In the early stages of a draw as large as Indian Wells, more questions often are asked than answered as we learn just enough to know what we don’t know—and what we want to know. Here are twelve burning questions to ponder while the core of the tournament approaches.
1. Will Federer and Nadal meet for the first time in a year?
For the first time since their rivalry took flight, the archrivals did not clash on clay or grass last season. By placing them in the same quarter, the draw gods have done their best to ensure that they will meet at Indian Wells for the second straight year. Especially promising is Federer’s path, for only Ivan Dodig and the winner of Hewitt vs. Wawrinka stand between a Swiss star who looked crisp in his opening demolition of Denis Istomin. Nadal’s route looks generally benign as well on paper, but the surging Ernests Gulbis could pose a severe test if he can keep up the form that has carried him through his longest winning streak ever.
2. Will Azarenka and Wozniacki meet for the first time in two years?
The two BFFs last faced each other on this court in 2011, when Wozniacki held the #1 ranking and Azarenka faced serious questions about her physical and emotional durability. How times have changed since then. Now, Wozniacki must field questions about her continued relevance as a contender, while Azarenka has become the face of the WTA’s new generation (albeit not always the face that the WTA would want). What makes this potential quarterfinal between the last two Indian Wells champions intriguing is Wozniacki’s former control of their rivalry, which seemed not so much technical as psychological. Still undefeated this year, Vika looks nearly certain to reach that rendezvous if she can keep injuries at bay. Chronic nemesis Goerges still might intercept Caro, as might a revived Petrova.
3. Can Berdych take care of business?
As if the weakest quarter in the men’s draw needed to get any weaker, Kevin Anderson upset the only serious threat to the Czech in David Ferrer. With his route to the semifinals wide open, Berdych need not worry about anyone more dangerous than Gasquet. The Frenchman does happen to be rather dangerous at the moment, granted, since he has won two (small) titles this year and should prosper on the slow surface. But Berdych also has enjoyed a consistent season to date, so his superior weapons leave him in control of his own destiny.
4. Can Sharapova take care of business?
Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino. Sara Errani. Marion Bartoli. None of these potential pre-semifinal opponents ever has defeated Sharapova, and only once has any of them threatened her. That occasion did come recently at last year’s US Open, when Bartoli won the first set before Maria stormed back. All the same, the 2006 champion should overwhelm the Spanish journeywoman in the fourth round and rely on her dominance over those rivals to reach a third straight semifinal in the desert. Even without her best form against a top-25 opponent, Suarez Navarro, she eased through in straight sets by—as usual—growing more aggressive rather than less when the match could have tilted in either direction.
5. Should Murray’s fans be concerned?
After an easy third-round assignment, the competition will get stiff for the Scot as Nishikori and Del Potro loom. With those obstacles ahead, Murray would have benefited from a strong and efficient start to the tournament, but he didn’t get it in a three-set scare against Evgeny Donskoy. While the Russian has plenty of talent and ambition, he is not the sort of player expected to trouble one of the Big Four. Anybody and everybody has troubled Murray here recently, though, for he dropped seven consecutive sets at Indian Wells between a 2010 quarterfinal and the first set of his opener here. Hangovers from Australian Open disappointment have hampered him emotionally in those appearances, so his body language will bear watching if more sustained adversity arises. That said, he matches up extremely well to Nishikori and Del Potro, neither of whom ever has defeated him on a hard court.
6. Should Radwanska’s fans be concerned?
The sun of Indian Wells usually has not shone brightly on Radwanska, usually more successful at the tournament’s sequel in Miami. But her draw looks more comfortable than it often does, or at least it did until she toiled for two and a half hours to suppress Sorana Cirstea in the third round. The type of player whom Radwanska tends to dismantle with ease, the erratic yet powerful Romanian hit through her surprisingly often considering the court speed and her defensive skills. Radwanska also twice failed to serve out the match in the third set once she had reversed the momentum, a strange lapse for someone who has established herself as a fine competitor over the last eighteen months. Her next two projected opponents, Kirilenko and Kvitova, have spelled trouble for her at significant events before.
