While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces. The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.
Top half: A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition. The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta. Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches. Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner. A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence. Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury. A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks. Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.
If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter. The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal. Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity. But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans. Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round. A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.
Semifinal: Del Potro vs. Haas
Bottom half: Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist. The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds. Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February. Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake. Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him. Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.
One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter. Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense. Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta. An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year. Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock. The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.
Semifinal: Simon vs. Isner
Final: Del Potro vs. Isner
Top half: An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer. German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event. The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers. This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week. Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.
A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major. To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz. An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final. At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed. Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion. Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.
Semifinal: Granollers vs. Verdasco
Bottom half: A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils. Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros. The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him. Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.
Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco. This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline. All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface. Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards. While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad. Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.
Semifinal: Montanes vs. Monaco
Final: Verdasco vs. Montanes
As the Premier Five tournament in Canada looms, four of the top ten women hone their skills at tournaments on opposite coasts. The resort atmosphere at Carlsbad, long a player favorite, contrasts with the urban surroundings of the national capital.
Top half: World No. 3 Victoria Azarenka has not lost a match away from clay all season. Of course, Azarenka has played only four matches away from clay since winning the Doha title in February. Walkovers and withdrawals ended her campaigns at Indian Wells, Miami, and Wimbledon, so attention will hover around her battered knee this week. Azarenka’s health may attract even more attention than it would otherwise because she faces a relatively mild early slate of opponents. An all-Italian battle between Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone tantalizes only for nostalgic reasons, and Urszula Radwanska seems little more likely than her elder sister to vanquish Vika. Among the surprises of the spring was Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Miami and quarterfinalist at Roland Garros. Jankovic troubled Azarenka in her prime, but the momentum has shifted in that rivalry to reflect their divergent career arcs
The most compelling first-round match in Carlsbad will pit defending champion Dominika Cibulkova against former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Defeating Bartoli to win last year’s title, Cibulkova exploited a much weaker draw in the week of the Olympics. Still, she will bring plenty of confidence from her title at Stanford, whereas coaching turmoil once again enshrouds the Serb. The route will not grow much smoother for whoever survives that early test. Although the second round looks uneventful, Roberta Vinci could await in the quarterfinals. This crafty Italian has domianted Cibulkova on all surfaces, winning five straight from her, and she has taken her last three outdoor matches from Ivanovic. The relatively slow surface in San Diego should help Vinci outlast the heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands before then.
Semifinal: Azarenka vs. Vinci
Bottom half: Around this time last year, Petra Kvitova caught fire with a Premier Five title at the Rogers Cup and a semifinal in Cincinnati. The somewhat slower surface in San Diego may suit her game less well than those events, and North America historically has not brought out her best tennis. A rematch of her epic Australian Open loss to Laura Robson might await in the second round. Both women have oscillated wildly in their results this year, suggesting another rollercoaster ahead. A former Carlsbad champion lurks unobtrusively near eighth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, enjoying her best season so far. That former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, has revived her career with two major quarterfinals in 2013. An abdominal injury has sidelined Kuznetsova since Roland Garros, but she should have time to play herself into the tournament.
The fourth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska reached finals in each of her last two Carlsbad appearances. Disappointed at Stanford on Sunday, Radwanska wil aim to erase that memory with her second title here. She should outmaneuver Daniela Hantuchova, whom she has defeated here before, and may not have much to fear from Samantha Stosur unless the Aussie’s form improves dramatically. Little in Stosur’s dismal performance at Stanford boded well for her chances of escaping a challenging opener against Varvara Lepchenko. That 27-year-old American lefty could meet Radwanska in a quarterfinal for the second straight week.
Semifinal: Kuznetsova vs. Radwanska
Final: Azarenka vs. Radwanska
Top half: Overshadowed by the men’s event at the same tournament, this WTA International event did succeed in luring a top-10 player as a wildcard. World No. 9 Angelique Kerber has fallen on hard times over the last few months, so a dip in the quality of opposition could prove just what the doctor ordered. Some of the women who might face her in the quarterfinals exited early at Stanford. Formerly promising American Christina McHale continues a rebuilding campaign in 2013 against Magdalena Rybarikova. Her period of promise long behind her, Melanie Oudin hopes to stay somewhat relevant nearly four years after her illusory surge at the US Open.
