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Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 2, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Less than two weeks after the US Open finals, the fall season ignites with a Premier Five tournament in Tokyo that features seven of the WTA top 10 although not two of the season’s four Slam champions or Serena Williams.  The top two in the world and the top two seeds, Wozniacki and Sharapova won the last two editions of this event, so they will hope to begin the march towards Istanbul with commanding performances here.

First quarter:  After falling in the US Open semifinal last year, Wozniacki vaulted from that achievement to consecutive titles in Tokyo and Beijing.  Despite the relatively fast surface of the Ariake Colosseum, she eyes a comfortable route to the semifinals, far from the leading power-hitters who could topple her.  Thwarted in her openers at her last two Premier Five tournaments, the Dane can rely upon her familiar steadiness to withstand the erratic Gajdosova or the inexperienced Marino.  While US Open quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta might await in the third round, she has lost all five meetings with Wozniacki and twice on the clay that most favors her strengths against the top seed.  Aligned to face the defending champion in the quarterfinals is the former generation’s Wozniacki, Jankovic, who came within a few points of the Cincinnati title before suffering her sixth straight pre-quarterfinal exit at a major.  Runner-up to Sharapova here two years ago, the Serb initially dominated the Dane before losing three times to her this spring in clashes between the WTA’s two premier counterpunchers.  Lurking to intercept Jankovic in the third round, US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber would need to repeat her New York upset over Radwanska.  In her opener, meanwhile, the loathsome Quebec champion Zahlavova Strycova aims to engage Jelena in a contentious catfight.  But the Serb should survive such distractions and the lefty style of Kerber before Wozniacki outlasts her again.

Semifinalist:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  An undeserving first-week loser in New York, Azarenka will fancy her chances of striking deep into the draw should she maintain the level that she showed during the second set against Serena there.   She has won all six sets that she has played against most probable third-round opponent Peer, although the Israeli has struggled this season following  a 2010 campaign that brought her to the verge of the year-end championships.  Among the intriguing players in this section is Radwanska’s sister Urszula, who qualified for the main draw after reaching the Tashkent semifinals and likewise qualifying for the US Open.  Considered a more offensive player than Aga, the younger Radwanska defeated first-round opponent Zakopalova earlier this year but probably could not threaten Azarenka.  In the lower section of this quarter, two double-fisters brace for collision in Peng and Bartoli, the former of whom has enjoyed a career season and perhaps the latter as well.  Inspired by an upset over Cibulkova in New York, Irina Falconi seeks to build upon a promising summer against home hope Ayumi Morita.  The most compelling first-round encounter in this section, however, pits rapidly rising American teenager Christina McHale against the former prodigy Tamira Paszek.  Known for epic matches against Jankovic and Schiavone at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Paszek rebounded from injuries to reach her first Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon this summer—defeating McHale resoundingly en route.  A combined 11-2 against Peng and Bartoli, Azarenka will find herself in a winnable quarterfinal no matter the opponent, able to rely upon her symmetrical groundstrokes and superior movement.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  Unaccountably frowning upon Zvonareva, the draw deities once again assigned her a likely quarterfinal meeting with Stosur, who has won their last eight encounters.  Even before that stage, the Russian might find her solid but not electrifying offense tested by Cibulkova, who gradually ground her down physically and emotionally at Indian Wells.  Amplifying her forehand while committing to greater aggression, the Slovak has registered two victories over Wozniacki this year despite disappointing for most of the summer as an abdominal strain hampered her.  Can countrywoman and Guangzhou finalist Magdalena Rybarikova ambush Cibulkova and trouble Zvonareva?  That possibility looks doubtful, which suggests that the 2011 US Open champion should meet the 2010 US Open runner-up once more.  The only serious threat to Stosur before the quarterfinals, Ivanovic plays a style strikingly similar to the Aussie with serve-forehand combinations masking an indifferent backhand.  While they have split their four previous meetings, all in uneventful fashion, one would favor the US Open champion over the former Roland Garros champion because of her recent serving superiority.  On the other hand, first-time Slam champions Li and Kvitova suffered post-breakthrough hangovers that continue to linger.  In the first match since stunning Serena on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stosur cannot afford such a lapse when she faces Kirilenko for the second straight tournament.  Collaborating on a 32-point tiebreak at the US Open, they might produce another scintillating encounter with their crisp net play, refined in doubles.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Fourth quarter:  From a champion in 2009 to a first-round victim in 2010, Sharapova has mirrored her career’s radical oscillations in her fortunes at the Toray Pan Pacific Open.  Two years ago, her unexpected title charge followed the ignominious 21-double fault loss to Oudin in New York, illustrating her talent for reinvigorating herself immediately after her setbacks.  In 2011, another dismal three-set loss in the third round of the US Open might perform the same function, inspiring Sharapova to visit retribution upon her next sequence of opponents.  As proved the case last year, though, she could face a challenging opening assignment in New Haven finalist Petra Cetkovska, who reached the second week at Wimbledon before defeating Radwanska, Bartoli, and Li Na consecutively at the Yale tournament.  Sharapova’s conqueror in 2010, Kimiko Date-Krumm, has fallen in the same quarter again but now will target Wimbledon champion Kvitova.  Since blazing 222 winners to capture her first Slam title, the Czech flamed out of the North American hard-court season with just two victories in three tournaments.  Although she should solve the fading Date-Krumm (perhaps not without difficulty), US Open quarterfinalist Pavlyuchenkova poses a more formidable obstacle in the third round.  These budding rivals have split their four meetings, including two this year, and have reached third sets in all of them.  Despite the disparity in their rankings, therefore, the Russian’s accelerating momentum and their past history incline one to slightly favor an upset.  Sharapova certainly would prefer an upset, for she has won 14 of her last 15 matches against fellow Russians and her only meeting with Pavlyuchenkova, albeit in three sets.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia poses with the trophy after winning the women's final match against Jelena Jankovic of Serbia during day seven of the Toray Pan Pacific Open Tennis tournament at Ariake Colosseum on October 3, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.