7. Which Novak will show up?
This question would have sounded ridiculous a set and a half into what looked like a humiliating rout of Fabio Fognini. When Djokovic threw away the second set and did not immediately reassert himself in the third, some eyebrows raised over this extended lapse. Also suggesting competitive fatigue was a minor altercation over a time violation warning that he received. Djokovic is not nearly as dangerous a player when his head is not in the right place, and early signs of trouble historically have spelled trouble later in the draw. If the man who smoothly struck every shot in the book during the first set returns, however, he will remain the title favorite. Djokovic may have time to collect himself, for his next two opponents do not look intimidating, nor did quarterfinal foe Tsonga in his convoluted victory over Blake.
8. Which Petra will show up?
Always a woman of two sides, Kvitova brought her bad version to the Australian hard courts and her good version to the Persian Gulf. As remarkable as it sounds, the same woman who won two games from Cibulkova one month came within two games of knocking off Serena (and demolished Radwanska) the next. More of a lamb than a lion in March recently, Kvitova showed some of both extremes in a three-set victory over the pedestrian Govortsova and a third-round battle with a qualifier that nearly reached a third set as well. She can contend for the title as convincingly as anyone, especially with her past success against Azarenka, but every opponent whom she faces should enter that match knowing that they have a chance.
9. Can a former US Open champion prove himself (again)?
When he knocked off Nadal and Federer in succession to win the 2009 US Open, Del Potro looked like the next big thing for the ATP. He still could be, but the odds of his becoming one of his generation’s great champions grow slimmer with every season since his wrist surgery in which the Big Four and even players like Ferrer throttle him. One of the few men who has won a major but not a Masters 1000 tournament, Del Potro may need to walk before he can run. In the peaceful environment of Indian Wells, where he has produced strong results before, he should take heart from the early frailty displayed by Djokovic and Murray.
10. Can a former US Open champion prove herself (again)?
Compared to Stosur’s recent results, those of Del Potro look positively brilliant. The 2011 US Open champion has not won a title since that miraculous breakthrough against Serena, and winning a single match lay beyond her abilities early in 2013. Unlike most players who win a major, the Aussie drew no fresh confidence from her achievement. The good news is that she finally has strung together a few victories in her recent tournaments, and a commanding victory over Keys showed form that could prove good enough to carry her through the weakest quarter in the women’s draw. When she last faced Azarenka at the US Open, Stosur extended her to a third-set tiebreak. Who knows what could happen in a semifinal against her if she accumulates some momentum before then?
11. Who will be the last American man standing?
There are two candidates left at this stage: Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey. Both find themselves uncomfortably close to Djokovic, never a good place to be. Fish is just grateful to have started to play matches again after his health scares, and anyone who believes that Querrey can become the next great American champion probably just clicked on an email from Nigeria. That said, the Californian deserves credit for surviving the elephantine serve of Ivo Karlovic, and it will be intriguing to see how he handles bearing the mantle of the top-ranked man from a nation frustrated with its tennis underachievement.
12. Who will be the last American woman standing?
Well, let’s take a look at the options. There’s Stephens and,…oh, she lost already? Anyway, there’s Keys, who…she’s gone too? Maybe Christina McHale with…hmm, Kirilenko came back? Time to do a Ctrl+F for USA on the women’s draw.
1 match. Jamie Hampton.
Enjoy the rest of the tournament, and feel free to suggest answers for questions 1-11 in the comments.
By Lisa-Marie Burrows
“Last year, through the Dubai, Rotterdam and Indian Wells swing where I won all three, I didn’t get tested once. That shouldn’t be OK.”
At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Roger Federer once again shared his thoughts about doping and testing. He revealed that in 2012, there was a lack of frequent and consistent testing for doping whilst he was competing, despite having won three consecutive tournaments.
This week, the ITF (International Tennis Federation) have shared their plans for biological passports. They have been busy of late redesigning their Davis Cup and Fed Cup websites and their latest relaunch has been the official website of its Anti-Doping department.
The website aims to share detailed information on the Tennis Anti-Doping programme and it has uploaded many PDFs from recent years of blood testing which has been carried out on the athletes.
A summary of testing conducted under the 2012 ITF Tennis Anti-Doping Programme is now available on their website of all players who hold an ATP or WTA ranking. The results show the amount of times the athletes have been tested during the year whilst competing and also when they are out of competition. The results do not include samples collected during the London Olympics by the National Anti-Doping Organisations.
During 2012, the statistics show that a total of 1727 in-competition urine specimen samples were taken from male and female athletes and 124 specimens of blood.
