Elena Vesnina

Roland Garros Day 15: Links Roundup with Nadal, Federer, Vesnina and more

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: After winning a record-breaking eighth Roland Garros title, and before making the media rounds, Rafael Nadal happily posed with the ball kids who worked the final. Perhaps there’s a future Roland Garros champ among them!

Elena Vesnina wins first grand slam title: It was seven times lucky for Elena Vesnina as she and countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova captured the French Open crown defeating the top seeded team of Sara Errani and Robert Vinci. As the WTA official website reports, “Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina upset the odds and the defending champions to win the doubles title.” The Russian pair were delighted with their victory which was their first over the Italian duo.

Vesnina told reporters “I think we’re extra happy because we beat them first time. We played a lot of times against them; they’re the best team in the world. They’re playing so good, so it’s really tough to play against them, especially on clay.”

French Open Flare: During the second set of the final between Spaniards Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, as Tennis Grandstand reported earlier “a shirtless and masked protestor with the words ‘KIDS RIGHT’ written across his chest, ran onto Nadal’s side of the court, lighting a red flare.” Working quickly, “security tackled the man and threw him off the court as another personnel guarded Nadal.” Nadal was definitely frazzled by the incident as he proceeded to drop his next service game but was ultimately able to close out the set.

“Well I felt a little bit scared in the first moment,” said Nadal. “These kinds of things are impossible to predict. When these kind of things happen, we are very lucky that we have good security around. They managed very well to stop the situation.”

Roger Federer and Tommy Haas to team up in Halle: As the ATP World Tour reports, “Good friends Roger Federer and Tommy Haas will make their team debut at the Gerry Webber Open this week.” The pair is set to square off against the 2010 Wimbledon champs, Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner. Despite a tough draw, Haas spoke of his and Federer’s excitement in teaming up.

“It’s our first time playing together. It’s great to do this at this time in our careers. I hope we can focus, as we’ll probably have too much of a good time out there. It will be nice to play in front of some very enthusiastic fans and have a good doubles match, against Melzer and Petzschner.”

Five Classic Finals: While the men’s final between David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal certainly wasn’t a classic battle by any stretch of the imagination, Roland Garros has had no shortage of thrilling championship matches. Live Tennis has come up with their 5 best French Open finals of all time including Bjorn Borg’s first French Open title in 1974 when he came back from two sets to love down to beat Manuel Orantes in five sets and Andre Agassi’s 1999 French Open crown which proved to be his only title at Roland Garros.

Lessons from Serena Williams’s stellar French Open: Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover wrote about Serena Williams’s victory over Maria Sharapova and the significance of her French Open title.  Lindsay wrote about this being the best win of Serena’s career, her multi-dimensional game, and how impressive Serena’s win streak over Maria Sharapova is.

Rafael Nadal discusses French Open title: Rafael Nadal put forth an absolute master class in his straight sets victory over David Ferrer. The Spaniard was firing off all cylinders and pressured Ferrer into a plethora of errors. In his post-match press conference, Nadal talked about how the match was closer than what the score would seem to indicate, his extremely high level of play during certain points of the match, and how important this victory is to him. In addition, Nadal credited those who have helped him to make such a strong and successful comeback after his 7 month layoff.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Azarenka, Kvitova Start Campaigns on Day 3

Here’s the breakdown of matches to watch as the first round concludes.

ATP:

Novak Djokovic vs. David Goffin:  The baby-faced Belgian spurred a flurry of headlines last year when he reached the second week of Roland Garros and took a set from Roger Federer there.  Goffin has mustered barely any quality wins since then, losing to Grega Zemlja in Dusseldorf last week.  An enigmatic Masters 1000 clay season behind him, Djokovic hopes to resemble the man who defeated Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo more than the man who lost to Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid.