Like McHale, Rybarikova, and Kiki Bertens in the top quarter, Madison Keys looks to bounce back from a disappointing Stanford loss. Anchoring the second quarter, she might meet star junior Taylor Townsend in a second-round preview of future matches on more momentous stages. The reeling but canny Monica Niculescu hopes to fluster Townsend with her distinctive style before then. More young talent stands atop the section in Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and France’s Caroline Garcia. These impressive phenoms must navigate around Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova, a lefty like Townsend. Plenty of storylines and suspense will unfold in a very short time.
Bottom half: Building on her momentum from Stanford, Sorana Cirstea eyes one of the draw’s softer sections. Home hope Alison Riske looks to prove herself as a threat outside the small grass event in Birmingham, while Heather Watson traces the same trajectory as McHale on the long, slow road back from mononucleosis. Ending her clay season on a high note, Alize Cornet won an International title in May. But she threatens much less on hard courts and might well fall victim to the enigmatic Yanina Wickmayer at the outset.
By far the most established of the home threats, second seed Sloane Stephens faces high expectations this summer. American fans know much more about the Australian Open semifinalist, Wimbledon quarterfinalist, and conqueror of Serena Williams than they did a year ago. The 15th-ranked Stephens has produced much more convincing tennis at majors than at non-majors, where she barely has cracked the .500 threshold in 2013. Her sturdiest pre-semifinal obstacle could come in the form of Andrea Petkovic, still producing results more disappointing than encouraging in her comeback from serious injuries. A relatively minor illness may blunt Petkovic’s injuries this week, though, while compatriot Mona Barthel retired from her last tournament with a sore shoulder.
Final: Makarova vs. Stephens
Among the annual narratives of the US Open Series are the glimpses of rising American talents on both Tours. The first week of the 2013 Series shone a spotlight on a dozen of these players in Atlanta and Stanford, small events without draws too daunting. Some took advantage of the breathing room this week, while others allowed opportunities to escape them.
Ryan Harrison: He had not reached an ATP quarterfinal since early January, compiling barely more wins in 2013 than one could count on the figures of one hand. But Harrison ended that drought and bolstered his sagging ranking by weathering a pair of rollercoasters against higher-ranked opponents. He outlasted Marinko Matosevic and the fourth-seeded Igor Sijsling more from superior determination than superior tennis. Under the Friday night lights, Harrison will face Santiago Giraldo in a rematch of an Australian Open meeting that he won comfortably. A first career final is not inconceivable.
Christian Harrison: Every player must remember the moment of their first victory in the main draw an ATP tournament. For Ryan’s 19-year-old brother, that moment came in the first round of Atlanta. While Alejandro Falla entered that match drained from last week’s Bogota finals run, Christian still showed impressive grit by battling through three tight sets to upset an opponent ranked 210 places higher. The grit resurfaced a round later, when he fell to the top-seeded Isner by the narrowest of margins. Christian battled a far more powerful, far more experienced opponent deep into the third set, nearly scoring a massive upset.
Jack Sock: A quarterfinalist at Atlanta last year, Sock could not recapture his success despite his clear advantage in power over Santiago Giraldo. This Colombian clay specialist even out-aced Sock on a hard court. Since reaching the quarterfinals in Memphis, Sock has not advanced past the second round of any ATP tournament. Accumulated frustration from those struggles may have contributed to his outbursts of temper in Atlanta. Fans should remember that Sock remains a raw, unfinished talent still a few years away from fulfilling his potential.
Rhyne Williams: Raining aces aplenty on both of his opponents, this prospect established himself as an intimidating server in the mold of many American men before him. Williams powered past compatriot higher-ranked compatriot Denis Kudla in the first round without dropping his serve. He threatened to spring an upset on the seventh-seeded, much more experienced Lleyton Hewitt behind another barrage of aces. But his inexperience showed in the first-set tiebreak, which Williams lost after holding four consecutive set points and donating a costly double fault.
Denis Kudla: The world No. 93 showed promise in North American challengers this spring and by reaching the quarterfinals at Queen’s Club. Kudla’s modest serve left him at a critical disadvantage against a torrid Williams, so Atlanta fans could not fully appreciate his skills in other areas. He will hope for more advantageous draws as the US Open Series continues.
Tim Smyczek: Just behind Williams in the rankings, Smyczek earned attention at the Australian Open when he upset Ivo Karlovic and won a set from David Ferrer. Since that promising statement, Smyczek has won just three main-draw matches at ATP tournaments. Curiously, two of those have come against notable opponents in Fernando Verdasco and Sam Querrey. Smyczek needs to exploit opportunities in winnable matches better than in his loss to James Blake. At 5-5 in the third set, he could not convert break points that might have sealed the match.
