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Perhaps with an eye to the looming Olympics, many of the top women have “made themselves available” for Fed Cup duty as required for participation in the Summer Games.   Rather than looking so far ahead, though, we discuss the eight ties in this weekend’s “Winter Games.”

Maria Sharapova Russia's Maria Sharapova celebrates winning a game against Shahar Peer of Israel during their 2008 World Group 1st Round Federation Cup tennis match February 3, 2008 in Ramat Hasharon, in central Israel. Sharapova, the newly crowned Australian Open champion, won in two sets 6-1, 6-1.

Russia vs. Spain:  A year ago, Sharapova followed a disappointing performance at the Australian Open with a Fed Cup defeat in Moscow.  After reaching the Melbourne final this year, she will hope to carry that momentum into another home tie and an opening rubber against the 77th-ranked Soler Espinosa.  While Sharapova generally has fizzled on Russian soil, the Spaniard has won just four WTA main-draw matches since the start of 2011.  More problematic for the home squad is the second rubber between Kuznetsova and Suarez Navarro, who has defeated the Russian on hard courts and impressed in a three-set loss to Kvitova at the Australian Open.  If the visitors can reach Sunday with a 1-1 tie, the pressure might accumulate on their heavily favored opponents.  But Russia rallied from a 0-2 deficit in the same round last year, suggesting that they will respond courageously to adversity.  Likely to win at least three of four singles rubbers, their far superior firepower should render the doubles rubber irrelevant. 

Belgium vs. Serbia:  The only top-20 player on either squad, Jankovic likely holds the keys to Serbia’s success but may find her fitness tested by the prospect of playing three rubbers.  The former #1 has recorded notable exploits in team competition while compiling a 24-7 record in singles matches, and teammate Bojana Jovanovski has produced tennis much better than her current sub-100 ranking. Without Clijsters, Belgium rests its hopes on Yanina Wickmayer, who began 2010 and 2011 in impressive fashion before fading later in those seasons.  Defeated by a qualifier in the Hobart final, she continues to struggle with consistency and may struggle with the unfamiliar role of spearheading this team.  Like Jankovic, she probably will play three rubbers if necessary on a team with no other member in the top 150.  Never have the two #1s met on an indoor hard court, a surface that should benefit the more aggressive Wickmayer.  If the tie reaches the doubles, Jankovic’s superior grittiness should prevail.

Italy vs. Ukraine:  Probably the least intriguing tie of the weekend is this pairing in which one team’s lowest-ranked player stands more than 50 notches higher than the other team’s highest-ranked player.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Errani replaces the higher-ranked Pennetta, hampered by injury during January.  Notable mostly for accomplishments on hard courts, Ukraine should count itself lucky to win any of the rubbers, for a daunting challenge awaits in the doubles against Australian Open doubles finalists Errani and Vinci.  Although Schiavone fell early in her last two tournaments, a return to Italian soil should reinvigorate the 30-year-old veteran, especially when facing two women who have combined to win one main-draw match this year.

Germany vs. Czech Republic:  In probably the most intriguing tie of the weekend, the 2011 champions open their title defense against the potent serving of Lisicki and Goerges.  Solid but not spectacular in Melbourne, world #2 Kvitova delivered crucial victories for the Czech Republic in both the semifinal and final.  Despite the victories that each German recorded against her in 2009 and 2010, the home team’s strongest hope may lie in preying upon her teammate Benesova and extending the tie to the doubles.  Like Belgium, Germany enters the weekend without its leading singles player in Petkovic, so Lisicki and Goerges must curb their characteristic unpredictability and discipline themselves against playing to the level of the competition.  Since both Germans and Benesova reached the second week of the Australian Open, one should expect an extremely high level of tennis in every singles rubber.   Even if the tie reaches the doubles, though, the pairing of Hradecka and Zahlavova Strycova would summon greater experience and doubles expertise than any duo that the hosts could assemble.  With a surface tailored to the strengths of both squads and a clash between two neighboring countries, this tie should produce not only explosive serves but the type of volatile atmosphere on which Fed Cup thrives.

World Group II:

USA vs. Belarus:  No fewer than three #1s have traveled to the prosaic environs of Worcester, Massachusetts for the mere opportunity to contest the World Group next year.  Those who wished to see Serena face one of the younger generation’s rising stars in Melbourne will find some consolation for January disappointment when she meets the newly top-ranked Azarenka on Sunday.  Since the hosts possess the only doubles specialist on either team in Liezel Huber, the visitors would prefer to clinch the tie before that rubber.  That objective would require Azarenka to defeat Serena and Belarussian #2 Govortsova to defeat promising American Christina McHale.  Winless in three Fed Cup matches, McHale nevertheless has acquitted herself impressively on home soil with victories over Wozniacki, Bartoli, and Kuznetsova among others.  Moreover, Azarenka may lack the willpower to overcome Serena if she suffers a predictable hangover from winning her first major title.

Japan vs. Slovenia:  The only top-50 player on either team, Polona Hercog aims to lift Slovenia back into relevance during the post-Srebotnik era.  Having just turned 21, she already has played sixteen Fed Cup rubbers and can wield significantly more offense than anyone on the Japanese squad.  Two decades older than Hercog, Kimiko Date-Krumm has accomplished little of note over the past year, but she may draw confidence from her memories of a career-defining victory over Graf in this competition.  Japanese #1 Ayumi Morita exited in the first round of the Australian Open and has lost her first match at eight of her last ten WTA tournaments.  But the only two events in that span where she survived her opener happened on home soil.  Update:  Date-Krumm rallied from a one-set deficit to win the first rubber from Hercog, suggesting that one shouldn’t underestimate those memories–or home-court advantage.

Slovak Republic vs. France:  During this weekend last year, an underpowered French squad thrust the Russian juggernaut to the brink of defeat in Moscow, so underestimate les bleues at your peril.  That said, their collapse thereafter confirmed stereotypes of Nicolas Escude’s squad as mentally fragile, especially when situated in a winning position.  Outgunned by the Slovakian duo of Hantuchova and Cibulkova, the visitors still face a challenge less daunting than Sharapova/Kuznetsova in 2011.  Central to their initial success that weekend was a sturdy performance by Razzano, who has compiled a 7-3 singles record under her nation’s colors, and the location of the tie outside France, again a factor in their favor here.  Nevertheless, the two leading Slovakians have edged through several tense ties together among their 71 combined Fed Cup rubbers, experience that infuses them with the sense of shared purpose and team spirit absent from their opponents.