Nicolas Mahut vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Just about anyone has managed to knock off Tipsarevic this year, from Dmitry Tursunov to Guido Pella.  Struggling for confidence and fitness, the Serb briefly slumped outside the top 10 before currently returning to its edge.  Mahut has not won a main-draw match at the ATP level all season, losing to such unremarkable figures as Laime Ouahab and Romain Jouan.  An ugly encounters on both sides could ensue, in which Mahut could gain strength from the vigorous show-court crowd.  A second top-ten upset by a Frenchman in two days still seems like a long shot.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Thiemo De Bakker:  An untimely muscle tear in Wawrinka’s thigh cast his participation here into doubt.  The Madrid finalist has defeated four top-eight opponents on clay this spring, and his high volume of matches might have contributed to his injury.  De Bakker should not challenge a healthy Wawrinka, so this match will offer a barometer for the Swiss No. 2’s health.

Jack Sock vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez:  On Sock’s shoes are written the names of two friends who recently passed away, extra motivation for him this fortnight.  He will look to extend the encouraging and unexpected trend of American success here against Bucharest finalist Garcia-Lopez, less of a clay threat than most Spaniards.  Big servers also have fared well here in general from Querrey and Isner to Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson.

Bernard Tomic vs. Victor Hanescu:  Without his father to monitor him relentlessly, Tomic enjoys his first taste of independence.  Off-court distractions should undermine his focus on his weakest surface, though, and he is still nowhere near the player outside Australia that he is on home soil.

Mikhail Youzhny vs. Pablo Andujar:  On the heels of reaching the Madrid semifinals as a wildcard, Andujar reached the semifinals of Nice as well.  He did not defeat anyone more notable than Gilles Simon at either tournament, but he will hold the surface advantage against Youzhny.  The Russian did win a set from Djokovic in Monte Carlo before recording consecutive victories over clay specialists Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro in Madrid.

Alejandro Falla vs. Grigor Dimitrov:  Despite the increasing threat that he poses to the ATP elite, Dimitrov never has won more than one match at a major.  Questionable fitness may cost him in the best-of-five format, or these events may expose his lack of experience more starkly.  A duel with a Colombian dirt devil could test Dimitrov’s resilience two rounds ahead of a rematch with Djokovic.

WTA:

Elena Vesnina vs. Victoria Azarenka:  With the other top-four women’s seeds advancing so convincingly, Azarenka needs to keep pace with a statement of her own.  After a 10-1 start to 2012, Vesnina has cooled off and lost in the first round at three of four clay tournaments.  Azarenka started cooling her off by dismissing her in the fourth round of the Australian Open, where Vesnina lacked the weapons to threaten her.  Never past the quarterfinals in Paris, Vika should conserve energy with some quick early wins in a weak section of the draw.

Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai:  Three long years have passed since Rezai won the Premier Mandatory title in Madrid over Venus Williams.  The fiery Frenchwoman with a fondness for flamboyant outfits has won just one main-draw match since last year’s clay season.  Kvitova has made a habit of struggling at the most unexpected moments against the most anonymous opponents, so a three-setter would not surprise in this slugfest of wildly erratic shot-makers.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova:  This match struck me as the most interesting of the women’s first round, partly because of the history between them.  Meeting more than once in the fraught environment of Fed Cup, the two have collaborated on several tight encounters and have played their last five matches on clay.  Jankovic has regained traces of her vintage clay form by winning Bogota and upsetting Li to reach the Rome quarterfinals, while Hantuchova upset Kvitova in Madrid.  Both lost to Simona Halep in the wake of those top-ten ambushes, though, showing how much they struggle to sustain momentum as they age.

Kristina Mladenovic vs. Lauren Davis: After American women posted a perfect record on Day 2, Davis hopes to continue that trend despite winning just two clay matches this year (one against Christina McHale).  That task will prove difficult against a Frenchwoman who shone on home soil in February, reaching the semifinals of the Paris Indoors.  Mladenovic has struggled almost as much on clay as Davis has, but she won sets from Maria Kirilenko and Dominika Cibulkova in difficult early-round draws.

Klara Zakopalova vs. Kaia Kanepi:  A tireless counterpuncher with a vulnerable serve, Zakopalova has extended both Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to final sets at Roland Garros.  She came closer than anyone to threatening Sharapova’s surge to the career Slam, and her retrieving should test Kanepi’s patience as well.  Returning impressively from injury last month, Kanepi won Brussels on Saturday after collecting six wins at her two previous tournaments.  To continue defending her quarterfinal points, she will need to take control of rallies immediately with serve and return.