Jamie Hampton: Like Smyczek, Hampton emerged on the radar of observant fans in Melbourne, where she won a set from eventual champion Victoria Azarenka. A clay upset of Petra Kvitova signaled a second peak in June, marked by a stirring run to the Eastbourne final as a qualifier. The 23-year-old Hampton holds a seed for the first time this week. She carried that burden with mixed results in her opener, striking over 50 winners while spraying plenty of careless errors. A semifinal looms against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she defeated in Eastbourne. She must clean up her game by then.
Madison Keys: In a tale of two matches, Keys dominated eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova and then fell quietly to qualifier Vera Dushevina. Eagerness to find a successor to the Williams sisters, which Keys could become, should not blind onlookers to the inconsistency in her results this year. She often plays to the level of her competition, a trait common among young, raw talents, and more growing pains will lie ahead before we can rely on her as a late-week threat. Stanford brought a dose of optimism and a dash of realism, a healthy recipe for both Keys and her fans to consume.
Christina McHale: A once-promising talent veered off the rails when McHale fell victim last year to mononucleosis, often a death sentence for tennis careers. The New Jersey native has time to regroup, though, for she just turned 21 in May. McHale has advanced past the second round at only one tournament (Doha) in the last 11 months, but she has troubled top-15 opponents such as Li Na, Sara Errani, and Maria Kirilenko this year. Still searching for confidence, she won just four games from Urszula Radwanska in the first round of Stanford.
Coco Vandeweghe: Reaching last year’s Stanford final as a lucky loser, she qualified for the main draw this time and routed her first opponent. The somewhat less inconsistent Sorana Cirstea then ended Vandeweghe’s bid for another breakthrough. Back inside the top 200, the Southern California slugger wields a huge serve—and not much else. She accomplished about as much as one could expect in the context of her year overall.
Mallory Burdette: Unfortunate to draw Marion Bartoli in the first round last year, Burdette enjoyed only slightly better fortune by facing Francesca Schiavone in this year’s opener. The Italian has feasted on inexperienced players like the Stanford alum, who became a full-time pro last fall. Despite her dwindling form, Schiavone pulled away in straight sets to hand Burdette her fourth straight loss. She will hope for less thorny draws as the US Open Series progresses.
Nicole Gibbs: The best player in NCAA women’s tennis again received a wildcard to the tournament at her university. Gibbs produced a result similar on paper to her Stanford appearance in 2012, when she won one match before losing the second. But her three-set dogfight with the fourth-seeded Hampton revealed the toughness behind her gentle demeanor. Gibbs easily could have grown disheartened after failing to serve out the second set, or after falling behind 0-4 in the third. Her resilience in both of those situations suggested that she has the heart to succeed in the WTA, if perhaps not the weapons.
The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta. Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York. But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles. For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.
Top half: The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20. Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison. The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta. Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions. He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.
Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American. Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise. On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise. Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand. His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles. Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt. A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.
Semifinal: Isner vs. Hewitt
Bottom half: The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months. Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic. Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable. The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion. Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues. Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.
Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude. They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta. Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.
Semifinal: Fish vs. Anderson
Final: Hewitt vs. Anderson
Top half: As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw. Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though. Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week. Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal. But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.
A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title. The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half. Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg. Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.
Semifinal: Federer vs. Monaco
Bottom half: Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol. Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring. But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him. The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true). Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well. The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.
That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez. Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section. Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder. Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.
Semifinal: Granollers vs. Wawrinka
Final: Federer vs. Wawrinka
Top half: Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw. He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later. Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises. The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking. Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.
In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad. This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker. An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year. Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Semifinal: Gasquet vs. Fognini
Bottom half: Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon. Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad. A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there. The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.
The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos. While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there. Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi. On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.
Semifinal: Robredo vs. Berlocq
Final: Fognini vs. Robredo
The women’s US Open Series launches in California with one of the oldest tournaments in the WTA. In the tranquil setting of Stanford University, the Bank of the West Classic a particularly cozy and rewarding tournaments. Here is a look ahead at what to expect this week at Stanford and at the International event half a world away in Azerbaijan.
Top half: Rarely do Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka all spurn Stanford. Their absence this year offers world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska an opportunity as the only top-10 player in the draw. The top seed probably still can taste the bitter disappointment of a greater opportunity squandered at Wimbledon. Radwanska will seek to bounce back on a relatively fast hard court, where she has reached the semifinals before. She should reach that stage again with no pre-semifinal opponent more formidable than Varvara Lepchenko, just 2-9 away from clay this year. A potentially intriguing first-round match between youthful energy and veteran cunning pits Stanford alum Mallory Burdette against Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.
