The annual cycle of the tennis year begins anew. Two weeks of tune-up events are nearing completion as well as the qualifying rounds at Melbourne Park, where the main singles draws are just out. The world awaits the theater of Grand Slam tennis from Australia.
The setting is one of tennis's great centerpieces, offering magnificent facilities for the forthcoming showdowns among the world's best. The courts are intermediate among the Slams in the speed of the bounce, where a fast bounce increases the advantage favoring servers over serve-returners. The latter phenomenon is seen in data from the last four rounds of men's singles at the four Slams 2006-2011:
Percentage of games won by servers
U.S. Open, 78.3%
Australian Open, 77.3%
Percentage of points decided by aces
Australian Open , 7.8%
U.S. Open, 7.6%
Bounce speed should correlate with aggressive play -- i.e., fast courts should produce more-frequent net-approaching. But surprisingly, our data show that over the last six years the Australian Open has produced the highest ratio of net approaches vs. points played -- slightly higher even than Wimbledon. (Perhaps this result merely reflects differences in the standards used by the official scorers. Indeed the most recent count, for 2011, placed Australia after both Wimbledon and U.S. Open in this measurement.)
Still, attacking players will enjoy the good foot traction at Melbourne Park, which can be especially helpful when at net. Further, the several highly enclosed courts in Melbourne can reduce wind effects, making aggressive hitting less likely of error. Plainly, a back-court, defensive orientation will be disadvantaged in the coming Open.
The form sheet for the men's singles is orderly. At the top, composing the AAA group, are the four superstars who between them have won 26 of the last 27 Slams. Last year's champion at Melbourne Park, Novak Djokovic, merits current primacy over the other members -- former Australian champions Nadal and Federer along with last year's runner-up, Andy Murray. These are the top-seeded four for Australian Open 2012, each heading his own quarter of the draw.
The second group, the AA group, comprises five players, all of whom offer plausible prospects for breaking into the AAA tier. Three of them -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych -- each showed three or more match wins in 2011 over members of the Big Four. The other two -- Robin Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro -- had threatened upward penetration in recent years but then encountered physical problems. Del Potro won U.S. Open in 2009 but missed most of 2010 for right-wrist surgery. The tall Argentinian then spent most of 2011 regaining his earlier form and ranking. Soderling was sidelined by illness during the third trimester of 2011.
The third, the A group, extends through the second and into the third ten in the world rankings. Included are Mardy Fish and Janko Tipsarevic, whose successes recently turned upward, along with several comparatively young risers -- Dolgopolov, Nishikori, Raonic, and perhaps also Mayer and Anderson, all of whom appear capable of upward jumps. Familiar stars Andy Roddick and Gael Monfils appear talented enough to reverse recent slippage.
We next consult our customary five indicators, seeking clues to likely outcomes at Melbourne. A sixth indicator, head-to-head results, will enter when we look at the official draw and its likely match-ups. (Note that the stated scores are adjusted from raw scores so that the values are useful only comparatively. The individual scores in each indicator total 100.)
Indicator 1. Weighted 13-month performance.
In this indicator we employ results from 20-odd predictor tournaments, each weighted according to how well the various events have correlated in their past results with succeeding Australian Opens. Thus our heaviest-weighted predictor for Australian Open 2012 is U.S. Open 2011, followed by Wimbledon, Australian Open, and Miami 2011.
1. Novak Djokovic, score 26.9
2. Rafael Nadal, 18.3
3. Andy Murray, 17.4
4. Roger Federer, 11.4
The preeminence of Djokovic here is not surprising, reflecting Novak's dominance over the sport for the first eight months of 2011, when Novak captured all four of the highest-weighted predictor events noted above. His run featured near-perfection on court, both offensively and defensively, including a remarkable ability to prevail in extended points. In winning the crown at Melbourne last year, Novak lost only one set -- a second-round tiebreak set won by Ivan Dodig. If Novak is able to summon the strengths he produced through most of 2011, it is hard to envision a much different outcome at Melbourne Park.
Rafael Nadal's second-place finish in this indicator reflects his strong clay-court results in 2011, including his sixth Garros triumph. He was also runner-up on nonclay at Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and ranked fourth for the year on hard courts, behind the other Big Four members on that surface.
Indicator 2. Aged results of last seven months
Here, results in ATP points are weighted according to recency. Points earned in January 2012 are given full weight, while points in preceding months are discounted by one-seventh for each month of age. The idea is to capture the currently best players, employing data almost entirely from hard-court play.
