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Vera Zvonareva beats Caroline Wozniacki to Win Qatar Ladies Open Title in Doha

Two weeks after the Australian Open begins the first marquee WTA tournament, a Premier Five event that ranks among the nine most significant non-majors of the women’s season.  Clearly the most important tournament in February, Doha nevertheless will proceed without four of the sport’s leading figures in Sharapova, Kvitova, Serena, and Clijsters.  Their absence makes the draw less predictable, but we do our best to predict anyway.

First quarter:  In her first match as the top-ranked player in the world, Azarenka will collide with one of her victims during the Australian Open.  The champion in Hobart, Mona Barthel burst from anonymity to threaten the Belarussian at times in Melbourne and continued her surge by winning four matches at the Paris Indoors last week.  Also surpassing expectations early in 2012 is the aging Hantuchova, who soared above a weak draw in Pattaya City.  When the Slovak won the Thai title last year, though, she faded quickly in the Middle East as fatigue dulled her strokes.  Azarenka’s depth and streamlined movement position her effectively in a meeting with Hantuchova, as they would in a quarterfinal against Schiavone.  But the latter’s berth in that round looks uncertain considering her early loss in Melbourne and indifferent Fed Cup performance on her favored clay.  Winning a characteristically epic three-setter from Jankovic in Brisbane, Schiavone might find herself embroiled in another rollercoaster should she collide with Pavlyuchenkova in the third round.  The Italian and the Russian split their two major meetings last year in memorable third sets.  Winning only two matches in her first three tournaments this year, Pavlyuchenkova has struggled with every department of her game and has gone winless in three meetings with Azarenka.   That said, none of last year’s first-time major champions reached the semifinals in their next tournament.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  A semifinalist in Sydney and quarterfinalist in Melbourne, Radwanska enjoyed a consistent beginning to 2012 while losing only to Azarenka, both times in three sets.   Stacked with three qualifiers and two underpowered players in Paszek and Yakimova , her section looks especially accommodating for a Premier Five event.  Scarcely more intimidating is the presence of Julia Goerges, thrashed in embarrassing fashion by the Pole at the Australian Open.  Nevertheless, Kerber rebounded from her rout by Sharapova to reverse that result at the Paris Indoors, so her fellow German may have learned from a recent debacle as well.  Reaching the third round at the Australian Open, Christina McHale will aim to climb further towards the top 30 with winnable matches against Scheepers and perhaps Peng.  Overshadowed by Zheng as well as Li this year, the Chinese double-fister accumulated a losing record in January and has failed to win consecutive matches at her last five tournaments.  (On the other hand, she defeated McHale resoundingly in Tokyo last fall.)  Anchoring the base of this section is Jankovic, who looked somewhat promising in Australia while reaching the second week.  After she dominated second-tier competition, she imploded in a ghastly deluge of unforced errors when she met  a noteworthy opponent in Wozniacki.  That profligacy will not carry her far against Radwanska, who built her charge to last fall’s Tokyo title upon a third-set bagel of the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Third quarter:  The defending champion in Doha after an impressive victory over Wozniacki, Zvonareva has reached no fewer than three finals in the Persian Gulf city, including when it hosted the 2008 year-end championships.  This court’s moderate pace suits Vera’s consistent, well-rounded baseline style, which nevertheless can range from stylish to disheveled depending on her mood.  As her sagging ranking illustrates, Zvonareva has recorded unremarkable results at most significant tournaments over the past year.  Among the exceptions was an appearance in a US Open quarterfinal, where she fell routinely to eventual titlist Stosur.  Again situated in the same quarter as her nemesis, Zvonareva cannot look too far ahead when she considers how to halt her seven-match losing streak against the Aussie.  Possibly awaiting her in the third round is Cibulkova, who defeated her in two of their three 2011 engagements.  Nor should Stosur look too far ahead, having won only one match in three Australian tournaments to the chagrin of her compatriots.  In a curious quirk of fate, she could open her Doha campaign against Sorana Cirstea, the Romanian against whom she opened—and closed—her Melbourne fortnight.  Otherwise, Stosur would face the psychologically complicated task of toppling her Fed Cup teammate from two weeks ago, Gajdosova.  In a section so murky and filled with recent underachievers, one might fancy a surprise semifinalist.  Those who do might consider Ivanovic, who won more matches at the Australian Open than Stosur and Zvonareva combined as her service rhythm continued to coalesce.  Yet she has lost both of her hard-court meetings to the Australian, whom she would meet in the third round, and never has brought her best tennis to the Middle East.

Semifinalist:  Stosur?

Fourth quarter:  Aligned for a possible third-round clash are the two Paris finalists Bartoli and Kerber, who may reach Doha with little more energy than Kvitova and Hantuchova did last year.  Who stands to profit the most from their fatigue?  Look no further than Sabine Lisicki, destined to open against her countrywoman Kerber in a battle of muscular blondes.  Having defeated Bartoli at Wimbledon last year, she should aim to exploit the vast disparity in their serves even on this slower surface.  In the lower part of this section lie two-time major champion Kuznetsova and the newly deposed Wozniacki, the finalists in nearby Dubai a year ago.  Retreating to the exclusive supervision of her father, the former #1 has stagnated since winning Indian Wells last March as a disturbing complacency has settled into her.  When at her best, though, she has excelled at the most prestigious non-majors until an arid stretch in the second half of 2011.  Overshadowed lately by the accomplishments of the Trident, she may gain valuable purpose from the goal of regaining the top ranking.  Meanwhile, Kuznetsova showed glimmers of rebounding from a dreadful season last year by reaching the Auckland semifinal and winning the Australian Open doubles title with Zvonareva.  Gifted with the natural talent to trouble the more mechanical Wozniacki, she nearly conquered her at the US Open before her inherent inconsistency undid her.  Against the mighty serve of Lisicki, both the reckless Russian and the defensive Dane  would shoulder considerable pressure.

Semifinalist:  Lisicki

Final:  Radwanska vs. Lisicki

Champion:  Agnieszka Radwanska

 

Maria Sharapova - 2012 Australian Open - Day 13

After a thrilling fortnight at the Australian Open, we compile the first of two articles that review the tournament’s most memorable performers, for better or for worse.

Azarenka:  Serving at 0-2, 0-30 in the final after a third double fault, Azarenka looked like a deer trapped in the spotlight of Rod Laver Arena.  But the first-time major finalist rebounded with aplomb as she had throughout her last three matches, banishing her nerves almost entirely during the commanding performance that ensued.  After losing a ghastly first-set tiebreak to Radwanska in the quarterfinals, Azarenka collected herself just as impressively to lose just two games in the last two sets against an opponent who often had frustrated her.  Dominated by Clijsters in the second set of their semifinal, she let neither the defending champion nor her thousands of fans deter her from finishing that match with the right blend of passion and composure.  Having struggled to strike that balance for most of her career to date, Azarenka seemed to complete her long route towards maturity at the tournament where she ascended to the top ranking.  Somewhat like her fellow #1, Djokovic, Vika transitioned smoothly from defense into offense and showcased an acute instinct for deciding when to pull the trigger or when to construct points more carefully.  Unlike Djokovic, she forced her opponents to play her style and at her pace, setting the tone for the rallies.  Is Azarenka the best player in the world?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But she was by far the best Azarenka that we have seen to date.  A+