We return to continue the stories of Tokyo by the quarterfinals or so, perhaps with an excursion to Bangkok beforehand.  (If the title reference whizzed past you like a Sharapova backhand, consider investigating the work of Yasujiro Ozu.)

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Ana Ivanovic - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Two

Ivanovic vs. Larsson:  A first-round victim at two of the last three majors, the 2008 champion has succumbed in her opening match at three of seven tournaments this season.  While the first statistic illustrates her recent psychological frailty on grand stages, the latter statistic springs more from the injuries that have limited her to just 17 matches in 2011.  When healthy and confident, however, Ivanovic can carve her way deep into prestigious draws (cf. Indian Wells this year) and challenge the most elite opponents (cf. Clijsters in Miami).  Despite a wrist inflammation last week, she gained encouragement from her pre-tournament practices and can remind herself that she dominated Larsson in their previous meeting last fall.  The Swede has enjoyed a surprisingly fine clay season, highlighted by an Estoril semifinal, and she showed sufficient steel to topple Li Na in Miami.  If Ivanovic can subdue the inevitable first-round nerves, her much superior weight of shot should prevail.  But she will not want to invigorate her opponent with the sort of mid-match wobble that has dogged her all year, leading to squandered leads in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, and Rome.

Sharapova vs. Lucic:  For the second straight season, the three-time major champion arrives with a winning streak at the only Slam that has eluded her.  Far more impressive than the 2010 Strasbourg title, though, was a Rome surge that catapulted Maria from the outer to the inner circle of contenders with a  single blow.  A single blow remains the Russian’s preferred manner of terminating rallies with what Francis Ford Coppola might consider “extreme prejudice.”  In order to ultimately win this title, she must balance on the edge between aggression and recklessness, although her first opponent may not require such precision.  More than a decade ago, Lucic reached the Wimbledon semifinals with a win over Seles before soon fading from the picture like so many former prodigies.  While her comeback has not reached the celebrity of Date-Krumm’s revival, she won a set from Jankovic at the US Open and has the ball-striking capacity to survive the initial wave of assault from Sharapova.  Whether she can stay competitive throughout an entire match lies open to question.

Nadal vs. Isner: Never at his most comfortable against the skyscrapers of the ATP, the five-time champion must feel that Ivanovic played a naughty prank by assigning him the sport’s second-tallest man.  But the first-round loss of the sport’s tallest man, Karlovic, demonstrated the danger of relying upon a single shot to win three sets on these dusty battlefields.   After a desultory season thus far, Isner probably will enter the match with no real self-belief that he could threaten a player against whom he once won a set on a hard court.  If Nadal can score an early break of serve, the intrigue here could evaporate quickly.  Before it does, the match should provide a scintillating exercise in Rafa’s returning skills that will serve him well against later foes like Soderling.  Few elements of Nadal’s game impress more than his ability to gradually maneuver himself into control of a rally after absorbing a massive serve, and no surface showcases that talent more clearly than clay.

Harrison vs. Soderling:  Entering the main draw as a lucky loser, the future of American men’s tennis faces the two-time finalist.  After a pedestrian spring, Soderling brings little momentum into a clash with a player whom he defeated en route to the Brisbane title.  Nor did he bring momentum into his 2010 fortnight here, however, so Harrison should expect to meet the giant-killer who toppled Nadal and Federer in his last two appearances.  As unlikely to mount a legitimate threat as Isner against Nadal, the American has the opportunity to test his fledgling game against one of the ATP’s central pillars.  Mentally, he has the makings of a champion, but does he have the raw weapons?

Li vs. Zahlavova Strycova:  At her finest when coolest in the head, the Australian Open runner-up faces a perpetually sizzling firecracker.  An indifferent talent at best, Zahlavova Strycova attempts to strike sparks from her opponents with her pugnacious gamesmanship and tasteless theatrics.  One wonder whether she can crack the veneer of the Chinese star, so solid in Melbourne but so brittle over the following months.  If Lie aims to become a genuine contender on a consistent basis, the Czech exemplifies the type of journeywoman whom she must regularly defeat in uneventful fashion.

Monaco vs. Verdasco:  Hindered by several unkind draws this season, Verdasco has won consecutive matches at only three of eleven tournaments this year.  Now unseeded at Masters 1000 events, the Spaniard at least enters the tournament fresher than he did last year after an exhausting spring schedule.  Verdasco will need all of the energy that his legs can summon in order to outlast the tireless Monaco, the Argentine answer to Ferrer.  Technically sound albeit offensively underpowered, he can punish the Spaniard for the chronic lulls in the latter’s game by forcing him to hit multiple quasi-winners to finish points.  The world #20 has escaped unscathed from only two of their eights wars of attrition, so he will gain impetus from grinding down the defenses of this recurrent nemesis.

Petkovic vs. Jovanovski:  Can Jovanovski become “the third Serb” and follow in the footstep of compatriots Ivanovic and Jankovic?  Can Petkovic restore Germany to the tennis map a generation after the exploits of Steffi Graf?  The politician-musician-filmmaker-dancer-athlete has made substantial strides in that direction by reaching the Australian Open quarterfinal and Miami semifinal, but her momentum slowed between that performance and her Strasbourg title last week.  While both players prefer hard courts to clay, Petkovic has accumulated greater experience on the dirt and came within a point of halting Kuznetsova’s title defense last year.  In somewhat the opposite of Harrison’s position, Jovanovski has shown that she has ample firepower to compete with the elite, most notably in a Melbourne three-setter against Zvonareva.  What she has not shown is the mental stamina and willpower equally essential to becoming a champion.  To that end, she could learn from her opponent on Tuesday, a few steps higher on that evolutionary ladder although still a work in progress.

