Dominika Cibulkova

From Coast to Coast: WTA Carlsbad and Washington Previews

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.

Carlsbad:

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

Washington:

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

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Dimitrov, Azarenka, Stosur Beat the Rain on Thursday; Li Falls

For the second time in three days, inclement weather limited the action in Paris.  This rewind tilts more towards the women’s side, which featured more headlines and more matches overall.

ATP:

Match of the day:  In a sequel to the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Mother Nature confronted a host of ATP players today and defeated most of them.  Fewer than half of the scheduled men’s matches finished on Thursday.

Gold star:  Probably aware of the rain clouds overhead, Novak Djokovic lost no time in disposing of Guido Pella in 86 minutes.  The world No. 1 lost just four games and gains a timing advantage over rival and semifinal opponent Rafael Nadal, who never took the court because of the rain.

Silver star:  Grigor Dimitrov reaches the third round of a major for the first time, dispatching home hope Lucas Pouille in straight sets.  Granted, Dimitrov would have had nobody to blame but himself had he failed to knock off the 324th-ranked Pouille, but a milestone remains a milestone.  And the rematch with Djokovic looms on Saturday with both men on full rest.

Most improved:  Also beating the raindrops was Benoit Paire, who regrouped from an unsteady four-setter against Marcos Baghdatis to oust Lukas Kubot in straight sets.  People called Lukas generally had a bad day, though, as…

Rematch that won’t happen:  Lukas Rosol fell to Fabio Fognini in four sets, the expected outcome but not the outcome that many of us wanted.  With a mini-upset, Rosol would have faced Rafael Nadal in a bid to repeat his staggering Wimbledon upset.

Anticlimaxes of the day:  The trickle of injuries continued to flow from the men’s draw with a walkover by Yen-Hsun Lu, advancing Philipp Kohlschreiber, and a retirement by Dmitry Tursunov, sending Victor Hanescu through.

Tough luck:  Suspended within three games of a comfortable victory over Horacio  Zeballos, Stanislas Wawrinka must come back tomorrow.  His ability to finish off Thiemo De Bakker just before darkness in the previous round looks even more clutch now.

Question of the day:  How much difference does it make that Djokovic can maintain his regular schedule, while Nadal will not?

WTA:

Awards sweep of the day:  Match of the day?  Check.  Comeback of the day?  Check.  Surprise of the day?  Check.  Across three sets and two rain delays, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from a disastrous start against 2011 champion Li Na to oust the sixth seed.  The upset bolsters a surprising resurgence on clay by the American veteran and ends a deeply disappointing clay season for Li, who fell short of the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome before exiting Paris in the second round.   For Mattek-Sands, the door lies open for a deeper run in this relatively weak section of the draw.

Gold star:  Building on her comfortable first-round victory, Samantha Stosur cruised past home hope Kristina Mladenovic on Court Philippe Chatrier.  Stosur held the status of the heavy favorite in that match, but one could have imagined the difficult weather conditions and the challenge of playing a Frenchwoman on a show court might have flustered her.  Not the case.

Silver star:  Beating the rain more easily than anybody, Jelena Jankovic also built on a solid start to the tournament by dropping just three games to Garbine Muguruza.  Like Stosur, Jankovic has reached three semifinals here, so she will bear watching as the tournament reaches its midpoint.

Lesser surprises of the day:  A meager 2013 for Dominika Cibulkova continued when the former Roland Garros semifinalist fell in three sets to Marina Erakovic.  Much less skilled on clay than her opponent, Cibulkova could muster fewer excuses for her loss than could the recently injured Yaroslava Shvedova.  Last year’s quarterfinalist will lose plenty of ranking points after falling to qualifier Paula Ormaechea.

Most improved:  After she wobbled through three sets against Aravane Rezai, Petra Kvitova advanced much more efficiently against a far more creditable opponent in Peng Shuai.  This section of the draw has become fascinating with Stosur set to face Jankovic and the winner due to meet Kvitova.

Least improved:  Dominant in her first match, Victoria Azarenka struggled to finish off the overmatched Annika Beck in two sets closer than they looked.  Perhaps the rain derailed Vika’s rhythm.  The good news of the day for her is that she cannot face anyone ranked higher than No. 12 Maria Kirilenko en route to the semifinals.

Tough luck of the day:  Defending champion Maria Sharapova stood six points from victory at 6-2 4-2 deuce before the tournament suspended play for the night.  Sharapova will need to return tomorrow for the coup de grace.  On the other hand, she can thank Djokovicfor finishing his match so swiftly that she could play as much of her match as she did.

Good luck of the day:  Top Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli would have faced Mariana Duque-Marino on an outer court had she played on Thursday.  Following the rain and the rescheduling, she will return to Court Philippe Chatrier to start Friday’s matches.  That setting and the amplified crowd support should boost Bartoli as she attempts to work through her serving woes.

Americans in Paris:  Sloane Stephens pulled rank on Vania King, moving within one victory of a second straight appearance in the second week here.  If you just look at majors, Stephens has compiled an excellent season.  The rest of the American contingent stood at deuce, with Jamie Hampton a comfortable winner and Melanie Oudin a resounding loser to Zheng Jie.

Question of the day:  After Li’s loss, who is most likely to face Azarenka in the quarterfinals?

 

The End of the Red Brick Road: WTA Brussels and Strasbourg Previews

One Premier tournament and one International tournament complete the Road to Roland Garros within striking distance of Paris.  None of the women involved are in serious contention for the clay season’s ultimate prize, but the absence of those elite names could lead to some tightly contested matches in playing fields without clear favorites.  I forwent predictions this time because your guess is as good as mine.  (Feel free to opine in the comments, as always.)

