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Snakes in the Grass: Previewing the Wimbledon 2013 Dark Horses

Sabine Lisicki has defeated five top-ten women in her last three Wimbledon appearances.

With the Wimbledon draw just a week ahead, the time has arrived to scan the ATP and WTA rankings in search of dark horses who could grab some unexpected attention.  This survey features only players outside the top 20 at the start of the grass season, likely to meet an opponent of greater note in the first week.  On any given day, these snakes in the grass could strike for an upset or two.

ATP:

John Isner:  Forever famous for his Wimbledon epic against Nicolas Mahut, Isner never has fared as well there as top-ranked compatriot Sam Querrey.  His lack of impact surprises, considering a playing style that should flourish on grass with a nearly impenetrable serve and a preference for short points.  Isner has languished in a slump for most of 2013, but he nearly reached the second week at Roland Garros with another valiant run.  The American would benefit from exchanging his pattern of endless epics for some more efficient first-week victories, conserving his energy early in the fortnight.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Reaching the third round of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, the Bulgarian rising star tends to perform better at non-majors than majors.  But Dimitrov took Tsonga to the brink of a final set at Wimbledon two years ago, and he has threatened every member of the Big Four this year except Roger Federer, whom he has not faced.  His combination of an explosive first serve with dexterity around the net could shine on the grass.  Less impressive is his movement and his ability to convincingly take care of business against overmatched opposition.

Julien Benneteau:  He came closer than anyone last year to knocking off eventual champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, snatching the first two sets before the match slipped away.  Benneteau has struggled to win any matches at all in singles since March, not long after he upset Federer in Rotterdam.  His doubles expertise could help on a court that rewards net-rushers, and he reached the second week in 2010.  Formidable early draws have stunted his progress in most Wimbledon appearances, but Benneteau has lost to only one opponent outside the top eight there since 2005.

Lukas Rosol:  His presence on this list should need little explanation.  Had Rosol won no matches at all after defeating Rafael Nadal in the second round last year, he still would merit a mention.  As it stands, he built upon that upset to rise from the edge of the top 100 to well inside the top 50.  Rosol faces the pressure of defending something meaningful for the first time, and he will need to insulate himself from the inevitable media scrutiny.  He often brings out his best tennis against the best while growing careless or unfocused against the journeymen of the Tour.

Ernests Gulbis:  Slinging ferocious forehands and controversial comments indiscriminately, the Latvian shot-maker once again has become someone intriguing to watch.  Gulbis upset Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon last year, and he twice has won sets from Nadal this year.  More distant achievements include victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic, showing that no elite opponent can feel safe when Gulbis finds his groove.  He may struggle to stay in that groove in the best-of-five format, perhaps a reason why his greatest headlines have come at Masters 1000 events.  Still, grass usually rewards the Jekyll-and-Hyde mixture of overwhelming power and deft finesse that Gulbis can wield.

Feliciano Lopez:  The Spaniard’s best tennis lies well behind him, and he accumulated a losing record this season through the end of Roland Garros.  Lopez has reached three Wimbledon quarterfinals behind his lefty serve-volley style, though, the rarity of which can unsettle younger opponents.  His notable victims there include Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, as well as Tim Henman in his last match on home soil.  Keep an eye on Lopez if he draws a relatively passive baseliner or grinder such as David Ferrer, who long has struggled against him on fast surfaces.

Daniel Brands:  Like Rosol, Brands typically plays to the level of the competition.  He lost resoundingly to Jan Hajek one week before he thrust Nadal to the brink of a two-set deficit at Roland Garros.  Wimbledon marks the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a second-week appearance in 2010, although he lost in the first round of qualifying each of the two subsequent years.  Beware of getting into a fifth set against Brands, who shares Isner’s asymmetry between a massive serve and a woeful return.  That stark contrast leaves him vulnerable against anyone and dangerous to everyone.

WTA:

Ekaterina Makarova:  Only one woman has defeated both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in 2012-13:  not Maria Sharapova, not Li Na, not Petra Kvitova, but Ekaterina Makarova.  This fiery Russian also won Eastbourne on grass as a qualifier in 2010, her only title to date.  Her lefty serve swings wide in the ad court effectively on this surface, a valuable asset on break points.  Makarova’s doubles expertise has honed her net talents to a higher level than most of the women ranked near her, and she has proved that she can excel at majors by reaching two Australian Open quarterfinals.

Sabine Lisicki:  Four or five years ago, Lisicki looked like a future Wimbledon champion.  She honed the best serve in the women’s game outside the Williams sisters, even outdueling Venus to win a Charleston title.  In three Wimbledon appearances from 2009-12, Lisicki reached the quarterfinals or better every time and even notched her first major semifinal there in 2011.  An impressive list of marquee upsets in those appearances includes Maria Sharapova, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and Marion Bartoli.  Somewhat like Gulbis in her ability to combine first-strike power with the finesse of delicate drop shots, Lisicki has struggled to stay healthy long enough to develop momentum and consistency.

Tamira Paszek:  A hideous 1-12 this season, Paszek has won barely any matches since last August but still held a seed at Roland Garros.  She defends the majority of her total rankings points during the short grass season, when she won Eastbourne and reached a second straight Wimbledon quarterfinal last year.  The good news is that Paszek rebounded from a similar sequence of futility at this time in 2012 to record those excellent results.  The bad news is that the pressure will lie heavily on her with the penalty so great for a misstep at either event.