Querrey vs. Kohlschreiber:  One of the ATP’s most familiar scènes à faire, this match pits a steady, serve-oriented American against a fiery, versatile European.  Their respective backhands encapsulate the contrast between their styles, Querrey’s a studied, conservative two-hander and Kohlschreiber’s an effortless, audacious one-handed flick.  On clay, steady normally overcomes streaky, but the German has enjoyed much the stronger season overall and finds his footing here more naturally, having scored terre battue triumphs over Djokovic and Murray before.  A day that looks dismal for Americans from Isner to Russell to Harrison may turn no brighter when Querrey takes the court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

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

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

***

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

Milos Raonic Milos Raonic of Canada celebrates match point in his third round match against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

No Melbourne mirage (Paris, San Jose):  Hard on the heels of his second-week appearance at the Australian Open, Milos Raonic took a crucial first step towards justifying the attention with a debut title in San Jose.  The stocky Montenegrin-turned-Canadian comfortably overcame the waning Blake and the waxing Berankis with serve-forehand combinations that rarely faltered despite his inexperience.  Confronting defending champion Verdasco in the final, Raonic revealed a precocious poise under pressure as impressive as his veering kick serves.  Undeterred by the Spaniard’s impenetrability on serve, San Jose’s new titlist preserved his focus through a complicated service game late in each set that likely would have spelled the difference between victory and defeat.  Moreover, the Canadian refused to relinquish the first-set tiebreak after Verdasco held four successive set points, a squandered advantage that haunted his higher-ranked foe thereafter.  While one cannot project Raonic’s future too closely at this stage, we noticed that he can stay in a rally longer than most powerful, slow-footed servers, while he generally finished points with ease once he gained the initiative.  Those traits suggest that this confident but not cocky newcomer should launch himself towards achievements from which both of his nations can take pride.

Both confident and cocky, Petra Kvitova rivaled Raonic for the upset of the weekend by defeating Clijsters in a startlingly comfortable final.  Announcing herself with a Wimbledon semifinal appearance in 2010, the 20-year-old Czech confirmed that breakthrough after an arid second half with a quarterfinal in Melbourne and now perhaps her most impressive accomplishment thus far.  Able to create angles and spins rare in a righty-dominated WTA, Kvitova saved match points against compatriot Zahlavova Strycova in the second round before surviving another third-set tiebreak against Wickmayer in the quarterfinals.  Then, she dropped just nine total games in the semifinal and final; the Czech thus can win both with and without drama, a useful trait to develop.  While we cannot quite warm to her harsh on-court mannerisms, we appreciate her ability to harness the wayward focus and unruly temper with which she struggled earlier in her career.  Like Zvonareva, Kvitova proved that mental flakiness does not always become a terminal disease.  (On the other hand, see below.)

Not again, Andy? (Rotterdam):  A tournament removed from a perplexing performance in the Australian Open final, Murray revived the specter of his 2010 post-Melbourne slump.  Likewise disconsolate after a straight-sets loss in last year’s final, the Scot proceeded to sag through the next five months with no semifinals and a handful of embarrassing opening-round losses.  Initially envisioning a respite from the battle, the two-time Australian Open runner-up may wish that he had followed his first impulses rather than moping through a first-round defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam.  Perhaps Murray aimed to reclaim a top-four seed before the marquee North American tournaments, but he succeeded only in echoing his 2010 malaise by dropping more than half of his service games for the second consecutive match.  By contrast, his replacement at #4 emulated Kvitova by winning his second title of the season after saving match point in an early round.  Steadily improving a once-ghastly finals record, Soderling coolly parried the thunderbolts that an inspired Tsonga flung at him.  From their respective performances, one might have thought that the Swede had reached the final in Melbourne, while Murray had lost to the unheralded Dolgopolov in the fourth round.

A man for all surfaces (Costa do Sauipe):  Less unheralded following a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov joined Raonic as the second first-time finalist of the weekend.  Winning greater acclaim for offense than defense in Melbourne, the Ukrainian showcased his overlooked movement in a victory over the clay-loving Starace.  Unable to duplicate Raonic’s feat when he faced Almagro in the final, Dolgopolov nevertheless competed with creditable vigor against an opponent with far greater accomplishments on this surface, including a title here three years ago.  Although hard courts have become the dominant currency of the ATP, such versatility can only accelerate the evolution of his still raw game.  Mercurial shotmakers like Dolgopolov can learn the more nuanced skills of point construction on clay, which tests their fitness as well as their patience and thus offers a foundation for building maturity.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia reacts after losing a point in her first round match against Ekaterina Makarova of Russia during day two of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Thaid up in knots (Pattaya City):  Divergent from the soothing surroundings of this resort was the notably nervy tennis that unfolded there, infecting one star after another.  First to fall, the glamorous Kirilenko let triple match point vanish against a qualifier and then watched a third-set lead evaporate with a dismay that may have contributed to her opening loss in Dubai.  Just hours afterwards, Ivanovic tottered within a game of defeat when she confronted Craybas, who seemed to have receded into the mists of tennis history long ago.  Tiptoeing through that quagmire, the Serb surrendered meekly a round later to the guile of Roberta Vinci.  When an opportunity to reach the final beckoned, however, the Italian modulated from fearless to feckless herself.  But the most prominent downfall of all occurred atop the draw when two-time defending champion Zvonareva wobbled through a perilous three-setter against Peng only to unravel in familiar fashion against Hantuchova.  Failing to serve out the first set, the Russian soon soaked herself in a monsoon of exasperated disbelief at the Slovak’s precisely placed groundstrokes.  (One seriously questions her ability to win a major if the prospect of capturing a third straight title in Thailand unnerved her so strikingly.)  Ironically, a competitor notorious for emotional frailty surmounted the turmoil around her to collect her first title since 2007 and just the fourth of her career.  Can Hantuchova muster one more implausible surge at Indian Wells, the scene of her finest achievements?

Condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a rugged mountainside, the mythical figure of Sisyphus would complete that labor only to immediately undertake it anew.   Three months after hoisting their second straight Fed Cup title, Corrado Barazzutti’s sprightly squad perhaps could empathize with the perpetually toiling Greek as they open their title defense on an island far from Sicily.

Corrado Barattuzzi Francesca Schiavone (R) of Italy celebrates her victory over Melanie Oudin of USA with team captain Corrado Barattuzzi during the Federation Cup World Group Final between Italy and the USA at Circolo Tennis Rocco Polimeni on November 7, 2009 in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

The hard courts of Hobart will host an Australian team that suddenly has assembled an impressive singles pairing of world #5 Stosur and Jarmila Groth, whose career has surged after changing her surname and her passport.  Since the Italians will bring two top-20 players to this collision, however, they remain the slight favorites in a tie where all five matches should prove competitive.  Beyond their advantage in Fed Cup experience and exploits, Pennetta and Schiavone enjoyed far more memorable Australian Opens than did the two home hopes, who combined to collect just two victories there against seven by the Italians.  All too eager to delight the Aussie crowds, both Stosur and Groth slumped under the pressure in Melbourne, and this long-awaited World Group tie will test their nerves again.  Although last year’s Roland Garros runner-up avenged that loss to Schiavone last fall, she curiously has failed to win more than four games in any of the six sets that she has contested with Pennetta.  Famous for her characteristically Calabrian temper, the Italian has proved a poised competitor in Fed Cup and clinched both of her nation’s last two titles with composed performances.  Moreover, her confidence will have soared following a debut Grand Slam doubles title with fellow doubles #1 Dulko.  If Schiavone can defuse the stunning but raw game of Groth, therefore, the visitors probably will carry a 2-0 edge into Sunday that they will not squander.  Even if Australian can take the tie to the concluding doubles, Errani and Vinci will bring their undefeated record into a fascinating battle against Stosur and Stubbs.  One anticipates drama during plenty of individual sets in Tasmania but perhaps not in the overall scoreline.

Half a world away in Bratislava, the other engaging tie of the weekend pits the bifurcated halves of the former Czechoslovakia.  Braced to renew the internecine rivalry, the stylish Hantuchova and the resurgent Cibulkova hoist the Slovak flag together with 2009 Birmingham champion Rybarikova, who has sagged after initial promise.  Hampered by an injury that forced her withdrawal from Brisbane, former prodigy Hantuchova has faded into the twilight stages of her career but mustered one of her finer recent performances in last year’s World Group playoff against Serbia.  Literally rising above her stature, Cibulkova has added a startling degree of offense over the past year and scored an eye-opening victory over Wozniacki in Sydney.  The visitors will fancy their chances of reaching a third consecutive Fed Cup semifinal, though, for all three of their singles options acquitted themselves creditably in Melbourne and possess the combative streak that can insulate players from hostile surroundings.  Spearheading the charge is Australian Open quarterfinalist Kvitova, who conquered both Stosur and Pennetta in a fortnight that bolstered her Wimbledon breakthrough.  While Safarova competed resolutely against Zvonareva, Zahlavova Strycova toppled top-20 foe Rezai.  Yet all of the Czechs remain far less predictable than either of the Slovaks, so this tie could develop into a rollercoaster of momentum shifts within and between matches.  In the doubles, the Czechs have a slight but potentially vital edge with specialist Kveta Peschke and superior servers in Kvitova and Safarova.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

When Sharapova enters Fed Cup, an Olympic year must lie just over the horizon.  Having participated in only one previous Fed Cup tie, she returns to a country where she has not showcased her talents since 2007 and has won just two matches in her career.  The three-time major champion grimly bulldozed through the Israeli team in 2008, adjusting with aplomb to the competition’s distinctive atmosphere.  On the Moscow indoor hard court, her recently erratic groundstrokes will not need to find the mark as regularly, so she should register her two matches in Russia’s victory column.  Both Razzano and Cornet surpassed expectations in Melbourne, however; the former threatened to take a set from Sharapova in the second round, while the latter nearly did the same against Clijsters a round later.  Despite the higher ranking of Pavlyuchenkova, one imagines that Tarpischev will reward the more experienced Kuznetsova for her previous Fed Cup service and her courageous performance in Australia.  The final opponent of Henin’s career, the Russian will have accumulated immense confidence after defeating Stosur and nearly Li in Sydney.  But will she have recovered physically from the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history?  If she falters against Cornet on the first day, which seems unlikely considering the Frenchwoman’s haplessness in Fed Cup, Tarpischev might substitute the WTA’s highest-ranked teenager against Sunday.  Pavlyuchenkova crushed projected Sunday opponent Razzano on an indoor hard court two years ago, whereas Kuznetsova hasn’t faced her in nearly seven years.  If outcomes reflect the lopsided talents of these two teams, though, Tarpischev will doze through another first-round romp.