Brussels:

Top half:  Seven of the Brussels seeds will receive seeds in Paris next week, a strong statement considering the tournament’s placement on the eve of Roland Garros.  In need of a strong statement herself is top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who took a wildcard into the tournament following opening-round losses in Madrid and Rome.  Wozniacki has struggled on clay for most of her career but should aim to halt her skid before dropping outside the top ten.  Unfortunately for her, recurrent nemesis Julia Goerges lurks in the quarterfinals.  This German notably defeated Wozniacki to win the Stuttgart clay title two years ago, and she has added two more victories over the Dane since then.  Since she has impressed hardly more than Wozniacki has recently, though, one can’t entirely discount Swiss clay specialist Romina Oprandi or the qualifiers who litter this section.

None of the women in the second quarter has distinguished herself consistently on clay, although Arantxa Rus does own a Roland Garros victory over Kim Clijsters.  Having reached the second week of Roland Garros last year, the fourth-seeded Sloane Stephens looks to build upon her modestly encouraging effort in Rome.  There, Stephens won consecutive matches for the first time since defeating Serena Williams at the Australian Open.  Her depleted confidence resurfaced in a lopsided loss to Maria Sharapova, but a small tournament like Brussels offers a useful venue to rebuild that strength.  With fast-court specialists like Tsvetana Pironkova and Magdalena Rybarikova around her, Stephens might face her stiffest resistance from Peng Shuai.  The Chinese double-fister won their only previous meeting, also on clay, but Stephens has improved markedly in the two years since then.

Bottom half:  By far the most intriguing first-round match of the draw pits third-seeded Dominika Cibulkova against Kaia Kanepi.  This battle of 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalists will feature a contrast of styles between the compact, agile Slovak and the robust, heavy-hitting Estonian.  Never have they met on clay, while Kanepi has won two of three matches overall.  Of some lesser note is a potential second-round clash between Varvara Lepchenko and Stefanie Voegele.  The American upset Schiavone at Roland Garros last year and has continued the clay success atypical among her compatriots this year with two victories over Roberta Vinci.  For her part, Voegele reached the semifinals of Charleston on green clay, although she has won only one match on red clay.   Kanepi defeated Lepchenko last fall before the injuries that sidelined her for several months, so an upset of Cibulkova could open her draw.

Probably disappointing many Belgian fans, their two leading women would meet as early as the second round in their home tournament.  Both have achieved more success on grass and hard courts than on clay, and both open against rising American stars.  Having upset Li Na in Madrid as a lucky loser, Madison Keys will aim to snuff out home hope Kirsten Flipkens in a match of baseline first strikes against all-court craft.  Belgian No. 2 Yanina Wickmayer faces a somewhat easier assignment in the form of Jamie Hampton, who has not won a match in a clay main draw this year.  Awaiting one of the Belgians in the quarterfinals is second-seeded Roberta Vinci, an artisan of traditional clay-court tennis.  Vinci has not found her best form for much of the spring but did win a small event in Katowice, Poland.

Strasbourg:

Top half:  Atop the draw is French No. 1 Marion Bartoli, who has emitted the occasional burst of inspiration on home soil.  The eccentric double-fister reached the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, although clay usually hampers her style of staccato points and quick strikes.  Two rising stars could challenge her in this section, compatriot Caroline Garcia and Canadian teenager Eugenie Bouchard.  The former just won a clay challenger at Cagnes-sur-Mer, while the latter notched a significant victory over Laura Robson on the green clay of Charleston.  First-time champions in 2013, Memphis titlist Marina Erakovic and Florianopolis titlist Monica Niculescu will seek to end spring losing streaks when they meet in the first round.  Neither can match Bartoli’s talent, but either could befuddle one of the youngsters.

Another Frenchwoman holds the highest seed in the second quarter, and world No. 30 Alize Cornet’s game suits clay more effectively than Bartoli’s style.  The mixture of qualifiers and fellow Frenchwomen surrounding her will turn few heads, while Chanelle Scheepers will not overpower Cornet.  The latter two women bring similar patterns of results to Strasbourg.  Before she fell to Melanie Oudin in Rome qualifying, though, Scheepers did reach a clay semifinal in Marrakech and upset Jelena Jankovic on the surface in Madrid.  Last year’s runner-up here, Cornet reached a somewhat more significant clay semifinal in Acapulco this February but suffered a loss to an Italian wildcard in Rome.

Bottom half:  Following a mid-career surge, Hsieh Su-Wei has embedded herself within the top 50 and holds the fourth seed here.  An opening match against promising German talent Annika Beck intrigues, as does a possible quarterfinal meeting with the elegant Daniela Hantuchova.  Handed a wildcard into Madrid, Hantuchova made the most of the opportunity by upsetting Petra Kvitova en route to the final 16.  Also in this section is Karolina Pliskova, a heavy server who nearly won her first title this year at Kuala Lumpur and defeated Kanepi on the clay of Portugal.

Perhaps worth more attention than the seeds in the lowest quarter, some of the unseeded entrants could score an upset or two.  For the rest of her career, Virginie Razzano will struggle to trump the achievement of defeating Serena Williams at Roland Garros, which probably resulted in her wildcard here.  Aligned against Czech doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka in a first-round match to watch, Garbine Muguruza aims to notch her first clay main-draw win in a season when she has reached the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami.  In the shadow of compatriots like Stephens and Keys, sixth-seeded Christina McHale continues to seek traction in her comeback from mononucleosis.  Second-seeded Tamira Paszek has lost 11 of her last 12 matches and seems unlikely to increase that total suddenly here.

***

Capsules on the Roland Garros contenders will follow this week before the draws appear on Friday.