Sandwiched between two unimpressive seeds, Madison Keys should showcase her power on a court suited to it. American fans will enjoy their glimpse of the woman who could become their leading threat to win a major in a few years. Keys will look to deliver an opening upset over eighth seed Magdalena Rybarikova en route to a possible quarterfinal against compatriot Jamie Hampton. Climbing into relevance with an Eastbourne final, Hampton holds the fourth seed and may face another Stanford alum in Nicole Gibbs. Hampton stunned Radwanska at Eastbourne last month, while Keys took a set from her at Wimbledon.
Semifinal: Radwanska vs. Keys
Bottom half: The third quarter features another unseeded American hopeful—and another Radwanska. Stanford’s depleted field allowed Agnieszka’s younger sister, Urszula, to snag the seventh seed, while Christina McHale looks for momentum on the long road back from mononucleosis. Still elegant as she fades, Daniela Hantuchova brings a touch of grace that should contrast with the athleticism of first-round opponent Yanina Wickmayer. Often a presence but rarely a threat at Stanford, third seed Dominika Cibulkova has not won more than two matches at any tournament since January.
The only US Open champion in the draw, Samantha Stosur might face a challenging test against Julia Goerges. This enigmatic German has won three of their four meetings, including both on hard courts, although the last three all have reached a third set. Of course, a 14-17 record in 2013 does not bode well for her chances of surviving Olga Govortsova in the first round. The road might not get any easier for Stosur in the quarterfinals, though, where she could meet Sorana Cirstea. A product of the Adidas training program in Las Vegas, Cirstea upset Stosur at last year’s Australian Open. None of the women in the lower half ever has reached a final at Stanford.
Semifinal: Cibulkova vs. Stosur
Final: Radwanska vs. Stosur
Top half: Not one of these women will hold a seed at the US Open unless their rankings rise between now and then. Holding the top seed is Bojana Jovanovski, who owes many of her poitns to a second-week appearance at the Australian Open. Jovanovski has two victories over Caroline Wozniacki but few over anyone else since then. Former junior No. 1 Daria Gavrilova and fellow Serb Vesna Dolonc offer her most credible competition before the semifinals.
At that stage, Jovanovski might meet Andrea Hlavackova, the runner-up in a similarly weak draw at Bad Gastein a week ago. Although she has fallen outside the top 100, meanwhile, Shahar Peer will hope to rely on her experience to stop either Hlavackova or third seed Chanelle Scheepers. The speed of the surface may determine whether a counterpuncher like Peer or Scheepers overcomes the heavier serve of fifth seed Karolina Pliskova.
Bottom half: Unheralded players from the home nation often play above expectations at small tournaments like Baku. Wildcard Kamilla Farhad, an Azerbaijani citizen, will hope to echo Yvonne Meusberger’s astonishing title run in Bad Gastein. Surrounding her are clay specialist Alexandra Cadantu and the stagnating Polona Hercog. A tall Slovenian, the later woman seems the best equipped to win on hard courts from this section. Cadantu will need to blunt the explosive serve of Michaella Krajicek to survive her opener.
The 18-year-old Elina Svitolina showed promise in Bad Gastein by reaching the semifinals. That experience will have served her well heading into another International event with an open draw. She even holds a seed here, as does another rising star in Donna Vekic. Nearly two years younger than Svitolina, Vekic already has reached two WTA finals. A quarterfinal between the two teenagers might offer a preview of more momentous matches in the future.
Final: Pliskova vs. Vekic
The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA). More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati. As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.
1. Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?
The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open. Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two. While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada. A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York. So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era. Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward. Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.
2. Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?
The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors. Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano. The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon. That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three. For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors. Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.
3. Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?
On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy. Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open. For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes. That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11. He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros. Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent. The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open. They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.
4. Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?
Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat. The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover. Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull. She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup. Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.
Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major. Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts. Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.
5. What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?
About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger. On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee. The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four. World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.
Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon. Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned. Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series. Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.
6. Will home soil inspire the American men?
At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted. With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity. Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman. The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years. Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US. The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there. The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.
7. Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?
In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer. The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10. Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year. And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.
The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts. One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena. Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys. American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success. Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.
Only one member of the top 10 takes the court in next week’s two ATP tournaments. But he’s someone who might merit your attention.