More sleepwalking impends in Belgium, where Clijsters joins Wickmayer against a plucky American squad that upset an understaffed Russia last year en route to their second straight final.  As usual, the USA will aim to split the singles rubbers and pin their hopes on the doubles, where they hold a considerable advantage with Liezel Huber.  In order to realize that goal, they must rely on both Oudin and Mattek-Sands to overcome Wickmayer in singles, since Clijsters surely will sail bulletproof through the weekend.  The task does not tower quite as dauntingly as it might seem at first glance, for the Belgian #2 has struggled alarmingly since last year’s US Open despite reaching the final in Auckland after an arduous week of three-setters.  A feisty competitor who performs above her standard level in Fed Cup, Mattek-Sands shone on an indoor surface at the Hopman Cup and again in Hobart, although she suffered a discouraging first-round loss in Melbourne.  If she can find Wickmayer’s backhand more regularly than the Belgian finds her forehand, her sturdier confidence could translate into a minor upset.  Meanwhile, Oudin has shifted from prodigy to former prodigy as she has failed abjectly in rekindling the spark that ignited the 2009 US Open.  Somewhat less feckless in Fed Cup, she defeated Schiavone last fall and competed valiantly on Italian clay during the previous final.  With USA almost certain to enter the fourth rubber trailing 2-1, though, she will face not only a more talented opponent but the pressure of preserving the tie.  Lightning probably won’t strike Wickmayer twice.

We close with a few thoughts on the four World Group II ties:

Spain at Estonia:  Perhaps a more decisive factor than any player, the indoor hard court in Tallinn may frustrate dirt devils Martinez Sanchez and Suarez Navarro.  Despite a second-round exit at the Australian Open, top Estonian Kanepi enjoys greater firepower than either Spaniard and should overwhelm them with a barrage of mighty first blows.  Like the USA, Spain seeks only to split the singles and reach the doubles, where the experienced duo of Medina Garrigues and Llagostera Vives could shine.  Unlike the USA, they have an excellent chance of accomplishing that mission with the 527th-ranked Maret Ani playing the role of Wickmayer.  Perhaps more intriguing than the tennis here is the subplot that revolved around the miniature Fed Cup strike staged by the top Spanish women against their own tennis federation.  Ostensibly placated now, they could bolster their pleas for greater attention in Spain’s male-dominated tennis world by restoring their nation to the World Group in 2012.

Andrea Petkovic Andrea Petkovic of Germany celebrates winning a point in her quarterfinal match against Na Li of China during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Germany at Slovenia:  Frauleins with a future and an average ranking of #29, Petkovic and Goerges delivered an emphatic statement of intent in Melbourne with performances as notable for their poise as for their shot-making.  The two ball-bruising brunettes enter the tie distinctly favored against a Slovenian squad highlighted by doubles specialist Katarina Srebotnik.  Unless she decides to renege upon her retirement from singles, her chances of playing a meaningful match this weekend look slim to none.  On the other hand, Petkovic proved herself more frail than the French in Fed Cup last year (no small feat), and the youthful Germans may find an opponent worthy of their steel in Polona Hercog.  Two weeks after her 20th birthday, the lanky Slovenian #1 established herself in the top 50 during the past year but has lost all three of her matches in 2011.  Can the home crowd rejuvenate her?

Canada at Serbia:  Stripped of Jankovic and Ivanovic, the hosts suddenly confront a perilous situation against the dangerous albeit often injured Wozniak and an even brighter talent in the burly teenager Rebecca Marino.  Fortunately for Serbia, an equally promising teenager carries their banner in a bid to return to the World Group from which Russia expelled them in 2010.  One of the WTA’s better kept secrets, Bojana Jovanovski burst onto the international stage by sweeping to the Sydney semifinals past three top-20 players and boldly swiping a set from Zvonareva in Melbourne. Probably unable to secure victory single-handedly, she nevertheless could extend the tie to a decisive doubles rubber where anything could happen.

Ukraine at Sweden:  Weren’t the Bondarenko sisters planning to boycott Fed Cup this year?  Although newly married Alona remains aloof, Kateryna broke the ban and could inject some intrigue into what still seems a notably uninteresting tie.  No rising stars, aging legends, or electrifying games on display here.  Just an invigorating ferry ride from host city Helsingfors stands Hamlet’s castle, however, a much more scintillating destination.

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning match point after her second round match against Lindsay Davenport of the United States of America on day three of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

Determined to erase the memories of a year ago, Sharapova opens proceedings on Rod Laver Arena for the second straight season.  While the time and place remain the same, changes in her coach and equipment should help to quell the remembrance of things past, as will an opponent less imposing than 2010 nemesis Kirilenko.  A former doubles partner of the Russian, Tanasugarn asserted herself last year by winning Osaka and reaching the Pattaya City final, but this match lies on the Russian’s racket.  Consecutive second-round losses at Wimbledon caused Sharapova to wobble late in her second-round victory there last year, so one wonders whether similar events will unfold in Melbourne.  Moreover, she needed seven match points to dispatch first-round victim Brianti in Auckland, extending a pattern of mental frailty when victory lies just a point or two away.  Like fellow Slam champions Venus and Henin, the 2008 Australian titlist hopes to establish herself with a firm opening statement before the path grows perilous.  The path grows perilous quickly for another contender, though, with whom we open our first daily preview of Melbourne.