Sharapova:  For the second time in three majors, she carved a route to the second Saturday, which many once thought that she would not reach again after shoulder surgery.  For the first time since then, the Russian’s serve never deserted her at a crucial moment throughout an entire fortnight but instead delivered free points when she absolutely needed them.  Meanwhile, her return remained the best in the WTA as it broke her first six opponents in 57% of their service games.  Refusing to relent against even her most unimposing opponents, Sharapova battled through deuce game after deuce game and rarely blinked first.  A signature performance worthy of her vintage years, her semifinal victory over Kvitova witnessed not only thrillingly explosive first-strike tennis but a spine-tingling third set that she simply refused to let slip away.   Having won 14 of her last 15 three-setters, Sharapova shines most brightly under the pressure of such fiercely contested encounters, where she has proven herself the WTA’s foremost competitor.  That steely resolve never appeared in the final, strangely, as she never found her groundstroke rhythm, rarely thought clearly, and looked disengaged at moments when a timely burst of intensity could have reinvigorated her hopes.  Always susceptible to such a stumble, Sharapova still left Melbourne with her most compelling performance at a major in four years.  A

Clijsters:  In her final Australian Open, Clijsters offered her Melbourne fans ample opportunities to admire her athleticism one last time.  Despite a body battered by injuries, she overcame a twisted ankle to mount a memorable comeback against Li Na in arguably the most dramatic match of the women’s tournament.  If that match displayed her (literally) sprawling court coverage, the quarterfinal victory over Wozniacki reminded audiences of the shot-making talents with which she can combine her defense.  Often notorious for feckless play under pressure, Clijsters conquered the reigning world #1 in a tiebreak during which she never missed a first serve and struck line after line with her groundstrokes.  The aforementioned serve fell apart in the third set of a winnable semifinal against Azarenka, ending the defending champion’s tournament in anticlimactic fashion.  All the same, Kim’s 2012 campaign will have accomplished more than a nostalgic farewell if she can extend this momentum to the spring.  A

Kvitova:  Widely considered the favorite to reach the #1 ranking and win the title, she struck her richest vein of form more intermittently than one would have hoped.  Struggling for stretches against the underpowered but canny Suarez Navarro and Errani, Kvitova played more convincing tennis when she faced opponents with styles similar to hers.  Even when denied a steady rhythm, though, she still found ways to impose herself and dictate her own fate when the match hung in the balance.  For most of the second and third sets of her semifinal against Sharapova, she stifled the WTA’s leading returner with the most brilliant serving in the women’s tournament.  When Kvitova served to stay in the match, a double fault and three unsightly unforced errors testified to an uncharacteristic failure of nerve at the decisive moment.  But her appearance in a semifinal just two majors after winning Wimbledon represented an optimistic beginning to a season in which Kvitova will seek to consolidate her progress from a breakthrough season in 2012.  A-

Radwanska:  Following the best stretch of her career during last fall, expectations rose higher for Radwanska when she arrived in the season’s first major.  After an uneven rollercoaster in the first round, she accumulated momentum until the quarterfinals, when she won a set from the eventual champion.  Her complete disappearance during the last two sets, coupled with progressively more negative body language, extended her record in major quarterfinals to 0-5.  To all appearances, her subtle and intelligent game cannot carry her further than that round, by when she almost always will have met an opponent who can temper explosive offense with sufficient consistency.  An overachiever in many ways, Radwanska may have reached her ceiling in exploiting her potential.  She likely will not rise from intriguing subplot to dominant narrative except at tournaments where the draw opens for her or the leading contenders fail to perform. On the other hand, a career-high ranking of #6 vaults her higher than most could have imagined.  B+

First-time quarterfinalists:  The greatest surprise of either draw, Sara Errani stepped boldly into the void left by more notable figures like Stosur and Bartoli.  Although she recorded no remarkable upsets of her own, the Italian deserves credit for taking advantage of every opportunity that presented itself, even competing resolutely against Kvitova and turning an anticipated rout into a more complicated clash.  More overtly impressive were the feats of Russian lefty Makarova, who ambushed three seeded opponents en route to the second week.  Her prestigious victims ranged from Brisbane champion Kanepi, a trendy dark horse choice before the tournament, to Zvonareva and Serena.  In all three of those matches, Makarova never allowed her more talented opponents to settle into the match as she constantly reversed direction on her groundstrokes and created imaginative angles.  Unlike Errani, this rising Russian might build upon her momentum during the North American hard courts.  B+

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Australian Open - Day 9

Wozniacki:  Registering only one victory over a creditable opponent, she exited rather tamely for the fourth straight major and finally conceded the #1 ranking.  New coach Ricardo Sanchez hardly seems like the ideal choice for the world #4, considering his lengthy tenure with fellow counterpuncher Jankovic, and Wozniacki appeared to have improved her game in no meaningful way during the offseason.  Without the pressure and scrutiny of her status as a Slam-less #1, though, she may welcome a respite in which she can reset her priorities and ponder the direction in which she wants her still-young career to proceed.  As Wozniacki trudged drearily up the tunnel from yet another disappointing loss at a major, one could not avoid a flicker of sympathy with this player for whom too much may have come too soon.  She did not deserve the top ranking, to be sure, but neither did she deserve the torrent of animosity that drenched her during her tenure there.  B

Germans:  Without Petkovic to spearhead their charge, the descendants of Steffi Graf compensated for their flagship’s absence.  Into the second week after a comeback victory over Kuznetsova, Lisicki won a set from eventual finalist Sharapova and continued to play some of her most inspired tennis on the sport’s most prestigious tournaments.  Accompanying her to that stage was the more enigmatic Goerges, an erratic performer last season but also gifted with formidable first-strike power.  Although Radwanska tied her in knots with almost sadistic comprehensiveness, the experience of stringing together three creditable victories will improve this rising star’s confidence and consistency.  One of the less expected and more intriguing narratives of 2011, the German renaissance showed few signs of fading as 2012 began.  B+/B

Serbs:  Once again, both Ivanovic and Jankovic fell before the quarterfinals of a major, succumbing to the top two players in the world at the same stage (the fourth round).  Each had accumulated momentum through their first three matches, overwhelming overmatched opponents in their opposite styles.  While Jankovic looked more consistent and focused in the first week, Ivanovic unleashed an encouragingly enhanced serve together with a more refined sense of point construction.  When they tested their talents against the WTA aristocracy, though, neither seriously threatened to win.  Jankovic collapsed in a grotesque avalanche of 50 unforced errors from every part of the court, saved only by a Wozniacki lull from her worst loss since 2006.  Somewhat more promisingly, Ivanovic rebounded from a dismal start to lose serve only once in the second set.  In the end, though, neither Serb looked even faintly plausible as a major title contender.  That tide has risen and ebbed.  B/B-

Li Na:  In the wake of a stirring charge to the Sydney final, the Chinese #1 seemed primed for a deep run into the second week of a major where she had reached consecutive semifinals.  The deities of the draw engineered a different outcome by positioning her near Clijsters, who had defeated her in last year’s final.  Refusing to accept the apparent will of fate, Li Na came within a point of reversing that result and might well have thrust forward from such a victory to reach the semifinals or better again.  On the brink of victory, she failed to convert any of four match points in the second-set tiebreak, including an egregiously misplaced backhand on her last opportunity.  Few elite opponents will offer an opponent a second chance, but Li still struggles to perceive herself as a member of the elite and has lost five matches in the last twelve months after holding multiple match points.  B-

Zvonareva:  Like her doubles partner Kuznetsova, she recovered from losing in the first week of singles to win the doubles title, a pleasant contrast to the usual struggles of both women in championship matches.  Defeating defending champions Dulko and Pennetta in a third-set tiebreak, they rallied from losing the first set to the deceptively dangerous Italian duo of Errani and Vinci.  That achievement only slightly masked the lackluster effort by Zvonareva in singles, where she needed three hours to escape her first match and crumbled predictably after losing a close tiebreak to Makarova in the third round.  After reaching the semifinals or better at three straight majors in 2010-11, the mercurial Russian has regressed steadily towards the pedestrian level from whence she came.  C+

Serena:  Clearly hampered by a significant ankle injury, she never found her rhythm against Makarova or summoned her famous willpower for a signature comeback.  As Serena’s career fades, she will find such comebacks more and more difficult against opponents whom she intimidates less and less.  Her resounding loss at a tournament where she had not lost since 2008 stemmed not just from her injury but from the self-belief that the world #56 showed against the greatest player of her generation.  Still a superb server capable of improbable shot-making, Serena faces the challenge of working ever harder for what used to come without effort.  C

Stosur:  In the first round of her home major, the world #5 and champion of the previous major failed to win a set from a player who had won two total matches in four Australian Open appearances.  Mercifully for Stosur, the success of countrymen Hewitt and Tomic deflected attention from her debacle.  F

***

We return tomorrow to review the men’s tournament in Melbourne, which climaxed spectacularly but also offered plenty of fascinating entertainment earlier in the two weeks.