Out of-competition testing was slightly lower with 271 specimens for urine and 63 for blood. Overall, 2185 total specimens were taken and it is interesting to see how consistently players were tested, particularly the higher ranked players. I have put together a table of results for the current top 20 ATP and WTA players.
ATP Top 20 Testing Summary
These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the ATP rankings as of this week.
The samples are fairly consistent with Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Berdych, Del Potro, Tsonga. Tipsarevic, Gasquet, Cilic, Wawrinka and Seppi all tested on seven and above occasions, whilst the other players were largely tested four to six times.
The only exceptions are Rafael Nadal, who due to injury was not tested for in-competition as frequently and therefore has a higher out-of-competition sample compared to his colleagues. Milos Raonic was also tested on one to three in-competition occasions.
For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:
WTA Top 20 Testing Summary
These are the sample testing results for the players ranked in the top 20 in the WTA rankings as of this week.
Half of the WTA top 20 players were tested during competitions on seven or more occasions and surprisingly four out of the current top 5 have been tested fewer times than some of their counterparts. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Na Li have been tested on one to three occasions and four to six occasions respectively.
For further names of athletes and their testing summary, you can access the ITF anti-doping website here:
Over the next few years, expect the number of overall testing to rise, as the ITF have made it clear that they are going to increase the number of blood tests done each year under its anti-doping programme.
Federer was pleased by the announcement and said at the BNP Paribas Open:
“I think tennis has done a good job of trying everything to be as clean as possible but we are entering a new era. We have to do everything to ensure our tour is as clean as it possibly can be.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Come back tomorrow before the start of play in the men’s draw to read a similar breakdown!
Shifting down the Persian Gulf, eight of the top ten women move from Doha to Dubai for the only Premier tournament this week. In North and South America are two International tournaments on dramatically different surfaces. Here is the weekly look at what to expect in the WTA.
Dubai: Still the top seed despite her dethroning last week, Azarenka can collect valuable rankings points at a tournament from which she withdrew in 2012. She looked far sharper in Doha than she did for most of her title run in Melbourne, and once again she eyes a potential quarterfinal with Sara Errani. Although the Italian has rebounded well from a disastrous start to the season, she lacks any weapons with which to threaten Azarenka. Between them stands last year’s runner-up Julia Goerges, an enigma who seems destined to remain so despite her first-strike potential. If Sloane Stephens can upset Errani in the second round, meanwhile, a rematch of the Australian Open semifinal could loom in the quarterfinals. The top seed might expect a test from Cibulkova in the second round, since she lost to her at Roland Garros last year and needed a miraculous comeback to escape her in Miami. But Cibulkova injured her leg in Fed Cup a week ago and has faltered since reaching the Sydney final.
Having won just one match until Doha, Stosur bounced back somewhat by recording consecutive wins in that Premier Five field. The Aussie may face three straight lefties in Makarova, Lepchenko, and Kerber, the last of whom has the greatest reputation but the least momentum. While Makarova reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, Lepchenko displayed her newfound confidence in upsetting both Errani and Vinci on clay in Fed Cup—a rare feat for an American. Vinci herself also stands in this section, from which someone unexpected could emerge. Azarenka need fear little from either Kerber or Stosur, both of whom she has defeated routinely in most of their previous meetings, so a semifinal anticlimax might beckon. Not that Doha didn’t produce a semifinal anticlimax from much more prestigious names.
Atop the third quarter stands the greatest enigma of all in Petra Kvitova, who won four straight matches between Fed Cup and Doha before nearly halting Serena’s bid for the #1 ranking. Considering how far she had sunk over the previous several months, unable to string together consecutive victories, that accomplishment marked an immense step forward. Kvitova can capitalize immediately on a similar surface in the section occupied by defending champion Radwanska. In contrast to last week, the Czech can outhit anyone whom she could face before the semifinals, so she will determine her own fate. If she implodes, however, Ivanovic could repeat her upset when they met in last year’s Fed Cup final before colliding with Radwanska for the third time this year. Also of note in this section is the all-wildcard meeting between rising stars Putintseva and Robson.
Breaking with her usual routine, Serena has committed to the Middle East hard courts without reserve by entering both Doha and Dubai. Whether she plays the latter event in a physical condition that looks less than promising may remain open to question until she takes the court. So strong is the draw that Serena could open against world #11 Bartoli, who owns a Wimbledon victory against her from 2011 but has not sustained that success. The eighth-seeded Wozniacki proved a small thorn in her side last year by defeating her in Miami and threatening her in Rome, so a quarterfinal could intrigue if the Dane can survive Safarova to get there and if Serena arrives at less than full strength.
