rod laver arena

Serb Reigns Supreme: Djokovic Reaches Semifinals, Retains #1 By Halting Berdych

Never having lost to quarterfinal opponent Tomas Berdych on a hard court, world #1 Novak Djokovic must have brought plenty of confidence into their encounter.  Questions surrounded the defending champion’s condition following his narrow escape from Stanislas Wawrinka in the previous round.  But he laid those questions to rest emphatically with a largely crisp four-set victory over a top-eight rival, advancing 6-1 4-6 6-1 6-4.

Evincing no traces of fatigue from his five-hour marathon, Djokovic wasted little time in setting to work upon his more heralded opponent.  Although Berdych held serve to start the match, the Serb reeled off six straight games from there with a blizzard of imaginative shot-making.  Nearly every area of the defending champion’s game sparkled, even the drop shots with which he often struggles and a side-spinning backhand slice that he rarely uses.  Especially notable, though, was his ability to return Berdych’s imposing first serve with pinpoint accuracy, pockmarking the baseline repeatedly.  The Czech depends on taking control of rallies from the outset, and Djokovic robbed him of that opportunity by catching him on his back foot and starting the point in neutral tone.  From there, his superior movement wore down Berdych as he reversed direction on his groundstrokes almost at will, revealing the advantage of his greater versatility.

Ending the first set with a double fault, the challenger knew that his fortunes could not decline much further in the second.  Meanwhile, Djokovic may have grown a bit complacent after starting his match so much more impressively than he had a round before.  Whatever the cause, Berdych collected a service break to start the second set, striking his forehand with greater depth and confidence.  Djokovic’s movement, while still elastic at times, looked a shade less impenetrable as the Czech consolidated his break into an early lead.  In these first few games, shots that had clipped the outsides of lines and corners started falling slightly outside them from the Serb.  At 0-2, 15-30, Berdych threatened to claim an insurance break, but Djokovic regrouped enough to hold.

In the Serb’s following service game, his opponent again hovered on the verge of extending his margin.  Saving two break points, Djokovic prevented Berdych from dashing away with the set, which soon became a question of whether the opening break would prove sufficient for the underdog to draw level.  The top seed repeatedly pressured the Czech in service games, drawing to 30-30 twice, but he could not quite manufacture a break point.  Attacking the net with greater commitment than he had shown early in the match, the broad-shouldered Berdych tried to neutralize Djokovic’s talent for the sprawling defensive get.

Two scintillating backhand returns from the former, one a near-winner and one a clean winner, moved him within a point of leveling the match.  Berdych spurned the set point with a loose backhand, and the set moved to his racket for the most important service game of his tournament.  As one might expect, it unfolded in eventful fashion.  Two groundstroke errors thrust him into trouble from the outset, and a stunning sequence of Djokovic scrambles pinned him at double break point.  But Berdych saved those two break points with an ace and an inside-in forehand winner, and then he saved a third with an equally dazzling backhand down the line.  Once Djokovic had let a fourth break point slip away with an errant forehand, his frustration contributed to his opponent’s success in compiling the next two points for the second set.

In a development that few would have anticipated after the first set, the honors stood even between the combatants as the third set began.  A game-ending ace from Djokovic restored some of the defending champion’s flagging spirits.  Swiftly moved the Serb to double break point once more, capturing the second with a wild cross-court forehand from the Czech.  While Djokovic held easily to consolidate the break, Berdych showed that his determination remained undimmed by tracking down a drop shot on an otherwise meaningless point.  That determination reaped scant rewards, though, when Djokovic broke him again for the loss of a single point, rifling a backhand winner down the line.  Although the Serb grew a bit careless when serving for the set, falling behind 15-30, he outfoxed the lumbering Berdych in a lengthy exchange at the net that set up his comfortable conversion of the last few points that he needed.

Now trailing two sets to one, the Czech needed to start the fourth set in a more positive manner to convince himself that his upset bid remained genuine.  He accomplished that goal with an opening hold behind fierce forehands that he redirected down both lines.  The reprieve did not last long, for Djokovic created two break points in his next service game with tenacious court coverage.  Saving the first with a combination of wide serve and cross-court backhand, Berdych yielded the second when his opponent’s defense once again forced him to aim for too much from his forehand.

The set then settled into a relatively routine pattern of holds, neither man able to significantly dent the other’s serve.  To his credit, Berdych continued to keep the pressure on the Serb by protecting his own games routinely.  With Djokovic serving for the match, however, the plot thickened.  Three match points came and went, one on a routine miss of a stroke that would have ended the match, although Berdych never earned a break point.  On the fourth match point, Djokovic did not let his opponent put the ball into play, instead slamming an ace down the center service line.

In barely two and a half hours, half the length of his previous victory, the Serb had returned to his dominant form with a performance largely absent of flaws outside his lull early in the second set.  Extending his hard-court mastery of Berdych, Djokovic also ensured that he will remain #1 after the Australian Open.  Two victories from the coveted three-peat, he will face Ferrer in another match that he will enter heavily favored.