Switzerland vs. Australia:  On paper, this matchup looks as ludicrously lopsided as Italy vs. Ukraine.  The lowest-ranked Australian, Casey Dellacqua, stands higher than Swiss #1 Stefanie Voegele.  (How soon can Federer’s daughters start wielding a racket?)  But Stosur has looked wretched while losing three of her first four 2012 matches, and Aussie #2 Gajdosova also exited Melbourne in the first round amidst a ghastly avalanche of errors.  Both struggle under the weight of expectations thrust upon them by this proud tennis nation, especially the Slovakian-born Gajdosova.  Adding depth to this potentially dysfunctional squad is Jelena Dokic, rarely free from controversy.  If the Aussies simply focus on fundamentals and keep their wits about them, their overwhelming advantage in talent should propel them forward.  Like the French, they may benefit from playing outside their nation, but somehow one senses that this weekend might unfold in a manner more interesting than expected.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

First quarter:  Still clinging to the #1 ranking, Wozniacki warily arrives into Melbourne after a wrist injury and attempts to shed her inconsistency of the past several months.  These slow courts will benefit her defensive style, especially since she faces no overwhelming shot-maker in the first week.  Even when the Dane reaches the fourth round, she would face only her counterpunching counterpart Jankovic, who compiled respectable but not remarkable results in Brisbane and Sydney.  If Safaraova can capitalize upon a fine week in Sydney to upset Jankovic, a more intriguing test might await for Wozniacki in the Czech lefty’s assertive serve-forehand combinations.  As her 24th seed would suggest, though, Safarova likely lacks the consistency to outhit the world #1 for an entire match.  Offering more intrigue is the lower part of this section, where both Clijsters and Li Na reside.  After a series of consistently solid performances at preparatory tournaments, last year’s runner-up looks sharper than she has since winning Roland Garros.  More questions surround the defending champion, forced to withdraw from her last tournament with a minor injury but now ostensibly recovered.  Often vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments, Clijsters could meet Hantuchova for the second time in four matches, having struggled with her before retiring from their Brisbane semifinal.  No similar obstacle could intercept Li, who might replay last year’s semifinal and final in reverse order should she reach the second week.  Last year, she defeated Wozniacki and probably should have finished off Clijsters.  This year, she has acquitted herself much more convincingly than both rivals and, for once, seems physically healthier.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  The champion at Sydney in 2011, Li built upon that momentum to reach the Melbourne final two weeks later.  As she searches for her first major final, Azarenka will hope to follow that example, but her draw could prove somewhat thorny.  In the first week, clashes with Bolletieri pupil Heather Watson and rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski would prepare Vika effectively for the challenges ahead.  Capable counterpunchers Pennetta and Peng might vie in the third round for the honor of withstanding Azarenka’s offense.  When they met at the US Open, their two-set match lasted over two hours as they fiercely contested every game and point with protracted rally after protracted rally.  Bookending the lower part of this quarter are two artful practitioners of a finesse rare in the current WTA, Schiavone and Radwanska.  Although she withdrew from Sydney, Julia Goerges returns in Melbourne to eye a third-round meeting with Schiavone that would contrast the German’s penetrating serve and groundstrokes with the Italian’s biting slice and uncanny placement.  Playing for the Hobart title on Saturday, Yanina Wickmayer seeks to reassert her relevance in the aftermath of a disappointing 2011 campaign.  As she showed against Henin two years ago on Rod Laver Arena, the Belgian #2 possesses natural athleticism, crisp technique, and a generally balanced game.  Sometimes too emotional at the wrong moments, Wickmayer could find Pironkova’s deceptively vanilla style frustrating in the second round and likely would come unglued when she meets Radwanska a round later.  Reaching the second week last year, the eighth seed would aim for a quarterfinal rematch with Azarenka of their Sydney semifinal, a match that she controlled for a set and a half before fading.  While neither of these Generation Next stars has broken through at a major, the third seed Vika has accomplished somewhat more on these stages and has grown slightly more patient with age.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  When the draw first appeared, many who awaited it scanned to see where Serena had appeared.  Still an intimidating presence in any player field, the 13-time major champion lies embedded in this quarter near Cibulkova, who has played three sets in all three of her matches this year and lost two of them.  The imposing serve of Canadian Rebecca Marino, praised by Serena’s sister, might test the American should she meet her in the third round.  Yet the most serious challenge that she will face during the first week concerns her ankle, severely twisted in Brisbane and not quite recovered.  Early in her comeback last year, Serena sustained a loss in Eastbourne to Vera Zvonareva, projected to meet her when the second week begins.  Considering the Russian’s ongoing slump, though, Brisbane champion Kaia Kanepi might offer more plausible resistance with her overwhelming serve and improved footwork.  Even if Zvonareva stumbles in the first week, this section still might feature a Russian quarterfinalist, since it includes 2008 champion Sharapova as well as two-time major titlist Kuznetsova.  A nagging ankle injury forestalled Sharapova’s tournament preparation and may leave her rusty for a dangerous first-round encounter with steady Argentine Gisela Dulko, who defeated her at Wimbledon in 2009.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova’s primary challenge should emerge from the chronically injured Lisicki, seeking to recover from a back injury in Auckland.  While she has not reached a semifinal at the Australian Open, Kuznetsova upset Henin and competed with unexpected tenacity throughout her epic against Schiavone last year.  The mercurial Russian defeated Serena at a major and once served for the match against her here before another of the American’s patented comebacks.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Fourth quarter:  Perhaps a little less deep than the other sections, this quarter lies at the mercy of second seed and probable future #1 Kvitova.  Losing to Li in Sydney after leading by a set and a break illustrated some remaining vestiges of immaturity, costly against elite opponents.  Aligned to face Kirilenko in the third round, Kvitova will need to cultivate her patience as she attempts to repeat her Fed Cup dominance over the Russian on slower, hotter courts.  On paper, her fourth-round encounter with either Ivanovic or Pavlyuchenkova should confront her with a hard-hitting adversary worthy of her steel.  Nevertheless, the still youthful Russian crashed out of both Brisbane and Sydney ignominiously, constantly beleaguered on serve.  While Ivanovic’s serve has improved, her overall confidence level falls well below the heights recently attained by Kvitova, who exudes purpose with each stride when at her best.  Australian fans should take confidence of their own from Stosur’s comfortable early draw, although the US Open champion nearly fell to third-round opponent Petrova early in her championship run.  Dangerous but not quite dominant in the last two weeks, Bartoli will open against her compatriot Razzano, with whom she has crossed verbal swords before.  Among the non-boldfaced names to note is Zheng Jie, the improbable Auckland champion and 2010 semifinalist.  Her opener against rising American Madison Keys ranks as one of the more intriguing first-round WTA matches.  Nor should one neglect former top-5 resident Anna Chakvetadze, who stirred from her long-dormant state in Hobart and will start against another comeback artist in Jelena Dokic.  All of these storylines feel like subplots, though, in the presence of Kvitova.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Andy Roddick - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Vinci vs. Azarenka:  Crisp and commanding in her first two matches, the world #4 has established herself as a leading contender in a draw devoid of the top two seeds.  Able to slide smoothly from defense to offense, Azarenka wields a combination of movement and power designed to succeed on the clay where she has reached two finals this year.  Nevertheless, retirements and tantrums have caused many to question her future promise, for she may not withstand their burdens created by a fortnight of intensifying pressure.  Testing Azarenka psychologically more than physically is her third-round opponent, a crafty Italian veteran who has unraveled powerful ball-strikers such as Kuznetsova and Ivanovic.  A champion in Barcelona, Vinci compensates for her lack of an offensive weapon with a variety of spins and slices that disrupt an opponent’s rhythm while allowing her to restart rallies.  Azarenka generally displays the intelligent shot selection essential to outlasting the Italian, but she also must show more patience than she often does.  Long armed with the game of a champion, does she have the mind of a champion as well?

