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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.

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 China Open - Day 4

Kvitova vs. Zvonareva:  In her first career match at the year-end championships, the Wimbledon champion confronts a player who conquered her twice on hard courts this year.  If this pair of combatants continue their rivalry’s pattern of alternating wins, Kvitova will emerge the victor from this meeting.  More intriguing is the pattern of lopsided scorelines that their rivalry has followed, for all five of their encounters have included at least one set in which the losing player won two or fewer games.  Now that both have entrenched themselves inside the top 5, one hopes for a more suspenseful battle worthy of the occasion.  Even when they did play a tiebreak set in the first set of their Tokyo semifinal, the two women failed to distinguish themselves at the same time.  Instead, Kvitova reeled off five of the first six games against an inept Zvonareva before abruptly disintegrating beyond repair as the Russian cruised to an unexpected triumph.  As the narrative of that match suggests, the Czech’s superior first-strike power and greater shot-making audacity should allow her to dictate the outcome of this meeting, played on a fast indoor court similar to the Linz event where Kvitova just won a title.  Yet here again their past history surprises, for the reigning Wimbledon champion has captured both of their clay meetings while losing all three of their hard-court collisions.  Not overwhelmed by the prestigious occasion, Zvonareva has advanced from her group in two of her last three appearances at the year-end championships.  Highlighting her 7-3 record during that span are victories over three different top-5 opponents.  This match thus may prove the most challenging for Kvitova in the round-robin stage, but a baptism by fire will strengthen a player who often plays to the level of her competition.

Wozniacki vs. Radwanska:  Since her best friend won their first meeting in 2007, the world #1 has treated Radwanska with anything but friendliness as she has swept to comfortable victories on four straight occasions.  Wozniacki’s counterpunching style so far has adapted neatly to frustrate her quasi-compatriot, who has lacked the explosive firepower to hit through her defenses and has struggled to outlast her from the baseline—a task in which very few have succeeded over the past two years.  During her recent title runs in Tokyo and Beijing, though, Radwanska showed flashes of greater willingness to carpe the diem on important points, courage that would serve her well on the fast surface this week.  Far from discouraging, her opening-round loss in Moscow probably will have provided her with valuable time to regroup from those potentially career-changing achievements.  At this tournament, we will receive our first answer concerning just how far those achievements actually did change her career.  Despite her futility against Wozniacki, Radwanska should approach this match with greater confidence springing not only from her rise but from her friend’s concurrent embarrassments.  Although she reached the semifinals at the US Open, the world #1 hasn’t reached a final anywhere but New Haven since Roland Garros.  She looked unsteady at best and confused at worst in early exits at the two key Asian tournaments to opponents well outside her class.  But the motivation of assuring the year-end #1 ranking may spur Wozniacki onwards, and Radwanska may have quenched her competitive hunger for the year.

Sharapova vs. Stosur:  Commanding an immaculate record against the Australian, Sharapova has won all nine of their meetings and eleven consecutive sets during a span that extends back to 2005.  None of their twenty sets has reached 5-5, in fact, a curious statistic for two of the WTA’s premier servers over the last several seasons.  Visibly intimidated by the Russian’s return, Stosur never has delivered one of her signature serving performances against her and has not found a way to shield her modest backhand from her opponent’s savage two-hander.  Both women have relied on first-strike tennis throughout their careers, a style that demands supreme will and conviction for effective execution.  Now that she has joined Sharapova among the ranks of Slam champions, perhaps the US Open titlist can display those traits that she has lacked during their previous encounters.  Having defeated Serena in a Slam final, she should realize that she can overcome any challenge if she can showcase her ATP-like game to its fullest.  Reportedly less than full strength after a painful ankle injury at the Tokyo tournament, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since winning Cincinnati in early August.  So heavily does she rely on precision that her lack of preparation and any nagging concerns over her injury may offset her timing by a critical fraction.  Meanwhile, Stosur won just one total match in Tokyo and Beijing before reviving with a solid albeit not spectacular march to the Osaka final.  Since the Russian and the Australian have struggled in equal measure against Azarenka, each will want to open their Istanbul campaigns with a victory that permits them margin for error as round-robin play progresses.  Much as with the Wozniacki-Radwanska match, one player eyes an opportunity to build upon a potential career breakthrough, while an opponent who has dominated their meetings aims to ensure that history repeats itself.