First Among Russians: Sharapova Overpowers Makarova For Semifinal Berth

For the second straight year, Maria Sharapova faced countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova in a rematch of an Australian Open quarterfinal a year ago.  Even more emphatic in the sequel, the world #2 continued her inexorable march deep into the Melbourne draw with a 6-2 6-2 victory that featured little suspense after the first five games.

Carrying the confidence from her upset over Kerber into this match, Makarova started promisingly by varying the placement on her first serve.  She struck a body serve and a serve down the T for winners, while a fine forehand winner contributed to the love hold.  With an ace and stinging forehands, Sharapova held her own game almost as easily.  A double fault thrust Makarova into trouble early in her next game, leading to a pair of break points.  Swinging her opponent wide with a well-angled backhand, Sharapova drew first blood.

Quickly erasing the arrears, Makarova constructed a thoughtful rally around her own sets of angles to mitigate the damage done by her opponent’s first serves.  A double fault by Sharapova took the game to deuce, from where the lefty gained the upper hand in the next two points and finished them with poise.  For the first time this tournament, an opponent had reached 2-2 in a set with the second seed.  The pressure of that situation, minor as it might seem, represented an important step forward for Makarova in her effort to reverse last year’s setback.  But she could not build upon the momentum, yielding a double fault of her own on break point to hand Sharapova the advantage again.

The 2008 champion had struggled with her first-serve percentage during her previous two victories, although it had not cost her then.  Considering Makarova’s more dangerous returning, Maria needed to find a steadier rhythm on her first serve to obtain more convincing holds.  She connected with just enough of them to pull ahead 4-2 in the first set, consolidating the break.  As her own return threatened to make inroads again on Makarova’s serve, the underdog showed fine reactions and timing in retrieving bombs that might have gone for winners against less alert opponents.  Handed a deuce situation with a wild forehand from her compatriot, though, Sharapova set up a break point by painting the same corner with consecutive forehand bombs.  A blistering backhand return earned the insurance break.

Bringing down the curtain on the set was a second-serve ace, her third ace of the match.  Sharapova had won the opening stanza by the same score that she had against Makarova at this stage a year ago.  During a multiple-deuce game to start the second set, she clawed back from 40-15 for the second straight time on her opponent’s serve but needed five break points to secure the early advantage with a punishing forehand.  Midway through that epic struggle, Sharapova even scrambled to retrieve a Makarova laser with her left hand, producing a desperate lob that her compatriot netted.

Angling her serves effectively to keep the lefty off balance, the world #2 raced through another comfortable hold.  At 30-30 in her second service game, Makarova urgently need to avoid a break-point situation, and she fought off the prospect with one of the longest rallies to that stage.  Holding serve when Sharapova missed a second-serve return, she stayed within range.  A love hold from the favorite again left Makarova with a critical service game of her own.  This time, she could not survive it.  After two routine groundstroke misses positioned Sharapova at double break point, the second seed answered a crafty lefty angle with an even more audacious backhand angle that permitted no reply.

Consecutive double faults left her trailing 15-30 in her next service game, but she advanced to 5-1 behind otherwise steady tennis.  The former champion missed two potential winners by inches on the first two points of Makarova’s service game and a third on the last.  While she could have concluded the match with a break had she unleashed those rockets with more accuracy, Sharapova still held a commanding lead.  Her relative inefficiency mattered little as she closed out the match emphatically with an ace on the first opportunity.

Dropping just nine games en route to the semifinals, Sharapova next will face Li Na.  The two highest-earning women in tennis, the Russian and Chinese superstars have collaborated on a strange but intriguing rivalry.  Their latest episode will open play on Thursday afternoon in Melbourne.


Tough As Nails: Li Reaches Third Australian Open Semifinal By Upsetting Radwanska

A battle between two top-eight women opened the quarterfinal action on Rod Laver Arena today.  Although she had lost to world #4 Agnieszka Radwanska last week, 2011 Australian Open finalist Li Na eked out a 7-5 6-3 victory tenser than the scoreline showed, extending her record this year to 13-1 and prolonging a recent run of success in Melbourne.

Showing what an evenly balanced encounter lay ahead, the first game lasted nearly 13 minutes as Li barely managed to hold while saving two break points.  Unable to hit through Radwanska from the baseline, she obtained great success by closing into the net behind deep approaches, and she redirected the ball down both sidelines impressively.  The stingy Pole refused to let her off the hook unless she produced not just one or two but several excellent shots strung together, and Li accumulated eight unforced errors before the game ended in an ominous sign for the future.

Also extended to deuce in her first service game, Radwanska benefited from two netted groundstrokes by her opponent on the last two points, including a strange miss just inches from the net of what looked like an easy putaway.  The third game initially looked like an easier game for Li when she won the first two points with crisp backhands, but she then dropped three straight with unforced errors to fall behind break point yet again.  Radwanska issued one of her rare donations on the next point, an uncharacteristic backhand error, before her opponent tossed away the next two for an early break.

