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Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 6

Thrilled to reach the second week at the Australian Open for the first time since 2008, Ivanovic overcame a spirited challenge from Vania King as well as a lingering virus to arrange a rendezvous with a—perhaps “the”—tournament favorite.  Announcing that she had accomplished her goal for the fortnight, she cheerfully cast herself in the role of an underdog against a player who has not defeated her in three meetings.  During much of her post-2008 woes, Ivanovic continued to perceive herself as a leading contender at virtually every event that she entered.  Her recent definition of herself as someone who can “play a great match” or “upset a top player” (essentially, a dark horse) represented a welcome recognition of reality that likely will help her rebuild her game and confidence.

In the same round of  the US Open last fall, the former #1 faced a similar sort of obstacle in Serena but competed valiantly despite absorbing the loss.  Ivanovic hammered more winners than the 13-time Slam champion during that match, stepped inside the court whenever she could, and even swung freely at her opponent’s justly feared serve.  Now, she must deploy those tactics again.  Practically oozing a Serena-like power, Kvitova launches massive first strikes on her serve and return as well as her other groundstrokes.  Unable to track down balls with the alacrity of a Suarez Navarro, a player of Ivanovic’s type simply must aim to pull the trigger and decide the point before the Czech can.  After an unforeseen second-round wobble against the aforementioned Spaniard, Kvitova settled back into her groove against Kirilenko and should relish the steady rhythm of a fellow heavy hitter like Ivanovic.  Expect plenty of explosive shot-making from both sides of the net before the former #1 gracefully demurs to the future #1.

Murray vs. Kukushkin:  In one of the tournament’s most disorderly matches, Kukushkin blew a two-set lead against an oddly disinterested Monfils before weathering a comeback from the Frenchman, his own fatigue, and a curious disruption in the final game to preserve his perfect record in five-setters.  Also overcome by this opportunistic anonymity in a fifth set was Troicki, not an outstanding competitor on major stages but still much more talented than his nemesis.  Suffice it to say, therefore, that Murray will not want to tempt fate by letting his unseeded foe linger into a final stanza.  After losing the first set to Kukushkin in his first match of 2012, their only meeting so far, an irritable Scot recovered to control the encounter thenceforth. Under the watchful eye of Ivan Lendl, the world #4 survived a four-set opening battle with Ryan Harrison that may have steeled him for the challenges ahead.  In his last two rounds, Murray looked scarcely more troubled than Djokovic as he subjected his opponents to the tennis version of death by a thousand cuts.  Although he occasionally has struck his forehand with more authority and has hinted at a greater willingness to approach the net, he has not needed to leave his counterpunching comfort zone thus far.  Murray should not need to exert himself or attempt anything extraordinary to reach a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, where the resistance might stiffen suddenly.

Makarova vs. Serena:  Into the second week for the second straight Australian Open, the Russian lefty banished her countrywoman Zvonareva with a combination of well-placed serves and blistering down-the-line groundstrokes.  A round before, in fact, Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi with even greater ease despite a surface suited more to the Estonian’s style.  Only once has she met Serena, losing routinely in Beijing on a somewhat slower court.  Rarely tested by any of her first three opponents, the woman who has won more Australian Open titles than any player in history did not find herself forced to play her best tennis during the first week.  Serena looked bored at times in her third-round victory over Greta Arn, while her greatest concern so far surrounds the insects that visit Rod Laver in the evenings.  Although she has played with heavy wrapping on her legs and ankles, her movement has looked reasonably efficient on the few occasions when her thunderous weapons do not win her the point within three or four shots.  Mustering surprising resistance to eventual champion Clijsters in the same round a year ago, Makarova will bring more self-belief than Serena’s previous opponents.  The Russian’s lefty groundstrokes will stretch the American along the baseline and may offer her less time to prepare her shots.  But Serena loves to create angles with her returns and groundstrokes, exploiting her natural athleticism to hit her most dangerous lasers while racing along the baseline.  Despite staying competitive for much of the match, Makarova never will threaten to win it.

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  In the third game of the second set in Sharapova’s second-round match, something remarkable happened:  her opponent held serve without facing a break point.  All of her other 22 return games resulted in at least one break point—and 20 of them in a break.  Ravaging her opponent’s delivery with impunity, the 2008 champion has protected her own serve more smoothly than she has for much of her comeback.  Early in the second set of each match, though, Sharapova suffered a lull in her serve and the rest of her game after a nearly flawless first set.  At that stage occurred her two lost service games of the tournament, in addition to the bulk of her unforced errors.  For a set and a few games of Lisicki’s meeting with Kuznetsova, one expected an all-Russian meeting in the fourth round.  To the German’s great credit, though, she rebounded from a woeful start to steadily assert her mastery behind a massive first serve.  She will need that weapon to fire more regularly than during her previous meetings with Sharapova, who mauled her much less fearsome second serve in victories at Miami and Wimbledon last year.  Even when the Russian suffered a poor serving day at the All England Club, she still defeated Lisicki comfortably.  Those precedents suggest that her second meeting with a German in the fourth round of the Australian Open will unfold more successfully than its predecessor.  All the same, we have not seen Sharapova respond to pressure during this tournament as she has sizzled through matches while losing no more than two games in a set.  Lisicki could place her opponent in the unfamiliar situation of a competitive match, testing her under pressure, if she can survive the initial bombardment.  But it’s easier said than done.

Djokovic vs. Hewitt:  Soaked with emotion was the Australian veteran’s triumph over mighty prodigy Raonic under the lights of Rod Laver Arena.  After losing the first set for the second straight match, Hewitt weathered several miniature momentum shifts in the three sets that followed as he defused the Canadian’s power, exploiting his low first-serve percentage.  What reward does the home hope receive for his labors?  In order to stay competitive, he will need to play even better tennis than he did while winning his first three matches.  To win a set from Djokovic, Hewitt must find his first serve whenever he needs it, finish points at the net, and pepper the baseline with both of his groundstrokes.  At his age, such a complete display of offensive ability probably lies behind his grasp, even with the Australian crowd vigorously supporting him.  Throughout his career, Djokovic has played especially fine tennis when he has not one but thousands of opponents to conquer; among examples, one might reflect back to his victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open or his victory over Tsonga when he won in Melbourne for the first time.  If he senses especially fierce opposition on Sunday night, then, he merely will redouble his efforts to crush it.  Surrendering just ten games in nine sets so far, the world #1 has stayed relaxed without slipping into carelessness as he openly uses his matches to work on less impressive facets of his game.  Although Hewitt won a set in each of their Wimbledon encounters, Djokovic recorded a routine straight-sets victory when they met four years ago in the same round on the same court.  During the four years that have passed, the Serb has grown infinitely more dangerous, while Lleyton has faded nearly as sharply.  Neither of those trends bodes well for the survival of the last Australian remaining in either draw.

Kei Nishikori - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Nishikori vs. Tsonga:  When they collided for the first time last fall, the top-ranked Japanese man stunned the top-ranked Frenchman in one of the latter’s few disappointments during the span from Wimbledon to the year-end championships.  Extending his momentum through the offseason, Tsonga collected the Doha title uneventfully and has won 13 straight matches against opponents other than Federer as he seeks his fourth consecutive final.  In the section of the draw that lacks a member of the Big Three, he must fancy his chances of reaching his third semifinal at the major where he has enjoyed the most success.  Celebrated much more for his athleticism than for his focus, Tsonga often wobbles at some stage during the first week against some unheralded foe.  This year, by contrast, he has rolled through three matches while losing only one set and growing more impressive with each round, much like Del Potro.  Dropping the first two sets to Matthew Ebden before mounting a comeback, Nishikori lost the first set to Benneteau and should have counted himself fortunate not tot trail by two sets to one.  That lesser Frenchman served for the third set no fewer than three times, at which moment the Bolletieri product demonstrated remarkable resilience by refusing to relinquish his toehold on it.  Breaking Benneteau’s resolve as well as his serve, Nishikori returned fearlessly even when in danger, a trait that should benefit him against Tsonga.  But his own delivery remains relatively benign by ATP standards, so he fares best in a match of breaks and long rallies.  The sixth seed enjoys neither of those events, preferring to dominate behind his serve and hurtle towards the net to finish points.  Despite the modest speed of these hard courts, Tsonga should impose himself upon the underdog once more.