Final: Azarenka vs. Kvitova
Memphis: Overshadowed a little by the accompanying ATP 500 tournament, this event has lacked star power for the last few years. Rather than Venus, Sharapova, or Davenport, the top seed in 2013 goes to Kirsten Flipkens, a player largely unknown in the United States. This disciple of Clijsters may deserve more attention than she has received, however, rallying to reach the second week of the Australian Open in January after surviving blood clots last spring. Former finalist Shahar Peer and 2011 champion Magdalena Rybarikova attempt to resurrect their careers by returning to the scene of past triumphs, but lefty Ksenia Pervak may offer the most credible challenge to Flipkens in this quarter.
Of greater note is the hard-serving German who holds the third seed and should thrive on a fast indoor court. Although Lisicki has struggled to find her form away from grass, she showed flickers of life by charging within a tiebreak of the Pattaya City title earlier this month. Kristina Mladenovic, a potential quarterfinal opponent, delivered a key statement in the same week at the Paris Indoors, where she upset Kvitova en route to the semifinals. Before then, though, this French teenager had displayed little hint of such promise, so one feels inclined to attribute that result more to the Czech’s frailty for now.
Part of an elite doubles team with compatriot Andrea Hlavackova, Lucie Hradecka has excelled on surfaces where her powerful serve can shine. Like Lisicki, she should enjoy her week in Memphis amid a section of opponents who cannot outhit her from the baseline. Among them is the largely irrelevant Melanie Oudin, who surfaced last year to win her first career title before receding into anonymity again. Neither Oudin nor the fourth-seeded Heather Watson possesses significant first-strike power, so their counterpunching will leave them at a disadvantage on the indoor hard court. But Watson has improved her offense (together with her ranking) over the last few months and should relish the chance to take advantage of a friendly draw. Interestingly, Hradecka’s doubles partner Hlavackova could meet her in the quarterfinals if she can upset Watson.
Finishing runner-up to Sharapova here in 2010, Sofia Arvidsson holds the second seed in this yaer’s tournament as she eyes a potential quarterfinal against one of two Americans. While Chanelle Scheepers anchors the other side of the section, Jamie Hampton could build upon her impressive effort against Azarenka at the Australian Open to shine on home soil. Nor should one discount the massive serve of Coco Vandeweghe, which could compensate for her one-dimensionality here.
Final: Lisicki vs. Hradecka
Bogota: Like the ATP South American tournaments in February, this event offers clay specialists an opportunity to compile ranking points in a relatively unintimidating setting. Top seed and former #1 Jankovic fits that category, having reached multiple semifinals at Roland Garros during her peak years. She has not won a title in nearly three years, but a breakthrough could happen here. In her section stand Pauline Parmentier and Mariana Duque Marino, the latter of whom stunned Bogota audiences by winning the 2010 title here over Kerber. As her wildcard hints, she never quite vaulted from that triumph to anything more significant. Serious opposition to Jankovic might not arise until the semifinals, when she faces the aging Pennetta. Once a key part of her nation’s Fed Cup achievements, the Italian veteran won their most recent clay meeting and looks likely to ensure a rematch with nobody more notable than the tiny Dominguez Lino blocking her.
The lower half of the draw features a former Roland Garros champion in Schiavone and a French prodigy who nearly broke through several years ago before stagnating in Cornet. Testing the latter in a potential quarterfinal is Timea Babos, who won her first career title around this time last year with a promising serve. For Schiavone, the greatest resistance could come from lanky Dutch lefty Arantxa Rus. Known most for her success on clay, Rus won a match there from Clijsters and a set from Sharapova, exploiting the extra time that the surface allows for her sluggish footwork. Also of note in this half is Paula Ormaechea, a rising Argentine who probably ranks as the most notable women’s star expected from South America in the next generation. Can she step into Dulko’s shoes?
Final: Jankovic vs. Schiavone
Check back shortly for the companion preview on the three ATP tournaments this week in Marseille, Memphis, and Buenos Aires!