An unwise net approach dumped the Pole in an early hole on serve a game later, allowing Li plenty of time to target the pass.  Surprisingly, Radwanska lost her serve at love in the first short game of the match.  A fine inside-out forehand erased a break point in the Chinese star’s next service game, but an errant backhand down the line yielded a second.  Neither woman could find an easy route to a service hold, however, and Li recorded the fourth straight break of a match in which the returner had won more points than the server.   Veering typically from the amazing to the abysmal, the former Roland Garros champion won four straight points from 0-30 down to hold serve without facing a break point for the first time.

The pressure now lay on Radwanska, serving at 3-4 after winning two total points in her previous two service games.  Despite losing the first point, she did earn the quick hold, punctuated by her first ace.  A dreadful game from Li that consisted of three unforced errors and a double fault gave Radwanska the opportunity to serve for the opening set.  Hardly a secure proposition considering her struggles on serve before then, that effort went poorly from the outset with a botched challenge preceding a weak second serve and an ill-advised approach.  A second straight break at love evened the match at 5-5 with three breaks apiece between the women.

On a key point at 15-30 in the next game, Radwanska again attempted to outmaneuver Li at the net with a crafty pass-lob combination.  Her opponent tightened her focus to swat down the smash, which seemed to raise her spirits.  She angled a lovely backhand winner cross-court on the next point and ultimately held with a strong first serve.  Serving to force a tiebreak, Radwanska fell behind 15-30 too.  In trouble at the net as Li eyed double set point, she leaped high enough to crack a backhand smash over her shoulder deep enough to draw an error.  But she looked a bit weary in the next rally, attempting a drop shot from too deep in the court and with her opponent too close to the baseline.  Li’s ensuing winner gave her a set point.

While she saved that first set point, Radwanska faced a second serve on her next set point and played defense throughout.  A relatively patient Li carefully constructed the point, gradually moving her opponent further and further wide of the sidelines and progressively deeper behind the baseline until she positioned herself for a routine smash.

The first set had lasted over an hour and featured seven service breaks.  An eighth arrived immediately to start the second set as Li suffered a predictable lull.  More surprising was the love hold that followed from Radwanska, who swept eight straight points in a show of resilience after what could have felt like a demoralizing set.  Quickly jumping back onto the scoreboard, Li held easily with an ace to stay within range and prevent the Pole from settling too deep into a comfort zone.

Sure enough, the Chinese broke back directly to erase the effects of her dip in form to start the set.  Another convincing service game preceded a break at love as the match quickly started to slip away from the fourth seed.  Having won four games in a row, Li firmly held the momentum in her corner as she stood just two games from the semifinals.  Her run of points continued in a demonstration of her confidence, pushing Radwanska to the brink of defeat despite her 13-match winning streak.

To her credit, the Pole clung to her serve in a deuce game that forced Li to serve for a berth in the semifinal and kept her under some pressure.  Although she lost the first two points with routine errors, she retained her aggressive attitude by hammering a series of backhands on the next point that set up a swing volley.  Two break points soon hovered over her, but she continued to keep Radwanska on her heels with groundstrokes that landed near the baseline, even when stretched out of position.  That trend continues for two more points, the last two of a match that ended with the fourth seed’s backhand out and the fourth seed out of the tournament.

Having lost all four of her Australian Open quarterfinals and six of seven quarterfinals at majors overall, Radwanska left with her 13-match winning streak ended in a match that she did not lack chances to seize.  For Li, who reached her third semifinal here in four years, the victory reasserted her momentum in this key rivalry and demonstrated again how well her game suits the courts Down Under.  She showed the grit that has made her known as “Nails” to many fans by winning the last three games of the first set and surviving the deuce game at its end.


Australian Open Grounds Pass: The Spectator Experience in the Second Week

By Jesse Pentecost

Being essentially a radioactive substance, a tournament draw at a tennis event conforms to a fixed and exponential rate of decay. At Grand Slam level, each event discards precisely half its mass as charged particles every two days, although inevitably some of the particles are more charged than others. Some are less so: Gilles Simon was an almost-inert particle. Janko Tipsarevic discarded himself. Four half-life cycles are complete, and the original 128 participants have been reduced to just eight. Nuclear scientists usually refer to this point as the ‘quarterfinals’, which has recently passed over into the common vernacular, whereupon it was adopted by tennis. To those watching on television, the ‘quarterfinals’ represents the point at which a Major really slides into gear. For those still roaming the grounds, the opposite is true.