Gasquet vs. Ferrer:  During a fine first half of 2011, the Frenchman surged towards the threshold of the top 10 and recorded victories over four top-10 opponents while reaching an Indian Wells quarterfinal, a Rome semifinal, and the second week at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Much less productive in the second half, Gasquet slipped to the edges of the top 20.  Such ebbs and flows have characterized his career, whereas Ferrer has embedded himself in the top 10 with the same relentlessness that he has shown on the court in contesting each point.  To no surprise, then, the Spaniard has won five of their six meetings in a rivalry that has not featured a single final set or any encounter in which the winning player lost more than seven games.  In the best-of-five format at a major, where they have not played before, Ferrer’s tenacity and superior fitness would seem to place him at an even greater advantage.  Although the extended length allows Gasquet more time to strike one of his patented flawless streaks, it also allows the Spaniard more time to recover from it.  Forced to five sets by Ryan Sweeting, last year’s semifinalist did not dominate as resoundingly as one would expect in the first week.  By contrast, Gasquet has grown increasingly imposing with a sequence of victories that led to a straight-sets demolition of Tipsarevic, admittedly not at his best that day.  One need look no further than their respective backhands to understand their contrasting approaches to the game, Ferrer’s a compact model of efficiency and Gasquet’s an aesthetic wonder worthy of an artist.

Errani vs. Zheng:  Fortunate to reach the fourth round of a major, Errani marched through the section that once contained Stosur and would become a most improbable Slam quarterfinalist, even by recent WTA standards.  The Italian doubles specialist lacks any noteworthy weapons and instead wins matches through consistency as well as fine forecourt skills, which she has showcased for her nation in Fed Cup.  Also a greater presence in doubles than in singles, Zheng did reach the semifinals here and at Wimbledon behind her streamlined groundstrokes and alert anticipation.  Compensating for her tiny physique with crisp footwork, she uses the full weight of her body behind shots that penetrate the court more effectively than one would expect.  Nevertheless, neither of these players can compensate for serves that earn them virtually no free points, or for second serves that properly should have a bow tied around them.  A superior returner to Errani, Zheng might capitalize more skillfully upon this weakness that they share.  She also enjoys the advantage of momentum, accumulated through an eight-match winning streak that culminated with an upset over Bartoli.  Through her first three matches, Zheng has defeated opponents with a variety of experience and playing styles, ranging from the double-fisted strokes of the Frenchwoman to the biting backhand slices of Vinci and the straightforward power tactics of Madison Keys.  When she faces the relatively bland Errani, that experience should help her adjust to whatever the Italian will offer.

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Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Asked to guess which leading lady would reach the third round of the Australian Open without facing a break point on her serve, few would have guessed that Ivanovic would accomplish such a feat.   Formerly a key weapon, the serve had become a symptom of her struggles and perhaps now may portend her revival.  When she faces unseeded American Vania King, the Serb seeks to extend this encouraging fortnight into the second week, which she has not reached here since 2008.  Although she has won all three of their meetings, the earliest and most resounding two occurred before her tumble from the top.  Extended to three sets by the American in 2009, Ivanovic has faltered chronically against doubles specialists like Zheng, Dulko, and Makarova.  Such players demonstrate not only impressive net skills but a more subtle vision of the court’s geometry, sometimes frustrating to a programmatic singles player like the former #1.  Returning boldly during her three-set victory over Pavlyuchenkova, King drew double faults and tentative serves from the Russian 15th seed.  Such tactics could reap rewards against Ivanovic on a poor serving day, eroding her overall confidence as well.  Since yielding to Cijsters in Brisbane, though, the smiling Serb has held 24 of 26 service games by raising her first-serve percentage, varying her placement more often, and curbing (although not curing) her ball toss woes.  The products of considerable effort, those improvements have freed her to play more assertively on return games, where she could threaten King’s modest delivery.  A chaotic contest of breaks and momentum shifts could unravel Ivanovic’s ever fragile confidence, while a more linear match of holds and straightforward baseline exchanges would allow her to showcase her superior firepower.

We now preview the other intriguing matches on Day 6.

Kirilenko vs. Kvitova:  To the astonishment of most witnesses, the second seed and title favorite struck a surprising obstacle in the diminutive figure of Suarez Navarro.  Losing a lopsided second set, Kvitova later trailed by a break in the third set as sports bettors worldwide watched in horror.  But the Wimbledon champion visibly exhorted herself point by point to claw herself back into the match and withstand the Spaniard’s impressively sustained effort.  At the core of her comeback lay her first serve, which could serve her well again when she faces Kirilenko.  Overpowered by Kvitova in the Fed Cup final last fall, the Russian feasted upon an erratic Gajdosova in the second round and must hope for similar donations as she continues in her counterpunching role.  Comfortable with every shot but brilliant with none, Kirilenko cannot hit through the world #2 from the baseline, so she cannot take her fate into her own hands.   Nevertheless, the resilience of her retrieving may force Kvitova to construct points more thoroughly than before, raising her consistency in preparation for the second week.

Sharapova vs. Kerber:  Yielding just two games in her first two matches, the 2008 champion soars into the third round on a wave of confidence.  Emblematic of her effort this week was the first game of her meeting with Jamie Hampton.  Although she trailed 40-15, Sharapova refused to let her prey slip away but instead fought through deuce after deuce before finally breaking serve and establishing immediate control.  Against even a clearly overmatched opponent, she combined this steely focus with crisp, purposeful footwork and as keen a sense of point construction as one ever will see from such a single-minded aggressor.  All the same, onlookers might recall that Sharapova also lost just two games in her first two matches at the 2007 US Open—and then departed from the tournament in the next round.  Especially at this stage of her career, her fortunes can change overnight when the competition stiffens, as it may with US Open semifinalist Kerber.  The German lefty experienced wrist pain last week in Hobart, but her first serve will resist the pressure of Sharapova’s return more effectively than those of Dulko and Hampton.  With the exception of one service game in each match, the Russian has controlled her own serve with surprising consistency considering her lack of preparation.  If that pattern extends for another round, few chinks in her armor will emerge.  If it does not, anything can become possible.

Djokovic vs. Mahut:  Looking every inch the best player in the world, Djokovic has dropped only eight games in his first six sets at the major where he has won two titles.  After he defeated clay specialists Lorenzi and Giraldo, the defending champion confronts a dramatically different test in the person of a net-rushing Frenchman who should give him little rhythm in rallies.  Although he will remain most famous for a match that he lost, Mahut exploited his serve-volley strategy to the fullest in easily upsetting top-30 opponent Stepanek and rallying to defeat a Japanese wildcard.  With virtually no hope of victory, he still should provide an entertaining foil for Djokovic’s sizzling returns and passing shots, two of his most formidable strengths.  Rather than engaging in extended rallies where he could wait for his opponent to waver, the world #1 will need to win points more decisively with more aggressive shot-making, a style scintillating to watch even in a match without suspense.

Raonic vs. Hewitt:  While one sympathizes with Roddick for the premature end to his fortnight, one also sympathizes with Hewitt, denied a grand moment under the lights of Rod Laver in perhaps his final appearance at his home major.  The two-time Slam champion and former Melbourne finalist now meets an opponent strikingly similar to Roddick, who relies upon an overwhelming serve and a penetrating forehand that masks an unremarkable backhand.  Since Hewitt owns a two-hander still crisp and polished despite his stage, he will seek to expose that advantage in any rallies when he maneuvers Raonic into a neutral position.  But the disparity between their serves may weigh heavily upon the home favorite, especially in close sets, for he must expend much more effort in his service games than will the Canadian.  Considered one of the finest returners and counterpunchers of his generation, Hewitt must hope that those talents have waned too sharply, for Raonic can finish points more effectively than can Roddick and repeatedly has displayed a precocious poise under pressure.  Don’t expect this neophyte to crumble on a grand stage, even with the crowd squarely against him.

Lisicki vs. Kuznetsova:  In their only previous meeting, the German leaned upon her mighty serve to overpower the Russian at the All England Club en route to her first of two quarterfinals there.  Far less serve-friendly than grass, this sticky surface tilts towards Kuznetsova’s advantage by allowing her more time to survive Lisicki’s first strike.  Not lacking in shot-making skill herself, Sveta will hammer forehands into her opponent’s forehand to create a clash of strength with strength.  Her vulnerable second serve will offer an inviting target for the younger woman’s vicious returns, so the two-time major champion will want to connect with as many first serves as possible.  Notorious for drifting in and out of focus, Kuznetsova cannot afford such lapses in a rare WTA match when a service break actually means something.  Across the net, Lisicki must manage an equally significant internal concern involving her fragile physical condition.  Sidelined much too often for a player of her age, she has retired or withdrawn from several tournaments since the start of 2011.