After a rather arid week in tennis news, the sport springs back to life with the first of its year-end championship tournaments, held in the unfamiliar setting of the Istanbul Dome.  We profile each of the WTA’s Elite Eight before they fire the first shots in their marquee collisions.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark receives the WTA Year- End No 1 Trophy on during day four of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 29, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Red Group:

Wozniacki:  A finalist at the 2010 edition of the year-end championships, the face of Turkish Airlines also battled out of her round-robin group two years ago.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki also reached finals in both of her appearances in the Middle East, including a Premier Five title in Dubai.  Less auspicious are the omens from her Asian fall campaign, which concluded with pre-semifinal losses at both Tokyo and Beijing in stark contrast to her consecutive victories there last year.  On the slick indoor surface, her defensive skills may not withstand the firepower of Kvitova, who crushed her in their only fast-court meeting at Wimbledon last year.  Not since April has Wozniacki defeated a top-eight opponent other than Schiavone, whose underperforming second half forestalled her attendance.  All the same, the Great Dane owns a winning or even record against everyone in her group despite having accomplished less than all of them this fall.

Kvitova:  Amidst three natural counterpunchers, the Czech must feel sanguine about her chances as the principal offensive threat on an offense-oriented surface.  Although she appeared to Czech out of competition for a few months after winning Wimbledon, a title on the fast indoor courts of Linz may have signaled the onset of a resurgence.  That trophy came at the expense of noted defensive artists Jankovic and Cibulkova, proving that Kvitova lately has deployed her weapons with greater wisdom and consistency than during her long second-half skid.  But she fell resoundingly to Zvonareva in a Tokyo semifinal after squandering a massive lead, her second hard-court loss to the Russian this year.  The only first-time participant in her group, Kvitova may need a match or so to adjust to the unique format and rhythms of the tournament.  Moreover, as with the other first-time Slam champions, she will have to overcome the urge to complacently accept her accomplishments thus far as sufficient for a season.  Beneath that shy veneer, though, Kvitova has shown herself capable of surprising resolve throughout a year in which she surpassed Wozniacki as the pathbreaker of her generation by winning Wimbledon.  A title here, which the Dane does not own, would cement the Czech’s ascendancy in that role.

Zvonareva:  Recalling Wozniacki’s success in the Middle East, Zvonareva has enjoyed such visits to the region as the Doha title this year, another Doha final three years ago, and the 2008 final of the year-end championships in Doha.  (On second thought, maybe she just has a special affection for the Qatari capital.)  After a modest first half, the second-ranked Russian raised her performance several notches in the second half by surging into three finals and acquitting herself creditably in a quarterfinal run at the US Open.  The round-robin format may benefit Zvonareva by removing some of the pressure associated with single-elimination draws; if she falters in one match, she can reassure herself that she will survive to another day.  Winning her last meeting against both Wozniacki and Kvitova, she generally prefers a more modestly paced hard court but demonstrated her ability to adapt to faster surfaces by reaching finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.  Likely grateful to see her inevitable nemesis Stosur elsewhere in the draw, Zvonareva now may have to defuse new nemesis Radwanska, who collected all three of their meetings since Wimbledon without dropping a set.  As noted above, however, she doesn’t need to win every match.

Radwanska:  Slipping unobtrusively into the draws at previous editions of this event, the Pole positively thundered into the 2011 year-end championships by becoming the second straight player to record the Premier Five / Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing.  The last player to accomplish that feat, Wozniacki built upon it by marching within a set of the 2010 title at this tournament.  Can Radwanska follow in her footsteps?  In theory, the fast indoor surface should undermine her affinity for finesse and carefully calculated gambits.  In practice, it also will add an additional jolt of pace to her strokes, which she had struck with greater conviction and acceptance of risk this fall.  Outside her losing records against Wozniacki and Kvitova, fatigue may pose the most serious concern for Radwanska, who fell immediately at the Kremlin Cup and has had little experience in her career with plowing deep into consecutive tournaments.  Beyond the physical dimension, her style demands a high degree of mental focus that may have faded slightly in the aftermath of her Asian accomplishments.