Jamie Hampton vs. Lucie Safarova:  The small American won three consecutive three-setters over higher-ranked opponents, including Roberta Vinci, to earn a semifinal berth in Brussels.  Limited in her clay experience, Hampton attracted international attention by severely testing Azarenka in the first week of the Australian Open.  Flaky Czech lefty Safarova also arrives with momentum after winning her home challenger in Prague and taking a set from Sharapova in Stuttgart.

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.

 

The Fed Cup Dilemma

The argument about whether tennis belongs in the Olympic Games has been hotly debated in tennis and sporting circles for the past decade. For athletes in most other sports, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers. To an outside observer, however, this might not seem to be the case for tennis players. Four times a year, they have a chance to contest in the biggest tournaments in their sport; winning multiple slam titles etches their names into the tennis history books much more than Olympic gold.

Despite having either their flag or their country code etched next to their name on every tournament scoreboard, the only other time players theoretically get the chance to represent their country is in Fed Cup. Some crack under the pressure; Lesia Tsurenko, Ukraine’s new No. 1, lost all three of her matches en route to a 3-2 defeat to Canada. Tsurenko made a staggering 91 unforced errors in a three-set loss to Sharon Fichman, a match she and a tie Ukraine was heavily favored to win.

Others rise to the occasion. Australian wunderkind Ashleigh Barty defeated Stefanie Voegele in her Fed Cup singles debut to send Australia into the World Group in 2014. Roberta Vinci delivered the clinching 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 win over Lucie Safarova to send Italy into the Fed Cup final; on the other side of the world, Ekaterina Makarova capped Russia’s stunning comeback against Slovakia by rallying from 4-2 down in the final set against Daniela Hantuchova to knot the tie at 2-2. She and Elena Vesnina later rallied from a set down in the doubles to put Russia into the finals against Italy.

In an individual sport like tennis, where so much emphasis is placed on singles achievements, players still rate playing for their country incredibly high. But does this national success come at a cost?

Samantha Stosur, who has been carrying the remnants of a calf injury since Indian Wells, went 2-0 in her Fed Cup ties for Australia; she lost in the opening round in Stuttgart to Jelena Jankovic. Vinci, Italy’s heroine, looked listless in a 6-4, 6-2 opening round defeat to Yaroslava Shvedova in Stuttgart as well; the top seeds in the doubles event, she and Sara Errani later pulled out of the doubles event due to Vinci’s shoulder injury. Vesnina slumped to a shocking 6-0, 6-4 defeat to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Makarova dueled with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, her Fed Cup teammate, in the opening round; Makarova slipped up from a winning position, and seemed to run of gas late in the third set.

In Marrakech, Dominika Cibulkova was set to take a wildcard and be the top seed in the event; however, she apparently picked up an injury after playing three rubbers against Russia and was forced to withdraw from the event anyway. As rain wreaked havoc in Chiasso, the Australia-Switzerland tie did not commence until Monday; Romina Oprandi, Switzerland’s No. 1, was scheduled to compete in Marrakech but she also withdrew before play began.

Granted, not every player was negatively affected by her participation in Fed Cup this week. Ana Ivanovic is into her first clay-court quarterfinal since Rome in 2010. Angelique Kerber, who went 1-1 in Fed Cup, is also into the quarterfinals in Germany. Carla Suarez Navarro led Spain back into the World Group and knocked off Caroline Wozniacki in the first round in Stuttgart. Shvedova, who was mired in a dreadful slump, advanced to the quarterfinals at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

There have been murmurs that players are largely unhappy with the increase in mandatory Fed Cup participation for the next Olympic cycle. These players put so much heart, effort and passion into playing for their countries, yet are still put in a bind because of the scheduling issues. In a sport where players are constantly representing their nations, it seems like they still end up with the short end of the stick. In certain instances, it’s almost as though a player needs to choose between national glory and individual success.