To attend a Major tournament in its first few days is to be immersed utterly in tennis. You learn to breath it or you suffocate. There are singles matches happening on every court, even those so remote from the center that they boast radically different atmospheric conditions. However, the rate at which tournament draws decay means that by the first weekend even the showcourts are hosting farcical ‘Legends’ doubles matches featuring Mansour Bahrami or Henri Leconte slipping racquets down their trousers, in the probably justified hope that the capacity crowd will watch anything. It certainly doesn’t hurt attendance. (At the US Open they were so worried that top-class tennis would bore the crowd that they finagled in Adam Sandler and Kevin James to contest a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium.)

Even by the second round, the remote courts are repurposed for doubles, then after that to mixed doubles, and then to the juniors. By the second week they’re exclusively the province of wind and ghosts. Today, out by Court 15, I idled with the charmless phantasms and listened to the faint roar of human voices emanating from Rod Laver Arena. But then, what do you expect? That’s the way it works.

Some clearly expect more. Judging from those I talked to, no few of the grounds pass holders were suffering acute disappointment at the discovery that they wouldn’t be able to see Roger Federer or Serena Williams play, except on the big screen in Garden Square – which is like paying to watch television in the sun – or on the practice court, which is about as perilous as venturing into a mosh pit. Still, many do venture in, willingly. Regardless of age, an elbow to the face is a small price to pay for the chance to stare at Maria Sharapova as she confers with her coach.

One of the fans I spoke to must have been in her fifties. I’d earlier encountered her as she waved her flag at Sara Tomic, and she proudly showed me her autograph haul. Her pride was later surpassed by disappointment when the announcement came through that Federer’s practice session had been moved indoors, away from adoring eyes. She clearly had a mental check-list of players she simply had to see – perhaps she had a real list secreted about her person – and now at least one name would have to remain unchecked. Alas, she didn’t have tickets to Rod Laver Arena – no one told her they’d be necessary – but resolved to watch Federer play the ‘Canadian boy’ tonight from Garden Square, which is actually circular.

Then again, another man I spoke to said he preferred to watch the matches on the big screen. According to him, you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in the main arenas; you’d be shushed by snooty patrons for opening a packet of crisps, or sipping your beer. There was always the possibility that I’d discovered the world’s noisiest eater, but it’s unlikely. Somehow he’d confused Rod Laver Arena with an art-house cinema in a Cistercian monastery. For the record, eating is permitted, not to say encouraged. The lines of RLA ticket-holders bearing trays of Heinekens and nachos provided overwhelming visual evidence of this. Still, he too would watch Serena and Roger from Garden Square. At least it was a gorgeous evening.

Anyway, my point is that plenty of people don’t quite realise what they’re getting themselves in for when they buy a grounds pass in the second week. They expect to see big name players plying their trade. I suspect this partly reflects the distortion inherent in televised sports. On television the second week of a Major appears to have as much tennis as the first, except it is better quality and more exciting. After four rounds of build-up, suddenly the top players are playing each other.

An astute fan might notice that the coverage is increasingly confined to the main court, but to the casual viewer all the courts look the same anyway, and they have no interest in knowing where anything is occurring. Hisense Arena, Rod Laver Arena – on television they’re all just confusing names for an identical swatch of cobalt across which exceedingly fit young men and women scamper. But when you’re on the grounds, and all you have is a grounds pass, they’re impenetrable zones of privilege from which the unwashed masses are excluded. I should stress that this isn’t true for everyone. There were plenty of people watching doubles on Showcourt Two because it was preferable to watching Andy Murray and Simon on Hisense.

In any case, the broadcaster works hard to convey the impression that the grounds remain frenziedly active, even as the last weekend draws near. But anyone visiting the grounds on the second Monday will encounter a strikingly different event than they would have on the first Monday (and I can barely imagine what it’s like at the US Open, where there’s a third Monday). So, while the Australian Open gathers pace and surges towards the finals, spare a thought for those still flooding the grounds, who might feel like the tournament is already over, and that they missed it.

Wizards of Oz (IX): Sharapova, Djokovic, Radwanska, Ferrer, Berdych, and More in the Australian Open Quarterfinals

When the quarterfinals begin, the action in singles compresses to Rod Laver Arena for the rest of the escalating drama.  Here is a tour of what to expect from an all-Russian match, an all-Spanish match, and two collisions between top-eight contenders.

Li vs. Radwanska:  These two top-eight women have compiled a history of closely contested meetings that has taken a few curious turns lately.  After Radwanska won their first match of 2012, Li swept three straight on the second-half hard courts that included two routs.  Aga’s revenge came with a flourish at Sydney last week, when she broke her former nemesis repeatedly en route to a straight-sets triumph, although she struggled to deliver the decisive blow.  That match marked Li’s only loss of a season against twelve victories and a title, while Radwanska has won all 26 of her sets and has collected two titles.