Zvonareva vs. Makarova:  In apparent danger of defeat during the first round, the fifth seed danced with disaster again when she fell behind Hradecka in the second set of her next match.  Unnoticed by most observers, Zvonareva has edged within one victory of a marquee fourth-round meeting with Serena.  Although she defeated the American in Eastbourne last year, few would fancy her chances in a rematch unless she delivers a significantly more imposing account of herself against Makarova.  A dangerous server with a useful knack for saving break points, the fiery lefty has proven herself a thorn in the side of opponents as talented as Sharapova and Azarenka on medium-speed courts.  She has caught fire for an extended stretch only once in her career, when she won the Eastbourne title as a qualifier, but Makarova upset Brisbane champion Kanepi in the second round.  Until then, the Estonian had seemed the most plausible dark horse in the women’s draw.  We suspect that Makarova wouldn’t mind seizing that role herself.

Janko Tipsarevic - 2012 Australian Open - Day 4

Tipsarevic vs. Gasquet:  Living in the shadow of two far more notable players, these men have traced opposite trajectories in their career.  Whereas Gasquet has shouldered the unwieldy burden created by those who deemed him a “little Federer,” Tipsarevic has found his accomplishments dwarfed by the towering feats of Djokovic.  Yet the Serb and the Frenchman have handled that position in contrasting ways.  A perennial underachiever, Gasquet allowed the mountainous expectations upon him to sink his spirits at key moments in his development, although he has emitted an occasional flash of brilliance.  On the other hand, Tipsarevic has drawn inspiration from the current world #1, remarkably finding self-belief rather than discouragement from the ascendancy of a younger man who has thoroughly eclipsed him.  A few years ago, then Gasquet would have entered this match as the favorite with a second-week berth at a major on the line.  Now, Tipsarevic must adapt to that unaccustomed position with all of the conviction that he can muster.  Beyond these intriguing subplots, this match offers two of the finest down-the-line backhands from outside the ATP top five, wielded by two players unafraid to unleash these weapons with reckless abandon.

Zheng vs. Bartoli:  In the same round at the same tournament two years ago, the doubles star toppled the double-fister after rallying from a one-set deficit.  A quarterfinalist at Melbourne in 2009, Bartoli generally has recorded mixed results at the season’s first major, where the surface perhaps slows down her rapier-like groundstrokes too much.  As she stormed to an unexpected Auckland title, Zheng lasered her low strokes towards the center of the opponent’s baseline, preventing her opponent from carving out an angle.  With this steady diet of depth, albeit not much pace, she hopes to eventually draw a weaker response with which to step inside the court.  Like Kuznetsova, Zheng must recognize that she will win few points on a second serve that Bartoli’s superb return should devour.  Unlike Kuznetsova, she will find ample opportunities to showcase her own returning prowess.  While Bartoli can earn free points on her serve when that shot clicks, rare is the match when it does not desert her for at least one ghastly stretch.  Expect a parade of breaks and tightly contested service games.  As Zheng attempts to consolidate a budding revival, Bartoli aims to build upon a strong 2011 Slam campaign and entrench herself further inside the top 10.

Benneteau vs. Nishikori:  Quietly scoring one of the first week’s more notable upsets, the Sydney finalist continued his momentum by outlasting compatriot Simon in five sets.  One did not expect such stamina from the 30-year-old Frenchman on either mental or physical levels, for Benneteau normally plays a fast-paced style of short points that demands relatively little from the body.  Quite the opposite is his third-round opponent, who once ground down the towering Marin Cilic on a sultry day at the US Open through sheer endurance and tenacity.  Once defeating the ATP’s grinder par excellence, Ferrer, Nishikori exercised his quiet determination when he rallied from a two-set deficit in the previous round against an Australian who coupled the audacity of an underdog with the feistiness of a home favorite.  With youth and fitness on his side, the Japanese #1 should recover more swiftly from his exertions than Benneteau, but relentlessly aggressive opponents still can fluster him.  If he can disrupt Nishikori’s rhythm with imaginative shot selection, the canny veteran could earn himself an opportunity to reach the second week in one of the draw’s more open sections.

 

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Australian Open Previews

Overcome by Makarova in her first Melbourne match last year, Ivanovic strides towards a less formidable obstacle in the diminutive Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino.  Never have they met before, but the Serb possesses far superior weapons on every stroke and should pummel her opponent’s weak serve with aggressive returning.  Rather than reaching for her more nuanced, stylish gambits, she should stick to straightforward first-strike tennis for an efficient victory.  The first round invariably triggers nerves in even the most prominent contenders, so this match might provide a glimpse into how steady Ivanovic’s serve stays when her mind grows tense.  Nevertheless, Day 2 offers many more intriguing and suspenseful matches, of which we now preview our favorites.

Dushevina vs. Kvitova:   Falling in the first round of the US Open, Kvitova lost six of nine matches on outdoor hard courts during the spring and summer of 2011.  The favorite for the title notwithstanding, she faces a potentially tricky encounter against a woman who has an uncanny knack for threatening far superior players from both Williams sisters to Sharapova and Ivanovic.  At first glance, one struggles to discern what in Dushevina’s game can pose such difficulty.  But her lack of a clear strength or weakness, as well as her marked fluctuations in form, can confuse and frustrate opponents as they seek to develop a strategy.  If Kvitova strikes her shots with relentless authority, she should overpower the Russian in a match scarcely more competitive than Azarenka’s first-round victory.  If she succumbs to complacency and underestimates her opponent, on the other hand, the second seed might not advance as comfortably as she should.

Paszek vs. Serena:  A surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Paszek reinvigorated a career that had disappointed over the previous few years following injuries and sporadic play.  Australian fans might recall her as the player who nearly upset Jankovic in the first round of the 2008 Australian Open, while others might remember the pronouncements of Henin and others who identified her as a key talent of the next generation.  Unlikely to fulfill those prophecies at this stage, Paszek projects little power from her serve and does not quite fit into the mold of either attacker or counterpuncher.  All the same, she does deliver penetrating groundstrokes from both wings and will approach Serena with more optimism than many first-round opponents.  The American has accumulated an immaculate record in the first round of majors but often doesn’t bring her finest tennis to the very beginning of a tournament.  Watch her attempts to change direction along the baseline to see whether the ankle injury incurred in Brisbane affects her mobility.

Kirilenko vs. Gajdosova: After she absorbed a humiliating double bagel against Bartoli in Hopman Cup, Gajdosova fell well short of defending her Hobart title.  The second-ranked Australian woman thus hopes to salvage her January with a creditable performance in Melbourne.  Reaching the quarterfinals here two years ago, Kirilenko may find this medium-speed surface more suited to her style than will her uncompromisingly aggressive foe.  The Russian should aim to exploit Gajdosova’s impatience by pinning her behind the baseline without offering her the pace that she relishes.  Skilled in doubles as well as in singles, Kirilenko acquits herself impressively from everywhere on the court.  Whereas the Aussie stays at the baseline except to dispatch point-ending swing volleys, the Russian can venture towards the net with confidence.  That tactic should work effectively to rush the slow-footed Gajdosova.

Sharapova vs. Dulko:  Recovering from an ankle injury sustained at Tokyo last fall, Sharapova has played only a handful of matches since the US Open and none at all in 2012.  Understandably in those circumstances, she looked sporadically brilliant and sporadically hapless during a practice match with Vesnina a few days ago.  Memories of her first-round exit from the 2010 Australian Open flicker into one’s mind, considering her rustiness and the steadiness of her opponent.  Although she has distinguished herself more in doubles than in singles, most recently with Pennetta, Dulko has slain many a notable champion at a prestigious tournament.  Among her victims were Henin at Indian Wells and Sharapova at Wimbledon two years ago, but the willowy Argentine also toppled defending finalist Stosur at Roland Garros last year.  Quite literally overshadowed by the three-time major champion, she can unleash surprising power with her forehand and will bring valuable experience to their encounter.  When she upset Sharapova before, Dulko unsettled the Russian’s wayward serve with bold returning.  Her own serve offers a vulnerable target for the WTA’s leading returner, however, so expect a match onf uneven quality littered with breaks.

Murray vs. Harrison:  Before one feels sorry for Ryan Harrison’s unfortunate luck in drawing Murray for his first-round opponent, one should remember that Harrison probably doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  Never bereft of confidence against leading opponents, the brash American youngster stretched Federer to a first-set tiebreak at Indian Wells a year ago before winning two sets from Ferrer at Wimbledon.  To be sure, Ferrer on grass poses a much less daunting challenge than Murray on a hard court, especially the hard court where he has defeated Nadal and reached two major finals.  But Harrison should enjoy the experience of playing this grand stage, albeit Hisense rather than Rod Laver Arena, and opponents who have assaulted the Scot with abandon have reaped rewards from that strategy before.  Across the best-of-five format, Murray’s far superior versatility and depth should suffocate Harrison and expose his mediocre backhand.  American fans should not expect a sequel to Tomic’s accomplishment, then, but they reasonably can expect a strong competitive effort from their nation’s leading man when these two temperamental perfectionists collide.