WTA Stuttgart Gallery: Ivanovic, Lisicki, Petrova Through

STUTTGART (April 23, 2013) — Tuesday at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix featured some great matchups as Ana Ivanovic defeated good friend and sometimes doubles partner Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-2, No. 8 seed Nadia Petrova defeated German qualifier Dinah Pfizenmaier 7-6(2), 6-4, Sabine Lisicki overcame qualifier Nastassja Burnett 6-3, 6-4, and Croat Mirjana Lucic-Baroni defeated Elena Vesnina 6-0, 6-4.

Full Tuesday gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Moana Bauer of all the day’s singles matches above, and also includes practice sessions of Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Kirsten Flipkens.

Sony Open in Photos: Cirstea Knocks Out Kerber; Sharapova, Ferrer, Djokovic Thru

MIAMI, FL (March 24, 2013) – Sunday at the Sony Open saw Sorana Cirstea knock out No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber, Jelena Jankovic outplay her higher-ranked opponent Nadia Petrova, and Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova cruise losing only six games each.

Select Sunday Results:
ATP
(1) Novak Djokovic d. Somdev Devvarman 6-2, 6-4
(3) David Ferrer d. Fabio Fognini 6-1, 7-5

WTA
(28) Sorana Cirstea d. (6) Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-0
(3) Maria Sharapova d. Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-2
(22) Jelena Jankovic d. (11) Nadia Petrova 7-6(7), 6-4
(WC) Laura Robson/Lisa Raymond d. Tatjana Malek/Tamarine Tanasugarn 4-6, 6-1, 10-8

Below are Tennis Grandstand’s “Best Shots of the Day” by our photographer Christopher Levy that includes Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams (at practice), David Ferrer, Fabio Fognini, Maria Sharapova, Sorana Cirstea, Jelena Jankovic, Laura Robson, Elena Vesnina, Somdev Devvarman and Nadia Petrova.

Sunday at the Sony: Sharapova, Serbs, and More

As the third round begins in the men’s draw, the women finish deciding who will reach the final sixteen at the Sony Open.

Maria Sharapova vs. Elena Vesnina:  The world #2 has won 14 straight matches against fellow Russians, but she lost her last meeting with Vesnina in the fall of 2010.  An Indian Wells doubles champion, her opponent has compiled a quietly solid season in singles that has included her first career title and a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Each Russian handled a rising young star in her opener with ease, Sharapova crushing Eugenie Bouchard and Vesnina dismissing Donna Vekic.  The only Indian Wells finalist still in the Miami draw, the women’s champion there may face her greatest challenge from the heat and humidity of a tournament that she never has won.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Sony Open organizers showed their knowledge of tennis when they chose this match for the evening marquee ahead of those featuring higher-ranked champions.  While neither Kuznetsova nor Ivanovic has won a major in nearly four years, one should not miss this battle of fellow major champions with ferocious forehands.  Kuznetsova possesses the superior athleticism and Ivanovic the superior serve, an advantage less compelling on a slow surface where she never has reached the quarterfinals.  A champion here in 2006, the Russian aims to build on her miniature upset of countrywoman Makarova, but Ivanovic looked as brilliant as she has all year in an opener beset by rain and power failures.  Nerves beset both women when they try to close out sets and matches, so no lead will be safe.

Albert Ramos vs. James Blake:  An unthinkable prospect when the tournament began, a quarterfinal appearance for James Blake now looms well within the range of plausibility.  Much improved from recent form at Indian Wells, he continued to turn back the clock with a resounding victory over seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau.  Meanwhile, the upset of Juan Martin Del Potro in this section has left him no significant obstacle to overcome.  The Spanish lefty across the net plays a steady game that will test Blake’s consistency, but the American should relish the opportunity to showcase his flashy skills under the lights at this prestigious event.

Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Tommy Haas:  Each man survived talented opponents in the previous round, Dolgopolov dominating 2008 champion Nikolay Davydenko and Haas weathering a three-setter against Igor Sijsling.  The unpredictable quirks in the Ukrainian’s game could fluster the veteran of the famously flammable temper, but the latter has produced more impressive results over the past several weeks.  When they met in last year’s Washington final, Dolgopolov rallied from losing the first set to outlast Haas.