Relatively unheralded as a contender, Li has progressed quietly through the draw but has looked very efficient in doing so as she has spurred memories of her 2011 final and 2010 semifinal here.  Neither player should dominate on serve, despite solid efforts in that area from both here, so rallies should unfold that contrast the Chinese star’s flow with the Pole’s syncopation.  Designed to disrupt, Radwanska’s smorgasbord of spins and speeds will test the rhythmic Li, who will aim to take time away from the world #4 by striking the ball early and constantly redirecting her groundstrokes.  The woman who can impose her tone more thoroughly should prevail in a clash of mentally resilient competitor.

Ferrer vs. Almagro:  Fond of playing Nadal to Almagro’s Ferrer, the man who will become the top-ranked Spaniard after this tournament never has lost to his compatriot.  Some caveats apply, however, such as the dearth of outdoor hard-court meetings in a rivalry predictably centered on clay.  Not since 2006 have these two quarterfinalists met on a surface similar to Rod Laver Arena, since when both of their games have improved dramatically.  Moreover, Almagro often has kept their encounters extremely close, taking Ferrer to final sets in half of them and holding match points in a final-set tiebreak at Madrid last year.

Through the first four rounds, Ferrer has looked slightly the superior player.  Recording his best performance at a hard-court major to date, Almagro needed five sets to escape an inexperienced American in his first match, and his dominance over the higher-ranked Tipsarevic lost some of its luster when the Serb retired.  Also experiencing more difficulty than expected against an unheralded American, Ferrer rebounded from that four-setter to demolish a former tormentor in Nishikori.  That match should boost his confidence for a more familiar foe in a quarterfinal where the favorite’s compact two-handed backhand will contrast intriguingly with the underdog’s florid one-hander.

Sharapova vs. Makarova:  When they met in the same round here last year, the more famous Russian permitted just five games.  Like the all-Spanish quarterfinal, the all-Russian quarterfinal offers the latest edition in a head-to-head controlled exclusively by one player.  Sharapova has lost just one set in four meetings with Makarova, although they played two tight sets in Miami most recently.  Mauled badly by Maria’s return on this court before, the lefty’s serve must sustain the pressure more successfully this time, and a high first-serve percentage would play a vital role in achieving that goal.

Not expected by most to reach consecutive quarterfinals in Melbourne, Makarova claims that she learned from last year’s experience to become a more mature competitor at this stage.  The often fiery Russian indeed looked composed when she upset world #5 Kerber in a tight two-setter, at least outside a wobble late in the first set.  From that passage of play, as well as her flirtation with surrendering a 5-0 lead to Bartoli, one still suspects Makarova when the pressure rises.  Pressure has not entered Sharapova’s vocabulary at this tournament, where she continues to set records of implausible domination.  Never before has anyone lost just five games en route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, which raises the question of how she will respond when and if some adversity does arise.  In a battle between two women who love to create outrageous angles, Sharapova will hope to make Makarova rue her professed eagerness to reverse last year’s disappointment.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Winless against the Serb on a hard court, Berdych notched his only victory over him en route to the Wimbledon final three years ago, his best result at a major to date.  Once Djokovic evolved into his invincible self when 2011 began, the Czech never came close to repeating that feat.  Part of this lopsided rivalry has hinged on the contrast between Berdych’s forehand-reliant game and the world #1’s groundstroke symmetry, which offers him a far greater advantage in backhand-to-backhand exchanges than any edge that his opponent can claim in forehands.  Also, Djokovic’s movement allows him to track down the first strikes that Berdych can hurl at him more effectively than can most players, returning them with the depth necessary to maneuver himself into the rally.

On this occasion, though, Berdych may harbor some legitimate reason to hope.  The cathartic but exhausting epic with Wawrinka, which sprawled across five hours, may have left him drained of the energy to grind down the Czech’s offense as he has in the past.  By contrast, his challenger has reached this stage without dropping a set or engaging in any physically taxing battles.  If Berdych claims an early lead, he could test Djokovic’s resilience.  All the same, the world #1 proved his nearly supernatural ability to rebound from one marathon to the next in Melbourne last year when he spent nearly 11 total hours on court in consecutive matches against Nadal and Murray.  Berdych should not gamble on a depleted Djokovic entering the court at his best major.

Serene Progress: Former Champion Dominates Kirilenko To Reach Quarterfinals

For the second straight year, Serena faced a Russian in the fourth round of the Australian Open.  Stunned by Makarova here a year ago, she spared no effort in scripting a different narrative on Monday night, when she extended her perfect record against Maria Kirilenko with a convincing 6-2 6-0  win.  While this counterpuncher had taken her to three sets in two previous matches, Serena offered her no opportunity to assert herself in a match that her far superior power controlled from the beginning.

As gusts swirled fitfully around Rod Laver Arena, Serena delivered an early statement of supremacy by pounding four aces in her first two service games.  Not allowed a sniff on her opponent’s serve, Kirilenko escaped her opening service game after the American missed two returns from deuce.  The slender Russian received no such good fortune on the second, however, for Serena measured her groundstrokes smoothly and forced errors caused by her overwhelming pace.  An errant backhand handed her the break, which she consolidated with another routine hold as Kirilenko already looked resigned to her fate.  Known for agile moment, she could not track down more than a shot or two before Serena found the opening, and her short wingspan left her vulnerable to wide serves.