Fish vs. Simon:  Hooked by Fish when they met on hard courts last summer, Simon may find the momentum swinging towards him on a surface vastly different from Cincinnati.  Preferring the faster surfaces as well, the top half’s only surviving Frenchman has acquitted himself creditably during the clay season but has not won more than two matches at any of his last five tournaments.  In order to halt that trend, Gilles will hope to extend the American into court-stretching rallies that enable him to outmaneuver Fish along the baseline.  Although both players can generate ample offense from their forehands, their brisk two-handers stay more technically reliable.  The last surviving American in either draw, Fish will rely upon his improved fitness to construct points carefully against an opponent who punishes the impetuous.  He remains the more natural aggressor of this pair, on the other hand, and must not allow Simon to lull him into a war of attrition from the baseline.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Five

Sharapova vs. Chan:  From an early stroll along the precipice can emerge one of two divergent trajectories for a player’s future in the tournament.  Like Nadal, Sharapova hopes that her flirtation with danger against Garcia does not foretell an early exit against an unheralded upstart but rather propels her forward with the momentum of a warrior offered a second life.  The WTA Valkyrie next crosses swords with Yung-Jan Chan, who fell to her routinely in Miami and Wimbledon four years ago.  In contrast to Garcia’s fearless assault, the Chinese doubles star focuses on executing the fundamentals as meticulously as possible.  During a qualifying match in Indian Wells this spring, for (an extreme) example, she struck 54 consecutive first serves.  Her stingy tactics force opponents to earn their victories over her by hitting their targets consistently, but Sharapova always has relished the opportunity to grasp her fate in her own hands.  If the wind whirls around Chatrier again, her ball toss  could falter and her confidence wane.  But Maria’s escape from adverse conditions and an inspired foe on Thursday should have hardened her determination for the challenges ahead.

Wickmayer vs. Radwanska:  Just a few months older than her opponent, Radwanska has crossed the threshold from promising upstart to established competitor, whereas Wickmayer remains in the former category.  Despite occasionally experimenting with amplified offense, the Pole has settled into a counterpunching mold that proves adequate against most WTA journeywomen while stalling her progress around the fringe of the top 10.  Even if she never joins the circle of Slam contenders, though, Radwanska should penetrate into many second weeks.  In the fraught Fed Cup epic that they contested last year, Wickmayer ground down her defenses by the narrowest of margins, buttressed by a significantly superior serve.  The heiress to the kingdom of Henin and Clijsters plays less like either of them than like Stosur or Kuznetsova, showcasing less grace than rugged athleticism and shielding her average movement with potent serve-forehand gambits.  While Radwanska illustrates the mental dimension of this Janus-faced sport, therefore, Wickmayer evokes its equally central physicality.

Dolgopolov vs. Troicki:  During one span earlier this year, the second Serb had lost only to the eventual champion in six of seven tournaments.  Perhaps disheartened by his unkind draws, Troicki has fallen to unremarkable opponents like Starace, Granollers, and Florian Mayer more recently.  Much more at home on hard courts than clay, he can seize control of rallies with either groundstroke but succumbs too swiftly to pessimism.  Clay can unlock those emotions more easily, but Dolgopolov can frustrate opponents on any surface with his lithe court coverage, uncanny timing, and knack for executing implausible shots under pressure.  In stark contrast are their distinctive service motions—the Serb’s a jerky sequence of starts and stops, the Ukrainian’s a smooth, loose-limbed curl.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov has cultivated an insouciant swagger that belies his sub-20 ranking.  Keenly aware of his surroundings on most occasions, Troicki conversely has allowed tension to undermine him in proportion to the magnitude of the moment.  When they met in New Haven last summer, they collaborated on a pair of energetic tiebreak sets before the Ukrainian faded in the third.  Although a chronic illness never lurks far away, Dolgopolov has improved his stamina this season and demonstrated his ability to win five-setters in Australia.

Petkovic vs. Gajdosova:  In the first round of Roland Garros 2007, the heavy-hitting German overcame the heavy-hitting Slovak when both lay well outside the top 50.  As Petkovic nears the top 10 and Gajdosova the top 25, their encounter has shifted to the middle weekend.  In each of the two previous French Opens, a player who mingled thunderous offense with meager defense reached the second week (first Cirstea and then Shvedova).  Perhaps taking confidence from those examples, Gajdosova represents the counterintuitive type of player who can shine on the clay, the ball-bruiser who can penetrate the slow court with her groundstrokes while enjoying the additional time to set her feet.  Soderling turned this formula into consecutive finals here in 2009-10, although none should confuse the Swede with the Aussie.  Also a player who prefers to deliver rather than receive blows, Petkovic can modulate into a serviceable defense more comfortably but will win few points when pressed behind the baseline.  In a WTA without conventional clay specialists, this secondary style of clay tennis may portend a trend for future French Opens.