Kevin Anderson vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Profiting from his vast advantage in height, Anderson defeated the second-ranked Serb three years ago on North American hard courts.  He started this year more promisingly than any year before, outside a February injury, and has won multiple matches at every tournament.  In contrast, Tipsarevic had lost ten consecutive sets (some resoundingly) from the Australian Open through Indian Wells before snapping that skid against a qualifier here.  Hampered by nagging injuries, he has suffered a sharp loss of confidence that could trouble him when he attempts to break the South African’s intimidating serve.  When the rallies unfold, however, Tipsarevic’s superior movement and balance could reap rewards.

Roberta Vinci vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  On the gritty, slow hard courts of Miami, these two clay specialists look to continue their encouraging results from last month.  While Vinci reached the semifinals in Dubai, Suarez Navarro reached the Premier final in Acapulco.  Gone early from the California desert to an unheralded opponent, the Italian narrowly avoided a similar disappointment in navigating past Christina McHale.  She has lost all of her previous meetings, and all of her previous sets, to Suarez Navarro in a surprising head-to-head record considering their relative experience.  Just six rankings spots separate these two women, so one can expect a tightly contested encounter of elegant one-handed backhands.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Nadia Petrova:  Among the most entertaining women’s finals in recent Miami history was the three-setter that Jankovic contested against Serena Williams in 2008.  The sluggish court speed showcased her counterpunching game at its best, a level from which it has long since receded.  While she has won her last four meetings from Petrova, none of those has come since her precipitous plunge from the #1 ranking that started in 2009.  The Russian’s game has aged more effectively, allowing her to stay within range of the top ten even at the age of 30, and she enjoyed an unexpected renaissance with two titles last fall.  Like Jankovic, her two-handed backhand down the line remains her signature shot, but she will look to set the tone with penetrating first serves and aggressive court positioning as well.

Alize Cornet vs. Lauren Davis:  The only singles match not on a televised court, this overlooked encounter pits a French former prodigy against an extraordinarily lucky loser.  When Azarenka withdrew from the Sony Open, Lauren Davis filled her shoes with poise in an epic victory over countrywoman Madison Keys that climaxed with a third-set tiebreak.  Having benefited from Azarenka’s bye as well, Davis has progressed through more rounds in the main draw than she did in the qualifying draw.  The last American woman left in this half, she faces a winnable match against Cornet, who also survived a tense clash with Laura Robson in which she remarkably never lost her serve through the last two sets.

Fill Their Cups: Fed Cup World Group Quarterfinal Preview

One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations.  We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition.  Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?

Czech Republic vs. Australia:  The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend.  But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January.  The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile.  An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty.  Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line.  The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb.  But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.

Pick:  Czech Republic

Italy vs. USA:   To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma:  no Williams, no Stephens, no chance.  Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed.  Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open.  Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved.  That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting.  Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci.  The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts.  Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup.  Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.

Pick:  Italy

Russia vs. Japan:  Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance.  Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan.  All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals).  And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then.  At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm.  Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium.  Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1.  One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents.  But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.

Pick:  Russia

Serbia vs. Slovakia:  This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova.  Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination.  When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites.  Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight.  Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis.  A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic.  She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers.  Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.

Pick:  Slovakia

Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.

Wizards of Oz (VIII): Federer, Serena, Murray, Azarenka, Tsonga, and More on Australian Open

On Monday, the rest of the quarterfinals take form in both the men’s and women’s draws.  The action shrinks to Rod Laver and Hisense, by which we divide the previews.

Rod Laver Arena:

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Fans may remember their pair of US Open three-setters, both of which Wozniacki won when her retrieving skills and superior fitness outlasted Kuznetsova’s fiery shot-making and athleticism.  Those victories formed part of a four-match streak for the Dane against the Russian that halted abruptly last week in Sydney, where the latter astonished the former in a three-setter played under sweltering conditions.  All but irrelevant last year, Kuznetsova appeared to have regained her motivation during the offseason before charging back into contention with one of her best results to date here.  For her part, Wozniacki recovered from a dismal first-round effort to play cleaner tennis through her next two matches, albeit less impressive than what she produced as world #1.  Long rallies and service breaks should await as both players focus on what they do best in this strength-on-strength matchup:  offense for Sveta, defense for Caro.