Victoria Azarenka - 2012 Australian Open - Day 7

We preview the first day of quarterfinals at the Australian Open:

Azarenka vs. Radwanska:  Offering a greater contrast in styles than the evening encounter, this match opposes two players who have combined to win just one of nine quarterfinals at majors.  Throughout her career, Radwanska has experienced the frustration of navigating her way through early-round matches with her cunning and clean ball-striking, only to crash into the impenetrable obstacle of a far more powerful offensive player.  Azarenka lacks the overwhelming force of a Serena or a Sharapova, although her twelve games lost in four matches suggests a display of unrelenting dominance.  While Vika has won six of their nine previous meetings and four of the last five, she has found Radwanska a worthy opponent on almost every occasion.  Unable to hammer balls past the Pole from the start of the rally, she must construct points more carefully in a test of her patience, long one of the flaws that has retarded her progress.  When they met in a Sydney semifinal this month, Radwanska’s defense and precise shot placement drove Azarenka to distraction for more than a set before she found the composure necessary to outlast her tormentor.  Once she finds her range with her groundstrokes and strings together several penetrating balls, she leaves the eighth seed helplessly searching for answers.

For both women, the key to success lies in a shot not commonly considered one of their greatest assets:  the serve.  In Radwanska’s case, she must maximize her first-serve percentage to minimize the opportunities that Azarenka earns to wreak havoc on her second serve with her scintillating return.  If she aims to outmaneuver Vika, she cannot afford to start the point scrambling in whatever direction her opponent dictates.  The serve could help Azarenka’s cause in a different way by setting up more free points if she trades some percentage for power.  At key moments late in her victories over Barthel and Benesova, when the rest of her game grew shaky, the serve did not desert her.  That trend augurs well for her fortunes in this match and beyond.

Wozniacki vs. Clijsters:  With her place in the penthouse at stake in every Melbourne match, the world #1 has played with increasing conviction during each round, although she has not yet encountered an opponent equipped to seriously challenge her throughout the course of an entire match.  All the same, Wozniacki seemed to take the ball a little earlier when she has had the opportunity during her first four matches and curl cross-court groundstrokes at somewhat sharper angles.  Her collision with Jankovic again showcased her familiar strengths of endurance and groundstroke depth, at least on the few occasions when the Serb didn’t spray shots into the middle of the net, between the tramlines, or beyond the baseline.  While her resounding victory against that former #1 should have inspired confidence in Wozniacki’s fans, although her failure to sustain a double-break lead in the second set causes some concern and illustrated her inability to win free points on serve.

Widespread among the women here, that struggle to finish matches may hamper her against a woman who rallied from the brink of defeat to overcome Li Na a round ago.  Wozniacki has lost to Clijsters in arguably the two most important matches of her career, the finals of the 2009 US Open and 2010 year-end championships, so the pressure rests on her sturdy shoulders to reverse those outcomes, assuming that the defending champion can recover from her ankle injury.  Much as Wozniacki could do everything that Jankovic could and more, Clijsters can do everything that Wozniacki can and more, covering the court just as effectively, producing just as much depth, and transitioning more smoothly from defense to offense.   Kim continues to suffer the occasional mid-match lull, an endemic syndrome of aging champions that the Dane exploited when they played for the last title of 2010.  In her final Australian Open, though, she seems unlikely to succumb without a struggle, and sometimes a narrow escape can catalyze motivation while sharpening focus.  To keep her position in the penthouse for another day, Wozniacki may need to play one of her most complete matches in many months.  Beyond her familiar retrieving, she should redirect the ball more often, return more assertively, and stretch Kim along the baseline, tactics that brought Li within a point of victory but that will force the world #1 to leave her comfort zone.  Generally unsuccessful against the WTA veterans, the Dane should grasp a valuable chance to prove herself.

Del Potro vs. Federer:  Look beyond the 7-2 record, tilted towards the Swiss by the twelve consecutive sets that he won when their rivalry began.  Just a few months after he won three games from Federer in a quarterfinal at this tournament, Del Potro extended the 16-time major champion to five sets at Roland Garros.  A few more months afterwards came one of the more memorable ATP major finals of the last decade, in which the Tower of Tandil toppled Federer in five sets at the US Open.  Ending the year with another victory over the Swiss master at the year-end championships, Del Potro looked likely to become one of the thorns in Roger’s side for the foreseeable future.  Derailed by an untimely wrist injury, though, he scarcely resembled his former self in a desultory loss to Federer at Cincinnati last year, during which he consistently struggled with his serve and rarely subjected his opponent to any pressure on his own delivery.

Dogged by a back injury during his preparation for Melbourne, Federer has brushed any rumors of fallibility aside by reaching the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Especially impressive was his mastery over Australian home hope Tomic, who entered that match with momentum, vociferous crowd support, and confidence from having challenged Federer in their first encounter last fall.  But the four-time champion here dismissed the teenager with wave after wave of all-court brilliance, highlighted by pinpoint backhands.  When that less reliable shot follows Federer’s commands so faithfully, the rest of his game rises to vintage heights.   Across the net, Del Potro’s cross-court forehand offers the best guide to his confidence, which has must have risen after a series of progressively more emphatic victories.  When that explosive groundstroke crackles through the court rather than functioning as a rally shot, he can thrust opponents well behind the baseline and find short angles at his leisure.  One round before a projected semifinal with Nadal, Federer should benefit from such a test.

Berdych vs. Nadal:  Central to this quarterfinal are two statistics involving the Czech:  his six-tiebreak winning streak this tournament and his nine-match losing streak against the world #2.  Winning three successive tiebreaks to erase a one-set deficit against Almagro, Berdych will feel confident in his serve whenever a set reaches its climax.  On the other hand, Nadal may feel more confident in his serve than he often does, considering that he has used a heavier racket to add pace to the shot that cost him dearly during the US Open final last year.  But the more compelling statistic is the Spaniard’s uncanny dominance over a rivalry that initially rested on rather even terms.  Betrayed by his one-dimensional game and ungainly footwork, Berdych rarely has even threatened Rafa in matches on every surface, most notably a straight-sets defeat in the 2010 Wimbledon final.  During that tournament, the seventh seed had delivered the best tennis of his career with consecutive victories over Federer and Djokovic, and yet Nadal dissected him with ease in a match thoroughly bereft of suspense.

In addition  to the suffocating and not entirely explicable mastery of the Spaniard over the Czech, the spotlight of majors often has unnerved the easily flustered Berdych with the exception of those two surges at Roland Garros and Wimbledon two years ago.  As though the seventh seed did not have so many cards stacked against him already, his dubious behavior at the end of his victory over Almagro in the previous round likely will have turned the Rod Laver crowd against him before the match begins.  Ever the epitome of sportsmanship himself, Nadal may gain additional motivation from Berdych’s slight to one of his countrymen.  Moreover, he surely will spare no energy in avoiding a third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals of what has proven his least productive major to date.