Probably the slowest surface of any significant event, Rome poses a stern challenge to the offense-oriented elite atop the WTA and offers an opportunity for underdogs to shine.  On the dusty battlegrounds of the Foro Italico, Martinez Sanchez captured the most important title of her career in 2010.  Who will fill her quirky shoes in 2011?

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: Rome - Day Four

First quarter:  Embedded in this bristling bastion of three #1s, Ivanovic treads a dangerous path from the outset.  Should she maneuver past Petrova in her Monday opener, Wickmayer and then Wozniacki stand poised to intercept her.  After consecutive losses to Goerges, the Dane has one more opportunity to refine her clay skills before launching her campaign at Roland Garros, where she has a legitimate albeit not outstanding chance to win a maiden major.  One round beyond Ivanovic might lurk another Serb who has recorded her finest achievements on this surface but has lost both of her 2011 meetings with Wozniacki.  A two-time champion in Rome and a finalist last year, Jankovic will hope to avoid the fate suffered by the world #1 in Stuttgart and Madrid.  Last week’s nemesis Safarova will take aim at the Serb once again in the second round, seeking to continue the recent successes scored by Czech lefties.  On this occasion, although the much slower Rome surface will favor the fifth seed as clearly as the slick Madrid courts illuminated her foe’s shot-making prowess.  Not to be neglected is Estoril champion Medina Garrigues, a rather overqualified qualifier here, but Jankovic quelled her comfortably when they met in Miami.  If Wozniacki or Jankovic laments the fate assigned to them by the deities of the draw, one could remind them that the withdrawals of Cibulkova and Goerges lightened a burden unusually heavy for a Premier Five draw.  Viewed more optimistically, the perils before them will provide peerless preparation for the major ahead.

Second quarter:  Scarcely less intriguing than the section above, it features an all-lefty opener between the inflammable Makarova and the defending champion, now immured below the top 75.  Like 2010 Madrid champion Rezai, Martinez Sanchez failed to capitalize upon her unexpected breakthrough over the past twelve months and might well succumb immediately just as the Frenchwoman did last week.  Anchoring the base of this quarter is former Rome semifinalist Sharapova, who seems unlikely to match that implausible result this year after a generally plebeian performance in Madrid.  While she no longer resembles a “cow on ice,” the Russian finds her first-strike power blunted and her consistency challenged in the Foro Italico, leaving her armed largely with her legendary tenacity and focus.  Mildly disappointing in the Madrid final, Azarenka nevertheless enjoyed a splendid sequence of victories that will have lifted her confidence for a tournament where she reached the semifinals in 2009.  But a potentially tricky test awaits her in the form of a clay-savvy Italian, either Errani or Vinci.  Should she stifle the home hope, Azarenka should face no further pre-quarterfinal opposition more compelling than Pavlyuchenkova, whom she overcame in Miami this spring.  And the specter of Sharapova does not haunt a woman who resembles Sharapova 2.0, for the more agile, fluid Belarussian can adapt her style more convincingly to clay than the three-time major champion.

Third quarter:  Surely breathing a sigh of relief, Li Na thrust herself back into contention with a semifinal charge in Madrid that she certainly could replicate here.  In a section with few clay specialists beyond the fading Pennetta, the Chinese star can consolidate her momentum as she so often struggles to do.  Authors of notable upsets in the Spanish capital, Mattek-Sands and Gajdosova might train their fast-court expertise upon each other in the second round.  Elsewhere, 2009 Roland Garros champion Kuznetsova smolders ominously yet has shown few signs of catching a spark after sustaining a ghastly loss in Andalusia and a premature loss in Madrid.  Aligned to meet Radwanska in the third round, Sveta must harness her patience and consistency to a degree greater than she has for much of the season.  On the other hand, the slow courts in Rome will provide her extra time to position her feet and run around her backhand to hit forehands.  Although the champion likely will not emerge from this quarter, its semifinalist might enter the latter rounds fresher than the battle-scarred combatants of the top half.

Fourth quarter:  Doubles partners and adversaries in last year’s Roland Garros final, Stosur and Schiavone could collide in a quarterfinal on the eve of defending their 2010 accomplishments.  Not evaporating entirely like Rezai and Martinez Sanchez, they nevertheless have not reached a final since that sunbathed afternoon in Paris.  Just as Stosur showed signs of stirring from her somnolence with a Stuttgart semifinal, she suffered an unexpected Madrid loss to Pavlyuchenkova in the same round that Mattek-Sands toppled Schiavone.  Whereas the surface in Madrid allowed neither player as much time to construct their combinations as they would prefer, the Foro Italico could enable them to recapture their rhythm.  Perhaps facing Peng for the second straight tournament, Schiavone could oppose her guile to the guns of Kanepi in a stark contrast of styles a round later.  Situated near Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur might find her path complicated by the post-dance Petkovic.  Ceding the spotlight to her compatriot Goerges lately, the German has faltered since the season shifted from hard courts to clay—and since she abandoned her idiosyncratic victory ritual.  Petkovic nearly ended Kuznetsova’s title defense at Roland Garros last year, proving that she can prosper on clay.  Moreover, few players have seized opportunities more adroitly than Andrea, so the fragile seeds in her section should beware.

***

We return tomorrow to preview the equally imbalanced ATP draw.

Aravane Rezai Aravane Rezai of France holds aloft the winners torphy after her straight sets victory against Venus Williams of the USA in the womens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

First quarter:  Her momentum somewhat drained by Goerges in Stuttgart, Wozniacki still enters this Premier Mandatory event with her glass half full of European earth.  With a green-clay title and red-clay final behind her, the 2009 Madrid runner-up could reprise that championship match with Safina in the third round—or perhaps her championship match from last week.  Avenging her Miami loss to Petkovic in Stuttgart, Wozniacki might well avenge her Stuttgart loss to Goerges in Madrid.  Handed a complex opener against Acapulco champion Dulko, Stosur will demonstrate whether an uplifting week at the Porsche event has raised her spirits and rekindled her memories of clay excellence past.  This intriguing corner of the draw also includes Pavlyuchenkova, a perpetually promising prodigy who chronically threatens to burst into contention but never quite does.  Chugging into the dusty battlefield are fast-court juggernauts Kanepi and Bartoli, whose inferior mobility should undermine their hopes on the surface least suited to their styles.  Although Stosur possesses the strongest clay skills of anyone in the quarter, Wozniacki has lost before the semifinals at only one of her last seven tournaments.