Venus Williams:  Once a champion, always a champion, and never more so than at the greatest bastion of tennis tradition.  Venus will appear in this type of article before every Wimbledon that she plays, no matter her current form.  To be sure, that current form is far from impressive with losses this spring to Olga Puckhova, Laura Robson, and Urszula Radwanska.  Venus wins many fewer matches than she once did on her poise and experience alone, and she probably cannot ration her energy efficiently enough to survive deep into the fortnight.  But nobody wants to face that serve or that wingspan on grass, for one never knows when an aging champion will catch fire.

Laura Robson:  Combined with a junior Wimbledon title, two compelling efforts against Maria Sharapova on home soil suggest that the top British women’s talent could rise to the occasion.  Robson has proved twice in the last twelve months that she can shine at majors, upsetting Kim Clijsters to reach the second week of the US Open and outlasting Petra Kvitova in a nail-biting if ugly epic in Melbourne.  Since the serve plays a heightened role on grass, she must limit the double faults that have grown too frequent this year.  Robson never lacks for courage or belief, often aggressive to the point of reckless.

Zheng Jie:  If she had finished off Serena Williams in the first week of Wimbledon last year, the trajectory of women’s tennis since then would have followed a completely different course.  As it was, Zheng took Serena to 8-6 in the final set, displaying how well her compact swings and crisp footwork suit the low, variable bounces of the grass.  This less intuitive model for surface success than heavy serves and first strikes carried her to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2008.  Like Benneteau, Zheng has found herself saddled with some extremely challenging draws and has lost to few sub-elite opponents there.

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Two years ago, it seemed that Pironkova existed solely to prevent Venus Williams from winning another Wimbledon title.  The willowy Bulgarian defeated Venus in consecutive Wimbledons by identical scores, and she even came within a set of the final in 2010.  Proving that success no anomaly, Pironkova extended Sharapova to a final set last year.  A glance at her game reveals no clear reason why she enjoys grass so much.  Pironkova owns a vulnerable serve and little baseline firepower, earning her living with court coverage and touch.  Her Wimbledon feats show that counterpunchers can find ways to thrive on an offensively oriented surface.

Roland Garros Rewind: Djokovic, Nadal Thrive; Haas, Isner Thrill; Sharapova, Azarenka Survive

Yes, I remember you well.

The remaining second-week lineups fell into place on Saturday at Roland Garros.  Here’s a look back at the studs and duds.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Returning to the battlefield after playing an 8-6 fifth set yesterday, John Isner outdid himself in the effort department.  The American giant rallied from two sets down against Tommy Haas, saving twelve match points in the fourth set.  Isner even claimed a 4-1 lead in the fifth set as a second comeback in two days from losing the first two sets loomed.  Somehow managing to break and saving a match point at 4-5, Haas hung on until Isner finally cracked at 8-8.  The thirteenth match point proved the charm.

Unsurprising surprise of the day:  Also back in action a day after an 8-6 fifth set, Janko Tipsarevic predictably responded less impressively than Isner did.  The eighth seed fell to Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets.  Whoever thought that Youzhny would reach the second week of Roland Garros and have a real chance at a quarterfinal berth deserves a glass of Champagne’s finest.

Nice story of the day:  Overshadowed this tournament by someone else from Switzerland, as he usually is, Stanislas Wawrinka posted a solid four-set win over the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz.  Wawrinka had not known whether he would participate in Roland Garros this year because of a leg injury, so he will feel confident that he made the right decision.

Scandal of the day:  A set point against Kei Nishikori awaited Benoit Paire—or so it seemed.  Umpire Enric Molina took away the opportunity with a coaching code violation, resulting in a point penalty.  An infuriated Paire argued his case at length, but Molina appeared to have ruled correctly.  Probably spurred by the incident, Paire bludgeoned his way to win the set anyway, although he lost the match.

Gold star:  Like fellow Head endorser Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic always fancies a taste of revenge.  He ravaged Grigor Dimitrov’s serve without mercy just weeks after finding it nearly invulnerable in Madrid.  Toppled in three sets that time, Djokovic lost just seven games here.

Silver star:  Baby steps for Rafael Nadal, who looked far from his overwhelming King of Clay self again but at least advanced in straight sets.  Nadal had thrashed third-round opponent Fabio Fognini in Rome.  This match proved much more competitive but never really in doubt once he survived a slow start to win a first-set tiebreak.

Stat of the day:  The twelve match points saved by Isner were the most ever saved by any man in a match at a major.

American men in Paris:  None reach the second week.  RIP, this category.

Question of the day:  Djokovic’s fourth-round opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber has advanced routinely to this stage and upset the Serb here in 2009.  Can he make things interesting on Monday?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Just like Monfils-Berdych, the Stosur-Jankovic duel of veteran clay specialists lived up to its billing.  Jankovic repeated her Stuttgart upset of the world No. 9 after losing the first set and closing out a long, tight decider.  Her clay revival this year should lead to her first major quarterfinal in recent memory,…

Surprise of the day:  …although Jamie Hampton might have something to say about it.  The small American who gave Victoria Azarenka a scare in Melbourne bundled Petra Kvitova out of the tournament. Facing little resistance early, Hampton needed to navigate a long second-set tiebreak to prevent the advantage shifting back to the favorite in the third set.  Kvitova has lost before the quarterfinals at three straight majors.

Nice story of the day:  Perhaps the nicest story of the tournament, in fact.  2010 champion and 2011 finalist Francesca Schiavone returns to the second week in Paris despite a disappointing season, finishing off top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli without much ado.