Maria Sharapova - Toray Pan Pacific Open - Day 4

White Group:

Sharapova:  Four years ago, her most recent appearance at the year-end championships culminated with that season’s most memorable match, a three-set final against Henin that lasted nearly three and a half hours.  More than anyone except perhaps Kvitova, Sharapova should thrive on an indoor surface where the wind can disrupt neither her ball toss nor her pinpoint groundstrokes and the WTA’s best return of serve.  Her fall season ended prematurely with an ankle injury, though, and she has practiced this week with that joint tightly wrapped amidst hints that she will not compete at full strength.  Perhaps more concerning, the Russian had endured a wildly erratic stretch on the summer hard-courts during which she averaged over 40 unforced errors per match.  But Sharapova looked crisper when she arrived in Tokyo, and a lack of pre-tournament matches with her 2007 shoulder injury did not prevent her from carving her way to the final past four talented opponents.  While she has struggled against Azarenka, she has maintained the same uncanny dominance over Stosur that the Australian has inflicted upon Zvonareva.  With a probable loss and probable win in those two matches, her encounter with the perplexing Li Na may decide whether she emerges from the group.

Azarenka:  A diluted or updated version of Sharapova, depending on one’s perspective, Vika has emulated her successes against Stosur by relying upon her more balanced baseline style.  After a minor injury in Beijing, she cruised to the Luxembourg title last week against overmatched adversaries.  While that accomplishment would seem to provide her with momentum, Azarenka has developed a disquieting habit of alternating between the remarkable and, well, the retiring.  During this spring alone, consecutive titles in Miami and Marbella followed an Indian Wells retirement and preceded a Stuttgart retirement, which in turn preceded a Madrid final and then a Rome retirement.  A repeated guest at this event in the last few years, Azarenka collaborated with Wozniacki, Radwanska, and Clijsters on some of its most entertaining matches.  But she ultimately lost all of them in three sets as the magnitude of the occasion and the concomitant tension unnerved her.  Unless she suffers an injury as she has here before, however, she should not only advance from this group but win every round-robin match to arrange a meeting with the Red Group runner-up on Saturday.

Li:  Theoretically the third-ranked player in this group, the reigning Roland Garros champion has fizzled in spectacular fashion at nearly every significant event since then, from a second-round Wimbledon loss to a first-round exit from the US Open to another opening-round defeat at her home tournament in Bejing.  Meanwhile, she squandered multiple match points before losing to a player outside the top 30 (New Haven), split with the coach who led her to the aforementioned Roland Garros title (Michael Mortensen), signed sponsorship deals projected to earn her more endorsement money than any player except Sharapova, and announced the upcoming release of what should prove a fascinating autobiography.  As the events chronicled above indicate, the success of Li’s off-court attempts to capitalize upon her major breakthrough have contrasted starkly with her on-court fecklessness, the product of a complacency that she openly has admitted.  The last set that she played before Istanbul, a bagel at the hands of the underpowered Niculescu, exposed a competitor who strangely lacked confidence in any of her most familiar shots.  In her debut appearance at the year-end championships, Li can remind herself that she has nothing to lose but the match—or rather three of them.  On paper, though, her 2011 Slam triumphs over Azarenka (twice) and Sharapova would have positioned her to exploit this draw.  Thus, an opening awaits if she can awake.

Stosur:  In a story familiar from her predecessors this year, the WTA’s third first-time Slam champion of 2011 took a virtual vacation from competition in her ensuing tournaments.  Perhaps a testament to her greater maturity and steadiness was Stosur’s swifter revival when she reached the Osaka final, an important confidence boost despite a lopsided loss to Bartoli at that stage.  A semifinalist at the year-end championships in 2010, the Aussie showed no debutante nerves while comfortably defeating Wozniacki and extending Clijsters to a third-set tiebreak.  Arguably the best server of the eight participants, she should win more free points and hold serve more comfortably on the fast surface than most.  But her winless record against both Sharapova and Azarenka looms large in what usually functions as a double-elimination format.  Will Stosur’s Slam breakthrough, defeating the normally impenetrable Serena, embolden her to overcome those who relentlessly have preyed upon her?