Second quarter:  Vaulting back into contention with a strong February-March campaign, Jankovic demonstrated her clay prowess in Fed Cup before predictably falling early in Stuttgart a few days later. The seventh seed should face no opponent capable of consistently outhitting her during the first few rounds, for potential foes like Medina Garrigues and Radwanska have found little success against the Serb by relying upon their characteristic steadiness.  Also of note in this vicinity, however, is Gajdosova, a player whose massive ball-striking and straightforward aggression sometimes recall last year’s champion Rezai.  Lurking on the opposite side of the quarter is Rezai herself, but the Frenchwoman’s title defense probably will crumble under the pressure of Azarenka.  A former quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, the Belarussian can consolidate her position in the top 5 with an imposing May performance.  If her Fed Cup shoulder injury does not hamper her, Azarenka would face a tantalizing third-round encounter with Petkovic or perhaps Pennetta.  Absent from competition since Miami, the Italian defeated Azarenka in Dubai but surprisingly lost their only clay meeting a year ago.  More likely to pose a serious challenge to the world #5 is Petkovic, whose expectations have grown increasingly ambitious as her means of justifying them have expanded.  Might she intersect with Jankovic for a third consecutive tournament?

Ana Ivanovic Of Serbia Celebrates

Third quarter:  Stacked with clay experts, this section features two former Roland Garros champions who could collide in the third round.  If Ivanovic and her questionable abdomen can withstand the idiosyncratic assault of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, she might tangle with one-time French Open semifinalist Petrova.  During a formidable first-half of 2010, the Russian defeated both Williams sisters on clay while falling to Ana in Rome (albeit on a slower court).  Eyeing a dangerous opener against Peng, Schiavone has struggled with fatigue since her epic victory over Kuznetsova in Melbourne, and a return to her favored clay failed to rejuvenate her in Stuttgart.  Curiously, she has lost all three of her meetings with Ivanovic, including a 2009 clay encounter well after the Serb had tumbled from her pinnacle.  In even deeper peril than Schiavone is the floundering Li Na, who has won exactly one match after reaching the Australian Open final in a spiral precipitous even by her standards.  Not at her best on clay, she could succumb immediately to Martinez Sanchez, lethal in Fed Cup against France and well-designed to disrupt Li’s smooth baseline rhythm.  A talent adaptable to every surface, Peer has found herself in an auspicious position near the dormant Kleybanova and a weary Vinci.  Should she advance through the first two rounds without expending great energy, the Israeli could craft an unexpectedly deep run considering her successes against both Ivanovic and Schiavone.

Fourth quarter:  Generally bereft of clay specialists, this section lies at the mercy of the hard-court player who can most successfully conform her style and attitude to the surface.  Following the departure of her coach Sergei Demekhine, Zvonareva enters this event with no clay preparation and scant clay experience over the past few years.  Although Sharapova has reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros more recently than at any other major, she likewise delivers her least convincing tennis during this phase.  Nevertheless, the similarly erratic first-strike firepower of Venus carried her to the final here a year ago, offering an example for the Russian to emulate.  More accomplished on clay than her compatriots, Kuznetsova has spent over a year reeling from desultory loss to desultory loss despite emanating occasional flashes of hope such as her victory over Henin at the Australian Open.  The 2009 Roland Garros champion may not escape her opener against Cibulkova and gain the opportunity to challenge Sharapova in the third round.  Equaling the latter’s charge to the Indian Wells semifinal, Wickmayer aims to recapitulate a Charleston surge that almost toppled eventual champion Wozniacki.  Among the more compelling narratives of 2011 that this quarter may trace, moreover, is the evolution of Kvitova from an unreliable shot-maker into a steady contender.  While the champion probably will not emerge from this section, it might feature some of the most scintillating early-week encounters.

Svetlana Kuznetsova Svetlana Kuznetsova (R) of Russia celebrates with Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev (L) and other teammates after her win over Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on day one of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Final between Spain and Russia at the Club de Campo on September 13, 2008 in Madrid, Spain. Kuznetsova won the match in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1, giving Russia a 2-0 lead over Spain.

Italy at Russia:  Bereft of its leading ladies Schiavone and Pennetta, the decimated Italian squad ventures to Moscow with perhaps more hope than conviction.  Crushing Italy on home soil in the 2007 final, Russia looks fully equipped to pummel the visitors into submission once again.  But such a prospect loomed before its quarterfinal against France, when the plucky, vastly outgunned guests showed little courtesy to their hosts.  A heroine of Russia’s historic comeback from a 0-2 deficit, Kuznetsova enters this tie in unimposing form after premature exits in Indian Wells, Miami, and Marbella last week.  Moreover, Saturday opponent Vinci squelched her Beijing title defense last fall.  The two-time major champion often musters her most impassioned, motivated efforts in Fed Cup, however, and she may benefit from sliding into the #2 position behind third-ranked Zvonareva.  Not a participant in February’s miracle, the top Russian has displayed generally solid albeit not overwhelming tennis this year and has thoroughly dominated Vinci, scoring four straight wins during which she lost six or fewer games.  Playing on neither green clay nor red clay in the last two weeks, Zvonareva will arrive in Moscow neither fatigued from recent exertions nor maladjusted to the surface.

Lethal against Italians throughout her career, the world #3 should collect her two singles rubbers, requiring the visitors to defeat Kuznetsova twice in two days.  And Tarpischev also can respond to any stumble from Sveta by substituting Monterrey champion Pavlyuchenkova, just outside the top 20 and a valiant Fed Cup competitor despite her youth.  With this host of options, home-court advantage, and a starless Italy, the somnolent Shamil should enjoy his weekend very much indeed.