A love hold for each woman brought the score to 5-2 in Serena’s favor as the match settled into a lull.  In the next game, fierce returns allowed her to take control of the rally from the outset.  Approaching the net, she finished off points with swing volleys that left Kirilenko stranded.  A routine error conceded the first set and left all of the momentum in Serena’s corner to start the second.  She reeled off 14 of 15 points during a span that transitioned from one set to the next, managing to consistently find first serves and her groundstroke targets despite the wind.

When Kirilenko conceded her first service game of the second set with two loose forehands, she seemed essentially doomed in view of her opponent’s magnificent first-serve percentage.  Serena collected an insurance break with a forehand return winner that ended any suspense regarding the proceedings.  As Kirilenko accepted the futility of resistance, a second-set bagel assured her passage to the Australian Open quarterfinal for the first time since 2010.  There, Serena will face compatriot Sloane Stephens, whom she faced in Brisbane earlier this month.  Just one match beyond then lies a highly anticipated semifinal with Victoria Azarenka, whom she aims to supplant next week as the women’s #1.

Tsinging a Tsonga: Top-Ranked Frenchman Drops Gasquet, Reaches Quarterfinal

Although they stand just two places apart in the rankings, the seventh-seeded Tsonga and the ninth-seeded Gasquet bear little resemblance in their perception as dark horse threats.  While the latter brought a 1-13 record in fourth-round matches at majors into this tilt, the former has compiled enough upsets and near-upsets over the Big Four to make him a figure of note for even the casual fan.  Much of the reason for those contrasting levels of performance in key matches lies in their respective games.  In the modern era of the ATP, Tsonga’s massive serve-forehand combinations usually trump the grace and touch of his compatriot, who fell to him today 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2 in a match that evened their record at 4-4.

From the outset, Gasquet looked much more like the player who had lost 13 of 14 fourth-round matches at majors than the man with a winning record against Tsonga.  He dropped his serve in the opening game, while his opponent held easily and soon earned two more break points as a half-bagel loomed.  Digging out of those virtual set points, Gasquet stemmed the slide of momentum to stay within range.  Through the rest of the first set, he continued to knock on the door of opportunity without quite breaking through the uneven but more powerful Tsonga.

Finally, with the higher-ranked Frenchman serving for the match, the first break points appeared for his compatriot.  Dashing towards the net ruthlessly to finish points, an inspired Gasquet sprinted around nearly the entire court before unleashing a passing-hot winner that left Tsonga frozen and mired at 0-40.  From there, though, the seventh seed methodically erased each of the break points with solid serving and tighter focus.  As deeply as he positioned himself to return, Gasquet could not find ways to keep his opponent’s first serves or forehands in play long enough to assert himself in the rallies.  Two futile challenges later, Tsonga closed out the first set.

But the winner of the opening stanza had lost two of the past three meetings between these famously variable Frenchmen.  Tsonga’s carelessness predictably caught up with him early in the second set, when he surrendered his first break in the fourth game.  Having grown steadier as the match progressed, Gasquet kept a high first-serve percentage and won nearly every point behind that shot.  Meanwhile, Tsonga’s body language illustrated his discouragement as the unforced errors flowed ever more quickly from his racket.  He never earned a break point on his compatriot’s serve, allowing the set to slip away without much resistance.

Righting his bateau immediately in the second set, Tsonga followed a quick hold with a long game on Gasquet’s serve during which he stayed more consistent in rallies.  An unwise attack on the net behind an indifferent passing shot would have produced the break had not the ninth seed’s volley caught the back of the baseline.  Two points later, Gasquet surrendered the early lead anyway and allowed Tsonga to consolidate behind thumping aces.  The role of impenetrability of serve shifted back to the seventh seed, recalling the first set, as the world #10 merely clung to his own games without mounting a serious threat on the return.  Rumbling to the net with bravado, Tsonga prevented his compatriot from timing his elongated strokes with precision.  But the two Frenchmen entertained the Rod Laver audience with clever touch shots such as drop shot-lob combinations and slices with side spin that created an elegant counterpoint to their serves.

Serving to take a two-sets-to-one lead, Tsonga fell behind early in the game just as he had in the first set, this time attempting a strange one-handed backhand pass that found the net.  Gasquet’s success ebbed and flowed in proportion to his court positioning, for he struggled to trouble Tsonga when he stayed passively behind the baseline in retrieval mode.  Pinned back there for the next four points after taking a 0-30 lead, he allowed his countryman to close out the set without facing a break point.