Wozniacki vs. Dulko:  Three years ago, the stylish Argentine collected just two games from a still-budding Dane in the first round at Melbourne.  Although Wozniacki has shown greater mercy to Dulko after that occasion, she has won both of their hard-court meetings and has developed immensely since their last collision in late 2008.  On the other hand, the former girlfriend of Fernando Gonzalez has emerged as one of the more underestimated upset artists in the WTA, bouncing Sharapova from Wimbledon in 2009, Ivanovic from the Australian Open in 2010, and Henin from Indian Wells just a few months later.  Currently the top-ranked doubles player, Dulko clearly lacks the firepower of most opponents who have troubled Wozniacki, and those three previous upsets came against wildly erratic shotmakers who dissolved in an ocean of errors.  The world #1 rarely succumbs to those error-strewn meltdowns, her US Open semifinal with Zvonareva an exception that proves the rule.  Yet the Dane’s light-hitting opponent will force her to take the initiative in rallies, not her preferred strategy, and this meeting represents her first Slam match as a #1.  Already sounding a bit defensive about her elevated stature, Wozniacki did little to justify it in Hong Kong and Sydney.  A sturdy performance in Melbourne, though, would stop the accelerating trickle before it becomes a tide; thus, she may have more at stake here than any other contender.

De Bakker vs. Monfils:   Among the most difficult tasks in any sport is preserving momentum from the end of one season to the start of its successor.  Such is the challenge that confronts Monfils, pedestrian in the first half of 2010 but one of the ATP’s most notable performers from the US Open onwards.  The Frenchman previously has left little imprint upon Melbourne despite the apparent congruence between his game and its surface, which should offer ample opportunities for him to strike those flashy jumping forehands.  Only a year younger than Djokovic and Murray, De Bakker rests far further down the evolutionary ladder but has developed a formidable serve that lifted him to victories over Tsonga, Verdasco, and other noteworthy foes.  Likely to become a threat on all surface, the Dutchman opened 2011 with consecutive losses and enters the Australian Open as a considerable underdog.  The far more experienced Monfils still suffers lapses at unpredictable moments, such as Slam encounters with Fognini and Kendrick.  And his irrepressible instinct to entertain can invigorate a first-week match more than the businesslike, slightly bored demeanor of the top seeds.

Riske vs. Kuznetsova:  Triggering minor headlines when she reached the Birmingham semifinal last year, the American eventually may join Oudin among her nation’s leading women in the post-Williams era.  To be sure, the standard for entrance to that group has sunk to a level just above Death Valley, and Riske opens against a game only somewhat less scorching than that California landmark.  The two-time Slam champion still owns one of the top forehands in the WTA, while her triumph over world #6 Stosur in Sydney should have lifted her confidence.  In a largely fruitless 2010, however, Kuznetsova fell to anonymous opponents on every surface and continent as her technique deserted her.  Although she should prevail over Riske here, the American’s above-average serve and assertive shotmaking may test the Russian sufficiently for observers to assess her chances of penetrating deep into the tournament.

Nikolay Davydenko of Russia celebrates victory over Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Final match of the ATP Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex on January 9, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Davydenko vs. Mayer:  The only player with a winning record against Rafa after 10 or more meetings, Kolya nearly created a sensation at the 2010 Australian Open when he toyed with Federer like a puppet on a string early in their quarterfinal.  Offering fast-paced entertainment when at their best, his darting groundstrokes and imaginative angles more than compensate for the limitations of his physique.  Yet he confronts an opponent worthy of his steel in Sydney semifinalist Mayer, the architect of Del Potro’s demise there.  Not to be confused with his Argentine namesake, the lanky German stands just three places below his career-high ranking after a sterling fall that included victories over two top-10 opponents, Youzhny and Soderling.  Nevertheleses, Davydenko ousted him routinely in Beijing just before those eye-catching wins.

Fognini vs. Nishikori:  Under the tutelage of Murray guru Brad Gilbert, the Japanese star hopes to regain the momentum that he surrendered with an elbow injury in 2009.  His gritty, counterpunching style should match the personality of his coach, and their partnership already has borne results with a comeback victory over Cilic in Chennai.  Conquering Monfils at Roland Garros and Verdasco at Wimbledon, Fognini has unleashed first-week surprises despite careless technique and an indifferent serve.  Technically crisp himself, Nishikori should engage the Italian in a series of protracted that will display the traits that they share—exceptional fitness and consistency.  Fognini’s casually slapped forehand can generate deceptive power, as can the Japanese prodigy’s meticulously constructed backhand.  Will Italian improvisation or Japanese precision prevail?

Zahlavova Strycova vs. Rezai:  Curl up for the catfight du jour, which might offend the sensibilities of the sportsmanlike Aussies but could open a window onto Rezai’s mental resilience.  Vinegar rather than blood seems to run through the veins of Zahlavaova Strycova, more notable for her incorrigible gamesmanship than for anything that she does with her racket.  While seasoned champions like Sharapova and Clijsters have contemptuously flicked her aside, Rezai sometimes struggles to prevent her own combative streak from overflowing to her detriment.  Far more talented than the Czech, the Frenchwoman must stay focused upon forehands and backhands—and especially her serve.  She disgorged 11 double faults in her first-round victory over Jankovic in Sydney, a match more lost by the Serb than won by Rezai.

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Wizards of Oz continues tomorrow with a selection of the most intriguing Day 2 matches.  Feel free to post any suggestions in the comments.

 

Many are the stars that rise and fall, but few are the stars that rise again.  Such was the challenge that confronted Ivanovic in 2010, eighteen months removed from her major breakthrough at Roland Garros and the Wimbledon loss to Zheng that began her ordeal in tennis purgatory.  From the two halves of this season emerged strikingly divergent answers to the question of whether the soulful Serb could regain her position among the sport’s elite.  We attempt to untie the tangled knot of Ivanovic’s sometimes puzzling, often emotional, ultimately inspiring 2010.