Czech Republic at Belgium:  They may not end the first day even in wins, but these two teams enter it even in withdrawals.  Potentially a much more competitive semifinal, the advantage here tilted sharply from the home squad to the visitors when Clijsters announced her withdrawal.  Somewhat softening the blow was the ensuing withdrawal of Safarova, replaced by the less reliable, less powerful Benesova.  Belgium counters the Czech Republic’s left-handed duo with Indian Wells semifinalist Wickmayer, who should relish the opportunity to snatch some of the spotlight from her renowned compatriots.  Resenting her status as the third-best player in her small country, the forehand-thumping firecracker will find her maturity tested as the flagship for her nation’s otherwise puny fleet.  How will Wickmayer respond to the pressure of winning two rubbers (and perhaps three) for the home team?

Her opposing flagship Kvitova has cooled considerably after a torrid, two-title start to 2011, winning just one total match on the North American hard courts.  En route to one of those titles, she outlasted Wickmayer in a third-set tiebreak; three of their five previous meetings, in fact, have reached 5-5 in the third set.  Drama thus may develop in a potentially tie-turning third rubber, but ambushes could occur in any of the weekend’s matches.  While Belgian #2 Flipkens defeated Kvitova a year ago, Benesova has troubled Wickmayer in both of their previous meetings.  Like Tarpischev, though, Czech captain Petr Pala has more ammunition in his arsenal than his opponent.  The pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova not only could thrive in the hostile atmosphere of Charleroi but should forge a doubles partnership with Benesova sturdier than any potential Belgian duo.  After consecutive semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010, the Czech Republic must feel especially determined to break through that barrier this year.

USA at Germany:  The architect of two unexpected finals runs, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez voiced justifiable optimism about a tie less beyond the reach of her squad than their clash with Russia in the same round last year.  Absent from this weekend, however, is the competitive spark of Bethanie Mattek-Sands that proved so critical in fueling that upset.  The United States instead rests its hopes upon two teenagers ranked outside the top 75, although Christina McHale has risen swiftly in recent weeks after victories over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Hantuchova.  Once labeled the future of American tennis, world #81 Oudin has fallen well short of achieving that promise and struggles to cope with the high bounce on clay.  Yet surely the uniformly heavy-hitting German quartet of Petkovic, Goerges, Lisicki, and Groenefeld also would have preferred a hard court over the surface that dulls their power.  Fortunately for all concerned, the Porsche Arena generally has played much faster than a conventional clay court.  The Americans will possess a considerable advantage if they can preserve the tie until the final rubber, when Huber and King would face a German squad without a notable doubles specialist.  Bolstering their chances is Oudin’s Miami success against Goerges, which suggests that the tie could rest upon the shoulders of Fed Cup novice McHale in the fourth rubber.  Don’t discount these overachieving underdogs too easily.

France at Spain:  Frustrated by the historic Russian comeback discussed above, French captain Nicolas Escude publicly blamed then-singles #2 Alize Cornet for the team’s debacle.  One tie later, one wonders how the sensitive Cornet will respond to his criticism as well as her own disappointment.  Unlikely to provide much assistance is the controversy-drenched Rezai, who has wandered through a disastrous start to 2011 after what had appeared a breakthrough in Madrid last year.  Cast into these uncertain waters, Escude wisely selected the sporadically injured Razzano for singles duty despite her lower ranking.  On the other hand, controversy also has encircled the home team, which staged a short-lived Fed Cup boycott in order to extract greater support for women’s tennis from the national federation.  Unlike the French, though, the Spaniards stood united in their bold gambit, displaying a mutual loyalty that could make their seasoned group greater than the sum of its parts.  Designed to disrupt fragile minds, the quirky point construction and dazzling drop shots of Martinez Sanchez should disrupt the rhythm of the visitors.  This trans-Pyrenean encounter therefore might reverse the outcome of the Davis Cup quarterfinal that their nations contested last year.  But first we expect an avalanche of service breaks throughout a weekend populated by shaky servers, ruthless returners, and durable defenders.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Serbia at Slovakia:  Distinctly the most glamorous tie of the weekend, this collision also could prove the most suspenseful.  Fractured by an acerbic fracas last year, the Serbian team has regained at least a semblance of unity as Ivanovic joins Jankovic in a partnership perhaps arranged merely to ensure their Olympic eligibility.  Or could a Davis Cup title last December have inspired Serbia’s feuding stars to bury their grudges and pursue a Fed Cup crown in 2012?  Whether their divisions persist below the surface remains a question crucial to this challenging weekend.  Unglued by the pressure of playing before her compatriots last year, Ivanovic seems more likely to shine in a stadium where expectations lie upon her opponents. Although she has carved out a winning record against Hantuchova, Ana has struggled against both Slovaks before and may require more time to recover from her loss to Clijsters in one of Miami’s most memorable matches.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has split her four clay meetings with Hantuchova and lost to her in Fed Cup last year (during the weekend that provoked the intra-Serbian scuffle).  Pitting soaring prodigy Jovanovski against Cibulkova is the opening rubber, which should tilt towards the diminutive but more clay-savvy Slovak.  If the tie arrives at a decisive doubles rubber, as seems plausible, the home squad should rely upon its superior chemistry to repeat its 2010 victory over Serbia.

Ukraine at Australia:  Without the Bondarenko sisters to shelter them, Ukraine heads to distant climes without a single player in the top 100.  Providing scant solace is the absence of Australian #1 Stosur, who entrusts leadership of the home squad to the eminently capable Groth.  The former Slovak leads the WTA in aces this season while marching into the top 30 for the first time, a status that neither of her Ukrainian opponents ever has approached.  Thriving in the Fed Cup atmosphere, Groth scored a stunning victory over Schiavone in the World Group quarterfinals a round ago and should comfortably capture both of her rubbers.  Beckoning for Cup neophytes Sophie Ferguson and Sally Peers, then, is a chance to stir national pride without incurring significant pressure.

***

We return shortly with thoughts on the Mediterranean playground of Rafael Nadal.