Formerly riddled with upsets and surprise semifinalists, WTA draws grew relatively predictable in 2012 as a small group of women won virtually every marquee tournament. That trend continued when Azarenka defended her Australian Open crown after several young stars rose and fell. In Doha, more of the familiar suspects look likely to shine. Read a preview of the draw, quarter by quarter.
First quarter: Just as she did in Melbourne, Azarenka may need to defend her title to retain her #1 ranking with the second-ranked Serena Williams anchoring the opposite half of the draw. Also like the Australian Open, the medium-speed hard courts in Doha suit the top seed’s style more than any other surface, and one must feel sanguine about her semifinal hopes in this weak section. Several of the women surrounding her played Fed Cup over the past weekend, when most looked pedestrian at best against modest competition. Although she upset Azarenka once and nearly twice in 2012, Cibulkova extended a discouraging span that started with her double bagel in the Sydney final by retiring on the verge of victory in Fed Cup. Bojana Jovanovski and Daniela Hantuchova collaborated on a hideous comedy of errors this Saturday, while the sixth-seeded Errani faces the challenge of transitioning from the clay of the Italy-USA tie. This section could implode quickly, which might open a door for the rising Laura Robson to build on her Australian upset of Kvitova.
Second quarter: Two women of Polish descent bookend a section that contains two former #1s who have sunk outside the top 10. Having withdrawn from Fed Cup with a shoulder injury, Ivanovic remained in the Doha draw as she hopes to erase the memories of a first-round upset in Pattaya City, where she held the top seed. The Serb likely would collide with Australian Open nemesis Radwanska as early as the third round, however, so she may gain little more from Doha than she did last year. An all-German encounter beckons at the base of the quarter between the last two Paris Indoors champions: the fifth-seeded Kerber and Mona Barthel. Meeting the winner in the same round as the projected Ivanovic-Radwanska clash is world #11 Wozniacki, who fell just short of an Australian Open quarterfinal in a promising end to an otherwise miserable January. Kerber stifled her on multiple surfaces last year, though, while struggling to solve Radwanska’s consistency.
Third quarter: A 2008 champion at this tournament, the third-seeded Sharapova eyes a comfortable start to the tournament against a qualifier or wildcard. Rolling through Melbourne until her competition stiffened suddenly, she may find an opponent worthy of her steel in Sloane Stephens, although her fellow Australian Open semifinalist withdrew from Fed Cup this weekend. Looming on the opposite side is an encore of the 2011 Melbourne marathon between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, separated just by a qualifier and the dormant Bartoli (also a Fed Cup absentee). The Russian returned to relevance with an outstanding January considering the sub-50 ranking with which she started it before reaching quarterfinals at Sydney and the Australian Open. Her athleticism and rising confidence should serve her well against the Schiavone-Bartoli winner and against the eighth-seeded Stosur in the following round. Still struggling to regain her rhythm after ankle surgery during the offseason, the Aussie probably cannot defend her runner-up points in the vicinity of two multiple-major champions from Russia.
Fourth quarter: Among the questions looming over this tournament is the health of Serena Williams, the prohibitive favorite in Melbourne until multiple injuries overtook her. Serena probably would not participate in an event like Doha unless she felt confident in her condition, however, so one should take her entry at face value for now. As she has reminded rivals over the last several months, few can break her serve on a non-clay surface when she is healthy, and she should overpower clay specialists in the early rounds like Medina Garrigues and Vinci. Of greater suspense is the identity of the woman who will emerge from the section occupied by Kvitova, who clings to the seventh seed in a manner far from convincing. Although playing a Fed Cup tie on home soil may have boosted her spirits, she has not strung together victories at a WTA tournament since last August. Often troubled by the task of defeating a compatriot, she could meet Fed Cup teammate Safarova in the third round. Before then, Beijing nemesis Suarez Navarro lurks in a challenge for her consistency. And Russian veteran Nadia Petrova adds an entertaining mixture of power and petulance to a section full of fiery personalities.
Come back on Friday to read a semifinal preview!
One week after the 2013 Davis Cup began, Fed Cup starts with four ties hosted by European nations. We look ahead to what viewers can expect from the women’s national team competition. Having gone 7-1 in Davis Cup predictions, will our hot streak continue?