Top half: After his second-round loss at Wimbledon, Roger Federer admitted that he needed to regain his rhythm and poise at key moments in matches. Taking a wildcard into Hamburg, which he won as a Masters 1000 tournament, Federer seeks his first title of the season above the 250 level. That triumph came at the grass event in Halle, so the world No. 5 will hope to make it two for two on German soil. Home favorite Daniel Brands could prove an intriguing opening test, considering the challenge that Brands posed for Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros four-setter. But the headline match of the quarter, or perhaps the half, comes in the next round with Ernests Gulbis. Defeating Federer on clay in Rome before, Gulbis has taken at least one set in all three of their previous meetings. Most of the other players in this section, such as Feliciano Lopez or Nikolay Davydenko, have grown accustomed to Federer’s superiority.
All four seeds in the second quarter reached a quarterfinal at a major this year, rare for an event of Hamburg’s diminished stature. Jerzy Janowicz and Fernando Verdasco both launched their surprise runs at Wimbledon, and Verdasco extended his surge from grass to clay by winning his first title since 2010 last week. In his first tournament as a member of the top 20, Janowicz has built his ranking less on consistency than on a handful of notable achievements at key tournaments. Similarly, Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy has struggled to string together momentum and has secured just one semifinal berth since that breakthrough. An all-Spanish quarterfinal might await if Verdasco and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Tommy Robredo use their superior clay expertise to halt the higher-ranked Janowicz and Chardy, respectively. Federer never has lost to any of these men, or to anyone else in a section where Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar also lurks.
Semifinal: Federer vs. Verdasco
Bottom half: The sight of Nicolas Almagro and Mikhail Youzhny in the same vicinity calls to mind their Miami clash five years ago. Youzhny famously won that match with blood dripping down his head after banging his racket on it repeatedly. Undefeated in their previous meetings, Youzhny stopped Almagro in another three-setter this spring without reacquainting his racket with his head. While the Spaniard has faltered after a promising start to 2013, he still holds the surface edge on his nemesis. This section also contains four unseeded players who have reached clay finals this year. Bucharest champion Lukas Rosol could derail Almagro straight out of the gate, while Bucharest runner-up Guillermo Garcia-Lopez sets his sights on Youzhny. A champion in Nice, Albert Montanes could eye a rematch of his final there against Gael Monfils, but only if the latter can upset defending champion Juan Monaco. The Argentine won a clay title in Dusseldorf on the day that Montanes won Nice, his fourth on clay in 2012-13.
Second seed Tommy Haas usually shines on German soil during these latter stages of his career. Winning Munich on clay and taking a set from Federer in a Halle semifinal, Haas finished runner-up to Monaco in Hamburg last year. On the verge of the top 10, he showed some traces of fatigue by falling early in Stuttgart as the top seed. A semifinalist at that tournament, Victor Hanescu could face Haas in his opener, while Bastad runner-up Carlos Berlocq looms a round later. The other side of the section exudes a distinctly Italian flavor, bookended by Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini. A semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Fognini started his campaign there by defeating Seppi in three sets, and he has enjoyed far stronger clay results than his compatriot this year. Of minor note are Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, just 4-14 since that breakthrough, and Rome quarterfinalist Marcel Granollers, who owed that result in large part to Andy Murray’s retirement.
Semifinal: Monaco vs. Haas
Final: Federer vs. Monaco
Top half: Not since the Australian Open has Janko Tipsarevic won more than two matches in a tournament. The beleaguered Serb saw his ranking slide out of the top 10 this summer, unable to salvage it even with several appearances at the 250 level. Another such effort to gobble up easy points as the top seed unfolds in Bogota. This draw looks more accommodating to Tipsarevic than others in which he has held that position. A pair of Colombians, Alejandro Falla and a wildcard, join a pair of Belgians and Australian serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden in his vicinity. If he can rediscover the tennis that brought him to the top 10, Tipsarevic should cruise. If he plays as he has for most of the year, anything could happen.
Among the most intriguing names in the second quarter is rising Canadian star Vasek Pospisil. Depending on how fast the courts play in Bogota, Pospisil could deploy his serve and shot-making to devastating effect against less powerful opponents. Australian journeyman James Duckworth showed his mettle in two epics at his home major this year, while Aljaz Bedene owns a win over Stanislas Wawrinka—but not much else. A finalist in Delray Beach, fourth seed Edouard Roger-Vasselin hopes to halt a four-match losing streak. At least Mr. Bye cannot stop him in the first round.