Caroline Wozniacki - BNP Paribas Open

First quarter:  Tested occasionally but not intensely during her Indian Wells title run, Wozniacki should have the physical reserves and mental focus to launch a deep run at this second Premier Mandatory tournament.  On the other hand, the top seed often has looked invincible for extended stretches before a sudden stumble, such as her losses to Zvonareva at the US Open last fall and in Doha last month.  Although Petkovic can outhit Wozniacki in forehand-to-forehand exchanges, she probably lacks the consistency to score the upset.  Meanwhile, Pennetta never has defeated the world #1 even on the clay surfaces that tilt so markedly in the Italian’s favor.  Unable to seize the elusive double herself last year, Jankovic will have an opportunity to spoil the Dane’s attempt should they meet in the quarterfinals.  Unlikely to encounter much resistance until the fourth round, the Serb may find herself tested there by Indian Wells surprise semifinalist Wickmayer.  A 2010 quarterfinalist in Miami, the Belgian #2 first would need to reprise last week’s comfortable victory over Peer, who soon could become the first Israeli to reach the top 10.  After a stinging early defeat in the desert, Jankovic may arrive additionally motivated to recapture the form that lifted her to the 2008 final here.  During a February loss to Wozniacki, she held three set points in the first set and might have scripted a different outcome had she converted one of them.  Should a quarterfinal between the stylistically similar Dane and Serb unfold, we will discover whether the apprentice has surpassed the sorceress.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Jankovic

Second quarter:  Hovering around the beleaguered top seeds here like vultures around carrion, two-time finalist Sharapova and 2006 champion Kuznetsova aim to break through a relatively weak section.  Oscillating between unremarkable and unsightly during the last several months, fourth-seeded Stosur has rarely resembled the player who dazzled us last spring.  Winless since the Australian Open, seventh-seeded Li Na could not have arranged for an easier draw in the first few rounds but then could collide with Kuznetsova.  Sparring with the Russian in Sydney this year, the world #6 narrowly survived a three-setter that proved her most severe challenge en route to that title.  Situated amidst several seismic servers, Sharapova must protect her own service games more effectively than she did while marching to the semifinals at Indian Wells.  Nevertheless, she has achieved almost immaculate mastery over Stosur and Petrova, the two highest-ranked players whom she could face before the quarterfinals.  Posing a perhaps more stubborn obstacle is Czech lefty Safarova, a mercurial player who should discomfit Stosur in the third round and has won her only meeting with Maria.  Elsewhere, a pair of youthful prodigies, Lisicki and Halep, seek to state (or restate) their relevance with creditable efforts against seeded players.  Nor should one neglect the presence of Peng, who seemingly has upset at least one notable player in each tournament that she has played this season.  The Chinese star might derail Kuznetsova for the second time in three months should they meet in the third round.  Unless someone in this section unexpectedly catches fire, though, one suspects that Sharapova will not allow anyone to block her probable ascent to the top 10.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Third quarter:  After a three-hour duel with Cibulkova turned against her in Indian Wells, Zvonareva may bring little positive energy to a tournament where she has reached the quarterfinals or better in just one of ten appearances.  And the Russian may not thrill to the task of confronting compatriot Safina in her opener, although she dispatched Dinara last fall in a tight two-setter.  Progressing beyond that meeting, however, the road could become much smoother for the world #3.  Vera has dominated her two most likely opponents in the fourth round and the quarterfinals, compiling an 8-2 record against Bartoli and winning all ten of her meetings with fifth-seeded Schiavone.  While Bartoli did capture her last clash with the Russian last fall, the 2010 Miami semifinalist may enter this tournament a bit enervated by her exploits of the preceding fortnight.  Perhaps the most powerful ball-striker in the section, Kleybanova defeated Zvonareva last month but remains disappointingly inconsistent from one tournament to the next.  Thus, one should not project too boldly from an encouraging week at Indian Wells during which she conquered longtime nemesis Pennetta and snatched a set from Wozniacki.  Likely to meet Kirilenko for the second straight tournament, Radwanska must quickly dispel the memories of her four squandered match points against Azarenka in the desert.  The Pole may have the opportunity to pit her wits against the equally crafty Schiavone in an idiosyncratic fourth-round encounter.  Can this sorceress extend her dominance over her apprentice more effectively than Jankovic did over Wozniacki?

Quarterfinal:  Radwanska vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Sore in more ways than one after Indian Wells, Clijsters sounded defensive and sour when she retrospectively denigrated the event from which she retired.  Less distant from home, the defending champion has sounded tentative about her condition over the last few days, claiming that she will withdraw at the moment that she experiences the first twinge in her shoulder.  Consequently, the players uncomfortably situated in her vicinity may progress further into the draw than they had expected.  Poised to profit from the Belgian’s frailties is potential fourth-round opponent Ivanovic, perhaps destined to face Date-Krumm for the second straight tournament.  The muscular but recently dormant Kanepi could threaten the Serb, who has not reached the quarterfinals in Miami since her first appearance there in 2005.  Personifying the WTA’s unpredictability, the streaking star Kvitova has won two titles in 2011 and lost two opening matches.  The bane of a bookie’s existence, she will seek to repeat her Wimbledon triumph over Azarenka in a fourth-round collision of brash, fist-pumping blondes.  Yet Pavlyuchenkova could intercept Kvitova if the Monterrey champion can recover psychologically from squandering multiple leads against Peer in Indian Wells.  A champion at this event in 2009, Azarenka has honed a more refined game and accumulated much more experience than either the Russian or the Czech.  Nevertheless, a hamstring strain at Indian Wells raises concern for her ever-fragile health, while her lackluster results this year inspire scant confidence even if the injury does not trouble her.  Sagging dismally against Clijsters in Miami a year ago, Azarenka will face a daunting mental challenge if the Belgian bars her path again.  Question marks cluster around this section, however, bookended by competitors in uncertain condition.

Quarterfinal:  Azarenka vs. Clijsters, if healthy; otherwise vs. Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

We return tomorrow to forecast the men’s draw.  Federer and Nadal in the same half?  Djokovic and Murray in the same quarter?  Brace yourselves for suspense!

Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays Aravane Rezai of France during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 14, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Blondes:

Sharapova vs. Wozniacki:  A virtual final, this marquee semifinal nearly did not happen and would not have happened had not Sharapova flashed a glimpse of the fortitude that has formed the foundation for her three major titles. Serving at 2-3, 15-40 in the third set of her quarterfinal, the statuesque Siberian looked deflated after a commanding lead had slipped away from her.  At that crossroads, though, the three-time Slam champion gritted through three break points and unleashed three consecutive winners to hold serve.  Battling to break point on Peng’s serve a game later, Sharapova then raced desperately across her baseline to toss up a lob that drew a match-turning error from her opponent.