A double fault hastened Gasquet’s demise early in the fourth set, when he dropped his first service game as his shoulders seemed to slump.  The challenge of mounting a comeback to win the last two sets perhaps seemed too implausible for a Frenchman not known for his mental tenacity or his physical fitness.  More relaxed than in the previous sets, Tsonga rocketed serves and forehands through the court almost at will.  The uneventful fourth set ended with Tsonga once again in the quarterfinals of the major where he reached the championship match five long years ago.

Projected to face Federer there, he will need to maintain his focus for longer spells and avoid falling behind early in important service games.  That match will mark a key test for him early in his partnership with Roger Rasheed.  Winless against the top eight in 2012, Tsonga would benefit enormously from reviving his status as a genuine threat to them in 2013.

Sveta Soaring: Kuznetsova Edges Wozniacki En Route to Australian Open Quarterfinals

Extending deep into a final set, the meeting between former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova featured two women of substantial credentials who had underperformed over the past year.  While Wozniacki edged within two points of a third straight quarterfinal here, the Russian gathered her spirits to sweep the last three games for a 6-2 2-6 7-5 win and reach her first quarterfinal in Melbourne since 2009.

After a pair of routine holds to open, the service games grew more tightly contested.  Forced to deuce after holding a 30-0 lead, Wozniacki unwisely stopped play to challenge a call on a later game point, only to see that the ball clearly clipped the baseline.  With a ferocious series of forehands that stretched her opponent outside the doubles alleys, Kuznetsova earned another break point that she converted for a crucial early lead.  The Dane looked undeterred by the early arrears, ripping cross-court backhands with more authority than she had shown in recent months to make inroads on the Russian’s serve.  Also displaying more aggression, or at least the intent, were Wozniacki’s forays to the net.  Those produced mixed results, however, and helped Kuznetsova survive the fourth game after saving two break points.

Under pressure in her next service game as well, Wozniacki struggled to find answers for her unseeded challenger’s forward-moving attack.  Kuznetsova carved out a 15-40 opportunity with a crisply slashed volley but let the break points slip away with a cluster of unforced errors.  Not without note, though, was the explosive forehand down the line that the former #1 struck for a clean winner to save one of the break points.  A heavily maligned shot, Wozniacki’s forehand often offers a barometer of her confidence, so that winner seemed an encouraging sign even though she still trailed by a break.

Soon thereafter, the Dane trailed by a double break courtesy of two netted backhands, normally her steadier wing.  Kuznetsova’s dipping backhand slice appeared to frustrate Wozniacki by disrupting her rhythm and forcing her to hit up on the ball.  Now in full shot-making flight, the Russian opened her service game with an athletic lunge to put away on a one-handed backhand smash.  She served out the set comfortably, although Wozniacki must not have felt too discouraged.  Having lost the first set to Kuznetsova in each of their earlier meetings at majors, she had rallied to win the next two in both.

Just as she did against Lisicki in the first round, Wozniacki bounced back from losing a 6-2 set to claim an early break and a 3-0 lead in the next.  Kuznetsova’s intensity dipped as her unforced errors mounted, and the former #1 took advantage by keeping her groundstrokes deep to draw misfires.  While the games trickled past, the Russian remained mentally absent as even her movement looked less alert and crisp.  This type of letdown had hampered her against Wozniacki before, so it felt no surprise that a double fault quickly yielded an insurance break and positioned her opponent to serve for the second set.

While Kuznetsova broke her at love in a startling turn of events, the Dane returned the favor in the next game by reaching triple set point with bold groundstrokes that pinned her opponent behind the baseline.  One set point vanished with a volley error, the latest of several by Wozniacki, and another disappeared with a forehand winner.  But an entertaining, court-stretching rally on the third ended with a netted forehand by Kuznetsova that extended the match to a final set.

An extended break between sets did little to reverse the momentum, for Wozniacki held to start the decider after striking a clean backhand winner down the line.  The Dane becomes much more dangerous when she shows opponents her ability to create offense, which keeps natural attackers like Kuznetsova wary of what to expect.  Urgently needing to stop the string of games lost on her own serve, the Russian did so with more focused, precise shot-making.  A backhand winner from her in the next game boded well for her return to form, considering that she generally projects more power from her forehand.  That more familiar weapon burst free on a break point, handing her the early third-set lead.

At that juncture, though, Kuznetsova’s groundstrokes faltered again to hand Wozniacki the opening that she needed to prevent her opponent from consolidating the break.  Although a brilliant backhand lob saved the third of three consecutive break points, the former #1 earned a fourth chance—only to let it escape with a netted forehand.  Frustration from the accumulating chances squandered simmered in Wozniacki, producing an uncharacteristic burst of temper when she slammed her racket to the ground.  That burst seemed to revitalize her, leading to the set-equaling break two points later following an aggressive backhand swing volley.

With a much more convincing service game, Wozniacki thrust the pressure back onto Kuznetsova, who had served second in the final set. That pressure initially appeared to bear fruit when the Dane earned double break point, but Kuznetsova saved them with poise and reached game point with a delicate drop shot.  After more deuces and a controversial challenge that produced an argument from the unusually animated Wozniacki, the Russian survived behind two monstrous forehands.  Responding with vigor, the Dane cleaned the edge of the sideline with a backhand winner unusually risky by her standards.