Semifinals:  Kvitova vs. Sharapova, Zvonareva vs. Azarenka

Final:  Kvitova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Petra Kvitova, who would repeat Sharapova’s 2004 feat of winning her first major at Wimbledon and then winning the year-end championships in her first appearance there

***

Ignited by this preview is a daily series of articles that will discuss each singles match during the week in Istanbul as Turkey hosts a significant tennis event for the first time in its history.

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland arrives on court before his men's singles first round match against David Ferrer of Spain during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena on November 21, 2010 in London, England.

From the smoke over the battlefields of the year’s final major emerges the curious coda to the tennis calendar.  We outline  four of the key issues that separate the fall from other stages of the season, discussing their impact on players and spectators for better and for worse.

1)      The Race(s) to the year-end championships

Point:  A sport that features new tournaments and new champions every week, tennis doesn’t fit especially well with the concept of accumulating points throughout an entire season for a single goal.  In the fall, when the Race becomes a dominant storyline, a series of quarterfinals can prove more meaningful than a title.  Spectators also must wrap their minds around the notion that a player’s fate depends in part upon the exploits (or lack thereof) of his leading rivals, not the case in the linear narratives of a tournament where players craft their own destinies.  This system thus rewards cumulative and comparative forms of accomplishment, much less prominent a factor when Slams rather than YECs loom ahead.

Counterpoint:  While tennis remains an interval competition, the battle to reach the equivalent of a season-ending “playoff” offers a common denominator with other sports that more general fans can appreciate.  Moreover, earlier rounds of the fall tournaments become increasingly significant in the context of the Race and thus increasingly compelling to watch.  Which unseeded opponents can play spoilers to the contenders?  Whose draw will most boost their hopes for Istanbul or London?  For one of the few times all season, the rankings system attracts attention for the right reasons.

2)      The unpredictable results 

Point:  In a span of the season with the spottiest participation and least determined efforts from many elite contenders, few classic matches between the great rivals of the era occur.  Among the examples of this trend was the unremarkable final between Federer and Nadal in London last year, or the equally pedestrian encounters between Federer and Djokovic throughout the fall.  And players often struggle to carry momentum from October and November through the offseason into the Australian segment when the intensity elevates again.  Now more than at any other time, the Llodras of the Tour can feel emboldened to defeat the Djokovices, the Melzers defeat the Nadals, and the Monfilses defeat the Federers.  Consequently, some tournaments conclude in lopsided final weekends between mismatched opponents or title matches pitting second-tier opponents against one another.  (This argument applies mostly to the ATP, since the WTA’s era of parity produces unpredictable results in all seasons.)

Counterpoint:  Far from foregone conclusions, early rounds can become adventurous rollercoasters that do more than rehearse for the final weekend.  As players like Nalbandian, Tsonga, Soderling, and Ivanovic could attest, one man’s complacency becomes another man’s opportunity.  Overshadowed by the giants of the game throughout the core of the season, less immortal but stunningly talented competitors can unleash their flashes of brilliance on relatively important stages.  Although Tour hierarchies bend without breaking, the fall illustrates the depth and diversity of the sport while providing an antidote to the ATP’s relentless predictability.  As much as one admires the dominance of a Rafa, a Novak, or a Serena, tennis becomes more human and engaging when their understudies seize these fleeting chances to shine.

3)      The concept of the Asian season

Point:  Historically rooted in the clay and grass of Europe, tennis also has found a lasting home in the United States and Australia, from which so many great champions have sprung.  Centered upon Asia, not a bastion of the sport’s traditional past, the fall season sometimes seems irrelevant to fans from other regions.  By enlisting in frequent exhibitions and promotional activities during this period, elite players inadvertently encourage the perception of Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and the rest as glorified exhibitions not far removed from the season-starting Abu Dhabi event.  As fans struggle to adapt their schedules around faraway time zones, the temptation grows to succumb to post-Slam withdrawal and cast one’s thoughts to Australia.

