.  Nevertheless, he has not participated in Davis Cup since last year’s final and may sense an especially pressing need to demonstrate his national pride.  The only top-5 player who never has lost to Del Potro, he has relished trading flat baseline missiles with the giant while using his superior footwork and movement to outmaneuver him.  Whether the home nation actually needs Djokovic to win this tie lies open to interpretation, though.  Receding as sharply as the economy over the summer, Del Potro could not propel his US Open winning streak past the counterpunching wiles of Simon, while he fell meekly in straight sets to Gulbis and Cilic on the summer hard courts.  When he played the 2008 final that became known as the Massacre in Mar del Plata, the nerve-jangling pressure led to the sort of tentative performance that Lopez exploited then and that Tipsarevic could exploit now.

Retiring from the US Open with an injury, the eccentric Serbian #2 still seems a better option for starting singles duty than Serbian #3 Troicki, an early victim in New York.  As he demonstrated with a crucial victory over Berdych in last year’s Cup, Tipsarevic does not shrink from the Tour’s heavy hitters as does his less assertive compatriot.  His astonishing career-high ranking of #13 stems from an outstanding summer that included not only his first major quarterfinal, where he acquitted himself impressively against Djokovic, but also his first Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal.  On the other hand, captain Bogdan Obradovic might contrast his disappointing effort against Monfils in last year’s final with Troicki’s commanding victory over Llodra in the decisive fifth rubber, although those contrasting results seemed to spring somewhat from the opponents and their relative aptitudes on a slow hard court.  Should Djokovic participate, Obradovic still could substitute world #16 Troicki for Sunday’s reverse singles in the event that the home squad requires further heroics.

A perfect 6-0 against Tipsarevic and Troicki  but 0-4 against Djokovic, Del Potro probably must deliver both of his rubbers for the visitors rather than relying upon his meager understudies to deliver two wins of their own.  In fact, the Serbs should consider themselves favored to defeat anyone on this squad outside the recently tottering Tower of Tandil.  Although they combined for five victories at the US Open, Monaco and Chela remain natural dirt devils far from their best in indoor conditions that reward shot-making more than stamina.  A Davis Cup hero for his nation before, Nalbandian has scored improbable victories under Argentine colors but has won only 12 matches since reaching the Auckland final in January, none against top-30 opponents.  The doubles format should showcase his talents for constructing clever angles, however, while its lesser exertions will ease the strain upon his aging, often-injured limbs.  Like France, Argentina brings four singles players rather than any doubles specialists, whereas Serbia can complement its three top-20 residents with top-10 doubles star Nenad Zimonjic.  The defending Cup champions have not fared well lately in doubles, however, losing the valuable middle rubber in both the semifinal and the final last year.  But Zimonjic’s disappointing performances did not return to haunt them, for both times Djokovic galvanized his squad to comebacks from 1-2 deficits by winning the fourth rubber.  Maybe Serbia does need him after all.   Serbia

 We also investigate the World Group playoff ties:

Romania vs. Czech Republic:  This utter mismatch features two top-30 players, the experienced Davis Cup duo of Berdych and Stepanek, against a Romanian squad without anyone in the top 100.  Playing in their capital of Bucharest, the home team will hope to discomfit the 2009 Cup finalists by playing this tie on red clay.  In similar David-Goliath encounters, like recent American trips to Chile and Colombia, the surface could not compensate for the vast gap in talent.  Czech Republic

Russia vs. Brazil:  Far from the sun-soaked beaches of Rio is the central Russian city of Kazan, famously conquered by Ivan the Terrible during the rise of Muscovy into an intimidating empire.  Much less intimidating is the team fielded by ageless Davis Cup savant Shamil Tarpischev, spearheaded by a player with just a 20-19 record this year.  Only three rankings spots higher than Brazilian #1 Bellucci, Youzhny seems an unlikely spearhead for a team filled with unreliable competitors.  The solid doubles pairing of Melo and Soares should secure the third rubber and perhaps vault the visitors to a small upset, but Bellucci likely will have to win both of his singles rubbers.  A clay specialist with short patience and a long history of underachievement, he probably won’t rise to the challenge in a sterile indoor arena that lacks the atmosphere to inspire him.  Russia