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Having endured a dismal conclusion to 2009, Ana ignited the new season with an moderately promising performance.  Her confidence heightening with each victory, she conquered the ever-inflammable Dokic and the budding Pavlyuchenkova during a sprightly week in Brisbane.  Few observers could fault her for falling to Henin in the semifinals, for the Belgian always had troubled Ivanovic even at the Serb’s zenith in 2007-08.  Consequently, hope stirred in Ana and her supporters as she approached the major where she had reached the final two years before.  But an excruciating second-round loss to Dulko extinguished that hope in a torrent of unforced errors that inspired one observer to note that two prettier women never had played uglier tennis.  After the feckless Argentine squandered a vast lead in the final set, Ana donated three double faults at 4-5 that effectively handed the match to her opponent.

An equally public and painful embarrassment struck in February, when Ivanovic lost both of her singles rubbers for Serbia during the first Fed Cup World Group tie in her nation’s history.  Exacerbating her plight was the prowess demonstrated by her compatriot Jankovic, who scored gritty three-set victories that placed the Russians in a predicament from which Ana promptly released them.  With this debacle branded upon her consciousness, Ana departed in the first round of Indian Wells after a listless loss to Sevastova.  Unable to capitalize upon the memories of two previous finals in the California desert, Ivanovic tumbled outside the top 50 and caused others to wonder whether she shared more than a first name with Kournikova.  A tepid trip through Miami hardly erased these perceptions, although a valiant effort against Radwanska illustrated her unbroken determination.  Struggling to hold serve throughout that match, the Serb battled to break as often as she was broken (e.g., constantly) and extended the Pole deep into both sets.  In an unkind twist of fate, she would fall against to Radwanska in a similarly competitive match at Stuttgart, during which glimpses of her former self surfaced fleetingly but then vanished at the most pivotal moments.  As she crossed the Alps with much less fanfare than did Hannibal, Ivanovic surely could not have imagined the breakthrough that awaited her.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Nadia Petrova of Russia during Day Foir of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour at the Foro Italico Tennis Centre on May 6, 2010 in Rome, Italy.

Embedded near Azarenka in the Rome draw, Ivanovic found herself forced to overcome an opponent who had dominated her at Roland Garros a year earlier.  Much to her own surprise, it seemed, she navigated past the injury-addled Belarussian with timely returning and enhanced consistency during their baseline exchanges.  Not satisfied with this unexpected triumph, however, Ana translated her momentum into an even more encouraging victory over Dementieva, who had won all five of their previous meetings.  When the Russian threatened to slip away with the second set, Ivanovic carefully balanced aggressive ball-striking with intelligent shot selection, determined to seize opportunities rather than grant them.  While both Azarenka and Dementieva fell far short of their customary standard in these matches, Ana visibly rose in confidence as her forehands struck their targets more explosively and her ball toss obeyed her more scrupulously.  By the climactic stages of her quarterfinal victory over Petrova, her signature fistpumps also began to flow more naturally.  She no longer hoped but expected to win.  Succumbing to quirky lefty and eventual champion Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals, Ivanovic suffered a predictable defeat to Jankovic in her Madrid opener.  More notable than the narrative of this match was the venomous conduct of the elder Serb afterwards.  Yet the younger Serb showed greater maturity than her compatriot, and the episode subsided sooner than Jankovic probably had hoped.

After Ivanovic staggered to premature exits at the next two majors, one wondered whether her breakthrough in Rome would prove a beguiling mirage, like the clay title surges of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  The 2008 French Open champion displayed little of the vigor and poise that she had accumulated a few weeks earlier, mustering just three games in the second round against a remorseless Kleybanova.  During the all-too-brief respites from the Russian’s assault, Ana’s eloquent eyes mournfully contemplated a world that had turned against her once again.  Perhaps still reeling from this ignominious defeat, she left little imprint upon the grass season, except a bizarre match at the Dutch Open when she reached double digits in both aces and double faults.  After Ana slumped to a first-round defeat at Wimbledon, her 2010 record stood at 11-12 with just four victories outside Brisbane and Rome.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in action against Shahar Peer of Israel on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21, 2010 in London, England.

Across the Atlantic, Montreal tournament director Eugene Lapierre pondered this grim statistic and arrived at a decision that we believe contributed (unwittingly) to the Serb’s second-half resurgence.  Already granted wildcards at events in Stanford and San Diego where she had little or no history, Ana received the demoralizing news that she would not receive a wildcard at the site of her first significant title in 2006.  Instantly awash in controversy, Lapierre justified himself by claiming that the former #1 would benefit from the additional matches.  Not without logic in a neutral context, this statement accompanied a series of disparaging remarks that antagonized the normally demure Ana.  Having considered her alternatives, she announced that she would not enter the Montreal qualifying draw.  These bold words demanded deeds to buttress them, though, and nothing from the California events suggested that she would reverse her downward spiral.

Nor, in fact, did the early stages of her Cincinnati opener against Azarenka, who had recovered from the injury that had plagued her during their clay meeting and had recorded her best week of the season at Stanford.  While Ana struggled to find a rhythm with her once-fearsome forehand, Vika swept through the first set with ease, showcasing her skill for modulating between aggression and consistency.  Although Ivanovic began to harness her game during the second set, the Belarussian clung to a slim lead until she served for the match at 5-4.  A few tense moments later, Ana drew even—and then dropped her recalcitrant serve again.  Offered another opportunity to advance, Azarenka twice crept within two points of victory during the following game but never saw a match point.  Elated by her narrow escape, the Serb seized control of the ensuing tiebreak and thundered through the final set as the formerly scattered elements of her arsenal coalesced into a coherent whole.  Now soaring in confidence, Ivanovic overpowered her next three opponents with authoritative performances built upon a reinvigorated serve, opportunistic returns, and ambitious forays into the forecourt.  Forced to retire early in her semifinal with Clijsters, the Serb nevertheless had reasserted herself as a formidable competitor with weapons as lethal as her smile was benign.