Na Li - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

In a WTA rife with comebacks, injuries, and opportunists, the middle weekend often offers tennis as scintillating as the tournament’s climax.  That theme may continue with a fourth-round rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final, which will feature two of the three most impressive performers in this half of the draw.  Dropping just seven games in her last five sets, Clijsters has played herself into the fortnight and has survived the early meltdowns that have ambushed her at occasional Slams during her second career.  In a commanding victory over Hantuchova, who had troubled her in Brisbane this month, the defending champion retrieved and redirected balls with her familiar aplomb while showing no sign of her recent hip injury.  When healthy, Clijsters can transition from defense to offense more effectively than any woman in the WTA, except perhaps her opponent on Sunday.  Two victories from a third straight semifinal in Melbourne, Li has looked crisp as she once again has extended her momentum from a fine week in Sydney.  The Roland Garros champion owns the single most explosive weapon in this match with her forehand, although her two-hander has not failed to impress.  Overlooked amidst their excellent groundstrokes and movement are the serves of both women, which have functioned effectively this week.  Both Clijsters and Li possess very complete games and clean technique but can misfire for extended stretches, either through the presence of nerves or the absence of focus.  Unless they find their rhythms at the same time, a rollercoaster encounter could result, decided by who can finish points more effectively once they seize the initiative.

We preview each of the other singles matches as the second week begins.

Azarenka vs. Benesova:  Perhaps catalyzed by her Brisbane upset of Stosur, the least famous of the three Czech lefties extended her success here by comfortably defeating Peng.  Benesova exploited an open section of the draw, vacated by Schiavone, by swinging her hook serve and forehand to jerk less powerful opponents around the court.   But now the competition jolts upward abruptly against the third seed, who has looked one of the leading three or four title contenders here despite a wobble in her previous match.  As match point after match point slipped away against Barthel, Azarenka’s carefully managed nerves started to fray visibly until she unleashed a concluding burst of petulance mixed with relief.  Maintaining outstanding depth on her groundstrokes throughout the first week, she should succeed against Benesova simply by staying steady in both playing style and emotions.  Perhaps the most balanced player of her generation, Azarenka treads a middle path between the dogged counterpunching of Wozniacki and the fearless, sometimes reckless assaults of Kvitova.  Her serve remains the weakest component of her game, but she has protected it well here and has not yet encountered an elite returner.  Against Benesova, her backhand down the line should prove especially lethal as Azarenka aims to reach her second Melbourne quarterfinal with minimal difficulty.

Lopez vs. Nadal:  As the tournament began, Nadal generated news related to the ATP schedule, his opinion of Federer, and another injury to his knee.  To the relief of  his fans, he generated little news related to his tennis during an uneventful first week of straight-sets victories.  Experimenting with a heavier racket, his serve has looked clearly more formidable although still not at its level when he won the US Open.  Outside an occasional sloppy service game against Haas and Lacko, Nadal has provided his critics with scant ground for complaint so far.  With the exception of a Queens Club upset, he has suffocated Lopez throughout their careers by relying upon his far superior baseline consistency to erode his fellow lefty.  The older Spaniard impressed by conquering Isner in a five-setter during which her broke the American’s towering serve six times while losing his own serve only once.  But he struggled with double faults throughout that match, committing four during one crucial game that exposed his nerves.  Always high in winners and high in unforced errors, Lopez must record an outstanding first-serve percentage to threaten his compatriot on a sticky surface that blunts serves and rewards baseliners.  Not until the semifinal, perhaps, will Nadal find an adversary worthy of his steel.

Tomic vs. Federer:  In all three of his first-week matches, the home hope lost the first set as Melbourne heart rates accelerated.  Buoyed by the fervent Rod Laver crowds, Tomic demonstrated stamina remarkable for a teenager as he outlasted both Verdasco and Dolgopolov in five sets.  All the same, he cannot afford to allow Federer an early lead as he settles into the match, for the Swiss legend has proven himself an outstanding front-runner against heavy underdogs throughout his career.  After playing 14 sets in three matches and running for four miles on Friday night, Tomic will need to recover quickly for a match that will require crisp footwork, keen instincts, and a clear mind.  When he faced Federer in a Davis Cup playoff last fall, the teenager won a set and competed valiantly in the others.  The difference in that collision, the contrast between their serves could play a crucial role again as the 16-time major champion holds much more comfortably, while Tomic expends more effort on each service game.  Severely tested for nearly two full sets by Karlovic’s serve, Federer should feel less inconvenienced by the veering slices and spins of the Australian’s distinctive style.  As his career wanes, muscular ball-bruisers like Soderling, Tsonga, and Berdych have unsettled him, but the crafty artists of the court have enjoyed little more success against him on hard courts than they ever have.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  After losing the first four meetings to her fellow counterpuncher and stylistic ancestor, the world #1 defeated Jankovic three times last year in a striking momentum shift.  Many are the similarities between these women, who rely upon their movement more than their serving and project greater power from their backhands than their forehands.  Outside a shaky second set in the second round, Wozniacki has acquitted herself creditably throughout the first week, showing few signs of crumbling under the pressure of her ranking.  In the Dane’s position three Australian Opens ago, Jankovic succumbed in the fourth round and would not capture the top spot again.  With the opportunity to strip it from her opponent, she may bring more motivation than she has shown for much of her steady decline.  Overwhelming a trio of young challengers, such as the promising Christina McHale, Jankovic displayed few traces of her vintage self but did maintain her focus consistently as she waited for the raw teenagers across the net to falter.  The Serb saved break point after break point against McHale in a match that looked extremely tight early before developing into a rout.  Considering their stylistic parallels, this encounter of current and former #1s should hinge mostly upon execution.  Jankovic would seem to hold the edge in power and experience, while Wozniacki enjoys the advantage in mobility, consistency, and (arguably) composure, but each could surpass the other in any of these dimensions on any given day.  Expect a lung-burning series of rallies along the baseline as both women aim to win points than invite the opponent to lose them.

Goerges vs. Radwanska:  One of two Germans to reach the second week at the Australian Open, Goerges enjoyed a promising first half to 2011 before fading dramatically—even evaporating—in the second half.  When she retired against Jankovic in Sydney, one harbored few hopes for her Melbourne campaign despite a resilient performance in a three-set loss to Sharapova last year.  Again showcasing her bold brand of tennis on these courts, she has recorded the strongest Slam effort of her still budding career and should not underestimate her chances to progress further.  Never more than a quarterfinalist at majors, Radwanska has demonstrated her ability to score a key upset here or there but has not produced a deep run, regularly undone by a player who overpowers her from the baseline and from the service notch.  During a stirring Asian fall, however, the Pole suggested that she might have enhanced her readiness to take risks, even if her puny serve may have no remedy.  She nearly stumbled against Mattek-Sands in her opening match but used her survival instincts to escape an opponent who cracked 80 winners.  Clearly superior to Radwanska on serve, Goerges will need to earn plentiful free points from that shot if she seeks to subdue her exceptionally nuanced, clever, and tenacious foe.  Once rallies begin, the eighth seed will hope to expose the German’s deficiencies in mobility and point construction, perhaps dragging her forwards at inconvenient moments.  To become a truly premier contender, Radwanska must overcome the second tier of ball-bruisers like Goerges more regularly.