Israel vs. Canada:  The only top-50 player to participate in this tie, Milos Raonic has not played since suffering a leg injury at Wimbledon.  If his serve crackles through the court as it did in the first half of 2011, he could win this tie almost single-handedly for the visitors by dominating Israel’s underpowered singles players and combining with doubles specialist Daniel Nestor for a formidable doubles team.  Best known for producing the doubles duo of Ehrlich and Ram, the home nation also has relied upon its exceptional cohesion to slay favored foes like Russia before.  The raucous crowds in Ramat Hasharon have rattled visiting players, but neither Raonic nor Nestor seems easily flustered.  Will rising talent Vasek Pospisil, who impressed Federer this summer and won a match at the Open, play a meaningful role in Sunday’s reverse singles?  Aligned potentially against Israeli #2 Amir Weintraub, he could clinch the tie in a decisive fifth rubber.  Canada

South Africa vs. Croatia:  Unlike Canada, this second English-speaking tennis nation enters this playoff as a clear underdog to a resurgent Cilic, who won a set from Federer at the Open, and the suddenly relevant Dodig, who defeated Nadal and won a set from Djokovic this year.  In a weekend of huge serves, Anderson will hope to channel the energy that led him to the title in the final edition of the Johannesburg tournament.  But Croatia’s much deeper team should win both of the singles rubber that he doesn’t play and find a way to eke out one of the other three matches.  Croatia

Chile vs. Italy:  Electing to exploit their opponent’s weakness rather than their own strength, Chile chose to play this tie on a hard court inimical to clay specialists Starace and Bolelli.  A nation that shares Russia’s tilt towards the WTA, Italy still should feel confident against a team with no player ranked higher than #101 Capdeville, who has subjected his compatriots to a catalogue of Davis Cup disappointments.  Always at his most fiery before an enthusiastic crowd, Olympic medalist Fernando Gonzalez has played only seven ATP matches (winning three) in an injury-marred season.  Retirement looms just over the horizon for most of this Chilean team, especially 2004 gold medalist Nicolas Massu, so they should bring an elevated sense of urgency to gain one more opportunity to play in World Group I next year.  Against a group as unpredictable as the Italians, intangibles determination and home-court advantage might translate into something valuable.  Chile

Japan vs. India:  The visiting team certainly will win the doubles team with the veteran duo of Bhupathi and Paes, so Japan must earn a singles win from someone other than world #55 Nishikori.  And the prospect of two wins in the best-of-five format looks far from assured, considering that Kei just retired from the US Open.  In a year filled with optimism for Asian sports, from Li Na to Japan’s own World Cup-winning women’s soccer team, this beleaguered nation would delight in the chance to reach the Cup’s highest division.  Knowing nothing about the games of Tatsuma Ito or Go Soeda, we somehow doubt that the experienced Indian squad will let this winnable tie slip away.  India

Belgium vs. Austria:  After his startling rush to the top 10 last year, Austrian #1 Melzer has faded from contention in 2011 amidst injuries and a series of unfocused performances.  An accomplished talent in both singles and doubles, he will hope to bring the momentum from winning the US Open men’s doubles crown to a successful partnership with Olivier Marach.  Whether Melzer alone can propel the Austrians past an underrated group of Belgian ball-strikers depends in part on the efforts of the equally enigmatic Belgian #1, Xavier Malisse.  In the twilight of his career, the 31-year-old “X-man” arrives on a six-match losing streak but has wins over Tsonga and Tipsarevic this year as well as Melzer, whom he toppled comfortably in the third round of Wimbledon.  Belgium’s supporting cast of Darcis and Rochus should capitalize upon the support of their compatriots to overcome the rest of Austria’s indifferent singles stars, although the flagship of the visiting squad could make their efforts irrelevant if he catches fire at a key moment.  Belgium