 

All Roads Lead to Rome: WTA Rome Draw Preview

Starting one day later than the simultaneous ATP tournament, the second WTA Premier Five tournament of 2013 brings all of the top ten women to the Foro Italico.  Many of them will seek a fresh start following weeks in Madrid that ended sooner than they had hoped, although the world No. 1 will aim simply to continue from where she left off.

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Serena Williams arrives in Rome on the heels of clay titles in Charleston and Madrid.  To continue her winning streak, Serena may need to survive some friendly fire from older sister Venus, who would meet her in the second round for the first time.  The all-Williams match might not happen if Laura Robson finds her footing on Monday against Venus, suffering from a back injury recently.   Robson displayed the confidence that she needs to defeat a star of this caliber when she upset Radwanska in Madrid.  Also impressive there was Ekaterina Makarova, the nemesis of Azarenka, who could meet Serena in the third round.  The clay skills of Robson and Makarova do not equal those of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, but the latter has struggled with injuries this spring.  In Miami, though, Cibulkova took a set from a disengaged Serena before fading sharply when the American awakened.

The only blot on Serena’s otherwise spectacular second half of 2012 came against Angelique Kerber, who defeated her in Cincinnati.  This German lefty reached the semifinals of Rome last year, an achievement that she can equal only by repeating her Cincinnati victory.  While those prospects seem slim, Kerber may fancy her chances of reaching the quarterfinals.  Nadia Petrova, the seed closest to her, has performed well below her ranking for most of 2013.  More threatening to Kerber are two women who have produced sporadically excellent results this year, Carla Suarez Navarro and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  This pair collided in the Portugal Open final, where Pavlyuchenkova prevailed, and they could meet again in the second round with the winner advancing to face Kerber.

Semifinalist:  Serena

Second quarter:  Two top-five women who combined to win one total match in Madrid both look to thrust that disappointment behind them by advancing deeper into the Rome draw.  Sporting a new blonde hairstyle, Agnieszka Radwanska likely will open against a woman who also has experimented with a variety of coiffures in Svetlana Kuznetsova.  More relevant to their meeting, Kuznetsova’s resounding victory over Radwanska at Roland Garros last year suggests that her far superior clay talents could cause an upset.   The thirteenth-seeded Roberta Vinci performed impressively on hard courts this year, reaching the semifinals in Dubai and the quarterfinals in Miami, but strangely she has earned fewer successes on the clay that favors her playing style.  Perhaps the local crowd’s enthusiasm can spur this veteran with a strong Fed Cup resume.

Toppled in the first round of Madrid by a lucky loser, Li Na suffered her first unexpected reverse of an otherwise consistent season.  That shock may have spurred her to raise her vigilance for early tests in Rome, possibly highlighted by Jelena Jankovic.  The Serbian former No. 1 has not faced Li since 2009, when she won both of their meetings, and they have not met on clay for seven years.  After an eye-opening start to the spring, however, Jankovic reverted to her unreliable self when the action shifted to Europe, and she has lost all three of her clay matches against second-round opponent Caroline Wozniacki.  Hardly a dirt devil herself, Wozniacki defeated Li on a hard court last fall but has lost their most important meetings so far.  The Chinese star also has held the upper hand recently against both Radwanska and Kuznetsova, positioning her for another strong week at a tournament where she held championship point last year.

Semifinalist:  Li 

Third quarter:  No clear favorite emerges from a section with three members of the top ten and a former Roland Garros champion.  Again situated in the same eighth with Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova shares the Aussie’s 2013 pattern of stumbling into dismal setbacks just as momentum starts to swing in her favor.  Kvitova has won all four of their meetings, should that third-round match develop, and she also should feel confident in her ability to outshoot the equally erratic Sabine Lisicki.  Many of the matches in this section will feature short points punctuated by ferocious hitting, a contrast to what one normally expects from clay.  This seemingly benign early draw could allow Kvitova to settle into the tournament and find her baseline range, which she has showcased on clay before.

The lanky Czech’s most significant clay win to date, the Madrid title in 2011, came at the expense of the woman whom she could meet in the quarterfinals.  During a string of marquee collisions that year, Kvitova regularly bested Victoria Azarenka on all surfaces, although they have not met since then.   The world No. 3 predictably lacked rhythm in Madrid, the first tournament that she had played since Indian Wells.  But the ankle that sidelined Azarenka seems healthy again, and she will need the mobility that it provides to weather a Serb surging with confidence.  A semifinalist in Madrid, Ana Ivanovic has reached that round in Rome as well, claiming an ailing Azarenka as one of her victims en route.  Vika won their 2012 meetings convincingly, taking command of a matchup that had troubled her before.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  The two-time defending champion in Rome, Maria Sharapova finds herself ideally situated to break Italian hearts.  As early as the third round, the world No. 2 could release her angst from another loss to Serena by pouncing on Flavia Pennetta or Francesca Schiavone.  An unfortunate quirk of the draw aligned these aging former Fed Cup teammates to meet in the second round, assuming that Sloane Stephens continues her post-Melbourne swoon.  Heavy hitters Garbine Muguruza (a qualifier, but a notable rising star) and Kiki Bertens round out a section through which Sharapova should cruise unless Pennetta can roll back the clock several years.