Top seeds show frailty…:  Victoria Azarenka barely could hold serve at all for a set-plus against Alize Cornet, dropping a break at love to concede the first set to someone with a 24-match losing streak against top-30 opponents.  After an emphatic first set, Maria Sharapova suddenly lost the plot and fell behind by a double break to the persistent but faded Zheng Jie amid serving struggles.

…but finish strong:  Once adversity struck, both top women showed their spine.  World No. 3 Azarenka raced through a 6-1 third set, while world No. 2 Sharapova swept six of the last seven games.  If you want to score a huge upset, you cannot afford to labor as consistently on serve as Cornet and Zheng did.  That is too much additional pressure stacked on top of the pressure created by the circumstances.

Adieu, les bleues:  Barely wobbling through her two previous matches, Bartoli followed Cornet to the exit as the last Frenchwomen faded from the draw in the first week.  Credit to each of them for fighting bard, but France simply is not a first-tier tennis power in the women’s game.

Stat of the day:  Sharapova converted all eight of her break points against Zheng, who held serve exactly once in the match.

Americans in Paris:  Who would have thought that the stars and stripes would supply a quarter of the women’s final sixteen on the clay of Roland Garros?  In addition to Hampton and Serena Williams, Bethanie Mattek-Sands rallied from losing the first set for the second straight match to dominate clay specialist Paula Ormaechea late.  Sloane Stephens took advantage of a soft draw to repeat her second-week result here from last year.  Now 8-1 at majors and 11-1 at non-majors, Stephens saves her best for when it means the most.

Questions of the day:  Can Schiavone flap the visibly flappable Azarenka on Monday?  And how many women’s quarterfinalists will the USA produce?  All but Serena will be underdogs next round.

 

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Azarenka, Sharapova, Stosur, Nadal, Gasquet and More Highlight Day 7

Will Nadal start looking more like the King of Clay?

While Yeshayahu Ginsburg focuses his spotlight on the marquee clash between Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov, this article focuses on nine other matches to watch as the first week concludes in Paris.

WTA:

Alize Cornet vs. Victoria Azarenka:  The champion in Strasbourg last week, Cornet has won seven straight matches in her home nation on her favorite surface.  She faces a daunting test against a woman whom she lacks the power to hit through her with either serve or groundstrokes.  Simple and steady should suffice for Azarenka, who looked crisp in her first round and shaky in her second.  The wildcard in this match could consist of the French crowd, likely to try anything possible to fluster her.  If Vika can keep her composure and perhaps draw energy from the hostility, she should reach the second week in a feisty mood.

Maria Sharapova vs. Zheng Jie:  A massive height advantage should help the defending champion collect some free points against the last Chinese woman left in the draw.  Zheng has a winning record against top-10 opponents this year and a victory over Sharapova at Indian Wells in 2010, but her meek serve will cause the WTA’s most vicious returner to salivate.  If she can dig herself into some rallies, her groundstroke depth could make this match competitive, like their other meetings.  Sharapova fell a few notches short of flawless in the second round, wobbling slightly near the finish line, and Zheng owns a reputation for never going away.

Marion Bartoli vs. Francesca Schiavone:  The top-ranked Frenchwoman probably should consider herself fortunate to have reached this stage.  Bartoli saved two match points in a three-hour match to start the tournament and came from behind in both sets of her second-round match after her opponent served for both.  While she has underachieved for her ranking, Schiavone has overachieved in upsetting top-30 player Kirsten Flipkens.  She holds a clear surface edge over Bartoli, whom she defeated in a 2011 semifinal here.  Less clear is whether her serve can withstand the double-fister’s return well enough to secure the holds that eluded Bartoli’s previous challengers at key moments.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Samantha Stosur:  Also a rematch of a Roland Garros semifinal, this match offers Jankovic the opportunity to avenge a rout at the Australian’s hands here in 2010.  On the other hand, it offers Stosur a chance to secure retribution for a loss to the Serb in Stuttgart this spring.  These two women wield weapons almost mirror images of each other, from Stosur’s forehand to Jankovic’s backhand and Stosur’s serving power to Jankovic’s movement.  Both have found contrasting ways to shine on clay, the Aussie utilizing heavy topspin and a kick serve while the Serb bolsters her counterpunching with sliding retrievals.  Both have looked especially crisp this tournament by advancing in straight sets, Stosur more convincingly but Jankovic against stronger opposition.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Paula Ormaechea:  Both women enter this match riding a wave of momentum from upsetting a seeded opponent.  While the Argentine clay specialist bounced Yaroslava Shvedova, one of last year’s quarterfinalists, the American power-hitter knocked off 2011 champion Li Na in the surprise of the tournament so far.  This match will come down to whether Mattek-Sands can continue to strike her targets relentlessly or whether Ormaechea can find ways to survive her opponent’s first strikes and lengthen the points.  Almost nobody would have expected either to reach the second week of a major when the season began.

Petra Kvitova vs. Jamie Hampton: The American’s two victories could not have differed much more from each other.  First winning a three-set thriller from the 25th-seeded Lucie Safarova, Hampton then eased past a qualifier comfortably.  She may or may not have a chance to affect the outcome of this match, depending on which Kvitova shows up.  The bad Petra flirted with first-round disaster by spraying groundstrokes aimlessly midway through the match, while the disciplined and focused Petra returned for a victory over Peng Shuai.  Kvitova’s weapons will overwhelm Hampton if she sustains her accuracy, but this underdog has the talent to exploit one of her feckless days.