Counterpoint:  If Asia had a major, its tournaments would become significantly more legitimate and more closely followed (see below).  The Road to Roland Garros and the US Open Series almost certainly would decline in popularity if the French Open and US Open did not provide worthy climaxes for those sequences.  In that sense, comparisons between them and the Asian season prove futile.  While one should not underestimate the significance of tradition, furthermore, tennis can only gain by expanding into new markets and acquiring new fan bases, particularly as players from Asia continue to excel.  As American stars continue to stagnate, fans here have started to adopt a less nationalistic mentality by following foreign talents.  One of the key, distinctive advantages that this sport possesses over its more mainstream rivals lies in its multicultural diversity, and the Asian season capitalizes upon this asset.

4)      The year-end championships themselves

Point:  Since the four majors dominate the season for both players and spectators, the year-end championships have receded to a position of near-irrelevance at the exhausting end of a peripatetic calendar.  Injuries and mental fatigue have undermined not only the quality of the matches but the level of participation, causing recurrent retirements, substitutions, and listless efforts.  Reminiscent of exhibitions are the copious amounts of money and points available for anyone who can collect a round-robin victory—or merely appear on the court.  Despite nullifying external disturbances, indoor arenas too often produce conditions somewhere between sterile and surreal, as in the case of the O2 Arena’s eerie blue lighting.  With only eight singles players and two singles matches each day, the rhythm of the year-end championships can feel anywhere from plodding to glacial—but never suspenseful.

Counterpoint:  Few rebuttals can undermine the arguments above persuasively, so we provide seven suggestions for the improvement of these tournaments.  First, combine them into a single event of about a week that would show several singles matches each day (some WTA and some ATP).  Second, move the events to a site far from any of the Slam venues and preferably in Asia.  The WTA’s Istanbul location seems fair enough, but situating the year-end championships in the same city as Wimbledon strikes us as a recipe for redundancy.  Notwithstanding the Australian Open’s ambitious subtitle “the Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific,” Asia inarguably lacks a major.  As noted above, its tournaments would increase in overall significance by their strategic arrangement escalating towards a “quasi-major” that would combine the best of both Tours.  Third, drop the free money and rankings points that provide incentives for injured but greedy players to stagger through three losses purposelessly.  Fourth, abolish the ATP rule that mandates inclusion of every Slam singles and doubles champion.  Fifth, turn the eighth spots into wildcard berths for players who may have struggled with too many injuries to include the requisite points but would add drama to the proceedings and deserve the wildcards by outstanding performances when healthy.  As even the most casual fans know, rankings do not provide a conclusive guide to a player’s title-winning potential.  Sixth, hold the event near the time of the women’s year-end championships, reducing the over-saturation problem of the nearly endless season.  Seventh, return to the best-of-five format in the men’s semifinals and final.  If this event truly represents a World Series of Tennis just half a step below the majors in meaning, it deserves a scoring system more appropriate for that role, not the same system as Metz and Bucharest.

***

We return shortly with a preview of the draw in Tokyo, the last WTA Premier Five tournament of the season.

 

 

As the Tours sweep across Asia in the season’s concluding segment, we take an economist’s view of the leading contenders and advise you on whether to buy, sell, or hold stocks in each of them.

Novak Djokovic - Serbia v Argentina - Davis Cup World Group Semi Final - Day Three

DjokovicSELL

With the arguable exception of the year-end championships, none of the remaining tournaments on Djokovic’s schedule would add meaningful luster to his blockbuster 2011, already the best season of any man since Laver’s calendar Slam.  Retiring twice in his last three tournaments, the undisputed #1 should approach the fall conservatively as he focuses upon healing his back injury.  Abortive campaigns in China, Paris, or elsewhere would end this year on a disappointing note, and Djokovic could do worse than to leave the memory of his spectacular US Open festering in the minds of his frustrated rivals during the offseason.  By contrast, an injury-fueled defeat that would remind them of his vulnerability, so a risk-reward analysis counsels caution.