Bottom half: Surprising most observers by reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Adrian Mannarino came back to earth with a modest result in Newport. At an event of similar caliber, he will hope to build on his momentum from grass while it still lingers. The same motivation probably spurs third seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon after bursting on the scene with a victory over Tsonga in February. Back into action with a quarterfinal showing in Newport, Ivo Karlovic brings his towering serve to an altitude ideal for it. At 7,000 feet above sea level, Dr. Ivo might be nearly unbreakable if his fitness weathers the thin air.
Also armed with a massive serve, second seed Kevin Anderson eyes a cluster of Colombians. Two home hopes meet in the first round, but Santiago Giraldo will fancy his chances to reach the quarterfinals. Near him is Kazakh loose cannon Evgeny Korolev, who oozes with talent while lacking the reins to harness it. Anderson has won all three of his meetings with Korolev and his only previous encounter with Giraldo, so his path to the weekend looks clear.
Final: Unseeded player vs. Anderson
Simona Halep brings a remarkable winning streak in pursuit of a fourth straight International title. This week, a bit more competition might await her than at the three others.
Top half: The second-ranked Maria Sharapova spent a brief holiday in Sweden this month, but world No. 1 Serena Williams will mix at least some business with pleasure. One would not have expected to see Serena at an International event on clay rather than her usual US Open Series stop at Stanford. But her undefeated clay record this year will go on the line against an overmatched group of opponents—on paper, at least. Sure to collect a huge appearance fee in Bastad, Serena may or may not play with her usual intensity at a tournament that means nothing to her legacy. The top-ranked junior in the world, Belinda Bencic, stands a win away from facing the top-ranked woman in the world shortly after earning the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon. Serena’s own disappointment on those lawns may motivate her to bring more imposing form to Bastad than she would otherwise.
The player who came closest to defeating Serena on clay this year, Anabel Medina Garrigues, might await in the quarterfinals. On the other hand, Medina Garrigues won just two games from projected second-round opponent Dinah Pfizenmaier in Palermo last week. Also suffering an early exit there was Lara Arruabarrena, a Spaniard who shone briefly this spring. Arruabarrena joins Lesia Tsurenko among the women vying with third seed Klara Zakopalova for the right to face Serena in the semifinals. At a similar level of tournament in 2009, Zakopalova outlasted a diffident Serena on the clay of Marbella.
Bottom half: Grass specialist Tsvetana Pironkova holds the fourth seed in a quarter free from any dirt devils. Almost anyone could emerge from this section, perhaps even one of Sweden’s top two women. Johanna Larsson will meet Sofia Arvidsson in the first round, an unhappy twist of fate for home fans. The lower-ranked of the two, Arvidsson has accumulated the stronger career record overall.
Riding a 15-match winning streak at non-majors, Simona Halep seeks her fourth title of the summer. She went the distance in consecutive weeks just before Wimbledon, on two different surfaces no less, so an International double on clay would come as no great surprise. One aging threat and one rising threat jump out of her quarter as possible obstacles. After reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Flavia Pennetta may have gained the confidence needed to ignite her stagnating comeback. Assigned an opening test against clay specialist Alexandra Dulgheru, young French sensation Caroline Garcia looks to unlock more of her potential. And Serena’s notorious assassin, Virginie Razzano, cannot be discounted entirely.
Final: Serena vs. Halep
Top half: To be frank, this tournament boasts one of the least impressive fields on the WTA calendar (if “boasts” is the proper word). On the bright side, Bad Gastein should feature some competitive, unpredictable matches from the first round to the last. The only top-50 woman in the draw, Mona Barthel will seek her third final of 2013 but her first on clay. Barthel wields more than enough power to hit through the slow surface, but her patience can be ruffled in adversity. Her most notable pre-semifinal challenge might come from Kiki Bertens, who won a small title on clay last year. Barthel has dominated their history, though, including a victory this year.
As she builds on an encouraging Wimbledon, Andrea Petkovic holds the fourth seed in a tournament near home. Her family traveled with her from Germany before the draw ceremony, images of which appear elsewhere on this site. A finalist on clay in Nurnberg last month, Petkovic drew one of the tournament’s most notable unseeded players in her opener, Petra Martic. Just as injuries have undermined Petkovic for many months, mononucleosis has hampered Martic’s progress. But her balanced game and keen feel for the ball still emerges, making her a greater threat than other players in the section. Palermo semifinalist Chanelle Scheepers, who solved Martic there, might test Petkovic’s consistency. Nor should one ignore elite junior Elina Svitolina in the draw’s most compelling section.