ATP:

Rafael Nadal vs. Fabio Fognini:  Never having faced the Italian before this month, Nadal now will meet him for the second time in two tournaments.  His Rome rout of Fognini mutes the intrigue of this match despite the short rest for Rafa, forced to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days.  Fognini maintained his regular schedule and will need all of the rest to prepare for a competitor in some ways the antithesis of him.  While both men play their best tennis on clay, Nadal views it as trench warfare and Fognini as art form.

Benoit Paire vs. Kei Nishikori:  Outside a wobble late in the second set of his second match, Nishikori has not defeated his opponents so much as annihilated them.  While he stunned Roger Federer in Madrid, this imposing form still surprises from someone who has accomplished little on clay, losing to Jeremy Chardy and Albert Ramos this spring.  Barely ten ranking slots behind Nishikori, Paire had not loomed any larger in more extensive clay action—until he suddenly reached the semifinals in Rome.  He has won nine of his last ten matches against opponents other than Federer and Rafael Nadal, although he never has reached the second week at a major.  Nishikori won their only meeting last fall, also in Paris, but the indoor hard courts of Bercy bear scant resemblance to the terre battue of Roland Garros.

Nikolay Davydenko vs. Richard Gasquet:  While Davydenko holds the stronger career record at Roland Garros, having reached the semifinals here before, Gasquet has found much stronger form this year.  Among his more notable accomplishments was a Doha final in which he rallied from within a tiebreak of defeat to overcome Davydenko.  They have not met on clay since 2005, but both have advanced convincingly so far.  In contrast to the earlier stages of his career, Gasquet has won most of the matches that he should win over the past twelve months.  This match belongs in that category, although the contrast between the elongated one-handed swing of the Frenchman’s backhand and the streamlined two-hander of the Russian merits watching alone.

Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Jerzy Janowicz:  After he played four sets on Friday, Janowicz finds himself at a fitness disadvantage against one of the ATP’s premier grinders.  Wawrinka brought some physical issues of his own into the tournament with a muscle tear in his leg, issues that have receded as he has settled into the tournament.  These men number among the leading dark horses in the men’s field, and the winner would stay on track to meet a fallible Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.  Janowicz’s heavy serve and flat groundstrokes should allow him to take the initiative in most points, which he will want to finish quickly before fatigue descends.

 

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

Not even rain could stop the world No. 1 today, much less Guido Pella.

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

ATP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTA:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Their Just Deserts: The Mega WTA Indian Wells Draw Preview

Will Vika hang on to her hardware here as well as she did in Melbourne?

Read about what to expect from the first Premier Mandatory tournament of 2013 as we break down each quarter of the WTA Indian Wells draw in detail!

First quarter:  For the second straight year, Azarenka arrives in the desert with a perfect season record that includes titles at the Australian Open and the Premier Five tournament in Doha.  Able to defend those achievements, she eyes another prestigious defense at Indian Wells on a surface that suits her balanced hybrid of offense and defense as well as any other.  In her opener, she could face the only woman in the draw who has won multiple titles here, Daniela Hantuchova, although the more recent of her pair came six long years ago.  Since reaching the second week of the Australian Open, Kirsten Flipkens staggered to disappointing results in February, so Azarenka need not expect too stern a test from the Belgian.  Of perhaps greater concern is a rematch of her controversial Melbourne semifinal against Sloane Stephens, who aims to bounce back from an injury-hampered span with the encouragement of her home crowd.  Heavy fan support for the opponent can fluster Azarenka, or it can bring out her most ferocious tennis, which makes that match one to watch either way.  Of some local interest is the first-round match between Jamie Hampton, who won a set from Vika in Melbourne, and Kuala Lumpur runner-up Mattek-Sands.

The most intriguing first-round match in the lower section of this quarter pits Laura Robson against the blistering backhands of Sofia Arvidsson.  In fact, plenty of imposing two-handers highlight that neighborhood with those of Julia Goerges and the tenth-seeded Petrova also set to shine.  The slow courts of Indian Wells might not suit games so high on risk and low on consistency, possibly lightening the burden on former champion Wozniacki.  Just two years ago, the Dane won this title as the world #1, and she reached the final in 2010 with her characteristic counterpunching.  Downed relatively early in her title defense last year, she has shown recent signs of regrouping with strong performances at the Persian Gulf tournaments in February.  On the other hand, a quick loss as the top seed in Kuala Lumpur reminded viewers that her revival remains a work in progress.  She has not faced Azarenka since the latter’s breakthrough in mid-2011, so a quarterfinal between them would offer fascinating evidence as to whether Caro can preserve her mental edge over her friend.

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Second quarter:  Unremarkable so far this year, Kerber has fallen short of the form that carried her to a 2012 semifinal here and brings a three-match losing streak to the desert.  Even with that recent history, she should survive early tests from opponents like Heather Watson and the flaky Wickmayer before one of two fellow lefties poses an intriguing challenge in the fourth round.  For the second straight year, Makarova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, and her most significant victory there came against Kerber in a tightly contested match of high quality.  Dogged by erratic results, this Russian may find this surface too slow for her patience despite the improved defense and more balanced weapons that she showed in Melbourne.  Another woman who reached the second week there, Bojana Jovanovski, hopes to prove that accomplishment more than just a quirk of fate, which it seems so far.  Also in this section is the enigmatic Safarova, a woman of prodigious talent but few results to show for it.  If she meets Makarova in the third round, an unpredictable clash could ensue, after which the winner would need to break down Kerber’s counterpunching.

