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Having shed these shimmering robes and braced herself for 2012, Ivanovic confronts many a daunting challenge in the dense Brisbane draw.  We glance across it in our first  tournament preview of the season to come.

Top half:  After a triumphant homecoming as the US Open champion, Stosur shoulders the unfamiliar burden of holding the top seed amongst a group that includes Serena and Clijsters.  At the 2011 Australian Open, among other occasions, the Aussie #1 has appeared ruffled by the expectations of her compatriots.  One wonders whether her major breakthrough will allow her to handle those situations with greater composure, for surely expectations will have risen even higher following her victory over Serena in New York.  Destined to face one of two streaky Czech lefties in the second round, Stosur must establish herself early in the tournament so that she can build confidence for the marquee clashes from the quarterfinals onwards.  First among those is a projected meeting with 2010 Brisbane champion Clijsters, who has played sparsely since early April but should shine in the relaxed atmosphere of this city near the sea.  Although rustiness might trouble this champion who relies on rhythm, she returned impressively from a far longer absence when she launched her second career.  Undefeated against both Stosur and Ivanovic, Clijsters will aim to exploit her more balanced game and far superior movement to outlast two players centered around first strikes and forehands.  If she survives a potentially intriguing opener against Paszek, the Serb can seek revenge for a loss to Belgian in Miami when she held five match points.  Nevertheless, the memories of that epic encounter should provide Clijsters with a significant psychological advantage in the sequel.

Much more accommodating than the top quarter is the section that houses Serena, who appears in Brisbane for the first time.  Inactive since the US Open, the 13-time major champion likely simmers with motivation to erase her disappointment there.  More successful at the Australian Open than at any other major, she claims to start the season in full physical health—ominous news for her rivals.  Third-ranked Serb Bojana Jovanovski dazzled at this stage of 2011, reaching the Sydney quarterfinals and winning a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne.  But she mustered little resistance to Serena at the US Open and may struggle to overcome home hope Casey Dellacqua, always more dangerous in Australia than anywhere else.  Highlighting this quarter is the first-round meeting between Slovaks Hantuchova and Cibulkova, separated by eight inches and six years.  While Hantuchova lacks the athleticism to survive baseline rallies with Serena, Cibulkova lacks the wingspan to return many of her serves.  A semifinal against Stosur or Clijsters would elevate the level of competition substantially, though, testing the American’s patience and concentration more than she would prefer at an event of this magnitude.

Semifinal:  Clijsters d. Serena

Bottom half:  Less imposing than the top half, this section features one of the least imposing Slam champions and least accomplished #1s in the history of the WTA.  Sharing a quarter, Jankovic and Schiavone collaborated on a pair of scintillating three-setters at Roland Garros and Cincinnati last year.  Probably spurred by momentum from that victory, the winner reached the final on both occasions.  After she received a retirement from Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak, she next sets her sights upon a second Kazakh in Voskoboeva.  Meanwhile, the diminutive Spaniard Suarez Navarro unfolds an elegant one-handed backhand that contrasts with the Serb’s more streamlined two-hander.  Neither Schiavone nor Jankovic ended 2011 in especially impressive fashion, so both should welcome the opportunity to collect morale-boosting victories against unremarkable opposition.  Should they meet in the quarterfinals, Jankovic would hold the surface advantage while Schiavone might hold a fitness edge, judging from her heroics in Melbourne a year ago.

A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, Petkovic compiled a consistently solid second half before succumbing to a knee injury.  More rested than many of her colleagues, she reached the final in Brisbane 2011 with a victory over Bartoli.  Opening her week is a first career meeting Peer, who hopes to elevate her ranking from a deceptive #37 to its position inside the top 20 from early last year.  While Petkovic appeared in quarterfinals at every major but Wimbledon, possible quarterfinal foe Pavlyuchenkova gained only a little less acclaim by reaching quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the US Open.  Similar to the German in playing style, the 20-year-old Russian has compiled far more experience than her age would suggest and seems equally ready to move a tier higher in the WTA hierarchy, provided that she can improve her serve.  Although have faced each other only once, just a few months ago in Beijing, Pavlyuchenkova and Petkovic should intersect more and more often if their careers continue on such promising trajectories.

Semifinal:  Petkovic d. Jankovic

Final:  Clijsters d. Petkovic

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

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

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

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

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 4

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

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

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

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

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