Haase vs. Roddick:  Dominant through two sets against Murray at the US Open, the lanky Dutchman somehow lost the script and ultimately the match.  This pattern defined much of Haase’s 2011 campaign, which featured no fewer than twelve defeats in which he had won the first set.  Early in that series, he won the first set from Roddick at this tournament a year ago, came within a tiebreak of winning the second set, and then faded thereafter as an apparent ankle injury overtook him.  Can Haase finish what he started this time?  As Roddick’s career has waned, he has won fewer and fewer free points with his serve, leaving him more susceptible to shot-makers like Haase.  Consistency and experience represent his greatest weapons, though, and both of those should serve him well against an opponent who has much to prove regarding his competitive resilience.

Dokic vs. Chakvetadze:  When they met three Australian Opens ago, one of these women still held a prominent position in the WTA, and the other sought to mount a comeback from obscurity.  Now, both Dokic and Chakvetadze seek to revive their careers from potentially terminal setbacks on both physical and mental levels.  In addition to their experience in adversity, they share similarities in the strengths and flaws of their games, such as a tendency towards double faults and a talent for redirecting their groundstrokes, which skim low over the net.  During a promising week in Hobart, Chakvetadze defeated Pironkova and won a set from Peer before retiring ominously.  During an odd week in Sydney, Dokic served a double bagel to her first opponent and then nearly ate another from Bartoli.  All of this evidence suggests that we should expect the unexpected in a meeting of two personalities strung more tightly than their rackets.

Zvonareva vs. Dulgheru:  Strung tightly herself throughout a lopsided Sydney loss to Kuznetsova, Zvonareva looks ripe for an upset as she attempts to defend semifinal points.  Dulgheru overcame Kvitova in the first round of the US Open, battled Sharapova to a third-set tiebreak in Miami, and extended Kvitova to a third set in Sydney last week.  Although the Romanian rarely has progressed deep into tournaments, she mounts a credible threat on all surfaces with her excellent court coverage and clean backhand.  Those strengths shouldn’t suffice to defeat a top-10 opponent, of course, but Zvonareva rarely has played like a woman in the top 10 over the last several months.  Far in the distant past now, seemingly, are her consecutive major finals in 2010.  After those twin peaks to her career, she has slid backwards steadily.

Mahut vs. Stepanek:  Lilting around the court with a panache undimmed by age, these serve-volley artists probably would prefer a faster surface, like grass or an indoor hard court.  Vestiges of a nearly vanished area, Mahut and Stepanek will engage in truncated points that display a mixture of power and touch.  Neither can muster the consistency to survive extended rallies, so the audience should focus on the precision with which they place their serves and their approach shots, a demonstration more intellectual than aesthetically pleasing but still intriguing for its rarity.

Keys vs. Zheng:  After Christina McHale overcame Safarova, another young American woman aims to continue her nation’s momentum.  The Auckland titlist, Zheng peppers the baseline with flat, low groundstrokes that bedevil tall players.  Her opponent remains a work in progress, still raw and far from mature while filled with potential that merited a wildcard into the main draw.  With a serve that regularly reaches triple digits already, she can target Zheng’s much weaker delivery with her returns to capitalize upon this advantage to the fullest.  In this clash of two players with such different styles, Keys should view this opportunity as another step on her long evolutionary journey.

Caroline Wozniacki - 2012 Sydney International - Day 3

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

Semifinalist:  Li

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

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

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

Semifinalist:  Serena

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

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Final:  Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Petra Kvitova

Janko Tipsarevic - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Having examined the leading contenders for the Australian Open titles, we now cast a glance across the diverse spectrum of dark horses who might stifle the hopes of a favorite.

Tipsarevic:  Long before his late-career surge carried him into the top 10, the second-ranked Serb dragged Federer deep into a fifth set on Rod Laver Arena.  While Tipsarevic’s more recent visits to Australia have resulted in few such exploits, his appearance in the Chennai final extended his momentum from a strong second half, including a US Open quarterfinal.  His compact physique conceals an unexpectedly effective serve, and his backhand down the line sometimes triggers parallels to his more famous compatriot.  Throughout his career, though, Tipsarevic has struggled with injuries, fatigue, and sporadic lack of motivation.

Del Potro:  During the Davis Cup final, he competed vigorously throughout two losses on clay to Ferrer and a heavily favored Nadal.  Those matches illustrated not only Del Potro’s forehand but his movement, uncommon in a player of his height and a key to his Melbourne success.  Never has he distinguished himself in Rod Laver Arena, even before his wrist injury.  Nevertheless, Del Potro won sets at majors from Djokovic and Nadal last year.  If he has gained confidence from his Davis Cup performance and a strong week in Sydney, his groundstrokes should regain some of the explosiveness that they have lacked since his injury.  Very few other players in the draw can claim victories over every member of the top five.

Dolgopolov:  For an example of the Ukrainian’s talent for wizardry, one need look no further than the first set of his US Open encounter with Djokovic last fall.  Against the ATP’s leading player, his befuddling mixture of spins, slices, and sudden groundstroke blasts nearly worked their magic.  A quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, Dolgopolov won consecutive five-setters against Tsonga and Soderling during which his counterpunching blunted their far superior power.  One might expect him to feel pressure when he returns to the scene of those former triumphs, but the Ukrainian seems thoroughly immune to such emotions, as he does to more significant aspirations.

Isner: A stark contrast to Dolgopolov, the American relies upon an unvarnished, almost retro style of serving and simplistic first-strike tennis.  Stiff and ungainly at times, he nevertheless won two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros last year—something that Federer never has accomplished in five attempts.  As he showed at the US Open when reaching the quarterfinals, Isner can force even the most elite foes to tiebreaks, an uncomfortable position for a contender early in the tournament Since his game revolves around a single shot, Isner can struggle with almost any opponent when his first-serve percentage dips, so he also could suffer an upset of his own before he meets a notable name.

Raonic:  The champion in Chennai after an arduous battle with Tipsarevic in the final, Raonic never lost his serve throughout the tournament.  His relentless holds intensify the pressure on his opponents during their own service games, sometimes resulting in anxious, uncharacteristic errors.  Since a hip injury at Wimbledon truncated most of his second half, he begins the new season fresher than many rivals.  Unknown until this time last year, Raonic won six consecutive matches in Australia to burst through qualifying to defeat Llodra and Youzhny before Ferrer finally outlasted him in four sets.

Nishikori:  Somewhat like Ferrer, the Japanese #1 always will lack the effortless power on serve and groundstrokes that forms the cornerstone of the modern game.  Without those attributes, he still can punish the unwary or profligate with a steady, disciplined baseline style and excellent stamina, both physical and mental.  Finally breaking through at meaningful tournaments last fall, Nishikori already has proven that he can spring a stunning upset at a major when he conquered Ferrer a few US Opens ago.  He likely will receive substantial crowd support in Melbourne, the major nearest his home.

Tomic:  Although Hewitt remains the sentimental favorite in the men’s field for most Aussies, the two-time major champion has ceded the status of his nation’s leading hope to this precocious prodigy.  Surprising Wimbledon by reaching the quarterfinals, Tomic has evolved into a more mature player and always has possessed a complete game with intelligent shot selection.  That attribute has convinced observers like John McEnroe that he has the greatest potential of his generation’s players, but the Australian must improve his serve and gain more experience before hoping to fulfill his potential.  To the delight of his compatriots, he reached the Brisbane semifinals before Murray unraveled him.

Harrison:  Just as Tomic represents the future of Australian men’s tennis, so does this brash youngster represent the future of American men’s tennis.  That prospect has sat comfortably on Harrison’s shoulders more often than not, spurring him towards a few inspired runs on American soil.  Still waiting for the breakthrough performance that Tomic unleashed at Wimbledon, he crumbled in the first round of the US Open and surely will burn to improve upon that result at the next major.  His passion for competition will serve him well as his career progresses, but he has not always channeled it productively thus far.

Agnieszka Radwanska - WTA Championships - Istanbul 2011 - Day Three

Radwanska:  Appearing in the second week at last year’s event despite a recent foot injury, the clever Pole enjoyed an outstanding second half of 2011 by her standards.  Among her three titles were prestigious events in Tokyo and Beijing, which preceded a competitive display at the year-end championships.  At those tournaments, Radwanska finally seemed to mix more opportunistic tactics with her customary counterpunching.  Although her benign serve always will leave her at the mercy of serving juggernauts like Serena or Kvitova, she can frustrate players with less first-strike power by deploying her clever court sense.  Also demonstrated by her upset over Wozniacki in Sydney was her improved competitive resilience.