Stirring to life in Doha and Dubai, where she reached the quarterfinals at both, Stosur has played much further below her ranking this year than has Kerber.  A disastrous Australian season and Fed Cup weekend have started to fade a bit, however, for a woman who has reached the Indian Wells semifinals before.  Stosur will welcome the extra time that the court gives her to hit as many forehands as possible, but she may not welcome a draw riddled with early threats.  At the outset, the US Open champion could face American phenom Madison Keys, who raised eyebrows when she charged within a tiebreak of the semifinals in a strong Sydney draw.  The feisty Peng, a quarterfinalist here in 2011, also does not flinch when facing higher-ranked opponents, so Stosur may breathe a sigh of relief if she reaches the fourth round.  Either of her likely opponents there shares her strengths of powerful serves and forehands as well as her limitations in mobility and consistency.  Losing her only previous meeting with Mona Barthel, on the Stuttgart indoor clay, Ivanovic will seek to reverse that result at a tournament where she usually has found her most convincing tennis even in her less productive periods.  Minor injuries have nagged her lately, while Barthel has reached two finals already in 2013 (winning one), so this match could prove compelling if both silence other powerful servers around them, like Lucie Hradecka.

Semifinalist:  Ivanovic

Third quarter:  Another woman who has reached two finals this year (winning both), the third-seeded Radwanska eyes perhaps the easiest route of the elite contenders.  Barring her path to the fourth round are only a handful of qualifiers, an anonymous American wildcard, an aging clay specialist who has not won a match all year, and the perenially underachieving Sorana Cirstea.  Radwanska excels at causing raw, error-prone sluggers like Cirstea to implode, and she will face nobody with the sustained power and accuracy to overcome her in the next round either.  In that section, Christina McHale attempts to continue a comeback from mono that left her without a victory for several months until a recent breakthrough, and Maria Kirilenko marks her return from injury that sidelined her after winning the Pattaya City title.  Although she took Radwanska deep into the final set of a Wimbledon quarterfinal last year, and defeated her at a US Open, the Russian should struggle if rusty against the more confident Aga who has emerged since late 2011.  Can two grass specialists, Pironkova and Paszek, cause a stir in this quiet section?

Not much more intimidating is the route that lies before the section’s second highest-ranked seed, newly minted Dubai champion Kvitova.  Although she never has left a mark on either Indian Wells or Miami, Kvitova suggested that she had ended her habitual struggles in North America by winning the US Open Series last summer with titles in Montreal and New Haven.  Able to enter and stay in torrid mode like the flip of a switch, she aims to build on her momentum from consecutive victories over three top-ten opponents there.  The nearest seeded opponent to Kvitova, Yaroslava Shvedova, has struggled to string together victories since her near-upset of Serena at Wimbledon, although she nearly toppled Kvitova in their most recent meeting at Roland Garros.  Almost upsetting Azarenka near this time a year ago, Cibulkova looks to repeat her upset over the Czech in Sydney when they meet in the fourth round.  Just reaching that stage would mark a step forward for her, though, considering her failure to build upon her runner-up appearance there and the presence of ultra-steady Zakopalova.  Having dominated Radwanska so thoroughly in Dubai, Kvitova should feel confident about that test.

Semifinalist:  Kvitova

Fourth quarter:  Semifinalist in 2011, finalist in 2012, champion in 2013?  Before she can think so far ahead, the second-seeded Sharapova must maneuver past a string of veteran Italians and other clay specialists like Suarez Navarro.  Aligned to meet in the first round are the former Fed Cup teammates Pennetta and Schiavone in one of Wednesday’s most compelling matches, but the winner vanishes directly into Sharapova’s jaws just afterwards.  The faltering Varvara Lepchenko could meet the surging Roberta Vinci, who just reached the semifinals in Dubai with victories over Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur.  Like Kvitova, then, she brings plenty of positive energy to a weak section of the draw, where her subtlety could carry her past the erratic or fading players around her.  But Sharapova crushed Vinci at this time last year, and she never has found even a flicker of self-belief against the Russian.

Once notorious for the catfights that flared between them, Jankovic and Bartoli could extend their bitter rivalry in the third round at a tournament where both have reached the final (Jankovic winning in 2010, Bartoli falling to Wozniacki a year later).  Between them stands perhaps a more convincing dark horse candidate in Kuznetsova, not far removed from an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance that signaled her revival.  Suddenly striking the ball with confidence and even—gasp—a modicum of thoughtfulness, she could draw strength from the memories of her consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2007-08.  If Kuznetsova remains young enough to recapture some of her former prowess, her compatriot Pavlyuchenkova also has plenty of time to rebuild a career that has lain in ruins for over a year.  By playing close to her potential, she could threaten Errani despite the sixth seed’s recent clay title defense in Acapulco.  Not in a long time has anyone in this area challenged Sharapova, though.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!

Memories of Melbourne: Grading the Australian Open (WTA)

Over the course of the fortnight, from darkness came light.  And came Vika.

After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open.  Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.

Azarenka:  The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many.  What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her.  Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times.  Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price.  She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it.  When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all.  A

Li:  Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court.  She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title.  The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets.  Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here.  When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness.  Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel.  And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile.  A+

Sharapova:  Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week.  We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning.  That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility.  Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance.  Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right.  B+

Serena:  As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena.  She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could.  One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then.  Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon.  Incomplete

Stephens:  Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens.  Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third.  Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win.  Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1.  A

Radwanska:  Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most.  Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw.  She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments.  It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right.  B

Makarova:  As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne.  Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber.  Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise.  Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway.  B+

Kuznetsova:  One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion.  Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past.  Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA.  B+

Kerber:  Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense.  She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012.  That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her.  B-

WTA #7-9:  This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points.  Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown.  Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads.  At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point.  F

Wozniacki:  Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round.  Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches.  Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova.  (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.)  Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery.  C+

Pavlyuchenkova:  Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round.  What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it?  Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it.  C

WTA young guns:  From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne.  The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst.  A

Kvitova vs. Robson:  Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka.  The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd.  It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night.  B

Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams:  Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors.  After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills.  This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter.  A-

Women’s final:  Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament:  fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies.  As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time.  Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final.  A

Enjoy this tournament review?  Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.