Bottom half: Romanians enjoyed strong results last week, highlighted by Halep’s extended winning streak and semifinals from Alexandra Cadantu and Victor Hanescu. This week, third seed Irina-Camelia Begu seeks to echo the success of her compatriots as she rebounds from a first-round loss in Palermo. While her only career title came on a hard court, Begu reached two clay finals in 2011, her best season so far. Near her stands home hope Yvonne Meusburger, who surprised by reaching the Budapest final. The star-crossed Arantxa Rus simply hopes to halt the longest losing streak in WTA history, although she has drawn a seeded opponent in Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor.
Yet another rising German, second seed Annika Beck has reached the quarterfinals or better at three International tournaments on clay this year. Beck can look forward to a second-round meeting with doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka with resurgent Italian Karin Knapp awaiting the winner. Knapp returned to the top 100 when she exploited an imploding section of the Wimbledon draw to reach the second week. Her skills suit clay less smoothly than some of the women around her, such as Palermo semifinalist Cadantu.
Final: Petkovic vs. Beck
Readers who enjoyed the article counting down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half may enjoy this sequel on the women. As with the men, these matches do not necessarily feature the best tennis from an aesthetic perspective. (In fact, some of them produced quite atrocious tennis for long stretches.) What they did produce was meaningful results linked to broader trends that stretched across the first half.
7) Laura Robson d. Petra Kvitova, Australian Open 2R, 2-6 6-3 11-9
The most accomplished lefty in women’s tennis met the most promising lefty in women’s tennis earlier in a draw than either would have wished. Whereas Kvitova needed to turn a new leaf after a disastrous 2012, Robson sought to build upon a second-week appearance at the US Open. Nerves defined much of their contest, not on this list for the quality of its tennis. By the middle of the third set, however, it became clear that Robson could master her nerves better than the former Wimbledon champion could. Unable to serve out the match the first time, she slammed the door at love on her second opportunity. The encouraging resilience from Robson signaled her progress this season, which has included a victory over Agnieszka Radwanska and a second-week appearance at Wimbledon. For Kvitova, the painful loss hinted that 2013 would look more than 2012 than 2011, as it has so far.
6) Sabine Lisicki d. Serena Williams, Wimbledon 4R, 6-2 1-6 6-4
On the surface friendliest to the serve stood the two most formidable servers currently in the women’s game. But grass specialist Lisicki trailed Serena 16-0 in major titles and 142-0 in weeks at No. 1. By the logic of this Wimbledon, one should have guessed from the start that the underdog would prevail. When Serena rallied from losing seven of the first nine games to win nine of the next ten, though, the writing seemed etched on the wall. Nobody finds a way back against her from 0-3 in a final set at Wimbledon, or from 2-4, or from triple break point at 3-4. Lisicki did all of those things and even survived the nerve-jangling finish as she served for the match, saving a break point with an ace and converting match point with a clean winner. The victory ended Serena’s career-best winning streak, which had begun in March, and propelled Lisicki toward her first major final. It marked her sixth victory over a major champion and third over a world No. 1 in just five Wimbledon appearances. Even when the top three dominate, others still can spring surprises.
Honorable mention: Lisicki’s semifinal epic against world No. 4 Radwanska bore several striking similarities to her victory over Serena.
5) Serena Williams d. Anabel Medina Garrigues, Madrid QF, 6-3 0-6 7-5
Raise your hand if you would have expected Medina Garrigues to appear on this type of list when the 2013 campaign began. No, I thought not. And yet she posed Serena’s most formidable challenge of a clay season during which the world No. 1 went undefeated from wire to wire. To be fair, Medina Garrigues received considerable assistance from across the net in becoming the first woman to bagel Serena since 2008. The American spent much of the match showing us why she had not won a title on red clay in a decade, struggling to stay focused, patient, and disciplined against a grinder fond of the surface. Then the last few games showed us why this year would be different. Serena bent but did not break, rallying from within two points of defeat rather than letting her frustrations overcome her. She would lose just one more set in the rest of the clay season, strewing 14 bagels and breadsticks across Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Medina Garrigues, who lost 6-1 6-1 to Dinah Pfizenmaier this week, gave Serena the wake-up call that she needed to reconquer her least favorite surface.