Azarenka vs. Vesnina:  On the surface, this match would seem like a rout in the making, and it might well turn out that way in reality.  But Vesnina has played some of her best tennis in recent memory this month, starting an eight-match winning streak with her first career singles title last week.  Meanwhile, Azarenka has looked vulnerable in two of three matches and staggered through an unexpected three-setter against Jamie Hampton, who likely would not have trouble the Vika who swaggered to last year’s title.  Unable to hold serve consistently, the defending champion has relied on her return to break opponents regularly, possibly a more difficult task against Vesnina than the three before her.  Still, Azarenka has won all six of their previous sets.

Tsonga vs. Gasquet:  If the passivity of Simon and Monfils bored you, rest assured that this pair of Frenchman will not produce the same lethargy.  Outstanding shot-makers each, they shine most in different areas.  Whereas Tsonga unleashes titanic serves and forehands, often rumbling to the net behind them, Gasquet favors one of the ATP’s most delicious one-handed backhands.  He ventures to the forecourt often as well, displaying a fine touch that has contributed to his success in their rivalry.  Gasquet has won four of their seven meetings, but Tsonga looked the sharper player during the first week.  Not dropping a set in three matches, he has maintained the focus and discipline lacking from his disappointing 2012, so he will fancy his chances of halting Gasquet’s eight-match winning streak.

Serena vs. Kirilenko:  Apparently recovered from her ankle scare, Serena remains the favorite to win a third straight major title here.  Outside an odd three-game span in the second set of her last match, she has ravaged a series of overmatched opponents while reaffirming the dominance of her serve.  The competition does elevate in quality with the 14th-seeded Kirilenko, much improved in singles over the last year or two.  Serena has won all five of their previous meetings, though, and the weight of her shot should leave the Russian struggling to match her hold for hold.  Only on an especially erratic day for the 14-time major champion would Kirilenko’s balanced all-court game and high-percentage brand of tennis threaten her.

Raonic vs. Federer:  Perhaps useful in preparing him for the titanic serve across the net was Federer’s previous match against Tomic, who regularly found huge deliveries when it mattered most.  As brilliant as the Swiss looked in other aspects of his game, he struggled to convert break points and nearly lost the second set as a result.  Nevertheless, Federer did not lose his serve in the first week or even encounter significant pressure on his service games.  That trend should continue against the unreliable return of Raonic, while the veteran’s struggles to break should as well.  Combining those two threads, one can expect some tiebreaks to settle sets that should hinge upon just a handful of points.  All three of their previous meetings, on three different surfaces, reached final sets—and two a final-set tiebreak, illustrating Raonic’s ability to trouble Federer.  The younger man’s belief fell slightly short last year, but he has looked more assured in his status as a legitimate threat by brushing aside his first-week opponents here.

Hisense Arena:

Chardy vs. Seppi:  A match of survivors pits the man who defeated Del Potro in five sets against the man who defeated Cilic in five sets.  Spectators who expected to see two baseline behemoths dueling today may feel surprised to see one of the ATP’s most asymmetrical games square off against a baseline grinder.  Striking nearly 80 winners to topple the Tower of Tandil, Chardy produced nearly all of his offense from his forehand and at the net, where he will want to travel frequently again.  A clay-courter who has enjoyed his best result here to date, Seppi wore down Cilic by staying deep behind the baseline, absorbing pace, and extending the rallies.  That positioning leaves him vulnerable to someone as adept moving forward as Chardy, but the main theme of this match may revolve around who can recover more effectively, mentally and physically, from their notable but exhausting victories in the last round.