Zheng Jie: Earning Her Day in the Sun

Zheng Jie wasn't the supporting act to a Stosur meltdown.

A lot of people are going to publish articles about Samantha Stosur in the next few hours.

About how she lost early in Australia again. About how she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and how she once again crumbled under the pressure of playing at home. How she choked and let her undersized opponent back into the match. About how she is a talented player with a big serve and forehand, how she has won a Grand Slam title, and how mysterious it is that she cannot string together wins in her home country.

This will not be one of those articles.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Zheng Jie. A player without the Slam title but arguably twice the talent with flat strokes that belie her size. A pioneer for Chinese tennis, the first Chinese woman to reach a major semifinal at Wimbledon. A courageous competitor who took Serena Williams to 9-7 in the third on the London lawns a year ago and beat Stosur herself two weeks ago in a three grueling sets.

The winner of her second round match, defeating Stosur 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.

Zheng took the court understandably full of belief; her opponent’s struggles in Australia are as notorious as they are well documented. Combine those external circumstances with the inconvenient truth that Zheng’s flat, on the rise groundstrokes match up well against Stosur’s more mechanical, time-dependent game style and the unseeded Chinesewoman was the overwhelming favorite.

She certainly played like the favorite for most of the first set. Taking precious time away from Stosur, Zheng dominated the No. 9 seed from the back of the court, showing the partisan crowd why she has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. Despite a late wobble, she closed on her eighth set point and looked set to be Stosur’s yearly Melbourne conqueror.

For the next set and a half, things began to change. Stosur stopped missing, and Zheng’s laser-like shots lost their pinpoint accuracy. The crowd got involved and for a moment, Stosur forgot she was playing in Australia. As the Chinesewoman fell behind a double break in the third set she struck a disconsolate figure, out of energy and out of ideas.

In a manner reminiscent of everywhere (not just Australia), Stosur began to pull back. The embarrassing shanks that haunted her throughout the first set were coming in streams. Despite a jittery finish, she still found herself within two points of the third round.

Enter “JZ.” Like a boss.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJYMQ4YNIRQ&w=560&h=315

Using her veteran sensibility, Zheng took full advantage of the shorter ball she was now getting. She stepped up and into the court, outfoxing Stosur from the baseline and passing her at the net. Breaking the Aussie twice to level, the rest of the match appeared only a formality. Stosur had retreated, Zheng had advanced; there would be no more violent shifts in momentum.

Almost three days into the first week, this match was one of the best the tournament had to offer. The first match on Rod Laver Arena to go the distance, it exhibited breathtaking rallies, intelligent shotmaking, and a very tense ending. But it was not a match that Sam Stosur lost.

This was a match that Zheng Jie won.

It was a hard-earned victory, one that does not deserved to be sullied by the insinuation that she benefited from a choke. Stosur may have left the door open on her way to the round of 32, but it was up to Zheng to walk through and kick the Aussie out.

Kick she did, and she was rewarded with a day in the sun.

 

Last to Go: Stosur’s Collapse Ends Australian Women’s Hopes

Sam put too many of these backhands into the net at costly moments today.

After she had lost a painful three-setter to Zheng Jie in Sydney last week, Sam Stosur must have entered Rod Laver Arena with thoughts of revenge as well as some trepidation.  The only Aussie women left in the singles draw, she had compiled a history of underachievement on home soil.  Moreover, Stosur recently had recovered from surgery for a bone spur near her ankle, so she had looked rusty in her first few matches of 2013.  What awaited was a stunning collapse at her home major that rivaled any of her disasters there before, although a different outcome looked likely if not nearly certain at more than one juncture.

 

Her confidence perhaps boosted by the first-round victory, the home hope started more solidly on serve than she had in Sydney.  An errant forehand from Zheng produced an early break point for Stosur, but a netted backhand let the opportunity escape.  The former US Open champion earned success by stretching the tenacious Chinese star wide along the baseline from the outset of the rallies, and by exploiting her physical limitations with kick serves and topspin-heavy groundstrokes.  For her part, Zheng did what most of Stosur’s opponents try to do in finding her backhand wing, much less imposing than her forehand.  But her second serve was a liability on which the Aussie tried to pounce, connecting on some return winners while spraying others well wide.

 

Through the first several games, Stosur held serve more comfortably than did Zheng, reversing a trend from their previous meeting.  That pattern ended in the fifth game, when a horrifically shanked second serve that landed over the baseline set up two break points.  Remarkably unruffled by the embarrassment, Stosur bounced back to hold with more accurate groundstrokes.  She found herself in trouble again at 3-3, however, following a brilliantly angled backhand pass from Zheng that negated a strong approach.  Watching a forehand return winner dart past her cross-court, Stosur faced triple break point.  An entertaining cat-and-mouse exchange ensured with Zheng at the net and Stosur at the baseline, but the Chinese secured the last word with a deft volley.