Bartoli:  Lethal at the middle two Slams last year, the double-fisted Frenchwoman knocked off former champions at both Roland Garros (Kuznetsova) and Wimbledon (Serena).  But she left no mark whatsoever on the two hard-court Slams, despite reaching the Indian Wells final.  Bartoli probably would prefer a faster surface that would allow her to shorten points more easily, and the serve that shone at Wimbledon continues to desert her more than it should.  All the same, she looked convincing at Hopman Cup even while winning only one of three matches.

Schiavone:  From the first two weeks of the WTA season, the most entertaining match featured her comeback victory against Jankovic in Brisbane after saving double match point in the second set.  Undeterred as she clawed out of deficit after deficit, Schiavone seemingly won through sheer force of will and appetite for battle.  That appetite emerged most strikingly not in either of her memorable fortnights at Roland Garros but in the epic that she contested with Kuznetsova at last year’s Australian Open.  Yet she could not withstand the blows of second-tier shotmaker Kanepi a round later, illustrating the limits of her agility and ingenuity as a counterbalance to raw power.

Lisicki:  Raw power describes the game of this German, who will serve as the flag-bearer of her nation in Melbourne following Petkovic’s withdrawal.  Plagued by injuries throughout her still young career, Lisicki began the season inauspiciously with a retirement and a withdrawal.  Buttressing her charge to the Wimbledon semifinals, her serve ranks among the fiercest in the WTA and allows her to slash at her returns with impunity. A little like Isner, her dependence on that single shot mean that she can win or lose to almost anyone at any moment, even discounting her chronic injuries.

Pavlyuchenkova:  A quarterfinalist at two majors in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova battled courageously against Serena at the US Open and showed sufficient composure to avenge a Roland Garros loss to Schiavone.  She continues to struggle with sporadic injuries and especially with her serve, which donates an alarming quantity of double faults for a player so young.  Early in 2012, Pavlyuchenkova struggled to hold at all in two early-round losses at Brisbane and Sydney.  When she can sink her teeth into baseline rallies, though, she can match the firepower of any opponent from either groundstroke wing.

Kuznetsova:  Less than three years removed from her last major title, she attempts to rebound from one of her worst seasons, which witnessed no titles and an embarrassing series of losses to anonymities.  A natural athlete who might have excelled in a variety of sports, Kuznetsova probably cannot maintain her wayward focus for an entire fortnight.  Her taste for the spotlight sometimes spurs her to rise to the occasion, as evidenced by her near-upset over Wozniacki at the US Open.  Despite her unimposing physique, she strikes a heavy ball that travels through the court with deceptive speed.

Kanepi:  On this list merely for her performance in Brisbane, she has accomplished nothing memorable at majors to date.  But one should note that she held serve seamlessly through three of her last four victories that week against quality competition, an astonishing feat in the WTA.  Having reached the Moscow final in her last tournament of 2011, Kanepi deserves credit for extending that momentum through the offseason.  And all three previous Brisbane champions vaulted from that success to greater heights before long.

Zheng:  Two years ago, China stood within two combined victories of monopolizing both berths in the women’s final here.  Thwarted in the semifinals by Henin, Zheng also reached a semifinal at Wimbledon in 2008.  Having gained greater acclaim for her exploits in doubles than singles, she returned to relevance by sweeping to the Auckland title following a semifinal victory over Kuznetsova.  The relatively high bounce of these courts will hinder her returns, normally one of her strengths, but her ability to keep the ball low and deep troubles tall opponents and those who specialize in creating angles.

Ivanovic:  The 2008 runner-up, “Aussie Ana” can count upon ample fan support in her quest to erase the memories of last year’s first-round exit.  Since succumbing to Sharapova four years ago, Ivanovic has not reached the second week at the Australian Open and has not reached the quarterfinals at any hard-court major.  Extending Clijsters to three sets in Brisbane, she still showed flashes of the form that lifted her to the top ranking while continuing to struggle with finishing matches.  Searching for renewed confidence, she has improved her serve under the guidance of Nigel Sears and has shown more patience in constructing points.  If any Slam suits her temperament, moreover, it’s the “Happy Slam.”

Ana Ivanovic - 2012 Sydney International - Day 1

Caroline Wozniacki - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Wozniacki vs. Rus:  Having snapped a three-match losing streak with a five-match winning streak, the Dane arrives at the US Open fresh from a New Haven title for the fourth consecutive year.  As with Radwanska’s parallel shift, the decision to separate from her increasingly irritable father may have allowed Wozniacki to collect herself following a disappointing summer.  Her familiar self in New Haven and the first round here, the world #1 played within herself as she won with depth rather than angle and placement rather than pace.  A tall Dutch lefty with a heavy forehand, Rus earned fleeting notoriety by upsetting Clijsters in the second round of Roland Garros after winning a set from Sharapova in Madrid.  On both occasions, she benefited from error-strewn displays by her opponents that positioned her to win, but the Dutchwoman finished off Clijsters with increasingly confident play.  Normally stingy with unforced errors, Wozniacki became more slovenly in that category during her summer swoon before reverting to her characteristic cleanliness last week.  Nevertheless, lefties have troubled her in the past (cf. Martinez Sanchez), so this match might open a window onto her current level of confidence.

Jankovic vs. Dokic:  Meeting Mirjana Lucic in the first round of last year’s Open, the Serb needed three sets to squelch a comeback threat from the Balkans.  In the second round of this year’s Open, she faces a similar opponent at a similar stage in her career.  Winning a title earlier this year in Kuala Lumpur, Dokic sporadically reminds audiences of the danger latent in her flat, low groundstroke lasers.  Just as prominent in her comeback are the cascades of double faults that have cost her many a match.  Since Dokic tends to veer from outstanding to abysmal with little between them, her first-round victory suggests that she has struck at least a moderately formidable vein of form here.  Dropping just two games in her own opener, Jankovic will hope to survive the first blow or two before gradually outmaneuvering her opponent.  Although she struggles with double faults less often, the former #1’s serve remains a questionable stroke that Dokic can attack in attempts to shorten the points, essential against an opponent with much superior fitness and consistency.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  Famous for antics like leaping in mid-air to strike an ordinary groundstroke, Monfils perhaps set the tennis precedent for Petkovic.  Yet he has grown more focused and businesslike this summer as his ranking has climbed inside the top eight.  Seriously challenging Djokovic in Cincinnati, the Frenchman looked extremely sharp in dismantling future star Grigor Dimitrov a round ago.  Few fans would want Monfils to become a sober, steely ball-striking machine, though, and he continued to oblige the spectators with vintage leaps, lunges, and dashes punctuated by a flourished fist.  If he can restrain those bursts of showmanship to unimportant moments, his sparkling athleticism should conquer the 2003 finalist.  Once the flagship of the Spanish Armada, Ferrero has receded towards an approaching retirement, and his unflagging professionalism jars intriguingly with the exuberance across the net.  Rarely a crowd favorite in New York, the Spaniard’s dour visage invites viewers to admire his technique, study his footwork, respect his achievements—but not to connect with him.

Azarenka vs. Dulko:  One US Open ago, Azarenka retired against Dulko in the first round with a concussion that caused her to lose consciousness on the court.  At Roland Garros last year, the current world #5 pried just three games away from the Argentine, who also defeated her in straight sets three years ago.  While she continues to retire at an alarming rate, Azarenka did not look hampered by the hand injury that forced her withdrawal from Cincinnati in the first round.  An appetite for revenge likely will motivate the pugnacious Belarussian to reverse those recent results, but Dulko has proven a difficult riddle to solve for even the most accomplished players.  At first glance, one struggles to find the elements of this unassuming game that could have undone opponents from Henin to Sharapova.  Rather than any single weapon, Dulko’s overall consistency and court coverage will pose the most significant challenge to an impetuous shot-maker who never saw a ball that she didn’t want to crush.  One round away from a Saturday night clash with Serena Williams, Azarenka wants to ensure that she shows as little vulnerability as possible.

Berdych vs. Fognini:  Often a frustrating pastime, “Berd-watching” became more rewarding in Cincinnati when the underachieving Czech finally achieved an accomplishment of note for the first time since Wimbledon 2010.  In a routine straight-sets victory over Federer, Berdych illustrated once again how far sheer ferocity of ball-striking can carry a player past a more versatile, less brutal style.  Less forceful than his serve and groundstrokes is his mind, the arena where his second-round opponent can undermine him.  An idiosyncratic Italian with much-remarked eyebrows, Fognini specializes in the sort of protracted, emotionally heated contest where Berdych sometimes crumbles.  An example of that genre unfolded at Roland Garros this year, when an ailing Fognini hobbled theatrically around the court en route to a seemingly certain loss—and won.  His casual swings at groundstrokes suggest a practice session more than a match, but this effortlessness masks power that he can unleash unexpectedly. While Fognini’s game may seem like an expertly assembled set of smoke and mirrors, its lack of straightforwardness could force Berdych to think more than he would wish.