Berdych vs. Almagro:  The match most likely to feature a fifth set, this meeting of the world #7 and world #10 seems academic in a sense because the winner will have only a negligible chance of upsetting Nadal.  A quarterfinal appearance still would represent a significant accomplishment for Almagro, whose game aligns just as well with hard courts as with clay.  But he has not excelled at the most prestigious events, managing just two Roland Garros quarterfinal amidst a host of first-week exits to far less talented opponents.  In stark contrast to the functional two-handed backhand of Berdych, Almagro’s elegant one-hander exemplifies his elongated swings, which can cost him time on faster surface.  These medium-speed hard courts should allow him to set up his elaborate swings without slowing the Czech’s serve too significantly.  Winning all three of his tiebreaks this fortnight, Berdych has relied upon his most formidable shot to set up his inside-out and inside-in forehands.  To reach his second straight Australian Open quarterfinal, he should keep Almagro pinned well behind the baseline, where he will struggle to penetrate the court and may attempt low-percentage shots from frustrated impatience.  Since they lack the ability to transition smoothly from defense to offense, the player who can assert himself early in the point usually will emerge victorious.  In their only previous hard-court meeting, at Cincinnati last year, Berdych delivered the terminal blow earlier and more often, winning with ease.

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  In all four of their previous meetings, the US Open champion has emerged triumphant, but their two 2011 clashes hint at intrigue ahead.  Since an opening five-setter, Kohlschreiber has played only four and a half sets in two rounds, so he should bring plenty of energy to track down the Argentine’s lasers.  Following an indifferent beginning to the tournament, Del Potro has looked more authoritative with each match and almost each set that he has seized.  As he completed his demolition of a helpless Yen-Hsun Lu on Friday night, his forehands rocketed through the court with an ominous explosiveness.  Nevertheless, Kohlschreiber can trade baseline bombs with the Argentine on both groundstroke wings, relishing the opportunity to redirect balls down the line.  The product of a particularly fluid motion, his serve sets up points almost as well as does Del Potro’s mightier delivery.  Content to decide points from the baseline, the Tower of Tandil rarely ventures towards the net, whereas the German will test his opponent’s passing shots by approaching opportunistically.  That strategy could help Kohlschreiber destabilize Del Potro’s timing, uneven since his wrist surgery.  In a best-of-five format, though, the Argentine’s heavier weight of shot and suffocating court coverage should frustrate a thrilling shot-maker who plays with much less margin for error.

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

Petra Kvitova - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

Whereas only a few of the 128 men in Melbourne will harbor serious title aspirations, several top women can set their sights legitimately upon the Daphne Akhurst Cup.  In fact, the list probably extends beyond these elite eight.

Kvitova:  While her Wimbledon title represented a breakthrough unprecedented for her generation, she dazzled just as brightly she charged undefeated through five top-eight opponents at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Kvitova’s groundstrokes whistled past her victims with a ferocity that froze even the WTA’s most agile movers.  To be sure, the courts at Melbourne resemble neither the grass of Wimbledon nor the fast indoor surface of Istanbul, which only enhanced her power.  If she aims to collect her second major in Australia, she must curb her chronic impatience and prepare for slightly longer points.  No opponent or situation intimidates her, though, as Kvitova demonstrated at the All England Club, and her serve has become not only fierce but generally reliable in a combination rare for the WTA.

Wozniacki:  Clinging to the #1 ranking at the time of this writing, the Dane looked increasingly burdened by the pressure of her position as 2011 progressed.  Thus, the more relaxed atmosphere of Australia might serve as a welcome tonic to her spirits.  Wozniacki advanced within a point of the Australian Open final last year, felled only by an exceptionally inspired Li Na.  Although she still lacks an elite weapon and probably always will, her defense remains as stingy as ever, forcing opponents to sustain a high level of precision throughout an entire match.  Outside her recent meetings with Kvitova, she has dominated most rivals from her generation, including Azarenka.  But coach Ricardo Sanchez, best known for guiding Jankovic to nowhere, seems a dubious choice of vehicle for the Dane’s evolution into a champion.

Azarenka:  Somewhat neglected in Kvitova’s brilliance at the year-end championships was the formidable week that Vika enjoyed at that event, which concluded the best season of her career so far.  Somewhat reminiscent of Djokovic in her sophisticated transition game, Azarenka should benefit as does the Serb on the medium-speed hard courts where she twice has threatened Serena.  Despite her inexorable rise in the rankings, though, she still seeks her first major final and lost all three of her marquee collisions with Kvitova last year, albeit in tightly contested fashion.  One of the WTA’s premier returners, Azarenka may need to improve both her first and second serve to win a major.  Her famously explosive temper, another longtime weakness, has receded as she has matured into a sturdier competitor.

Sharapova:  During what remains the best fortnight of her career, the three-time major champion swept to the 2008 title while exploiting the relatively high bounce of the courts, which brought balls into her favored strike zone.  In her last two appearances there, by contrast, Sharapova has struggled to find her rhythm in unsightly losses to Kirilenko and Petkovic.  Hampered by her slow recovery from an ankle injury, she has played only four complete matches since the US Open, so rust may play a role again.  In such an open draw, though, her experience on these stages could prove almost as valuable as her vicious return.  If she can survive the first few rounds, Sharapova should grow ever more dangerous as her confidence and momentum accumulate.

Serena:  Until an ankle injury struck without warning, the US Open runner-up had started 2012 in imposing fashion at Brisbane.  After losing at the 2009 US Open in deflating fashion, Serena rebounded to win the next major in her characteristic zeal for resolving unfinished business.  On that occasion as on many others, she shrugged off nagging injuries to defeat opponents as accomplished as Azarenka, Li, and Henin.  Even and perhaps especially in a battered state, Serena brings a fearsome degree of willpower to the court in addition to the most imposing serve and the most natural athleticism in the field.  As her career wanes, so will each of those strengths, but one sense that she didn’t return from her protracted absence without Slam glory firmly in mind.

Clijsters:  Blighted by injuries since she won this title a year ago, the defending champion began this season in discouraging fashion with yet another withdrawal.  Like Serena, Clijsters can win almost at will and needed little preparation before winning the US Open as the first major of her second career.  Affectionately dubbed “Aussie Kim,” she will not lack for crowd support at a tournament that appreciates her human qualities.  Clijsters remains susceptible to the unexpected wobble against an anonymous opponent, and her confidence fluctuates more often than it should in view of her status as a four-time major champion.  When the Belgian takes her time and maintains her composure, her game becomes a smooth, efficient mechanism with few flaws.

Stosur:  After bathing in glory half a world away, the Australian #1 returned to her homeland—and promptly tripped over herself in both Brisbane and Sydney.  Uninspired in consecutive losses to Benesova and Schiavone, Stosur has not reached a quarterfinal in nine Melbourne appearances.  Still, her kick serve can extract her from many a predicament, while she should have even more time than at the US Open to run around her backhand and hit forehands.  In the US Open final, she rose to the occasion far more courageously than anyone could have expected, demonstrating both that she can overpower virtually any opponent when at her best and that she can display her best tennis at the most important moments.

Li:  Having accomplished little of note since June, Li arrived at the Hopman Cup searching for a spark.  That spark seemed to arrive with a comeback victory over Bartoli that catalyzed a perfect week in singles.  As we write, she has just defused the dangerous Safarova in a Sydney quarterfinal, suggesting that last year’s finalist might rediscover her game at just the right moment.  Defending a vast quantity of points this month, Li must insulate herself from the pressure that could lead to a third straight precipitous Slam exit.  Probably the streakiest inhabitant of an exceptionally streaky top 10, she remains its most compelling enigma.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Hopman Cup - Day 5

Stuffed with nine of the top ten and 17 of the top 20, the WTA draw in Sydney features spectacular entertainment and fascinating collisions from the first round onwards.  As Ivanovic discovered in an opening-round loss to Safarova, a draw so small and so star-studded offers almost no place to hide.