Despite a fine net approach by Kuznetsova, Wozniacki’s hold kept her nose in front as her opponent confronted foot problems.  Earlier in the third set, Sveta had requested treatment on a heavily bandaged foot, but her movement did not seem unduly hampered.  She won a brutally physical rally during which Wozniacki came to the net twice, hit two smashes, and yet somehow still found herself on the defensive at the end of it.  Two routine errors later, though, the Dane held a break point, which vanished with a fine display of net deftness by Kuznetsova.  It became Wozniacki’s turn to face a break point in the ninth game, which she also saved in style.

Greeting that service winner with a fistpump, the Dane celebrated her save of a second with a signature backhand down the line.  A third disappeared with a reckless forehand from Kuznetsova, who found herself forced to serve to stay alive.  That forehand miss understandably seemed to haunt her in the following game, when she swatted a forehand into the middle of the net.  Two points from defeat, she regained her swagger at just the right time to blast another forehand out of Wozniacki’s reach and soon move to 5-5.  Now looking a bit disappointed, the Dane fell behind 0-40 as the shot-making of her opponent continued to soar.

Unforced errors erased the first two of those break points, but a penetrating return on the third left Kuznetsova serving for the match.  She won the first two points convincingly, the second with a bold swing volley, and closed out the match with surprising poise after losing just a single point.

With her ninth win in ten matches, Kuznetsova has capitalized upon the momentum from her week in Sydney, which she remarkably entered as a qualifier.  Up next for her, most likely, is a match against world #1 Azarenka that she enters as a heavy underdog.  But Sveta becomes a dangerous foe when confident, so Vika may have a difficult test ahead of her.

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.

Pole Looks Polished: Radwanska Defeats Ivanovic to Reach Quarterfinals

Featured in the Rod Laver Arena night session was world #4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who put her undefeated 2013 record on the line against former #1 Ana Ivanovic.  Their match offered a contrast in styles between the first-strike power of the Serb and the versatility of the Pole, who recorded her fifth straight victory in their rivalry with a generally convincing 6-2 6-4 success.

As expected, Ivanovic looked tentative in the first game on her serve.  She looked uncertain both at the net and the baseline, although she did win an entertaining all-court rally to save a break point before consecutive netted forehands surrendered the opening break.  Holding at love with a backhand down the line, Radwanska kept the early pressure on her opponent, who responded with a love hold highlighted by some fine net play and her own backhand winner.

The latter seemed an encouraging sign for Ana, who normally produces unremarkable tennis from that wing.  Two break points came and went in the next game, created by Radwanska backhand errors and saved by Ivanovic forehand errors on relatively routine balls.  Four games deep, the match had not quite found its rhythm.

Nor did Ivanovic ever find her rhythm for more than a few points at a time in that set.  While she held easily for a second straight time to reach 2-3, Radwanska swept the next three games with clean, consistent tennis designed to exploit the errors leaking from across the net in increasing quantities.  Well-placed first serves extricated her from a tight service game, and she broke Ivanovic when the latter committed an egregious double fault that stemmed in part from her decision to chase wayward ball tosses on both first and second serves.  Serving out the set without trouble, Radwanska continued to capitalize on Ivanovic’s forehand.  Normally her greatest weapon, that shot misfired on point after point, including several dismal misses into the middle of the net.

A forehand sprayed into the doubles alley allowed the fourth seed to start the next set with a service break, which she consolidated as the trajectory of the match stayed firmly on course.  Ivanovic did hold serve in the next game with forehands that finally did find their targets.  Approaching the net successfully, she did what she had struggled to do for most of the first set in taking time away from Radwanska.  That miniature momentum shift trickled into the next game, when she earned three more break points.

Determined not to allow her talented opponent a flicker of hope, Radwanska snuffed out each of the break points with confidence.  Yet Ivanovic did not let her off the hook too easily, creating two more break points.  Remarkably, the Pole outserved the Serb despite the conventional wisdom that she would find herself at a disadvantage in that department.  She saved the last two break points with poise and held her last two service games at love, clinching the match with consecutive aces.

While Ivanovic raised her level distinctly in the second set after the weak start, she could not find the consistency to challenge the fourth seed as too many errors spilled from her forehand in particular.  The Serb also failed to match Radwanska in the mental area of the game, losing the majority of the extended rallies as the Pole predictably outmaneuvered and out-thought her.  Still, she reached the second week for the fifth time in the last six majors, which will further her campaign to rejoin the top 10.

For Radwanska, meanwhile, the victory extended a 13-match winning streak to start the season during which she has not dropped a set.  She next will face Li Na in a quarterfinal that repeats their meeting in Sydney last week, won by Radwanska in Li’s only loss of the year so far.