The world No. 2 also may look forward to a quarterfinal reunion with Sara Errani, the supporting actress on stage when Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam last year.  More than just the Roland Garros flavor of the year, the top-ranked Italian backed up her surprise fortnight with hard-court achievements yet still plays her best tennis on clay.  Last week, Errani even flustered Serena for a set despite the massive power differential, and she has grown more competitive with Sharapova in their latest meetings.  A quarterfinalist in Madrid and a qualifier in Rome, Anabel Medina Garrigues survived a three-hour epic against Yulia Putintseva to reach the main draw.  This Spaniard opens against Maria Kirilenko, less assured on clay, and could meet surface specialist Varvara Lepchenko afterward.  Throughout this quarter, contrasts of styles could unfold between Sharapova and the counterpunchers set to face her.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

 

Opening the Magic Box: WTA Madrid Draw Preview

Rare is the non-major that features every woman in the WTA top 10, but Madrid can lay claim to that honor this year.  In another rare quirk, all of the top three women arrive there on winning streaks.  Only one of those streaks can survive Madrid.  Whose will it be?  Or none of the above?  We take a look at each quarter of the draw.

First quarter:  Clearly the best women’s player of the last decade, Serena Williams won this title on blue clay last year but has not reached a final on red clay since she completed the career Grand Slam in 2002.  With her world No. 1 ranking somewhat at stake, Serena has landed in the more challenging half of the draw.  Her first two rounds should allow her to find some rhythm on the surface, for the green clay of Charleston offers only partial preparation for the European terre battue.  Seeking her third straight title, Serena could meet Maria Kirilenko in the third round, or perhaps Klara Zakopalova.  Both of those counterpunchers have troubled her on clay before, each extending her to three sets at Roland Garros.  Stiffer competition will arrive in the quarterfinals, though, where the draw has projected her to meet Stuttgart finalist and 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na.

The fifth seed must overcome a few notable obstacles of her own to reach that stage, such as a second-round match with Serena’s sister.  Not at her best on clay, Venus Williams still should have plenty of energy at that stage, but she has lost all three of her career meetings with Li.  Surrounding world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki are heavy hitters Yaroslava Shvedova and Mona Barthel.  If neither of those knocks off the Dane, who lost her Stuttgart opener, she could attempt to build on her victory over Li last fall.   While Serena has dominated her head-to-head meetings with both Wozniacki and Li overall, she often has found them foes worthy of her steel.  On red clay, Li’s counterpunching talents and ability to transition from defense to offense could prove especially dangerous.

Semifinalist:  Li

Second quarter:   Returning from yet another of her injury absences, Victoria Azarenka barely has played since winning the Doha title from Serena in a memorable three-set final.  That February achievement preceded a shaky effort at Indian Wells curtailed by a sore ankle, so Vika enters Madrid with less match play than most other contenders.  Her bid for a third straight final here will take her through the teeth of some formidable early tests, including Portugal Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her opener.  The Russian took sets from Azarenka in two of their three previous meetings, while second-round opponent Lucie Safarova took her the distance here two years ago and impressed in a three-hour loss to Sharapova at Stuttgart.  Twice a finalist and once a champion at Roland Garros, Francesca Schiavone should pose less resistance to the third seed as her consistency has dwindled.  Nevertheless, an unexpected title in Marrakech might carry Schiavone to their projected clash in the fourth round, for the higher-ranked Marion Bartoli tends to struggle on clay.

Relatively open is the lower area of this quarter, where Sara Errani looks to rebound from an early Stuttgart exit.  Last year’s Roland Garros finalist will appreciate the absence of a powerful shot-maker in her vicinity, allowing her to slowly grind down opponents vulnerable to erratic stretches.  Rising stars Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea fit in that category, as does enigmatic German Julia Goerges.  Eranni has faced doubles partner Roberta Vinci in two key matches over the past several months, a US Open quarterfinal and a Dubai semifinal, emerging victories both times on those hard courts.  Clay could prove a different story, especially with Vinci’s recent fine form.  But Errani’s veteran compatriot will meet last year’s Madrid quarterfinalist Varvara Lepchenko in the first round a few months after losing to her in Fed Cup.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Third quarter:  In the section without any of the WTA’s three leading ladies, the eye pauses on two unseeded figures who could produce deep runs.  One of them, 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, submitted indifferent results in Portugal last week and has played little since a strong start to the year.  This Russian has collected many of her best victories on clay, including Roland Garros upsets of Serena and Radwanska, building on the affinity of her athletic, forehand-centered game for the surface.  Less impressive is Kuznetsova’s focus, which undermined her in a fourth-round match in Paris against Errani last year and could cost her in a third-round meeting with Angelique Kerber.  While the indoor clay of Stuttgart differs significantly from outdoor clay conditions, the world No. 6 still may have gained confidence from nearly reaching a final on her worst surface.  The eleventh-seeded Nadia Petrova has generated few headlines of late, and slow-court specialist Alize Cornet rarely makes a statement in a draw of this magnitude.

The other unseeded player of note here, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, burst back into prominence when she reached the Miami semifinals this spring and backed it up with a finals appearance in Charleston.  Jankovic defeated no opponent of note there or in her Bogota title run a month before, but she did win a set from Serena and generally looked at ease on her favorite surface.  Looming for her is yet another clash with her compatriot and fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who also showed encouraging recent form by defeating Kerber in Fed Cup and testing Sharapova in a Stuttgart quarterfinal.  The Serbs have split their two meetings on red clay, both of which lasted three sets, but Ivanovic prevailed comfortably in their only encounter from the past two years.  Scant reward awaits the winner, aligned to face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in a matchup that has befuddled both of them through long losing streaks to the Pole.  Like Kerber, Radwanska would consider clay her worst surface, so a quarterfinal between them could tilt either way.