Top half:  Like Kvitova in the bottom half, Wozniacki receives a bye into the second round that will allow her to regroup from a moderately encouraging week in Hopman Cup.  Defeated by Kvitova and tested by Pironkova there, the world #1 improved as that exhibition progressed and should bring confidence into a meeting with her conqueror in Sydney last year, Cibulkova.  Also in Wozniacki’s quarter, though, are two top-10 players in Petkovic and Radwanska.  The top-ranked German did not distinguish herself at Brisbane while struggling to hold serve, perhaps still rusty from a knee injury that hindered her late in 2011.  In the first round, Petkovic would meet her projected quarterfinal opponent in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova, who likewise looked unimpressive there.  With an Australian Open quarterfinal soon to defend, the world #10 surely would welcome an opportunity to gain more match practice.  Fortunate to draw a qualifier in her first match of 2012, Radwanska aspires to begin this season as brightly as she ended last fall, with consecutive titles at marquee Asian tournaments.  The intriguing Pole might reprise her Beijing final against Petkovic before once again meeting her friend Wozniacki, who has dominated her for most of their careers.

Like Radwanska, Azarenka lifts a racket with malice in her heart for the first time this year when she faces a qualifier in her opener.  Considering Jankovic’s entertaining battle with Schiavone last week, the best match of the Brisbane tournament, the Serbian former #1 might challenge the third seed if she can escape Julia Goerges.  Nevertheless, Azarenka ended last season on an especially encouraging note and may have accumulated too much momentum to succumb to an occasionally dangerous dark horse like Jankovic.  In her quarterfinal awaits the unpredictable Bartoli, who enjoys perhaps the most comfortable draw of all, starting with a qualifier and continuing with the long-faded Dokic.  Although she finished the Hopman Cup with a 1-2 record in singles, the double-fister nearly defeated a resurgent Li and severely tested Kvitova for a set while mercilessly double-bageling Gajdosova.  Of her nine matches against Azarenka, though, Bartoli has emerged victorious from only a retirement and a meaningless round-robin matches at the year-end championships.  On most surfaces except grass, the Belarussian’s balanced style will outlast her.

Semifinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Bottom half:  Whereas the top half seemed the stronger section in Brisbane, the lower half looks more imposing in Sydney.  Hoping to improve upon her early exit here last year, Zvonareva confronts the challenge of facing Kuznetsova just after the erstwhile two-time major champion reached the semifinals in Auckland.  The task of defeating a compatriot often has flustered Russian woman, and neither of these two has proved themselves exactly steely under ordinary circumstances.  But the route of the winner grows briefly smoother thereafter with the streaky Safarova blocking them from the quarterfinals.  By that stage, defending champion Li Na hopes to have consolidated a promising performance at the Hopman Cup, where she lost only one set in three singles matches.  With vast quantities of points soon to descend upon her shoulders, she can ill afford a slump as Melbourne looms.  Having lost four of her last five matches to Zvonareva, including the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics, Li might bring extra determination to a clash with another player who must defend a significant result at the Australian Open.  If this battle of backhands should happen, it might provide insight concerning whether either or both of these women might become a genuine contender during the following fortnight.

Aligned to meet in the first round are two recent Slam champions in Stosur and Schiavone, both of whom first tasted greatness relatively late in their careers.  Although less notable, the meeting between Vinci and Hantuchova might offer comparable intrigue with the contrast in styles between the biting slices of the Italian and the smooth swings of the Slovak.  Can Schiavone rebound physically from her draining week in Brisbane, and can Hantuchova rebound mentally from her demolition in the final?  At the base of this section lies Kvitova, who could reach the top ranking with a title here.  While we would not expect the pressure of that possibility to unnerve her, we also would not expect it to infuse her with additional purpose.  After winning all four of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup, Kvitova eyes an accommodating path to at least the quarterfinals with Lisicki’s withdrawal.  But week-to-week dominance has eluded her so far.

Semifinal:  Zvonareva vs. Kvitova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Zvonareva

Champion:  Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark reacts to a point against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Wozniacki:  About three months into the season, the world #1 looked poised to either finally break through at a major or at least continue her dominance at the most significant non-majors.  At that stage, Wozniacki not only had continued a winning streak at Premier Mandatory / Premier Five tournaments that extended back to the 2010 Rogers Cup but had recorded her best result to date at the Australian Open, where only a prodigious effort by Li Na halted her.  Then, without warning, her game unraveled on a sultry afternoon in Miami against Petkovic, and she never quite collected herself for the rest of the season.  Over the rest of the spring and summer, Wozniacki would lose matches to Goerges (twice), Hantuchova, Cibulkova, Vinci, and Christina McHale as her impressive consistency deserted her.  Especially troubling was the Wimbledon loss to Cibulkova, in which the Dane won the first set 6-1 before growing progressively more flustered as the match slipped away.  Downed by Kanepi and Pennetta in her Asian title defenses, Wozniacki trailed by a set and a break in the only match that she won at the year-end championships.  Although she did reach the US Open semifinal for the third straight year, she mustered little resistance to Serena and found herself fortunate to escape Kuznetsova two rounds before.  Undeterred by her declining fortunes on court, Wozniacki also engaged in some odd off-court behavior throughout 2011, most notably mocking the cramping spasms of a certain 10-time major champion.  Her accomplishment of holding the year-end #1 ranking for two straight years reflects much less on her than on the ranking system.

Zvonareva:  Looking back a few years from now, one wonders whether we will perceive her 2010 season as similar to Berdych’s 2010 campaign:  an unexpected mid-career surge of a highly talented but critically flawed competitor who then receded to a more familiar level of performance.   Zvonareva’s season started brightly with a third consecutive Slam semifinal appearance, built in part upon the bones of Kvitova.  With consecutive victories over top-six opponents in Doha, she displayed perhaps her most convincing tennis of the year, shifting seamlessly from defense to offense in one of the WTA’s most balanced styles.  Demolished by Azarenka in a Miami semifinal, the Russian faded during the European seasons and fell in the third round of her Wimbledon finals defense.  After a nine-match winning streak in Baku and San Diego, she suffered the first of four second-half meltdowns against Radwanska that became one of the dominant narratives in her season.  Two of those losses came in finals, where the advantage of Zvonareva’s experience could not counterbalance her disadvantage in emotional composure.  Unlucky to draw Stosur in a US Open quarterfinal, she lost three of four matches at the year-end championships.  In short, Zvonareva’s season hovered around the boundary between respectability and mediocrity, judged by the standards that she set a year ago.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors, the former junior #1 showcased her brutal ball-striking on surfaces of all speeds.  Not intimidated by Serena in New York, she traded blows with the 13-time major champion as confidently as she dueled with defending champion Schiavone in Paris.  Pavlyuchenkova also displayed competitive courage on two other occasions:  when she defended her Monterrey title and when she turned the tables on Schiavone just two majors after losing their Roland Garros meeting.  Somewhat concerning is her struggle with double faults, however, which reached its apex (or nadir) in Baku when she struck 25 in one match and 52 across the course of three matches.  In a player so young, a serve so unreliable still could improve significantly, so Pavlyuchenkova should focus upon remedying that department of her game before such habits become rooted too deeply.  But the newest standard-bearer of Russian tennis should win plenty of matches next year based on her fierce groundstrokes alone

Peng:  In a memorable year for Asian sports, China’s #2 earned a modest breakthrough of her own as her compatriot Li Na thrilled a continent.  The double-fister of a disposition more pleasant than Bartoli reached five semifinals on three different surfaces in the first half alone before her results tapered in the second half.  Scoring 12 victories over higher-ranked opponents, she reached the second week of three majors and ambushed four players who ended the year in the top 15.  As her groundstrokes peppered the center of the baseline, opponents struggled to create angles or set their feet crisply.  Known mostly as a doubles specialist before 2011, Peng may want to balance her schedule more carefully in 2012 to protect herself from the injuries that accumulated this year.