Jovanovski vs. Stephens:  Somewhat surprisingly, Stephens enters her first fourth-round match here as a clear favorite.  Probably the most unexpected member of the last sixteen, Jovanovski upset Safarova and weathered the distinctive game of Kimiko Date-Krumm to record a potential breakthrough.  She plays an orthodox power baseline style, more raw than the game honed by Stephens, and she has struggled at times to contain her emotions.  That said, one wonders how the young American will respond to the pressure of the favorite’s status at a stage where she has little more familiarity than her opponent.  This match marks the first meeting of what could become an intriguing rivalry.

Simon vs. Murray:  After his epic battle with countryman Monfils, which nearly reached five hours, Simon should have little energy left for the Scot.  He tellingly said that he would appear for the match but estimated his probability of winning it as slim.  Despite the issues with holding serve that Murray has experienced here, and his troubles with timing in the third round, he probably needs to play no better than his average level—or even below it—to advance.  Even a rested Simon would have few weapons to harm an opponent who has defeated him nine straight times, much less this battered version.

The (re)Renaissance of Russian Women’s Tennis

Since Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova announced Russia’s arrival in women’s tennis in 2004 with their Grand Slam triumphs, the nation took a stranglehold on the WTA rankings. Serena Williams once joked that she should just be called “Williamsova” at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, where the main draw contained 24 -ovas and seven -evas. ”I just know the standard: everyone is from Russia,” she quipped. “Sometimes I think I’m from Russia, too. With all these new -ovas, I don’t know anyone, I don’t really recognize anyone.”

At one point during 2008, Russians made up 50% of the world’s top 10, with Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonareva and Anna Chakvetadze all occupying places in the elite. That came in the period when Sharapova was sidelined with a shoulder injury. They swept the podium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, with Dementieva winning gold, Safina taking silver and Zvonareva winning bronze. However, in the 2012 year-end rankings, there were only four in the top 20, or 20%.

That led to the question: where have all the Russians gone? Dementieva’s retirement, coupled with injuries to Safina, Chakvetadze and Zvonareva, made many feel as though the days of Russian dominance on the WTA were over. Their mantle of churning out multiple quality WTA players all at once had now been taken up by nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, and the longstanding tennis powerhouses of the United States and Great Britain have multiple young stars with bright futures.

The answer is: the Russians never really left, they were just taking a vacation.

With Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina all making the second week Down Under, it marks the first time that Russia has had more than two players reach the second week of a major event since the 2011 US Open.

Little needs to be said about Sharapova and Kuznetsova, arguably the two greatest Russians in terms of career accomplishments, who have six Grand Slam titles between them and 40 overall titles. Kuznetsova’s reascension has been particularly notable, as she missed almost half of 2012 due to a knee injury.

Kirilenko, perhaps one of the hardest workers on the WTA, makes the most of what she has. In addition to being a standout doubles player, Kirilenko reached her career-high ranking in singles in 2012. She and countrywoman Nadia Petrova, who’s had a late-career renaissance in her own right, won the bronze medal in doubles at the Olympics; she finished fourth in singles, losing to Victoria Azarenka in the bronze medal match. Kirilenko’s had success Down Under before, as she reached the quarterfinals in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova in the first round; she’ll have an extremely tough test against Serena Williams.

Makarova has had her greatest successes in places called ‘bourne. The lefty stormed to the title at the WTA Premier event in Eastbourne as a qualifier in 2010, beating Flavia Pennetta, Nadia Petrova, Kuznetsova, Samantha Stosur and Azarenka in the final. She’s perhaps best known for her upset over Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year en route to the quarterfinals, and matched the feat this year by taking out Angelique Kerber. Her 11-5 record Down Under is her best mark out of all the majors. If the US Open was held in Bourne, Massachusetts, she’d probably win it.

Vesnina, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in her Grand Slam debut in 2006, matched the feat this year. In her seventh career final to open the year in Hobart, she dethroned defending champion Mona Barthel to finally win a WTA title. She’s taken out two seeds this week, No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 16 Roberta Vinci.

In addition, Valeria Savinykh scored an upset win over Dominika Cibulkova in the second round and junior standout Daria Gavrilova qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw and had a second round showing.

As the old cliché goes, it’s always about “quality, not quantity.” As the Russians on the WTA have proved over the past decade, you can have both.