Semifinalist:  Radwanska

Fourth quarter:  The majors, Premier Mandatory tournaments, Premier Five tournaments, and year-end championships form a group of fourteen elite events that overshadow the WTA calendar.  Accustomed to (literally) overshadowing her opponents, Maria Sharapova has reached the final at thirteen of those—all but Madrid.  This year’s draw offers the world No. 2 some assistance in correcting that omission, for only one player who has defeated her in the last twelve months appears in her half.  And that player, grass specialist Sabine Lisicki, hardly poses a formidable threat on clay.  By contrast, potential third-round opponent Dominika Cibulkova has defeated Sharapova on this surface before and seems a more plausible candidate to end her red-clay streak.  Injuries have troubled Cibulkova during her most productive time of the year, however, whereas Sharapova has evolved into a far more dangerous clay threat since that 2009 loss.

One of two one-time major champions stands poised to meet Sharapova in the quarterfinals, but their uneven form this year opens this section for one of its several unseeded talents.  A champion here two years, eighth seed Petra Kvitova could meet ninth seed and 2010 Roland Garros finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round.  Troubled by a leg injury in recent weeks, though, the latter faces a difficult opening assignment in rising Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.  This clay specialist with an Henin-esque one-handed backhand will bring momentum from reaching the Portugal Open final, while Stosur fell to Jankovic in her Stuttgart opener.  Mounting a comeback from injury is 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi, who also produced solid results last week.  Flavia Pennetta’s comeback has progressed less promisingly, but she too has plenty of clay skills.  Meanwhile, can Sloane Stephens rediscover some of the form that took her to the second week in Paris last year?  Many questions arise from this section that only matches can answer.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Final:  Li vs. Sharapova

Champion:  Li Na

Check back tomorrow for a preview of the ATP draw in Madrid.

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Portugal Open Preview

Sandwiched between busy weeks in Stuttgart and Madrid is a lovely smaller event between Lisbon and the ocean.  Formerly known as the Estoril tournament, the Portugal Open has moved to nearby Oeiras and a location more convenient for those traveling from the capital.  It lacks top-ten entrants or other names familiar to the casual fan, but the tennis aficionado will appreciate the mixture of clay specialists and rising stars on display.

Portugal:

Top half:  Least comfortable on clay among all surfaces, the top-seeded Marion Bartoli seems ripe for an upset in view of her recent struggles.  Bartoli fell in her first match at each of her last two tournaments and has lost five of her last six matches on clay.  Opening against fellow double-fister Peng Shuai, she could face a compelling in the quarterfinals against the winner of an intriguing first-round encounter.  Varvara Lepchenko, the sixth seed, achieved her breakthrough on clay last year with a Madrid quarterfinal and an upset over Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros.  Continuing that trend for her in an otherwise poor 2013 were victories in Fed Cup over both Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, two of the WTA’s leading clay specialists.  But Lepchenko faces the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw to start the week in 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.  Although she has cooled over her last few events, Kuznetsova signaled a resurgence with an outstanding start to the season that included an Australian Open quarterfinal.  She also reached the second week of Roland Garros in her last tournament on the terre battue.

Less intriguing is a second quarter stacked with three qualifiers, grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek, and two inconsistent Russian seeds.  A champion in Monterrey and a finalist in Brisbane, the third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has wobbled through five first-round losses as well.  This former Roland Garros quarterfinalist has lost two of three on clay this year.  Perhaps buoyed by Russia’s Fed Cup comeback, to which Pavlyuchenkova did not contribute, compatriot and fellow seed Elena Vesnina looks to exploit this soft section.  Vesnina raced to a 10-1 start this year, including her first career title, but she won just four games in her first-round Stuttgart loss and has struggled overall since that initial spurt.  Also winning her first career title this year, Romanian junkballer Monica Niculescu rounds out this section.

Semifinal:  Kuznetsova vs. Pavlyuchenkova

Bottom half:  Scoring a mini-upset over Caroline Wozniacki in Stuttgart, Carla Suarez Navarro started her favorite span of the year with modest success.  With a ranking near its career high, the fourth seed will showcase her elegant one-handed backhand and agile defense against a group of heavier hitters.  Foremost among them is Julia Goerges, who has proved that she can win on clay with a Stuttgart title two years ago.  Those two years feel like an eternity ago sometimes, but Goerges did stir to life with a strong effort at that tournament against Petra Kvitova.  She faces a challenging second-round match against one of the two Marrakech finalists.  Having faced each other on Sunday, Francesca Schiavone and Lourdes Dominguez Lino will meet again on Tuesday or Wednesday.  The 2010 Roland Garros champion and 2011 finalist, Schiavone seemed to hover near the verge of retirement when she struggled to win a match earlier this year.  One wonders whether her week in Marrakech will have boosted her confidence a bit.

Initially projected as the top seed in that Moroccan event, Dominika Cibulkova withdrew from it in the wake of Slovakia’s Fed Cup catastrophe.  Her team became the first in Fed Cup history to lose a World Group semifinal after leading 2-0, a collapse that began with her loss to Maria Kirilenko.  Cibulkova owns the best clay skills of anyone in her immediate vicinity, for she upset Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros last year en route to the quarterfinals and also reached the semifinals there four years ago.  A pair of young players, Urszula Radwanska and Laura Robson, hope to gain traction at a small event without any notable names.  Robson in particular could use an injection of morale after dropping six three-setters since the Australian Open, having won the first set in three.  Elsewhere in this section, another 2012 Roland Garros quarterfinalist in Kaia Kanepi aims to accelerate a comeback in its third tournament.  She might face the fifth-seeded Sorana Cirstea in the second round, or ageless Spanish clay specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues.  Cirstea has trended upward recently and benefits from the extra time on the surface to prepare her savage forehand.

Semifinal:  Suarez Navarro vs. Cirstea

Final:  Kuznetsova vs. Suarez Navarro

Since Madrid starts on Saturday, May 4, my Friday article will preview the two draws rather than offering a viewpoint on a current issue.  I might write that type of article for the following Monday, depending on whether something arises.  Apologies for any confusion caused by the scheduling switch.