Petkovic vs. Zheng:  In a sensational year for Chinese tennis, the chronically injured Zheng has played a third fiddle to Roland Garros champion Li and new top-20 resident Peng.  Once in the top 20 herself, this doubles star and Olympic medalist can fight firepower with firepower better than her petite frame would suggest.  A victory over Sharapova and multiple three-setters against Serena have attested to her self-belief against the most elite opponents in the sport, so Petkovic should practice her groundstrokes more than her dancing.  The glaring flaw in Zheng’s game, her meek second serve should offer the German plentiful opportunities to gain control of opponents with aggressive returns.  Regrouping from a first-week loss at Wimbledon, Petkovic reasserted herself in North America with two victories over Kvitova amidst semifinal appearances in San Diego and Cincinnati.  Ever the entertainer, whether deliberately or inadvertently, Petkorazzi’s most memorable moment of the summer came when she bolted indecorously from the San Diego court mid-match to vomit.  With a personality so multifaceted and unpredictable, though, something quirky or intriguing almost always happens during her matches and makes her a must-see player in the first week.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 US Open - Day 2

Ivanovic vs. Cetkovska:  Falling to the Czech at Wimbledon, the former #1 will aim to avenge that defeat just as she reversed her Stanford loss to Morita a tournament later in San Diego.  Double-bageled by Ivanovic three years ago, Cetkovska has developed into a far more accomplished, self-assured competitor who defeated three top-15 opponents last week in New Haven.  Under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak against Li Na, she defied expectations by proving mentally sturdier than the Chinese veteran.  When she faced Ivanovic at Wimbledon, Cetkovska never lost her serve in the two sets and dominated the tiebreak, an area in which the Serb has faltered throughout 2011.  Shaky late in close sets and matches, Ivanovic rallied in her opener against the dangerous lefty Ksenia Pervak and then dedicated the victory to her dead grandfather.  Far from her best in that encounter, she will need to elevate her first-serve percentage significantly and sting her groundstrokes more assertively from the outset, especially her backhand.  Much like Jankovic at last year’s US Open, a second-round casualty after the death of her grandmother, Ana may struggle to focus on her tennis amidst the personal issues besetting her.  Or the sight of a recent nemesis across the net may inspire her to “put things right,” as the sensitive Serb described her triumph over Morita in San Diego.

Tomic vs. Cilic:  At the Australian Open 2009, they contested a gripping albeit uneven five-setter in which Cilic survived not only the talented teenager but the partisan crowd.  Against a similarly hostile audience in the first round, the lanky Croat eased past Ryan Harrison in straight sets as he erased multiple deficits late in the match.  A curious figure who has stalled since his breakthrough two years ago, Cilic appears to have both the physical talents and the mental poise to compete at the elite level.  But his technique, especially on his forehand, continues to break down at key moments, while his serve has produced fewer free points than a player of his height normally records.  Does that notably calm demeanor mask a lack of determination or competitive vigor?  Just as intriguing is Cilic’s opponent, a precocious Wimbledon quarterfinalist who presented Djokovic with arguably his most formidable test of that fortnight.  Long overshadowed by his repulsive father, Tomic accumulated a reputation as an arrogant, prickly youngster lacking in respect for peers like Lleyton Hewitt and in gratitude for the opportunities given him by Tennis Australia.  Perhaps not coincidentally, his increased successes have stemmed from opportunities that he has created for himself, while his father has faded from the headlines.  Spectators now can appreciate a surprisingly mature, complete game played by a tall player who moves well, a power player who defends well, and a baseliner who exhibits crisp technique in volleys.  Does the kernel of a future champion lie in the versatile, motivated Tomic?

Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 7

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

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

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

Andy Murray - Rogers Cup - Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates a point during the Men's Singles Final match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 4, 2010 in London, England.

Gentlemen:

First quarter:  Just one major after he narrowly escaped from Isner, Nadal may find himself forced to topple two more giants in the precocious Raonic and the resurgent Del Potro in order to reach the quarterfinals.  The world #1 at least can settle into the tournament with two comfortable rounds before confronting the Canadian, whose thunderous serve and deft forecourt touch should pose compelling threats on grass.  Least comfortable on this surface, Del Potro may struggle against the more compact strokes of Simon in the third round despite his vast advantage over the Frenchman on serve.  At the base of this quarter lies 2010 runner-up Berdych, a first-round loser at two of the three majors since that breakthrough.  The sixth seed crumbled quickly when defending his Roland Garros semifinal, and the pressure of defending 1,400 points will weigh heavily on his fragile mind.  Nevertheless, Berdych should progress comfortably to the second week unless an opportunistic journeyman like Julien Benneteau can emulate Stephane Robert’s feat at Roland Garros.  Like Del Potro, Verdasco displays his least convincing tennis on grass and has watched his ranking slide inexorably downwards during a season-long slump.  Perhaps most likely to clash with Nadal in the quarterfinals, therefore, is tenth-seeded Mardy Fish.  Despite sporadic injury struggles, the American has shone on grass before but lacks the versatile arsenal to upset the top seed.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Greatest threats:  Raonic, Fish

Second quarter:  As Murray-mania descends upon Wimbledon once again, the Centre Court crowds may grow familiar with anonymous figures like Gimeno-Traver and Kavcic.  Probably the softest quarter, Murray’s section contains no fewer than six qualifiers and two wildcards.  But it also contains 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist Gasquet, who has returned to relevance this year with an Indian Wells quarterfinal, Rome semifinal, and an unprecedented second-week run at Roland Garros.  Three years ago, the Scot entangled the Frenchman in a memorable five-setter on these lawns in which his superior fitness and fiercer competitive desire ultimately overcame his opponent’s superior artistry.  Among the intriguing openers in this section are the all-Croatian clash between Ljubicic and Cilic and the intra-Balkan clash between Tipsarevic and Karlovic.  Barely a presence since Indian Wells, world #10 Roddick benefited considerably from Wimbledon’s grass-court formula to gain a top-eight seed and avoid a fourth-round meeting with a contender.  Nevertheless, the three-time finalist may tangle with the dangerous Feliciano Lopez, who hammered 35 aces while extending the American into a third set at Queens Club.  Thoroughly dominated by Murray at that tournament, Roddick might gain confidence from his victory over the Scot in their 2009 semifinal.  In the last two years, though, illness, injury, and erratic play have exposed the American’s one-dimensionality, which he shares with most of the players around him.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Greatest threat:  Roddick

Third quarter:  Drawn in the same half with Djokovic for the fourth straight Slam, Federer should arrive in their semifinal without excessive exertions.  Fading towards retirement, notorious underachiever Nalbandian probably cannot challenge the Swiss over the course of five sets.  Equally unlikely to mount a convincing challenge is Almagro, who fell in the first round of the Dutch Open as the top seed and struggles to fit his elongated swings to the grass.  Nor is the Spaniard the only clay-court specialist in this section, for seventh-seeded Ferrer would face Federer in the quarterfinals should all unfold according to plan.  A plausible candidate to disrupt that narrative, Tsonga reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year behind his electrifying first-strike weapons.  Edging within a tiebreak of the Queens Club title, the Frenchman collected a morale-boosting victory over Nadal before severely testing Murray.  Although injuries and dips in motivation have prevented his evolution into a consistent contender, Tsonga still possesses the ability to unleash a crescendo of inspired performances at a major.  In the third round, he might face the winner of an intriguing opening duel between Dolgopolov and the aging Gonzalez, which will pit fluid grace against raw power.  Once extending Nadal to five sets at the All England Club, Youzhny might collide with Federer on the second Monday if he can overcome Isner.  The towering American cannot generate more headlines than he did at the last Wimbledon, but he will hope to record a few more wins.