 

Having claimed the first break of the match, Zheng opened her attempt to consolidate with a double fault.  Emboldened by that ominous start, Stosur swung more confidently on her returns and soon drew level with consecutive forehand winners.  She began to dictate the rallies more regularly as she ran around her backhand more often.  That effort went wasted after a dreadful service game in which she yielded three double faults and an unforced error on break point, allowing Zheng to serve for the set.

 

This time, the Chinese moved quickly to triple set point, only to let all three slip away.  A double fault erased a fourth, an unforced error a fifth, and a spectacular defensive lob from Stosur contributed to erasing a sixth just when Zheng looked on the verge of ended a rally that she had controlled.  As she continue to struggle with her backhand, Stosur watched a seventh set point slip away and threatened to save an eighth as well.  But she shanked a routine drive volley well long to end the epic game and sink into a one-set hole.

 

As Zheng’s steady defense continued to chip away, Stosur wobbled through another treacherous service game.  Six deuces and two break points later, she ended a two-game stretch that had lasted 34 points.  Stosur began to venture towards the net more often, sometimes succeeding in taking time away from Zheng and sometimes punished by her opponent’s crisp passing shots.  Two explosive forehand returns enabled her to record the first break of the second set, in the fourth game.  As her confidence rose, Stosur began to prey upon Zheng’s serve more ruthlessly.  An insurance break sealed by a sequence of penetrating forehands allowed her to cruise through the second set.  To this stage, the match had resembled their Sydney encounter, although that second set had reached a tiebreak.

 

More self-assured in her body language now, Stosur began to show the poise that she needed to sustain her momentum in the third.  In the first game of the final set, she won a long backhand-to-backhand exchange with the sort of patience that had eluded her in the first set.  Now more in control of her weapons, the Aussie earned an immediate break from the fading Zheng.  Another brief momentum shift awaited when she dropped her serve at love with a double fault, but her opponent dropped her own serve for the fourth straight time without much resistance.  A key turning point came in the next game, when Sam again fell behind 0-40 before climbing out of the deficit with penetrating groundstrokes.  Saving two more break points before the game ended, she established a 3-1 lead more through perseverance than brilliance.

 

With a double-break advantage hers, Stosur had two opportunities to serve out the match and clinch her berth in the third round.  In a stunning twist of events, she could convert neither of them, never arriving at a match point.  The invigorated Zheng fired a series of fierce groundstrokes to reach 5-5 and  thrust the pressure squarely back on the favorite’s shoulders.  Never a player who surrenders easily, the Chinese forced Stosur to fight for each point that she won, a task that her faltering nerves struggled to handle.

 

Serving to stay alive now, Stosur quickly fell behind 0-30 with a backhand error.  Two points later, Zheng cracked a forehand winner down the line to set up double match point.  At that moment, Stosur ended her own misery with a gruesome double fault into the net that completed her stunning collapse, 6-4 1-6 7-5, and left no home hopes in the women’s singles draw here.  Before the third day of the 2013 Australian Open ended, only Tomic and Duckworth remained among the legions of Aussies who had arrived in Melbourne.

 

Wizards of Oz (III): Stosur, Venus, Sharapova, Djokovic, and More on Australian Open Day 3

Will Stosur continue to keep her eye on the ball against a recent nemesis?

The first day of the second round looks rather sparse in general, but we picked out a few potential diamonds in the rough.  Let’s start with the ladies for a change.

WTA:

Zheng vs. Stosur (Rod Laver Arena):  When they met a week ago in Sydney, the Aussie suffered from a slow start, rallied to reach a final set, and then let a late lead slip away in a match of unpredictable twists and turns.  Although Stosur improved on last year’s performance here by escaping the first round, her first victory of 2013 did not come without a series of wobbles such as donating an early break and failing to serve out the first set.  She won fewer free points from her serve than she usually does, which could spell trouble against Zheng again.  Despite her limitations on return, due to her short wingspan, the Chinese doubles specialist competes ferociously and should outlast Stosur from the baseline with her more balanced weapons.  But she struggled even more to survive her opener and had stumbled through a string of losses before that upset of the Aussie in Sydney.

Venus vs. Cornet (RLA):  At the 2009 Australian Open, Cornet stood within a point of the quarterfinals and a signature victory over then-#1 Safina.  Match point upon match point slipped away, confidence evaporated, shoulder trouble sidelined her soon afterwards, and the petite Frenchwoman remained too mentally and physically dubious to fulfill her promise as a junior.  The relatively slow court might suit her game more than the volatile, inconsistent style of Venus, but the American raised her level dramatically from the Hopman Cup while dropping just one game in the first round.  By contrast, the Frenchwoman struggled to hold throughout that match, especially under pressure, so only an implosion by Venus could repeat the Suarez Navarro upset from the same Australian Open in which Cornet faced Safina.

Sharapova vs. Doi (Hisense Arena):  On a late afternoon without many marquee matches, the Sharapova Show offers a decent way to end the day session.  The 2008 champion has blitzed almost all first-week opponents at majors since the start of 2012, but the caliber of those opponents often has prevented one from accurately judging her form.  Doi, who defeated Schiavone last year, may surpass expectations after defeating the more familiar Petra Martic in the first round.  In general, though, the value of this match comes from juxtaposing Maria’s form here against what Venus shows in the night session, two days ahead of their highly anticipated third-round collision.