Roger Federer - 2011 US Open - Day 13

Australia vs. Switzerland:  Into the Royal Sydney Golf Club strides the dethroned king of the ATP, freshly committed to Davis Cup this season.  Perhaps hoping to snag a title for Switzerland before he retires, Federer demonstrated his dedication to this team competition by flying from New York to Sydney immediately after absorbing a heartbreaking loss in the US Open semifinal.  As proved the case after his Wimbledon disappointment, the Davis Cup experience might lift Federer’s spirits by offering him the opportunity to devour an overmatched collection of foes.  The home team’s emotional anchor, Lleyton Hewitt, has won only nine matches in a season comprised largely of majors and small events that offered him wildcards for nostalgic reasons.  For the first time in a meaningful tie, therefore, Australia leans upon precocious teenager Bernard Tomic to lead them past the heavily favored visitors.  While Tomic might well deliver a heroic effort against Swiss #2 Wawrinka, Federer should win both of his singles matches while reprising his gold medal-winning partnership with Wawrinka in the doubles, a pairing to which the Aussies can offer little answer.  Switzerland

Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

First quarter:  On the top line of a Slam draw for the first time in his career, Djokovic should not test his ailing shoulder significantly against his first two opponents.  Not until the third round does the path become intriguing for the Serb, who then would face Nadal’s recent nemesis Ivan Dodig.  Of Djokovic’s seven victims in Australia, only Dodig claimed a set from him.  Also wedged into this section is former semifinalist Davydenko, a recurrent threat to Djokovic on hard courts although lately struggling to string together compelling performances.  As the second week begins, a pair of graceful, spectacular, and spectacularly erratic shot-makers in Dolgopolov and Gasquet will vie for the right to battle the top seed.  The towering serve of Karlovic and a revitalized Gonzalez might disrupt the Frenchman’s progress with styles perhaps better suited to the fast courts of New York.  But none of these competitors possesses the versatility, athleticism, and mental durability of the Djokovic who has burst to the pinnacle of the ATP in 2011.  Nor, most likely, do his most plausible quarterfinal opponents.  For the third consecutive North American tournament, Djokovic might meet Monfils in an entertaining quarterfinal.  When they collided her last year, however, the latter’s showmanship produced sporadic moments of brilliance rather than a competitive encounter.  His confidence boosted by a Cincinnati victory over Federer, Berdych could block Monfils in the fourth round.  Almost the opposite of the Frenchman in playing style and personality, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist could not challenge Djokovic in Australia and has dropped their last five meetings.  Among the dark horses in this section is Grigor Dimitrov, who delivered a promising effort against Tsonga at Wimbledon and could ambush a desultory Monfils in his opener.

Quarterfinal:  Djokovic d. Berdych

Second quarter:  Having knocked off Ljubicic in the first round of last year’s Open, rising American star Ryan Harrison aims to repeat the feat against another Croat, 2009 quarterfinalist Cilic.  If Harrison should score the mini-upset, a battle between future ATP champions could unfold when he duels with leading Australian hope Bernard Tomic.  Turning heads with his Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance, the Aussie shares the American’s competitive determination, which would serve either of them well against Federer.   Like Djokovic, the five-time champion should collide with no genuine threats in his first two matches and might well reach the quarterfinals without dropping a set.  No longer able to blaze through draws with sustained dominance, Federer could profit from the opportunity to gradually refine his shots as the tournament progresses.  In a similar situation with a comfortable Wimbledon draw, though, he lacked the necessary intensity to withstand Tsonga’s inspired charge when the competition suddenly spiked upward dramatically.  Aligned to meet Stepanek, Troicki, or perhaps Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, the Swiss legend would face a corresponding challenge at the US Open when he meets Tsonga or Fish a round later.  Lurking ominously near the top-ranked American is Thiemo De Bakker, a tall Dutchman with the overpowering serve-forehand combinations that could trouble even the elite on this fast surface.  As for Tsonga, the American’s projected fourth-round opponent, a host of neighboring qualifiers and the fading Verdasco.  The Spaniard did topple Federer’s recent conqueror during his sensational semifinal run at the 2009 Australian Open, but a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal looks likely.  Can Federer solve a foe who has lost serve just twice in their last eight sets?