Semfiinalist:  Federer

Greatest threat:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  Aiming to halt his one-match losing streak, Djokovic enters Wimbledon with scant grass-court preparation but looked impressive during pre-tournament exhibitions.  The Serb announced his determination to conquer the sport’s citadel last month despite his less confident movement on grass.  A two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, Djokovic might reprise an epic 2007 encounter with Baghdatis in the third round, while South African giant Kevin Anderson might lurk in the second round.  Should the second seed survive those obstacles, his path might grow smoother with docile compatriot Troicki or perhaps serve-and-volleying Frenchman Michael Llodra, who conquered him at the Paris Indoors last fall but could not trouble him in Dubai this year.  His route barred by only the eventual champion at the last two Wimbledons, Soderling hopes to rebound from a tepid spring by overcoming battle-scarred veterans like Hewitt and Davydenko.  A year after unsettling Federer in the first round, Alejandro Falla could trouble Melzer in the aftermath of an impressive French Open.  Joining heavy-hitting Russians Tursunov and Gabashvili are the formerly promising Gulbis and the still-promising Nishikori in a section of players with talent disproportionate to their accomplishments.  Yet Soderling remains the most probable candidate to progress through this wilderness of enigmatic competitors, presenting Djokovic with a quarterfinal opponent whom he has dominated on all other surfaces.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Greatest threat:  None

Semifinals:  Nadal vs. Murray, Federer vs. Djokovic

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Roger Federer

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russian Federation celebrates a point during the women's singles round one match against Stephanie Foretz of France on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 24, 2008 in London, England.

Ladies:

First quarter:  Although world #1 Wozniacki perches atop this section, the most formidable contender prowls at its base.  Reaching the semifinals or better in four of her last five tournaments, Sharapova accumulated momentum this spring for the first time in her comeback.  Like Djokovic, the 2004 champion enters Wimbledon this year without match practice on grass, but she has routinely smothered opening-round opponent Chakvetadze.  Unless pugnacious British teen Robson can emulate Caroline Garcia in the second round, Sharapova should maneuver through a draw filled with powerful but erratic opponents such as Safarova. Although Stosur represents the Russian’s sternest competition on paper, the resilient Peng in fact might prove her greatest cause for concern.  Winning a set from Sharapova at Indian Wells in March, Peng extended the finest season of her career by reaching the Birmingham semifinal.  Nevertheless, Stosur reached the semifinals a week later at Eastbourne with a slightly surprising triumph over third-ranked Zvonareva.  Aligned against Wozniacki in a potential third-round clash is Jarmila Gajdosova, the type of heavy hitter who could prevent the Dane from finding a rhythm in short points.  On the second Monday, the top seed should face one of two contrasting opponents who have combined for three victories against her in 2011.  Whereas Cibulkova relies on her movement and compact strokes, Goerges showcases an outstanding serve and massive forehand in a game seemingly better suited for grass.  But only one player in this quarter has left an imprint on this surface before.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Greatest threat:  Wozniacki

Second quarter:  Whereas the first quarter features only one former Wimbledon quarterfinalist, this region features no fewer than seven who have attained that stage here before.  Possibly colliding in the second round are two of those figures, newly crowned Roland Garros champion Li Na and newly crowned Birmingham champion Lisicki.  Between them, however, stands volatile Russian Kudryavtseva, who upset Sharapova and nearly Venus on the lawns before as her high-risk title ignited at timely moments.  The survivor of Li-Lisicki then might collide with 2008 semifinalist Zheng, well below her best since a wrist injury last year but still a competitor of underestimated ferocity.  Although Ivanovic’s 2007 semifinal lies four long years ago, the Serb also reached the second week in 2009 and will have lifted her spirits after a Birmingham semifinal as well as an Eastbourne victory over Goerges.  Not quite a title contender, two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska has found surprising success on these fast courts, which reward her delicate touch and amplify her serve.  After thrusting into the Roland Garros semifinals, 2007 runner-up Bartoli extended her momentum with an Eastbourne title run built upon victories over Stosur and Kvitova.  Back in the top 10, the double-fisted Frenchwoman should face little opposition until the second Monday, when she would meet the defending champion.  If Serena stays fit and Li focused, they should reprise last year’s quarterfinal.  Both of those questions loom large indeed, however, considering their history.

Semifinalist:  S. Williams

Greatest threat:  Li

Third quarter:  Alternately stunning and shaky in recent weeks, the seeds who bookend this quarter will have little time to settle into a groove.  Confronted by Dutch Open runner-up Dokic, Schiavone hopes to avoid her early 2010 exit at the major that exposes her offensive shortcomings from the baseline.  Tasked with powerful albeit feckless Slovak Rybarikova, Azarenka will attempt to rebound swiftly from her Eastbourne retirement.  Vika usually has followed those concessions with sparkling performances, though, springing back from an Indian Wells retirement with a Miami title and from a Stuttgart retirement with a Madrid final.  The leading headline of the preparatory events, Hantuchova has defeated Wozniacki, Ivanovic, and Venus in her last three tournaments before also retiring from Eastbourne.  If her injury proves insignificant, she might ruffle Azarenka’s composure in the third round.  Seeking her third consecutive Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic eyes a comfortable first-week draw with few potential foes who can match her self-belief.  Already extending Azarenka to two three-setters this season, meanwhile, budding Russian Pavlyuchenkova seeks to capitalize upon her quarterfinal (near-semifinal) at the previous major.  Pounding winners through the clay from both wings, she should find the grass even better suited to her power-heavy, movement-light style.  Pavlyuchenkova’s compatriot Makarova also stands poised to garner attention for her quirky left-handed game and forecourt skills, honed through her doubles experience.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Greatest threats:  Pavlyuchenkova, Petkovic

Fourth quarter:  Spared an early-round meeting with her sister, Venus instead might collide with familiar foe Jankovic in the first week.  Outside the top 10 for the first time in four years, the Serb rarely has enjoyed her visits to Wimbledon, although she reached the second week last year.  The elder Williams looked initially impressive during her Eastbourne week with victories over Petkovic and Ivanovic before her first career loss to Hantuchova cast a pall upon those achievements.  At the bottom of this quarter stands 2010 finalist Zvonareva, likely to respond to the pressure of defending her points with little more resilience than her counterpart Berdych.  After an encouraging victory over Serena at Eastbourne, the second seed slumped to a demoralizing defeat against Stosur as a frustratingly inconsistent season continued.  Handed a relatively comfortable draw, Vera could reprise last year’s semifinal triumph over Pironkova in the third round before battling the winner of the marquee Venus-Jankovic collision.  Nevertheless, the most imposing threat may spring from the upper section of this quarter, from which Kvitova will launch her bid to reach a second straight Wimbledon semifinal.  If she can escape an early stumble, this Czech lefty will gather momentum with each round.  Falling only to eventual champion Li at Roland Garros, she remains less consistent than one expects from a contender but sufficiently confident to ambush a rusty Venus or a fragile Zvonareva.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Greatest threat:  V. Williams

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. S. Willliams, Azarenka vs. Kvitova

Final:  Sharapova vs. Kvitova

Champion:  Maria Sharapova

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Three

Sharapova vs. Garcia:  Dispatching one Caroline en route to the Rome title, Sharapova eyes a less intimidating Caroline in Paris.  This apparent mismatch pits a storied champion who has won three Slam titles against a 17-year-old who has won two total matches at majors, but perhaps one should not feed this Christian to the lioness too eagerly.  Flitting across one’s mind are the shadows of Kudryavtseva and Oudin, who defeated Sharapova at Wimbledon and the US Open when ranked #154 and #70, respectively.  Thrust onto a court far larger than any where she has tread, Garcia can expect the vociferous support of her compatriots and showed a glimpse of courage by winning the first Slam match of her career in January.  Demonstrating a nascent aptitude for the surface, the world #177 claimed her second ITF clay title in Florida this April.  Of course, Sharapova would capture the Premier Five crown in Rome two weeks later.

Chardy vs. Simon:  Sharing a passport but little else, this internecine clash of les bleus pits an aggressive, forehand-centered Frenchman against a compatriot who relies on steadiness and a crisp two-hander.  Whereas Chardy can drift emotionally within tournaments and even matches, a healthy Simon consistently competes with the sturdiness that has enabled him to maximize his potential.  The clay will shelter the former’s asymmetrical groundstroke game while showcasing the latter’s defense.  In the pressure of playing in their nation’s most prestigious event and largest stadium, the experience of Simon may shine through, but the brashness of Chardy may allow him to capture the moment.

Zheng vs. Kvitova:  Although she has failed to recapture her momentum following wrist surgery, Zheng has accumulated a history of upsetting or nearly upsetting contenders from Sharapova to Serena.  Her low center of gravity and compact stroke production aid her in adjusting to the clay’s unpredictable bounces, while her court coverage should prove even more seamless on the dirt.  Nevertheless, the unusually fast bounce and light balls at Roland Garros this year, coupled with warm, sunny weather, will encourage shot-maker like Kvitova to fancy their chances against defensive-minded foes.  Displaying traces of her scintillating form in Madrid, the Czech crushed 2011 surprise Arn in the first round and should gain further hope from her friendly first-week draw.