Unlike Rome, Cincinnati became not an isolated anomaly but a platform from which Ivanovic sprang into the rest of 2010.  Dispelling doubts concerning her injury there, she matched her best career performance at the US Open with three commanding victories.  Formerly fallible against lefties during her slump, she dismissed the distinctive, often tricky Makarova with ease.  But the most promising portent for Ivanovic’s future was the encore of her 2008 Wimbledon clash with Zheng, during which she buried the Chinese star beneath an avalanche of stinging forehands and knifing volleys.  Against one of her key tormentors from the previous two years, Ana maintained a focus and composure that revealed her revitalized self-belief.  Although more resounding than she would have wished, her loss to Clijsters in the fourth round raised no eyebrows, nor did it substantially stall her progress.  After losses to the nondescript Dushevina in Seoul and the far from nondescript Bartoli in Tokyo, the Serb’s final tournaments of the season consolidated the shift in her fortunes that originated in Cincinnati and accelerated in New York.

Having faced Radwanska in consecutive matches during the spring, Ivanovic faced Bartoli in consecutive matches during the fall.  But the Serb efficiently avenged Tokyo in her Beijing opener, and her level continued to climb on the medium-speed hard courts of the former Olympic arena.  Reprising her Rome victory over Dementieva, she wrested two tiebreaks away from the Russian veteran with patient point construction and penetrating groundstrokes on both wings.  In the scintillating second set, neither player dropped serve until they reached the tiebreak, although Ivanovic saved a set point at 4-5.  Responding to the heightening pressure with aplomb, she delivered two timely aces in the tiebreak as she rallied from an early mini-break deficit.  A victim of world #1 Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, the Serb nevertheless competed with conviction and earned herself more opportunities than one might have expected.  When she accepted a wildcard to the following week’s tournament in Linz, therefore, she brought significant momentum from her exploits in the Chinese capital.

Rarely threatened throughout her week in the quiet Austrian city, Ana brushed aside her friend Cirstea in the first round, the pugnacious Zahlavova Strycova in the second round, and rising German Julia Goerges in the quarterfinal to reach her fourth semifinal of 2010.  Her determination emerged when she surmounted the distractions caused by a stomach illness and a bathroom break that cost her a game early in her second match.  Winless in her previous three semifinals, she halted that trend against the crafty Roberta Vinci, who had held match points against her during their previous meeting.  Having defused this Italian’s versatile style, a stern test of focus and consistency, Ana faced another veteran in the evergreen Schnyder.  In the shortest WTA final of 2010, Ivanovic surrendered just three games before sealing the title with an ace.  Adapting to Schnyder’s eccentric style, she cleverly anticipated her opponent’s gambits and often wrong-footed the Swiss star by pinpointing unexpected angles.  More splendid than any of the forehands that crackled through the court, however, was the glacier-melting smile that glowed from Ana’s face as she grasped her first trophy in two years.

Physically and emotionally weary from the weeks in Beijing and Linz, Ana collected two wins in Luxembourg before exiting to Goerges.  Those victories put her in position for a return to the top 20, however, a goal with which she entered the year’s concluding tournament in Bali.  Always at her best against Pavlyuchenkova, the Serb scored the first of the three victories that she required with minimal effort, for the erratic Russian failed to mount a credible challenge.  Far more suspenseful was the ensuing clash with Japanese veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who had built an implausible comeback upon the bones of several top-20 foes.  Unfamiliar with the arrhythmic, unpredictable playing style of her opponent, Ivanovic sank into a first-set quagmire from which she extricated herself only after saving two set points on her own serve and breaking Date a game later.  Emboldened by the momentum shift, the Linz champion then raced into a 7-5, 2-0 advantage before the Japanese star could collect herself.  But Date had proved herself an indefatigable competitor throughout 2010, and she crafted a comeback that turned the tables on the Serb.  Just as Ivanovic saved set points before winning the first set, Date saved a match point before winning the second set.  At this stage, one favored the veteran to prevail as she had in several epics this year, for the momentum rested squarely in her corner, while Ivanovic’s fitness had raised concern in recent months.  Somewhat to our surprise, then, Ana remained unshaken by the lost second-set opportunity, recaptured the initiative by breaking Date in the first game, and held serve throughout the final set without facing a break point.  Another meeting with Kleybanova, the final unfolded in less nerve-jangling fashion; the Russian never held a lead except during a brief ebb in the Serb’s concentration early in the second set.  Sometimes bent but only once broken, Ivanovic showcased not only her familiar forehand weapons but bold, probing backhands that bore little resemblance to the meek slices upon which Kleybanova had feasted at Roland Garros.  During the first half of 2010, Ana had committed some of her most ghastly errors at the most crucial moments.  Now, she unleashed some of her most spectacular lasers when she most needed them, saving break points late in the second set and sealing the tiebreak that restored her to the top 20.

Since she defends only a handful of rankings points between mid-January and mid-May, Ivanovic has an excellent opportunity to rejoin the top 10 by Roland Garros.  Eager to capitalize upon this possibility, she has planned a rigorous schedule for early 2011.  Whether she can continue to ascend from these newly constructed foundations poses one of the more intriguing questions that next year will answer.

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After these two individual portraits, we broaden our canvas to recall the most memorable performers of 2010. Who enjoyed a season to remember, and who looks most likely to build upon their breakthroughs?  Although we will cover both the ATP and the WTA, we bring you the gentlemen (and some not very gentle men) next.