Jankovic:  Title-less for the first year since 2006, this precursor to Wozniacki lost to her descendant three times after having won all of their previous meetings.  The reversal of their mini-rivalry illustrated Jankovic’s decline in consistency, essential for her counterpunching style and likely a terminal condition.  Winning two total matches at the three non-clay majors, the former #1 fell outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.  All the same, she collaborated with several of her conquerors in compelling matches from Doha and Miami (Zvonareva and Petkovic) to Roland Garros and Cincinnati (Schiavone and Sharapova).  Filled with oscillating momentum, those melodramatic three-setters will have satisfied her trademark appetite for drama.  While her hopes of winning a major will remain a mirage, Jankovic’s sporadic flashes of feistiness still adds spice to matches that otherwise might seem bland.

Kuznetsova:  As with several of the other players on this list, the best came first for Kuznetsova in 2011.  Thwarted as relentlessly by Henin as Roddich by Federer, she gained the grim satisfaction of defeating the Belgian in the last match of her career.  One round later, Sveta contested the most memorable women’s match of 2011 in a thriller with Schiavone that lasted nearly five hours and during which she held five match points.  Following that spectacle, Kuznetsova reached the final in Dubai but then almost totally evaporated with opening-match losses in five of her next six tournaments.  Bursting back into relevance with a Roland Garros quarterfinal, she nearly repeated that feat at the US Open against a hapless Wozniacki.  In that late-night comedy of errors, the Russian led by a set and 4-1 before the tide turned inexorably against here.  Littered with stunning winners and absurd errors from every corner of the court, that sprawling encounter offered a metaphor for everything that Kuznetsova could have achieved—in this season and in her career—and everything that she has not.

Cibulkova:  Proving that stature does not always correlate to success, the plucky Slovak toppled Wozniacki twice as well as four other members of the year-end top 10.  Ever willing to engage in wars of attrition, she outlasted Zvonareva in an epic Indian Wells three-setter and threatened eventual champion Azarenka more than any of her other opponents in Miami.  Despite the inherent limitations on her power, Cibulkova clubbed forehands with remarkable pace throughout her Wimbledon quarterfinal run.  Assisting her in constructing points around that shot as much as possible, her coach Zelkjo Krajan has burnished his reputation by succeeding with two such different pupils in Cibulkova and Safina.  His disciple ended 2011 in the most satisfying fashion imaginable by winning her first career title at the Kremlin Cup after twice rallying from one-set deficits, including a dramatic comeback in the final.

Hantuchova:  Nine times out of ten, the elegant Slovak crumbles under the pressure of facing elite opposition and contributes to her own demise.  On the tenth time, Hantuchova unleashes a virtually unplayable barrage of acutely angled groundstrokes and expertly placed volleys.  That inspired version of the Slovak appeared against Zvonareva when she raced to the Pattaya City title without dropping a set, and then again for extended spans of their Doha quarterfinal, one of the most thrilling and relentless explosions of shot-making that the WTA witnessed all year.  Over the next few months, Hantuchova would stifle Wozniacki, Li, and Venus by defying the odds of her low-percentage shots for longer than one would believe possible.  Frustrating to watch when her shots misfire, Hantuchova embodies the ebbing but still stunning aesthetic dimension of tennis at a time when the sport’s physicality has captured the spotlight.

Pironkova:  Many players perform far above their normal level at a certain tournament, having developed comfort with the surface or the setting.  For examples of such anomalies, consider Hantuchova’s two Indian Wells titles or Schiavone’s consecutive Roland Garros finals.  Or consider the nine wins that Tsevtana Pironkova has registered in her last two Wimbledon appearances, including two over five-time champion Venus (by eerily identical scores) and two more over finalists Bartoli and Zvonareva.  The willowy brunette even extended Kvitova to a third set this year with a seemingly unremarkable game.  If Pironkova signed some Faustian bargain that allowed her to excel at exactly one tournament on the calendar, she certainly chose well.

Kerber:  Thoroughly anonymous until the US Open, the German lefty carved through the section of the draw vacated by Kvitova and Sharapova to reach the semifinals, where she temporarily struck fear into Stosur.  For now, her suddenly exalted station in the WTA testifies less to her talents than to the extreme unpredictability of women’s tennis, similar to Greta Arn’s year-opening title in Auckland.  But Kerber can revise our interpretation of that narrative in 2012, and she owns the lefty weapons to make a legitimate attempt at consolidating her momentum.

Ivanovic:  In a season rather similar to 2010, the former #1 enjoyed her second half much more than a first half filled with the indignities of first-round losses at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and elsewhere.  Long fond of Indian Wells, Ivanovic must have relished a quarterfinal appearance there, especially a commanding victory over countrywoman and bitter rival Jankovic.  Within a point of scoring a spectacular upset over defending champion Clijsters in Miami, she let slip away a thrilling encounter from which she needed a few months to recover.  Lacking an exclusive, full-time coach for much of her post-2008 tribulations, Ivanovic found stability in a partnership with Nigel Sears.  That stability ultimately translated into a confidence that she had lacked while compiling a dismal record in three-setters and tiebreaks, the areas that most test a player’s fortitude.  Reaching the second week of the US Open, Ana delivered consecutive victories over Kuznetsova and Zvonareva in Beijing before extending her reign over Bali.  Defending a title for the first time, she ended 2011 with her seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope restored once more.

We join Ana in wishing you a Happy Holiday.

Victoria Azarenka - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Two

Azarenka (1-0) vs. Li (1-0):  Showing scant respect for her elders, the Minx from Minsk marched straight from her Luxembourg title to Istanbul and demolished Stosur for the fifth straight time.  While the Aussie suffered from a competitive hangover following her breakthrough against Sharapova, Azarenka permitted her virtually no openings as she surrendered just five points on serve until the last game of the match.  Early in what one hopes will become a week of gritty, grueling competition, the opportunity to notch a swift victory will have enhanced her already excellent hopes of advancing to the semifinals of this event for the first time.  After Sharapova’s withdrawal, Azarenka can rest confident in the knowledge that she most likely will notch a second win on Friday over Bartoli, whom she has dominated almost as relentlessly as Stosur.  She probably will advance even if she doesn’t win on Thursday, therefore, but no top-five player has reached that height by taking such things for granted.

Neither should Azarenka take a win over Li Na for granted, since the Chinese star halted her at two majors this year and has won four of their five encounters overall.  At both Melbourne and Roland Garros, Li proved both slightly more consistent in the extended exchanges from behind the baseline and slightly more adept at finishing points once she moved inside the court.  Much more impressive when returning than when serving, both women should know that breaks mean little and that almost no lead or deficit is insurmountable.  In her opening victory over Sharapova, Li illustrated that fact when she managed to win a first set that she appeared to have lost on three different occasions:  when she faced break point trailing 2-4, when Sharapova served for the set after breaking her at love, and when the Russian led 4-0 in the tiebreak.  At that last juncture, the Roland Garros champion relied upon her return to barely flick two mighty serves into play—and then watched her opponent miss a routine point-ending shot.  Although Li cannot expect such generosity when she faces Azarenka, her rhythmic style will benefit from the similarly rhythmic style across the net.  Remarkably, she could erase the disappointments of her second-half campaign by reaching the semifinals here, an objective likely accomplished with a victory on Thursday.

Wozniacki (1-1) vs. Kvitova (1-0):  Splitting three-setters in her first two matches, the world #1 must elevate her level from her first two matches in order to ensure that her last round-robin match does not become her last match of 2011.  Having spent about five hours on court against Radwanska and Zvonareva, Wozniacki cannot afford to lose any of her fabled foot speed when she confronts Kvitova.  While the allegedly sluggish surface slows the ball and produces the longer rallies that she favors, its stickiness also takes a toll upon her all-important legs.  Late in her loss to Zvonareva, Wozniacki looked weary and emotionally deflated despite staying well within range of the Russian.  Perhaps the labors of a long season, fraught with greater turbulence than the calm Dane would prefer, weighed upon her mind as the court clung to her feet.  Or perhaps the accomplishment of clinching the year-end #1 ranking for the second straight season shrank the match into insignificance from her perspective.