 

What to Watch in the WTA This Week: Stuttgart and Marrakech Previews

After a weekend filled with Fed Cup, the ladies of the WTA dig into the clay for the first time this year with a prestigious event in Stuttgart that features most of the top ten.  In North Africa, meanwhile, a smaller International tournament attracts a group of clay specialists and younger stars.

 

Stuttgart:

 

Top half:  As Maria Sharapova once said, you never can have too many Porsches.  Proving herself right, the Russian will launch a title defense at the tournament that launched her spectacular clay campaign last year, culminating with a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.  Sharapova has looked just as brilliant—if not more so—during the first few months of 2013 as she did during the same period of 2012, while the indoor conditions reward her precise first strikes.  Of a similar mentality are several of her potential early opponents, such as home hope Mona Barthel.  The German nearly upset then-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka here last year at a tournament where her compatriots typically have fared well, although she produced mixed results in Fed Cup there this weekend.  Sharapova long has throttled the quarter’s other seed, Nadia Petrova, so she might face more compelling competition from fellow Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic at that stage.  In her two losses to the Russian last year, Ivanovic produced a set or more of quality tennis.  She has enjoyed plenty of clay success against Petrova but little against anyone in Stuttgart, where she will face friend and occasional doubles partner Andrea Petkovic in the first round.

 

More likely than Barthel or Petkovic to venture deep into the draw, the third-seeded Angelique Kerber will start against one of two flammable Russians in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Ekaterina Makarova.  Kerber routinely defeated former Stuttgart finalist Caroline Wozniacki here last year, so she still may feel confident if they meet in the quarterfinals despite her loss to the Dane at Indian Wells in March.  In fact, Wozniacki may struggle to survive the first two rounds with the swiftly rising Carla Suarez Navarro and veteran clay specialist Roberta Vinci setting their sights on her.  While the former world No. 1 enjoyed an apparent breakthrough by reaching the Indian Wells final, both the Spaniard and the Italian have produced steadier results than she has this year, and the latter stands just two rankings slots behind her at No. 12.  On the other hand, Stuttgart’s relatively fast surface can produce results more like hard-court tournaments than those on outdoor red clay.  Like the Caja Magica in Madrid, the Porsche Arena somehow retains some vestiges of its origins after transitioning from fall to spring.

 

Bottom half:  Among those who might have preferred a more conventional clay court, Sara Errani must feel relieved to avoid another quarterfinal date with Sharapova, as happened at Indian Wells and Miami.  Her projected quarterfinal opponent intimidates much less in Stuttgart, for she not only defeated Samantha Stosur in a memorable three-set semifinal at Roland Garros last year but repeated the feat at the year-end championships in Istanbul.  Delayed to a Sunday/Monday Fed Cup schedule, the Australian No. 1 may arrive a bit weary at a tournament that she came within a set of winning three years ago.  The draw also has handed her what could prove a stiff opening test in Jelena Jankovic, who has shown signs of a revival by reaching the semifinals in Miami and the final in Charleston.  Nobody other than Serena has defeated Jankovic on clay this year, and even Serena needed a third set.

 

Arguably the least formidable quarter of this formidable draw, the lowest section includes 2011 champion Julia Goerges.  Nothing for over a year has suggested that the German can reel off a similar string of victories again, nor has Miami quarterfinalist Kirsten Flipkens honed a game suited to clay.  Thus, this section may not produce much action of interest until the quarterfinal between its two seeds, both scintillating shot-makers who have claimed notable clay titles.  Able to spring back into action at Miami after a long injury hiatus, former Roland Garros champion Li Na has lost only to top-five opponents this season while nearly notching her second major title in Melbourne.  She has split her two clay meetings and her four overall meetings with former Madrid champion Petra Kvitova, the last three of which have reached a third set.  In general, one would guess that Li’s game will ebb and flow less than the Czech whose major breakthrough came in the same summer.

 

Semifinals:  Sharapova vs. Kerber, Errani vs. Li

 

Final:  Sharapova vs. Li

 

Marrakech:

 

Top half:  The successor of a tournament in Fes, Marrakech would not have featured any woman in the top 25 had not Dominika Cibulkova accepted a wildcard to become the top seed.  The fifteenth-ranked Slovak looks to move past the disappointment of letting a 2-0 lead slip away against Russia in a Fed Cup semifinal.  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, and a quarterfinalist there last year with a victory over Azarenka, Cibulkova finds herself in the same section as 2012 Fes champion Kiki Bertens.  The Dutchwoman won this tournament’s ancestor as a qualifier last year, and she looks to rekindle memories of that Cinderella run by overcoming veterans like Flavia Pennetta.  Bertens defeated Cibulkova at the Paris Indoors this February, although that indoor hard court differs dramatically from outdoor clay.

 

Accompanying Cibulkova to the brink of glory in Moscow this weekend was her compatriot Daniela Hantuchova, stopped just a few key points short of the clinching victory there.  Always a streaky player who veered wildly between dramatic highs and lows, Hantuchova opens against Florianopolis runner-up Olga Puchkova, who defeated Venus Williams at that International event this year.  Either of them might fancy her chances against Romina Oprandi, delayed by the same Switzerland-Australia tie that detained Stosur, but the fourth-seeded Kaia Kanepi seems a more ominous threat.  Returning from injury at Katowice last week, where she won one match, Kanepi will use events like these to rediscover her rhythm ahead of Roland Garros.  She has reached two quarterfinals there, and she will grow more dangerous with every win here.