As her once-seismic serve has faded, Sharapova often has shone more brightly during return games in her comeback.   This pattern of wavering serves and dismissively lethal returns has continued here, where she has broken opponents on 28 of 46 service games while struggling at times to find the rhythm with her own delivery.  Nevertheless, Maria cannot rely upon maintaining that ratio when she confronts Wozniacki, a sturdy albeit not overwhelming server.  Advancing anticlimactically with Azarenka’s retirement, the world #1 will punish Sharapova for any of the extended lulls into which she fell against Medina Garrigues and Peng.   Poised closer to the baseline in her recent tournaments, the Dane should maintain that position and display plenty of positive body language, thus physically asserting herself against an opponent who relies upon imposing herself through weight of shot and weight of personality.  Armed with more consistent technique and greater versatility, Wozniacki should aim to feed the Russian deep groundstrokes down the center of the court.  When stretched wide along the baseline, Maria not only can pinpoint a variety of angles but also recognizes that she must unleash a mighty, terminal blow.  Such clarity of mind allows her to swing with greater conviction and fluidity, whereas she often grows tentative and wooden when lured into a vertically oriented rally.

As she did in their US Open confrontation, Sharapova likely will pull the trigger when the hint of an opportunity first presents itself.  Either too respectful of Wozniacki’s movement or too unsure of her own consistency there, she seemed rigidly determined to deny her fleet-footed foe a second life in a rally and consequently crossed from aggression into recklessness.  On that occasion, Sharapova doubled the Dane’s winner count while tripling her unforced-error total.  The Russian likely will dominate in both of those categories once again, for her groundstrokes clear the net by a much lower margin and flirt much more brazenly with the lines.  One expects to see electrifying winners and egregious errors fly from the Russian’s racket in equal proportion.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki should calmly pursue the Aristotelian ideal of moderation in all things, a style more suited than Sharapova’s raw ferocity to these slow courts where the world #1 seeks a second straight final.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Backhands:

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Fresh from the first pair of consecutive top-10 victories in his career, the Frenchman has telegraphed a resurgence that began with a handful of creditable performances in Melbourne and Dubai.  An aesthetic pleasure to contemplate when at his best, Gasquet never has fulfilled and probably never will fulfill the potential that once inspired commentators to dub him the “baby Federer.”  Yet he will continue to stir anxiety in the minds of leading contenders for years to come, possessing an uncanny timing and instinctive touch that often left his victims here frozen behind the baseline or floundering towards the net.  Fitter and more focused than he has looked in years, Gasquet displayed impressive durability by capturing the majority of the extended rallies that he has played in the desert.  On the other hand, the Frenchman’s mind still can fail him under pressure, a flaw that Djokovic probably can exploit more effectively than did Roddick or Melzer.

The Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals with farcical ease, extending his winning streak to 17 consecutive matches while dropping six total games to his three opponents.  While his confidence clearly soars as high as it ever has, those routs owed as much to the desultory performances of Djokovic’s opponents as to his own prowess.  Considering the lack of resistance, one wonders whether he will enter potential meetings with Federer and Nadal a trifle untested and complacent.  Among the most compelling narratives of this match is the contrast between Djokovic’s crisp two-handed backhand and Gasquet’s effortless one-handed flick.  The Frenchman overwhelmed Roddick in the backhand-to-backhand rallies that he staged, but he will encounter far more difficulty in breaking down the Serb’s signature shot.  Equally willing to reverse direction from that wing, these two players can generate as much offense from that wing as from their forehands, the shot around which the ATP currently revolves.

Wawrinka vs. Federer:  Surely delighted to avoid 2010 nemesis Berdych in the quarterfinals, the world #2 will relish the sight of his doubles partner across the net.  Afflicted with almost paralytic deference in many of the previous meetings, Wawrinka ignited a late-career surge last summer that propelled him to competitive performances against virtually every member of the ATP elite—except his compatriot.  Observers around the world (including ourselves, regrettably) trumpeted the Swiss #2’s emergence as a genuine contender when he dominated Roddick in the fourth round of the Australian Open one major after expelling Murray from New York.  Two days later, Wawrinka collected just seven games in three sets from a Federer a few degrees below his vintage peak.   Consequently, the momentum gained from his notable three-set victories over Davydenko and Berdych may evaporate under the desert sun when he collides with the 16-time major champion.

But Federer has scarcely resembled a 16-time major champion in two of his first three matches here, uneven performances against Andreev and Ryan Harrison in which his first serve faltered for prolonged periods and his forehand did not crackle with its usual vigor.  If Wawrinka can steel himself to view Roger as just another immensely talented but human opponent, this encounter could become a scintillating all-court battle.  Perhaps the only area in which the Swiss #2 surpasses the Swiss #1, however, is his backhand.  Whereas Federer’s one-hander has declined into a generally neutral rally shot or slice, his acolyte projects the full force of his compact physique behind his heavier, more penetrating stroke.  Before he succumbs to his compatriot’s superiority, as seems inevitable, audiences can marvel at the spectacle of a stunningly graceful shot trapped in an otherwise graceless game.

And Bartoli:

Wickmayer vs. Bartoli:  Extricated from fourth-round peril when Clijsters retired, Bartoli has seized her opportunity with both hands as she has so often throughout her career.  Once facing double match point against Jankovic in a Stanford quarterfinal, the resilient Frenchwoman dodged those bullets before ultimately overcoming Stosur and Venus en route to the title.  Could she scrip a similar narrative to claim what would rank as the most significant title of her career?  Suffering from illness in her quarterfinal, Bartoli nevertheless battled through a pair of tight sets against Ivanovic and now eyes an opponent whom she defeated twice last year.  After a thunderous start to 2010, Wickmayer tumbled sharply towards the end but should have regained ample self-belief here with a semifinal charge during which she has outlasted gritty opponents Cibulkova and Peer.  Even more combative than the Belgian is Bartoli, though, and she handled the comparable pressure of their 2010 Miami quarterfinal more adeptly.  Her experience may prove as great a weapon as the superior athleticism of Wickmayer, unless her ailing body drains her willpower.  No matter the outcome of either semifinal, the finalist from this half will enter Sunday’s championship match as a significant underdog.

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