1. Roger Federer, score 21.5
2. Andy Murray, 14.8
3. Jo-wilfried Tsonga, 14.5
4. Novak Djokovic, 12.6
After losing to Djokovic in the semis of U.S. Open 2011 after holding two match points, Roger Federer then finished the tennis year with a run of 17 straight match wins, including two in Davis Cup and triumphs at the Swiss Indoors at Basel, the Paris Indoors, and the year-end finale in London. It was a remarkable run by Sir Roger, who turned 30 in August. Roger, however, lost to both Djokovic and Nadal in the Abu Dhabi exhibition in late December and then withdrew with back trouble at Doha in early January 2012.
Andy Murray's second-place rank here reflects a strong third trimester of 2011, including winning the tournament in Cincinnati, a final-four finish at U.S. Open, and then successive triumphs at Bangkok, Tokyo, and Shanghai. A muscle problem in the groin area spoiled his late-year sequence, but he then prevailed in Brisbane in the first week of January 2012.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 26, finished third in this indicator, strongly suggesting that he is the foremost candidate to break the sport's long-standing oligarchy. His second half of 2011 showed a tantalizing mix of strong wins alternating with disappointments. He finished the year with runner-up performances at Paris Indoors and at London. In the latter event, he lost two split-setters to Federer but beat Fish, Nadal, and Berdych. He won the tournament at Doha in early January 2012, heavily weighted here, beating Monfils who had beaten Nadal. Powerful, athletic, and with plenty of determination, Jo-Wilfried has been repeatedly set back by injuries that derailed his bids for higher place over the years.
Meanwhile Djokovic, following his U.S. Open triumph, faltered amid shoulder trouble and perhaps also physical and mental fatigue. Novak missed the Davis Cup semi in Belgrade, where Serbia lost to Argentina. He skipped the swing through the Far East and then withdrew after winning two matches at Paris Indoors. Then at the London year-end event he lost twice in the round-robin phase, thus failing to reach the final four.
Although Novak remained the year's champion by wide margin, his late-year decline scarcely showed readiness for Australia. The tall Serb answered by winning the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament in late December, defeating Monfils, Federer, and Ferrer convincingly.
Indicator 3. Elite wins vs. total losses
Each player's wins in 2011 over "elite" players are compared with his total losses. (Defined here as "elites" are the nine members of our AAA and AA groups, above, plus Fish, Monfils, and Roddick.)
1. Novak Djokovic, score 53.0
2. Rafael Nadal, 14.7
3. Roger Federer, 12.2
4. Andy Murray, 6.6
Novak Djokovic's large edge here shows his remarkable success during 2011 against the other members of the Big Four. His W-L record in 2011 was 6-0 against Nadal, 4-1 against Federer, and 2-1 against Murray, or 12-2 combined. During the year he scored 27 wins over elite players and lost only a total of six matches, two of them retirements.
In my opinion this is an extremely telling indicator, revealing each player's ability to compete at the highest level, a necessary talent for the winning of Slams. Usually only the truest superstars emerge with more elite wins than total losses, and often the spreading of scores is extremely robust, as in the case with Djokovic here. Nadal and Federer were the only other players achieving more elite wins than total losses in the current exercise.
Indicator 4. Recent pattern of improvement
Here we seek current patterns of improvement, measured by comparing each player's results in the most-recent several months against his previous best-ever 12-month ranking. Those emerging with the best ratio are typically younger players who have recently penetrated the world's top hundred, often helped by success in Challenger events.
1. Jack Sock, age 19, score 21.3
2. Kei Nishikori, 21, 13.8
3. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, 21, 9.0
4. Janko Tipsarevic, 27, 8.2
Tipsarevic at #4 here is the only member of the world's current upper hierarchy to show strongly here. His fine recent results, which include a runner-up finish in Chennai in January, place his ranking for the late period at #8, against a previous best-ever official ranking of #23 -- i.e., a highly favorable ratio exceeded by only the three players listed above, all aged 21 or younger.
Another familiar star showing a good pattern of improvement is John Isner, who ranked #10 in performance during the recent period, compared with his previous best-ever ranking of #18. The resulting ratio places Isner 14th in this indicator.
Indicator 5. Past Australian Opens
Favored here are mature players with success in previous Opens. Results in 2011 are given full weight, and earlier results are discounted by one-tenth for each year of aging.
1. Roger Federer, score 22.5
2. Novak Djokovic, 12.7
3. Rafael Nadal, 10.2
4. Andy Murray, 8.4
Sir Roger has won Australian Open four times and has finished in the top 16 in all ten years considered here. Djokovic won the tournament in 2008 and 2011. Nadal won in 2009 and has reached the quarters in each of the last five years. Murray was runner-up the last two years. Andy Roddick, in fifth place, has been four times a semi-finalist.