 

Bottom half:  After going winless all season, promising youngster Petra Martic finally awakened to post two victories in Katowice.  She opens here against a veteran almost equally moribund this year but with a far more imposing resume, 2010 Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone.  In this quarter also are found the two Moroccan wildcards, one of whom faces the third-seeded Alize Cornet.  Nearly a surprise quarterfinalist in Miami, Cornet has lost her last seven meetings with Schiavone as the Italian’s versatile, crafty game has wreaked havoc on her fragile emotions.  She will hope that someone like Simona Halep halts her nemesis before then.

 

Anchored by the second-seeded Sorana Cirstea, who defeated Kerber in Miami, the lowest quarter showcases some notable young talent.  Former junior No. 1 Yulia Putintseva will accumulate more main-draw experience after winning one main-draw match each at the Australian Open and Dubai.  While she probably is not at her best on clay, neither are most of the women around her other than Cirstea.  French fans will look forward to seeing more of Kristina Mladenovic, who reached the quarterfinals or better at three straight February tournaments.  Having cooled off in March, Mladenovic could edge inside the top 50 by stringing together a few victories here.

 

Final:  Bertens vs.  Cornet

A World (Group) to Conquer: Fed Cup World Group Semifinals / Playoffs Preview

Clearing the schedule of tournaments, the WTA turns its spotlight on Fed Cup this week.  Semifinals and playoff ties will decide not only the matchup for the 2013 final but the membership of next year’s World Group in two days filled with action.  Here’s a look at what you might want to know about each tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic:  When these two teams met on indoor hard courts in the Czech Republic last year, that surface advantage played a key role in a relatively comfortable victory for the hosts.  With the choice of surface now in their favor, Italy will hope that the slow outdoor clay of Palermo will play just as critical a role in reversing the result.  Recent Fed Cup champions themselves, the Italians always have risen to the occasion for Fed Cup, as have the Czechs.  While Lucie Safarova lifted them to their second straight title last fall, world No. 8 Petra Kvitova has produced a far greater level of consistency in Fed Cup than she has in individual events.

An odd bit of déjà vu pits Kvitova against the twelfth-ranked Roberta Vinci on Saturday in a rematch of their Katowice final six days before.  Emerging triumphant on the earlier occasion, Vinci could hand Italy a 2-0 stranglehold over the tie if she can repeat the feat, for world No. 7 Sara Errani likely can outlast the struggling Safarova in the first rubber.  The two No. 1s, Errani and Kvitova, never have met on clay, although Kvitova has dominated their meetings overall.  If the Czechs can survive to reach the doubles, which seems an uphill battle, Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti should substitute Errani and Vinci into a blockbuster battle of the top two teams in the world.  Czech mates Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova captured the 2011 Fed Cup title with a clutch display against Russia, while Errani and Vinci never have lost a live rubber as a team.

Winner:  Italy

Russia vs. Slovak Republic:  Fortunate to receive consistent participation from its two main stars, the Slovak Republic has overachieved in Fed Cup over the last several years.  The visitors once again will lean heavily on Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova, the latter of whom has faded well outside the top 50 in singles but may remain a threat in doubles.  Part of the team that won the Fed Cup for Slovakia more than a decade ago, Hantuchova often brings greater determination to the competition than to individual tournaments.  Without their own top two players, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova, Russia still will fancy its chances in view of its outstanding depth and the encouraging recent form of its singles entrants.  World No. 13 Maria Kirilenko has impressed in a season highlighted by an Indian Wells semifinal appearance, while the unpredictable Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arrives with momentum from her most recent Monterry title.

Although Hantuchova won her most recent clash with Kirilenko, the pair never have met on clay and only once in the last five years.  The other Saturday pairing of Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova also marks the first clay meeting in a sparse history, so one would favor each of the No. 1s to prevail.  The key to this weekend might lie in their meeting on Sunday, for which their nearly consecutive rankings would suggest a tight encounter.  More consistent than Cibulkova this year, Kirilenko would position Russia for another trip to the final with a victory.  Not only has Pavlyuchenkova won her last five meetings with Hantuchova, but the experienced doubles duo of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina would seem more formidable than any pairing that the Slovaks can muster.

Winner:  Russia

World Group Playoffs: 

Germany vs. Serbia:  Last year’s Fed Cup finalists field the player with the strongest career resume, especially on clay, in Ana Ivanovic.  But the former No. 1 has watched her results during this stage of the season dwindle sharply since winning Roland Garros five years ago, and she fell to Friday opponent Mona Barthel on this court in Stuttgart last year.  The resurgent Jelena Jankovic has not traveled to Stuttgart, leaving Bojana Jovanovski to complement Ivanovic.  German No. 1 Angelique Kerber should handle the raw Jovanovski comfortably, while Ivanovic often has struggled with lefties like her.  The heavy serves of Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld could offer a valuable edge in the doubles on this serve-friendly indoor clay.  But the home team likely need not worry about a deciding rubber.

Winner:  Germany

Switzerland vs. Australia:  Voluntarily ceding home-court advantage with the European clay ahead, Australia sets its sights at an underrated Swiss team.  Federer’s countrywoman Stefanie Voegele reached the Charleston semifinals after upsetting three top-30 opponents, including world No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki.  Her Saturday meeting with Samantha Stosur could set the tone for a tie that pits Australian heavy-hitting against Swiss counterpunching.  Troubled by multiple injuries and a loss of confidence over the last several months, Stosur may need to win three matches in two days with no teammate inside the top 100.  Clay arguably suits her game more than any other surface, and she should feel less pressure than if Australia hosted this tie.  This tie might well come down to the doubles after some unpredictable momentum shifts.