Only once in four attempts has Kvitova conquered Wozniacki, but that victory came in the most important of their meetings at Wimbledon last year.  When she dispatched Zvonareva in her first match, the Czech lefty penetrated the court with ease from both groundstroke wings and even added a few surprising touches of finesse.  The controlled indoor atmosphere tilts more towards her unflinching pursuit of precision than towards the style of anyone else in her group.  Not the best front-runner, however, she squandered a double-break lead in the second set against Zvonareva with bizarrely unfocused play.  Even during her sensational run at Wimbledon, Kvitova allowed more than one opponent to edge back into the match after she had won the first set in commanding fashion.  Probably a symptom of her immaturity, this carelessness would play into the hands of Wozniacki should the Dane stay alert and the match stay close.  In the 2-and-0 demolition that Kvitova inflicted upon her at Wimbledon, the match didn’t last long enough for this issue to surface.  On the other hand, the world #1 has lost six or fewer games in each of her three triumphs over the reigning Wimbledon champion, so one senses that this match may end quickly no matter the outcome.

Zvonareva (1-1) vs. Radwanska (0-1):  Most likely a must-win encounter for both combatants, this meeting represents their fifth clash of the season.  After Zvonareva prevailed comfortably in Miami, the Pole prevailed just as comfortably in their three second-half meetings, including finals in San Diego and Tokyo.  Most stunning from her performance there was her impenetrability on serve, hardly a trait that one associates with her; only once in the two matches combined did she lose her serve.  A more familiar Radwanska traded break for break with Wozniacki in a three-setter on Tuesday that remains the best match of the tournament so far.  Although she frustrated her friend much more than in their past several meetings, the inability to hold serve when absolutely necessary ultimately cost the eighth seed a winnable match and will continue to hamper her upward mobility. All the same, her cavernous bag of tricks might fluster the inflammable Russian more than the placid Dane.  By the end of her last few matches, Zvonareva looked hopelessly bewildered as she committed routine errors and lost her normally acute tactical sense.

As she outmaneuvered Wozniacki from the baseline yesterday, the Russian’s versatility and tactical sense shone much more clearly than in her tepid loss to Kvitova that preceded it.  Despite her natural tendency towards counterpunching, she rose valiantly to the occasion when her opponent forced her to take the initiative and redirected the ball down both lines with conviction while approaching the net with success.  Even more notably, Zvonareva did not grow discouraged by her mistakes as did the Dane, nor did she celebrate her winners with much vigor.  That inner poise will serve her well as she aims to conquer a recent but repeated nemesis.  By no means did the world #6 play an immaculate match, though, and a few of her nine double faults threw Wozniacki fleeting lifelines late in the second and third sets.  Radwanska’s season probably ends here if she fails to sustain the momentum in her rivalry, but Zvonareva probably faces a similar prospect.  Whereas Azarenka and Li have everything to gain with a win, these two women have everything to lose with a loss.  Who will handle that situation more smoothly?

Samantha Stosur - 2011 US Open - Day 14

Azarenka (0-0) vs. Stosur (1-0):  For the second time in less than 24 hours, Stosur confronts a strong-willed and strong-lunged blonde who has throttled her throughout their previous meetings.  Less extensive than her streak of futility against Sharapova is her winless span against Azarenka, during which she has lost four straight matches and eight straight sets.  Yet, as one might expect, the experience of winning her first major by defeating the greatest player in her (or perhaps in any) generation has galvanized Stosur’s confidence against her competition in general.  No sterner test of that confidence could one imagine than a meeting with her long-time nemesis, who had crushed her twice this year.  Two improved components of the US Open champion’s arsenal allowed her to prevent a double-digit losing streak against Sharapova and could spur her to snap the winless drought against Azarenka as well.  Formerly a neutral shot at best, her backhand has provided a barometer of Stosur’s confidence throughout the peaks and valleys of her career, and rarely has she struck it with greater depth and conviction than in her victory on Tuesday.  Perhaps more importantly, her poise on important points assisted her in escaping a perilous, fascinating, multiple-deuce final game, when her nerves inevitably crept upon her but remarkably failed to overtake her.

When she faces Azarenka, a better scrambler than Sharapova, Stosur may need to strike one or two additional shots to finish rallies despite a surface through which her forehand has jolted percussively.  Moreover, the Belarussian vixen swaggers into Istanbul just days removed from a Luxembourg title.  On the other hand, fatigue or one of her frequently recurring injuries could blunt the daggers hurled by Azarenka, who has recorded mixed results at the year-end championships.  Whether Vika’s forehand or Sam’s backhand breaks down sooner and more often should decide this scintillating encounter.

Sharapova (0-1) vs. Li (0-0):  Seemingly pained by her lingering ankle injury, Sharapova lacked the characteristic depth on her groundstrokes and the pinpoint ferocity of her returns.  Without diminishing Stosur’s effort, Maria aided her adversary’s cause by committing clusters of routine errors at crucial moments, such as second-serve returns on break points in the last game.  Somewhat reminiscent of grass, the low-bouncing surface in the Istanbul Dome may hamper a player as statuesque as Sharapova.  Better adapted to the lower bounce is the compact physique of her opponent on Wednesday, who twice defeated the Russian on grass as she reversed the latter’s early dominance over their rivalry.  When Sharapova edged within two victories of the career Slam at Roland Garros this year, Li Na narrowly stifled that bid for history before creating her own historic moment two days later.  Since that sparkling June afternoon, however, the Chinese star has accomplished virtually nothing of note—at least in a positive sense.

A battle-tested veteran who has endured surgery after surgery, Li has greeted her breakthrough like a wide-eyed novice rather than embracing the spotlight of international celebrity.  In the first match of her career at the year-end championships, she should reassure herself that she has nothing to lose against an opponent far more experienced on such occasions.  During four previous appearances at this tournament, Sharapova never has failed to reach the semifinals.  A loss to Li almost certainly would halt her hopes this year, so one does not doubt that the Russian will expend as much energy as her ankle permits in the struggle to survive for another day.  As a player sound in mind but not in body meets a player sound in body but not in mind, we expect a match less attractive than its participants with copious unforced errors and puzzling momentum shifts.

Wozniacki (1-0) vs. Zvonareva (0-1):  Evenly split are the eight meetings between the Dane and the Russian, who held the top two ranking positions about a year ago.  Six of those eight encounters have occurred since the start of 2010, all of them in semifinals or finals, so they always have played for some of the highest stakes imaginable and meet in the year-end championships for the third consecutive season.  Winning both of their previous clashes at this event, Wozniacki gallantly overcame not only Zvonareva but an excruciating leg injury in a three-setter two years ago.  In the 2010 sequel, Vera nearly edged through the first set before suffering one of her familiar meltdowns.  Steadier in personality and slightly more consistent on the court, the world #1 typically has emerged triumphant when both attain their highest level.

Recently, however, neither woman has delivered her best tennis for sustained stretches.  While Zvonareva mustered unconvincing resistance to Kvitova on Tuesday, only narrowly did Wozniacki deflect the accelerating charge of Radwanska, whom she had handled comfortably before.  Had the Pole preserved her set-and-break advantage, this match would have opposed two 0-1 players on the edge of elimination.  As matters unfolded, only Zvonareva totters with her back to the precipice, whereas Wozniacki eyes a nearly certain semifinal berth with a win here.  Unlike her compatriot Sharapova, the second-ranked Russian often does not confront adversity with steely determination but can allow fatalism to overtake her.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki has built her ascent to #1 in part upon the bones of insecure, easily unhinged competitors.  But Zvonareva won their most recent meeting in February and captured their most significant meeting in a semifinal at last year’s US Open.  Discount her at your peril.

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