Quarterfinal:  Tsonga d. Federer

Third quarter:  In his return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Del Potro hopes to reclaim his scintillating spring form and move past the disappointing US Open Series.  Already having defeated Soderling twice this year, the 2009 champion should reprise that meeting early in the second week.  Before that stage, the indefatigable Simon will probe Del Potro’s consistency and fitness by extending the Argentine deep into rallies.  Of the three Americans situated between the Argentine and the Swede, Alex Bogomolov has earned the greatest attention by catapulting from a Miami upset of Murray to reach his highest ranking to date.  Likely unimpressed by this counterpunching upstart, Soderling has not played on hard courts this summer and may open the tournament a few notches below his impenetrable self.  In fact, the two-time Roland Garros finalist has spent much of 2011 located between stagnation and regression as increasing numbers of opponents have exposed his one-dimensionality.  On the day that Soderling meets Del Potro, Murray might seek revenge for his loss to Wawrinka at last year’s Open.  The Swiss #2 chronically displayed skills that shine on any surface, but the Cincinnati title should have boosted the Scot’s confidence before his (alleged) favorite major.  Late in the first week, he might once again test his mother’s loyalties when he faces Wimbledon quarterfinalist Feliciano Lopez, routinely dispatched by Murray at the All England Club.  Navigating past Del Potro in a four-set quarterfinal three years ago, the third seed typically struggles against the type of opponent who can terminate points without warning from either groundstroke wing.  Nevertheless, the 2009 champion has not yet toppled one of the ATP’s top four since returning from wrist surgery, still searching for the effortless explosiveness that won him this title.

Quarterfinal:  Murray d. Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  Slipping outside the top 20 for the first time in a decade, Roddick could not have asked for a kinder draw at his home major, which he departed in the second round last year.  Ample talent but scant willpower looms to threaten the 2003 champion in the form of Winston-Salem finalist Benneteau or new top-10 inhabitant Almagro.  Hampered since Wimbledon by assorted injuries, Roddick did play four matches last week in North Carolina although faltering again once he encountered determined resistance.  Here, that resistance should arrive in the fourth round, when he attempts to avoid a second 2011 defeat to Ferrer after falling to him in straight sets during the Davis Cup quarterfinal.  Undeterred by the American crowd, the world #5 rallied from multiple deficits in that match as he slowly gnawed away at Roddick mentally and physically.  Familiar with such a feeling against Ferrer here, world #2 Nadal yielded to his compatriot at this tournament four years ago. After dismal performances in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal could lift his spirits (and thus his game) significantly by recording a series of uneventful victories en route to that quarterfinal.  Projected to encounter him before that stage is another notable hard-court nemesis of the Spaniard, 2010 Indian Wells champion Ljubicic.  The second seed should quell that aging menace before reprising last year’s semifinal here against Youzhny.  Once winning two sets from Nadal at Wimbledon, Youzhny might fall prey to the reinvigorated Gulbis in his opener.  Should the Latvian string together three wins to reach Nadal, a compelling test of Rafa’s nerve might lie ahead.

Quarterfinal:  Nadal d. Ferrer

Semifinals:  Djokovic d. Tsonga; Murray d. Nadal

Final:  Djokovic d. Murray

***

We return tomorrow with the companion article on the women’s draw.

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

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

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

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

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

Semifinalist:  Federer

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

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

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

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Final:  Djokovic vs. Tsonga

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

Champion:  Djokovic

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

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

Semifinalist:  Petkovic

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

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

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Final:  Azarenka vs. S. Williams

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

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