Czech Republic vs. Australia: The first of the ties features the only two members of the top ten playing a Fed Cup World Group tie this weekend. But they also are the two most abjectly slumping women in that elite group, having slumped to equally deflating second-round exits at the Australian Open after imploding at tournaments earlier in January. The defending champions hold a key trump card if the match reaches a decisive fifth rubber, where their experienced doubles duo of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova should stifle whatever pair the Australians can compile. An ideally balanced team with two top-20 singles threats and a top-5 doubles team, the Czechs thus need earn only a split in singles, while the Aussies must get a victory from Dellacqua, Gajdosova, or Barty. Even in that scenario, they would need Stosur to sweep her singles rubbers, not as plausible a feat as it sounds considering her habit of embarrassing herself with national pride on the line. The boisterous Czech crowd might lift Kvitova’s spirits, similar to last year’s final when she eked out a victory as Safarova donned the heroine’s garb. But she too has struggled early this year, leaving the stage set for a rollercoaster weekend.
Pick: Czech Republic
Italy vs. USA: To paraphrase the producers who initially turned down the musical Oklahoma: no Williams, no Stephens, no chance. Like that show, which became a smash hit on Broadway, this American Fed Cup team has exceeded expectations in recent years when understaffed. Singles #1 Varvara Lepchenko enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2012, edging within range of the top 20, and Jamie Hampton announced herself with a three-set tussle against eventual champion Azarenka at the Australian Open. Hampered by a back injury in Melbourne, Hampton likely will trump the inconsistent Melanie Oudin after she showed how much her groundstrokes and point construction skills had improved. That said, Oudin has compiled plenty of Fed Cup experience, and her feisty attitude that so often thrives in this setting. Doubles specialist Liezel Huber, although past her prime, should provide a plausible counterweight to the top-ranked doubles squad of Errani and Vinci. The bad news for an American team, however, is the clay surface and the fact that their opposition also has proved themselves greater than the sum of their parts. Both inside the top 20 in singles as well, Errani and Vinci look set to take over from Schiavone and Pennetta as women who rise to the occasion in Fed Cup. Home-court advantage (and the choice of surface that accompanies it) should prove decisive.
Russia vs. Japan: Surprised at home by Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Russians had become accustomed to playing final after final in Fed Cup during their decade of dominance. Even without the nuclear weapon of Maria Sharapova, the ageless Shamil Tarpischev has assembled troops much superior in quality to the female samurai invading from Japan. All of the Russians rank higher than any of the visitors, while Maria Kirilenko, Ekaterina Makarova, and Elena Vesnina all reached the second week at the Australian Open (Makarova reaching the quarterfinals). And world #31 Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Brisbane when the new season started, although her production has plummeted since then. At any rate, Tarpischev has many more options for both singles and doubles than does his counterpart Takeshi Murakami, who may lean heavily on the 42-year-old legend Kimiko Date-Krumm. Older fans may recall Date-Krumm’s victory over Steffi Graf in Fed Cup, which came in the friendly confines of Ariake Colosseum rather than Moscow’s sterile Olympic Stadium. Kimiko likely will need a contribution of Ayumi Morita, who just defeated her in Pattaya City last week and has claimed the position of Japanese #1. One could see Date-Krumm or Morita swiping a rubber from Kirilenko or Makarova, neither of whom overpowers opponents. But it’s hard to see them accomplishing more.
Serbia vs. Slovakia: This tie in Nis looked nice a few days ago, slated to feature two gorgeous women—and only slightly less gorgeous games—in Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova. Adding a bit of zest was another former #1 Jelena Jankovic, who always has represented Serbia with pride and determination. When both of the Serbian stars withdrew from the weekend, then, the visitors suddenly shifted from slight underdogs to overwhelming favorites. Granted, the hosts still can rely on the services of Bojana Jovanovski, who fell just short of the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in a breakthrough fortnight. Beyond the 15th-ranked Cibulkova, Slovakia brings no woman in the top 50 to Nis. A more dangerous talent than her current position of #58 suggests, though, Hantuchova should fancy her chances on an indoor hard court against whomever Serbian captain Dejan Vranes nominates for singles between Vesna Dolonc and Alessandra Krunic. She has shone in Fed Cup while compiling a 27-12 singles record there, whereas even Jovanovski has played just seven singles rubbers. Hand a slight edge to Slovakia in the doubles rubber as well because of Hantuchova’s experience in that format, where she has partnered with Magdalena Rybarikova (also here) to defeat the Serbs before.
Come back on Monday for previews of the ATP and WTA tournaments next week, following the format of last week’s ATP preview.
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.
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.
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.