Winner:  Australia

Spain vs. Japan:  The No. 1s of both nations, Carla Suarez Navarro and Ayumi Morita, have played some of their best tennis to date this year.  Especially notable is the Spaniard’s rise to the top 25, built in part on a runner-up finish in Acapulco.  As with the Italy-Czech Republic semifinal, this tie could hinge on the surface.  Morita and her compatriots have done most of their damage on hard courts, whereas the veteran Spanish squad relishes the opportunity to grind through the weekend on dirt.  Outside the fan bases of each nation, few viewers will find this tie engaging to watch, except for the spectacle of Suarez Navarro’s florid one-handed backhand.

Winner:  Spain

USA vs. Sweden:  With not one but two of the Williams sisters in Delray Beach, Sofia Arvidsson and her fellow Swedes can harbor little hope to keep this tie competitive.  Captain Mary Joe Fernandez saw no need to request the services of doubles specialist Liezel Huber to join such a stacked lineup.  Struggling since reaching the Australian Open semifinals, future star Sloane Stephens perhaps can use the presence of the Williams sisters to steady her spirits.  This tie stands alone among the semifinals and World Group playoffs in its surface, outdoor hard courts, and it likewise stands alone among these ties in its location outside Europe.

Winner:  USA

Barely Breathing: Dominika Cibulkova and the Choke Which is Not One

Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?

Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.”  Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.

Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.

But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVWBx1TusI

Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.

Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.

But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.

A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.

So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.

Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.

Serena Williams and Li Na Survive to Meet in Quarterfinals of Sony Open Tennis

By Jane Voigt

MIAMI, FL (March 25, 2013 )Li Na was up 5-1 in the first set against Spanish teen and wildcard, Gabine Muguruza, before she started to think. To think about what it would be like to win the match — she was in a good spot, or so she thought.

“I was feeling pretty good. (I) should continued,” Li said. “Maybe I think too much of other things, like after court, blah blah.”

Before Li knew it, they were playing a first set tiebreak — the riskiest crossroads for a player.

Li initially cruised to go up 6-1, and, yet again, the lead slipped out of her hands like a slippery rope on a rain-soaked sailboat.

“I told myself don’t do the same thing (as earlier in the set),” she said, laughing. “But same thing come back. Okay, 6-6 in tiebreak I have to calm down.”

She recalled advice from her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, that even if she lost the set there were two more. Either player had to win two sets. That notion lifted her confidence enough to finally close the first set, 7-6(6).

Similarly, Serena Williams was in a funk during her post-match press conference after she defeated Dominika Cibulkova is three rollercoaster sets. She said she was stressed, but didn’t reference the source. Her head drooped more than a hound dog’s, as she trudged from point to point.

Across the net was a furiously fit and confident Cibulkova. What she doesn’t have in size, she makes up in tracking down balls. She had Williams on the run and headed in the opposite direction from a tournament record-breaking sixth Miami title.

“Mentally, I was just fried,” she said, her eyes cast downward. “I was just thinking about everything but tennis.”

The stress, come to find out, was not about anything in particular. She did, though, have a conversation with her alter ego. The one that criticizes and yanks her around mentally.

“Yeah, I’m talking to myself inside and she’s talking back and giving me lip,” Serena admitted. “I give her a little attitude, and then I tell her she sucks and she tells me to shut up.”

The mental holiday left both Williams and Li, who were on track to meet in the quarterfinals, in uncomfortable positions. The difference between the two comebacks — because they both did pull rabbits out of their hats and won their matches — was in their tennis.

Li Na had to concentrate on her game and block out the extraneous mumblings. Her rest and recovery from a left ankle injury after the Australian Open plus her continued fitness regime were key to her victory today.

After Melbourne, Li spent a couple of weeks in China before heading to Germany for three weeks. There she saw a doctor with whom she has seen since 2007. A ligament had been torn, and a nearby bone was in question. Her doctor was concerned about the fascia muscle, which was also impinged.

“Then I went back to China to train with Carlos,” she began. “He didn’t know how tough he could push. So, at first, we hit softly. We talked about our schedule and plan. I had to tell him how I was feeling from yesterday. We always talk before training.”

Li Na’s improvement on court can be partially attributed to her conversations with Carlos. Nothing more.

“I really (am) happy I can work with him,” she continued. “He never gives me pressure. Chinese (are) a little bit different than Western, for me. I didn’t speak out. I hold for myself. The team didn’t know what I was thinking for the match. Now I feel comfortable or happy, and I can speak out.”

In the second set, Li found herself again in a similar spot; she was up 5-2 on Muguruza’s serve. Luckily for Li, Muguruza’s mind lapsed with a double fault.

“I was thinking (about) what I am going to serve,” Garbine said, laughing. “(Li) is one of the best. I think I do really good points and play a good match.”

Although on her way to Charleston, S.C., for the Family Circle Cup, Muguruza remained upbeat especially about the improvement in her return of serve, which pressured Li as she escaped mentally. “I’m really happy. I had good rhythm against those girls. (I have) lots of confidence for these types of matches.”

Li won the match 7-6(6), 6-2.

Serena, though, had to quash her rabid racing mind and kick-start her feet. Like so many other times in her stellar career, though, the 15-time major winner came to the net, took balls early, and mixed up her game enough to disrupt Cibulkova’s baseline rhythm.

Serena’s aggression paid off.

“I feel like coming to the net helped me to just play a little better and play more aggressive and just play my game,” she began. “I was not feeling my game today, you know, but for me it’s getting through those matches when you don’t feel great and then you’re still able to come through them and survive and play for another round.”

Scoreline for Serena’s mental battle and win … 2-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Serena Williams and Li Na each survived their scares today. Their broad experiences, acuity as world-class athletes and tennis players, plus that intangible element which spurs champions to will their way through the finish line, clicked even though moments of doubt crept in view to challenge them both.