Malisse vs. Verdasco:  Most dangerous when least anticipated, the Spaniard surprisingly overcame a history of futility against Monaco in his opener despite a generally disappointing season.  One would imagine that this comprehensive four-set victory would raise the spirits of a player whose form fluctuates with his confidence.  But Verdasco’s fortunes have not always followed a logical trajectory, nor have those of his opponent.  From a nation more renowned in the WTA than ATP, Malisse has underachieved even more than the Spaniard has, in part as a result of chronic injuries.  Taking a set from Murray in Rome, he could unsettle the unsubtle Verdasco with his penetrating backhand and versatile all-court repertoire.

Mirza vs. Radwanska / Medina Garrigues vs. Gajdosova:  Only a sporadic player at this stage, Mirza still can unleash forehands that occasionally fluster competitors as noteworthy as Henin (in Melbourne this year).  Targeting the lines too often for sustained success on clay, her relentless ball-striking presents Radwanska with an assignment at which the Pole excels.  Smothered by the WTA’s premier offenses, she specializes in chipping away at less consistent or balanced attackers with canny shot placement that exploits the geometry of the court.  The balance of overall talent between puncher and counterpuncher shifts in the opposite direction when Gajdosova faces Medina Garrigues, whose superior clay skills that carried her to the Barcelona title.  Unruffled by a recent divorce or the circumstances of her opener against Razzano, however, the Aussie proved herself a focused and motivated competitor.

Querrey vs. Ljubicic:  Formerly feckless at Roland Garros, the youthful tower of power delivered a victory over Kohslchreiber almost as impressive and unexpected as Verdasco’s win over Monaco.  Standing poised to intercept him is a seasoned tower of power, who will rely upon the experience that Querrey never quite seems to acquire or turn to his advantage.  Neither player has displayed much spark over the past several months, trudging from tournament to tournament with their explosive serves but not much else.  In a match less meaningful for the veteran than for the American, Querrey has an opportunity to accumulate a bit of momentum before defending his Queens Club title and perhaps launching a longer campaign at Wimbledon.  Far from a contender here or there, he personifies the recent trend among American men of underperforming at majors—by their nation’s lofty standards, in any case.  Perhaps we should learn to accept him for what he remains, a decent talent with weapons and weaknesses in equal measure, rather than expecting him to develop into something special.

Cirstea vs. Dulgheru:  Banished to a court as peripheral as their country on Europe’s map, these two Romanians have scored their finest achievements on clay.  Scorching into the second week at Roland Garros 2009, Cirstea delivered an epic upset over Jankovic that suggested much more promise than she since has fulfilled.  Barely inside the top 100, she has floated among challengers and qualifying draws while winning only three main-draw matches this year.  Less eye-catching in both looks and playing style, Dulgheru won the last two editions of the Warsaw clay tournament with tireless court coverage and timely backhands down the line.  The two Romanians have struggled for most of 2011, although Alexandra did reach the Miami quarterfinals.  Having eaten more bagels and breadsticks lately than her tennis health should permit, she must remember that those who give gain more blessings than those who receive.

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark plays a forehand during her quarterfinal match against Francesca Schiavone of Italy during day nine of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

First quarter:  Temporarily deposed in Paris last week, Wozniacki aims to reclaim her throne atop the WTA rankings in the season’s first Premier Five event.  In the quarterfinal, the beguiling Dane could confront the memories of her riveting Australian Open semifinal against Li Na, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat just a point from elimination.  Before that stage, however, the top seed probably must navigate past Pattaya City champion Hantuchova and the rampaging Paris Indoors titlist.  Thoroughly thrashed by Kvitova at Wimbledon last year, Wozniacki still should draw confidence from her routine victory over the Czech lefty on a similarly medium-speed hard court in Beijing.  Tasked with a slightly less imposing challenge, Li may open her campaign by reprising her Sydney victory over rising Serb Bojana Jovanovski, whose opening duel with Wickmayer comprises one of the most intriguing first-round collisions.  Charging implausibly to the semifinals here last year, Peer hopes to rekindle the magic of that week while atoning for a disappointing exit in the Australian Open, where she failed to serve out a match against Pennetta.  The top-ranked Israeli won both of her 2010 meetings with Li Na, who retired against her in Dubai a year ago yet seems as healthy as one can reasonably expect for a veteran nearing her 29th birthday.  Having halted Wozniacki’s quest for a maiden major, can Li halt her quest for a third consecutive Premier Five crown?

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:  Saturated with talented players searching for confidence, this section lies open for an unexpected semifinalist who can catch fire at timely moments.  Headlining it are a player who has generated few headlines thus far in 2011 (Stosur) and a player who has generated no headlines at all since last year’s Wimbledon (Jankovic).  Just a week removed from a pair of painful Fed Cup losses, the Australian’s self-belief must simmer especially low as she braces herself for a clash with Pattaya City finalist Errani.  If she can quell an opponent who held match points against her in New Haven last summer, Stosur likely may battle Ivanovic in a battle that would showcase two of the WTA’s mightiest forehands.  While Zheng could await in the second round, the Serb convincingly dispatched her former tormentor at the US Open, and the petite Chinese star returned from wrist surgery only last week.  Unless Ivanovic can hold serve more consistently than in Thailand, though, she will struggle to upset Stosur even if the fourth seed fails to unleash her best tennis.  Positioned near familiar nemesis Kanepi, Jankovic urgently needs a momentum surge before embarking upon her Indian Wells title defense next month.  The world #8 has lost all three of her hard-court meetings with the Estonian in straight sets, including an embarrassingly slovenly defeat here last year.  Eager to take another step forward after an a first Slam quarterfinal appearance, Petkovic lurks ominously in Jankovic’s vicinity and owns sufficient first-strike power to upset the Serb.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Svetlana Kuznetsova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 7

Third quarter:  Leaping out from these otherwise unassuming surroundings is the prospect of a third-round encore between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, who can rest content in the anticipation of a third-set tiebreak.  Both of these proud Fed Cup heroines delivered crucial victories for their nations last weekend that buttressed promising Australian Open performances, and their natural athleticism should find fluent expression on a surface that will allow them to construct extended rallies.  Yet Kuznetsova should not glance too far ahead, since potential second-round opponent and Eastbourne conqueror Makarova will bring elevated confidence from epic Melbourne triumphs over Ivanovic and Petrova.  Destined for a first-round duel with Date-Krumm, the staccato style of Bartoli has left little impact on the WTA lately; the Frenchwoman also could find herself threatened by the mercurial Czech Benesova if she defuses the Japanese star.  Hovering amidst the flamboyant personalities in this quarter, the relatively understated Radwanska eyes an intriguing encounter with Sevastova, whose pace-less style should test the eighth seed’s uncertain ability to generate offense and finish points.  Although the odds tilt against it, we would relish a quarterfinal between the Pole and the Italian, feisty competitors with more guile and finesse than anyone else in the draw.  Despite the compelling matches that could develop here, one cannot imagine the eventual champion emerging from the third quarter.  In the predictably unpredictable state of the WTA, however, that situation likely means that one of its inhabitants in fact will raise the trophy next Sunday.

Semifinalist:  Kuznetsova

Fourth quarter:  A runner-up to Venus here a year ago, Azarenka has harnessed her weapons only sporadically over the past several months.  Assigned to face the sizzling Peng or Mattek-Sands in her opener, the Belarussian will need to strike her competitive spark without delay.  Should she survive that test, an accommodating draw might pit her against Pennetta or perhaps Dokic in the third round.  The former Wimbledon semifinalist asserted her continued relevance last week by upsetting Safarova and Petrova, but she will find the less powerful, more consistent Italian a sterner challenge.  Relieved to have left Pattaya City, Zvonareva will shoulder scant pressure on the Persian Gulf.  Nevertheless, a capricious twist of fate has situated her near 2009 nemesis Kleybanova and one of the most overqualified qualifiers in the tournament’s history, the 14th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.  Impressive early in 2011, Hobart champion Groth aims to burst through the Russian enclave in this section.  Relying upon effortless first-strike power, she possesses the sort of game that can fluster Zvonareva but first must overcome the gritty Cibulkova, whose court coverage may extract untimely errors from her former compatriot.  Since the surface should reward the balanced styles of the section’s two highest-ranked stars, one imagines that Zvonareva and Azarenka might resume their curious rivalry in the quarterfinals.  Initially suppressing the Belarussian with ease, the Russian tumbled to ignominious defeats against her at the Australian Open and Dubai last year.  Did she regain the initiative over Vika with a tightly contested victory at the year-end championships?

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

***

In a day or two, we return to tie together the threads of last week as we dash across five tournaments in four different continents.

Ana Ivanovic - 2011 Australian Open - Day 2