Goal: Walk softly and prepare a big stick for another blockbuster campaign in 2012

NadalHOLD

Not since 2004 has Nadal played an entire season without winning a hard-court tournament, yet such is the prospect that he faces in 2011.  Coinciding with his more pragmatic schedule, Djokovic’s ascendancy has limited the Spaniard to three clay titles this year and only one Masters 1000 shield, the non-mandatory Monte Carlo event.  While Rafa’s form generally deteriorates during the fall after his overloaded first half, he has reached the final of both fall Masters tournament and (just last year) the year-end championships.  The only significant gap in his resume, the World Tour Finals should offer him ample motivation, as should the prospect of leading Spain to another Davis Cup title.  Days after another loss to Djokovic, playing before his compatriots dramatically raised his spirits.

Goal:  Reach another Masters final and hope that Djokovic doesn’t

FedererBUY

Surely seething from his Wimbledon and US Open defeats, Federer should approach the fall with redoubled determination.  Last year, a similarly deflating loss in New York preceded a torrid campaign on indoor surfaces that included three titles and his best tennis of the season.  A five-time champion at the season-ending event, the GOAT will fancy his chances against Rafa or Novak on fast indoor surfaces more than anywhere else.  Although he has little to gain in rankings points, he has much to gain in momentum and can exploit the weariness of rivals with more physical playing styles.  Federer still wins more free points on serve than anyone in the top 10, a key asset for indoor tournaments.

Goal:  Break another record—by winning a sixth title at the year-end championships

MurrayBUY

Neglected amidst the achievements of the top two, Murray quietly enjoyed the best Slam campaign of his career by reaching the semifinals at every major.  Curiously, he also has suffered one of his least impressive seasons at Masters tournaments, including three opening-round losses.  The defending champion in Shanghai, he outplayed Nadal for much of their 2010 London semifinal and has enjoyed consistent success against Federer in the best-of-three format.  Theoretically ill-suited to the fall’s offensively oriented surfaces of fall, Murray profits from his rigorous fitness and work ethic when the motivation of others wavers.  The Scot recently opined that he enjoys playing tournaments when he doesn’t face top players, and he’ll have that chance in the coming weeks.

Goal:  Win a fall Masters title and repeat Operation Wimbledon:  stirring British hearts before breaking them into tiny pieces

FerrerSELL

Valiantly propelling himself back into the top 5, Ferrer once described himself as “the worst player in the top 100.”  The indoor season generally rewards raw talent and shot-making panache over consistency and effort, so he should make little impact until the Davis Cup final and a probable first-day meeting with Del Potro.  Before that fascinating encounter, Ferrer also will enjoy participating in the Valencia event on one of the calendar’s slowest hard courts.  Don’t expect much from him in London.

Goal:  Win Best Supporting Actor in the 2011 Davis Cup Final, starring Rafael Nadal

SoderlingSELL

Absent from serious contention since Wimbledon, the Swede oddly has won as many titles as Nadal this season but has not entered the champion’s circle since February.  Two of his three 2011 trophies and his only Masters 1000 crown came on the indoor surfaces that maximize his high-precision, low-consistency style of unvarnished slugging.  If he can regain his health, he might enter the fall fresher than those ranked higher and certainly will have the belief that he can conquer them.

Goal:  Mount a credible title defense in Paris and sharpen his fangs for a 2012 resurgence

FishHOLD

After an outstanding US Open Series, Fish regressed at his home major with an uneven fourth-round loss to Tsonga.  Always at his best in North America, he rarely has caused much stir in the Asian or European fall, which surprises considering his excellent serve and propensity for short points.  A first career appearance at the year-end championships lies well within his reach, however, and Fish should approach that objective with the urgency of a competitor who might not see such an opportunity again.  As usual, it’s hard to see him winning a marquee title; as usual, it’s easy to see him springing an ambush over a marquee name.