4) Victoria Azarenka d. Serena Williams, Doha F, 7-6(6) 2-6 6-3
When 2012 ended, only one woman looked like a realistic threat to Serena’s stranglehold over the WTA. But that woman, Victoria Azarenka, had just absorbed her ninth consecutive loss in their rivalry. As competitive as some of those losses were, such as last year’s US Open final, Azarenka needed to stop the skid to bolster her confidence. The Australian Open champion had started slowly in most of her matches against Serena, finding her rhythm only in the second set. Always at her best early in the season, Azarenka started with more determination in Doha and won that crucial first set in a tight tiebreak. She weathered the inevitable response from Serena in the second set and did what she could not do in New York, serving out the match comfortably in the third. Azarenka still has not defeated the world No. 1 at a major, or when fully healthy, so much remains for her to prove. (And Serena won a Premier Five final rematch convincingly in Rome.) All the same, the victory in Doha confirmed suspicions that something like a rivalry might develop here, sometime.
3) Serena Williams d. Maria Sharapova, Miami F, 4-6 6-3 6-0
Six weeks after the previous match on this list, Serena’s dominance over her other key rivalry threatened to falter as well. Not since 2004 had she lost to Maria Sharapova, thoroughly stifling the Russian in most of their recent meetings. Disappointment at the Australian Open and the Doha loss to Azarenka blunted Serena’s momentum heading to Miami, her home tournament, but most still ranked her a heavy favorite against Sharapova based on history. For the first half of their final, history took it on the chin as the underdog methodically built a set-and-break lead. But Serena vindicated history in the end, using a handful of long games late in the second set to reverse the momentum. Once she regrouped, neither Sharapova nor anyone else could have done much to stem the torrent of blistering serves and forehands that flowed from her racket. Miami marked the first of Serena’s five consecutive titles this spring and laid a cornerstone of confidence without which her winning streak might not have taken flight. She extended her reacquired dominance over Sharapova in two straight-sets finals on clay.
2) Maria Sharapova d. Victoria Azarenka, Roland Garros SF, 6-1 2-6 6-4
With Serena firmly entrenched on the WTA throne, the rivalry between Azarenka and Sharapova loomed ever larger. Azarenka had won their two most significant meetings in 2012, an Australian Open final and a US Open semifinal. Holding a surface advantage over the younger blonde on clay, Sharapova struck back at Roland Garros to recapture the edge in their rivalry. A barrage of pinpoint returns and forehands swept the first set into her ledger, but Azarenka exploited an erratic passage of play to level the match. At that stage, parallels linked this match with their US Open semifinal, which Sharapova had started in torrid form before steadily fading. There would be no déjà vu on this day when the two rivals contested their second 6-4 final set in three majors. Sharapova built a commanding lead in the third set, only to throw Azarenka a lifeline as she squandered a handful of match points. The ear-shattering shrieks and ball-shattering blows from both competitors escalated with the mounting drama. When a bullet ace streaked down the center stripe, Sharapova reasserted herself as the best of the rest—for now.
1) Victoria Azarenka d. Li Na, Australian Open F, 4-6 6-4 6-3
Never a fan favorite, Azarenka has endured a discordant relationship with media and many fans throughout her tenure at the top. The simmering turbulence there boiled into the open after she took a dubious medical timeout near the end of her semifinal against Sloane Stephens. When Azarenka took the court against Li with her title defense at stake, the air in Rod Laver Arena felt heavier with hostility than humidity. The Chinese star emerged the less battered of the two from a rollercoaster first set, high on tension and low on holds of serve. Steady returning and unsteady emotions extended into the second set, when Li added a plot twist of her own by sustaining successive injuries. Made of tenacious stuff, she gallantly returned to the fray after striking her head on the court. But Azarenka’s head had grown clearer while Li’s head had grown cloudier, allowing the former to claw her way to an impressive title defense. With almost nobody in her corner for one of the biggest matches of her career, Azarenka showed how she needs nobody but herself. She echoed fellow world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in her ability to thrive on animosity and turn it defiantly to her advantage.
Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall. This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half. Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.
7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3
During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite. First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively. Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo. Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1. When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled. Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished. Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris. (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)
6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)
Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club. An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals. That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10. Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday. Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better. Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.
5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2
Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back. He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized. Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set. A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth. All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently. Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013. Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.
4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5
Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012. Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years. Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition. To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset. But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges. He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.
3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3
Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications. Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why. Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic. Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation. We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.
2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10
Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year. The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent. Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began. Or so we thought. A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment. Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return. The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt. Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments. Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.
1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7
The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line. One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced. Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth. Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line. Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph. While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb. Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.
Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.