Pervak vs. Watson (Court 8):  While Murray and Robson attract most of the attention currently circulating around British tennis, and justly so, Heather Watson may develop into a meaningful talent in her own right.  The Bolletieri-trained baseliner twice has taken sets from Sharapova and defeated fellow rising star Sloane Stephens last year before finishing her season with a title in Osaka.  Not lacking for durability, she won one of the season’s longest finals there and will attempt to grind down Pervak with a combination of depth and court coverage.  Teenagers have excelled in the women’s draw so far, eleven reaching the second round, so this youth movement might bode well for the 20-year-old Watson.

ATP:

Djokovic vs. Harrison (RLA):  The Serb has won all five of their sets and looked his usual imposing self in the first round against Paul-Henri Mathieu, showing off his elastic movement and transition game at the major that most rewards it.  For Harrison, who avenged his Olympics loss to Giraldo in four sets, an upset bid will require greater focus and competitive stamina than he has shown so far in his career.  Typical of his stop-and-start results was a week in Brisbane when he defeated Isner and lost meekly to Benneteau in the next round.  Harrison will need to take more chances earlier in the rallies than he did against Giraldo, especially on his forehand, to take Djokovic outside his comfort zone against an opponent who does nothing better than he does.  As with his match against Murray last year, this meeting offers a useful measuring stick to test Harrison’s progress.

Malisse vs. Verdasco (MCA):  Even in the twilight of his career, the Belgian defeated the Spaniard on the latter’s weakest surface at Wimbledon last summer.  Malisse still can unleash blistering backhands when he times his short swings effectively, and Verdasco looked thoroughly human in a five-set rollercoaster against David Goffin.  Both men have shown a tendency to alternate the sublime with the ridiculous, often finding the latter at the least opportune moments, but a comedy of errors could provide its own form of entertainment.

Lacko vs. Tipsarevic (Court 2):  The eighth seed played his best tennis in months when he battled past Hewitt in a straight-setter closer than it looked.  Ripping winner after winner down the sidelines, Tipsarevic looked every inch the elite player that he has become and could charge deep into a draw where he inhabits the least formidable quarter.  He has struggled for much of his career with sustaining a high performance level from match to match, though, which makes a letdown a plausible possibility.  If he does, Lacko might have just enough talent to punish him for it.

Lopez vs. Stepanek (Court 3):  Aligned opposite each other are two net-rushers from opposite sides, the Spaniard from the left and the Czech from the right.  As a result, the tennis might trigger memories of decades past before baseline tennis established its stranglehold over the ATP.  Stepanek rallied from a two-set deficit in the first round to ambush Troicki, but a comeback would prove more difficult against a server like Lopez, who has won sets from Federer before.  While the Czech has dominated most of their rivalry, the Spaniard did win their last meeting on a similar speed of court in Montreal.

Querrey vs. Baker (Court 6):  The man who mounted a long-term comeback meets a man who mounted a more ordinary comeback that culminated last year when he rejoined the top 30.  Querrey typically has struggled at majors other than the US Open, however, and he lost a set to an anonymous, underpowered Spaniard in his opener.  If he can bomb a high percentage of first serves, Baker may not match him hold for hold.  On the other hand, a sloppy effort from Querrey would open the door for his compatriot to expose his meager backhand, one-dimensional tactics, and unsteady footwork.

 

Funny Photos: Australian Open Day 8

Williams of the U.S. reacts during her match against Makarova of Russia at the Australian Open tennis tournament

Here’s a roundup of funny photos from Day Eight of the Australian Open featuring players Kvitova, Tsonga, Ivanovic, Murray, Ferrer, Hewitt, Gasquet and Lisicki among others, Tebowing, calling on the tennis gods, and of course, stripping.

Petra Kvitova paying homage to American football player Tim Tebow by ”Tebowing” on court. The only way that this could be more impressive is to Tebow during a point — a fact that Ana Ivanovic has nearly perfected:

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This is a photo of Lleyton Hewitt looking for his wife Bec, right? I mean, there cannot be another explanation for this, RIGHT??

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In recent statements, Serena Williams has said she “doesn’t love tennis, today” and it seems like tennis doesn’t love her back either. Watch out for those vicious inanimate objects we call tennis racquets, Serena. They’re out to get you, gurrrl!

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Perhaps she heard me and is actually apologizing to the tennis gods. But maybe she’s singing and dancing. I can’t really tell.

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Not only is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s adidas kit so much better looking in the promotions than on-court, but he’s also missing the tennis ball in his famous “ball-biting” face!

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This photo is pretty tame, but the  caption makes me scratch my head:  ”Zheng Jie of China wears an ice pack.” Since when did ice packs become a new fashion accessory, Getty? Not sure the ice pack is getting the proper treatment — maybe they should get Marcos Baghdatis to promote it.

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You cannot outdo a good “head stuck in shirt” shot ala Richard Gasquet. A+ for execution. B- for not flexing your abs, Reeshard. Tsk tsk.

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Uh, how did these get in here? Anyways. Tomas Berdych seems to have gotten my abs-flexing memo during his afternoon at the beach on St. Kilda. You’re welcome.

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Surprise quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova is multi-talented. Not only did she beat Serena Williams in two easy sets, but she was watching Championship Sunday football games at the same time: GOALLLL!

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“And I-yee-I will always love youuuu-ohhh…”

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Good girl Sabine Lisicki seems to be hushing the crowd in a Berdych-esque way, when in fact she was simply challenging a call. Angles, angles, angles.

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And in similar news: placement, placement, placement. Oh, Andy. You make it too easy for us.

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And finally, if only because these types of photos have become so common in the past year, dead spots in million dollar tennis tournaments. Here, an official uses a powerdrill during the Kei Nishikori vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga match.

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