Goal:  Hook a top-5 opponent at a Masters tournament before swimming up the Thames to the O2 Arena

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 8

WozniackiBUY

Dormant at significant tournaments from Miami through Cincinnati, the not-quite-Great Dane reawakened in New Haven and carried that momentum into a performance at the US Open that surpassed expectations.  In 2010, a semifinal at the year’s last major signaled a spectacular fall for Wozniacki, extending from the Tokyo-Beijing double to the final of the year-end championships.  Deepening competition and less suffocating form this year suggest that she will not repeat those results, but no woman competes with steadier commitment from one week to the next.  Whatever advice she has received from her mystery coach should rejuvenate her confidence, while she can accomplish the next-best feat to winning a major by claiming the year-end championships.  As other champions start to plan towards 2012, Wozniacki should remain firmly in the present.

Goal:  Win Istanbul and identify her new coach before we start referring to him as Lord Voldemort

SharapovaHOLD

Following a season of melodramatic, fiercely contested encounters, Sharapova seemed spent emotionally in New York and never quite struck her scintillating best.  Guaranteed to reach the year-end championships for the first time since 2007, she has prospered in her previous appearances at that event and at indoor tournament in general.  Showcasing her unrelenting offense, the fast courts of fall proved friendly to Sharapova in 2009 (a Tokyo title) but not in 2010 (one match won).  Since her Slam campaign wound to an anticlimactic conclusion, she might prove ever more eager to terminate this season of resurgence emphatically.  Capitalizing upon her popularity in Asia, however, she has planned a busy fall with promotional trips to Taiwan and Indonesia, which may drain her energy further.

Goal:  Find the time to reach the semifinals or better at two of Tokyo, Beijing, and Istanbul

ZvonarevaHOLD

Soon after Sharapova’s fortunes rose in late March, her compatriot’s star began to decline after a hopeful start to 2011.  Not since Miami has Zvonareva registered a win over a top-10 opponent, although she remained well inside the top 5.  Like Wozniacki, she gained momentum from a reasonably strong US Open that culminated with a quarterfinal loss to the eventual champion.  A previous finalist at both Beijing and the year-end championships, Zvonareva might shine under the reduced pressure of the season’s least intense segment.  She lacks both the firepower and the inner belief to transform herself from a lady-in-waiting into a leading lady, but one senses that she prefers the former role anyway.

Goal:  Win a match or two over top-10 opponents and pray for Stosur to stay far, far away

2011 WTA Slam championsSELL

Awash in the glory of their maiden Slam titles, Li and Kvitova have slipped into swoons from which they probably will not recover until next year.  Offering hope for the Chinese star, though, is the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing, the scene of her memorable heroics at the 2008 Olympics.  Nearly certain to join their slumbers, meanwhile, is US open champion Stosur, who in fact deserves a respite from the rigors of competition as she contemplates her achievement.  As the endorsements flow and attention soars, the waning weeks of 2011 will offer little incentive to accomplish something less impressive than what they already have achieved.  Approaching their first career appearances at the year-end championships, Li and Kvitova in particular should feed the hopes of their group-mates there.

Goal:  Sleepwalk to more wins than losses while dreaming of past and future glories

PetkovicBUY

As many of her peers have careened between the sublime and the absurd, the charismatic German has recorded three or more victories at every tournament that she has played since Wimbledon.  Reaching the top 10 for the first time this summer, she will have the opportunity to slip into the year-end championships amidst injuries to Clijsters and perhaps others.  Once there, Petkovic might display the opportunistic streak that has seen her produce her best tennis on the most significant occasions—an encouraging trend for her future.

Goal:  Debut the Petko-dance under the Istanbul Dome

SerenaSELL

For Serena, the real season ended with her collapse in the US Open final, when she lost more than a match in some minds.  Will she travel around the world to compete in events that have no influence upon her legacy?   If she charges deep into both Tokyo and Beijing, she might snatch a last-minute Istanbul berth—the only purpose that elevating her ranking serves for Serena.  Previously, though, the 13-time Slam champion usually has trudged listlessly through the tournaments after the US Open and the year-end championships, liberally distributing withdrawals and retirements.  At the age of 30, she should follow Djokovic’s example and focus upon 2012, keeping injuries at bay by participating sparingly, if at all, in the coda to 2011.

Goal:  Look where she walks and think before she talks

***

We return in a few days with a point/counterpoint on reasons to watch–or not watch–the fall season.

 

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