Composite of five indicators
Two of our indicators point to Djokovic and two point to Federer. But Novak's large advantage in indicator 3, Elite wins vs. total losses, translates into a substantial lead in this summing of scores from the first five indicators.
1. Novak Djokovic, sum of scores 105.3
2. Roger Federer, 67.7
3. Rafael Nadal, 50.1
4. Andy Murray, 47.3
5. Jo-wilfried Tsonga, 30.5
The Big Four may be more vulnerable than our indicators suggest. Djokovic's nagging injuries in late 2011, Federer's back trouble, and Nadal's shoulder problems all raise uncertainties, while Murray, too, seemed to be limping in winning at Brisbane.
Novak Djokovic's form at Abu Dhabi shows that he is close to regaining his greatness of a year ago. His third opponent at Melbourne will pose dangers, as either Andy Roddick or Milos Raonic has the thunder to disrupt the game plan of even this defending champion.
Milos has been recovering in the rankings after his surgery in mid-2011, and may be ready to surpass Andy. Andy stopped Milos's early-2011 run in Memphis by narrow margin, and the veteran American brings the priceless experience that should allow him to outlast the young Canadian in Melbourne. Andy also holds a career head-to-head edge of 5-3 over Djokovic, Andy's next opponent, but the two did not play last year, and Novak won their last meeting indoors in London in 2010. Novak should be safe.
In the lower half of the quarter, both Gasquet and Chela have shown recent signs of upsurge, but both Tipsarevic and Ferrer have been playing at career-best levels. Thus the latter two should meet to decide the half, where the head-to-head history is thin but favors Ferrer. David also leads in our indicators except for Jarko's strong recent pattern of improvement. Ferrer is therefore the choice over Janko.
In the expected quarter-final meeting, Djokovic is younger than Ferrer by five years, is five inches taller, shows the strong edge in our indicators, and adds the head-to-head margin despite David's win in London late last year, Djokovic having won four of their preceding five meetings including at Melbourne Park in 2008. Thus the predicted winner of the quarter is Novak Djokovic.
Nearly all the French stars are in this quarter. The signs point to a magnificent quarter-final show-down pitting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray.
Andy must first surmount a dangerous fourth-round meeting with Gael Monfils. Gael had a strong run at Doha this month and beat Murray at Paris Indoors last fall. Both men have plenty of power in serving and stroking, both are fine movers, and both are sometimes seen as too defensively oriented. Murray leads in all our indicators, however, and is probably the more reliable performer when the stakes are high.
In the other half of the quarter, both Benneteau and Simon have been recently on upswing, and the winner between them should handle young Nishikori, albeit his fine rise upward. Jo-Wilfried, however, has too much artillery for any of these.
Murraya vs. Tsonga. Our indicators make Murray our narrow favorite. The two rank closely in our indicator composite, Murray at #4, Tsonga at #5. Murray has the strong edge in our sixth indicator, head-to-head results, but Tsonga won their only meeting at Australian Open, in 2008. That outcome reinforces the view that Australia calls for the attacking play of Tsonga, not the defensive instincts of Andy. It could be one of the year's most remembered clashes. Fittingly, the winner of this, the French Quarter, will be Tsonga.
This is Federer's quarter, and Roger could hardly have chosen a more favorable draw. In Roger's half of the quarter, both Melzer and Verdasco have slipped below earlier rankings, and rising Dolgopolov, whose play is exciting to watch, has scarcely the weaponry needed against Roger. The opposite half, too, is less than menacing, as Mardy Fish has dropped off from his fine run in mid-2011, though he scored wins at the recent exhibition event at Kooyong, Melbourne. Meanwhile del Potro has been slow in his return to pre-injury greatness. The Argentine player can be expected to stop Mardy, but Federer is a very different matter.
The main question is Roger's physical readiness -- whether the back trouble shown at Doha has been surmounted and also whether Roger can emerge from the rigors of the first week at Melbourne with the strength to produce his very best. Thus, confident in Roger's ability to manage his own precautions and preparations against injury, the clear choice here is Federer.
This should be the domain of Rafael Nadal, but recent months have not been kind to the clay-court champion from Majorca. His drop-off -- seen in his absence from the Big Four in our second indicator and in losses to Federer and Tsonga in London and to Monfils in Doha recently -- coincided with lingering trouble in the left shoulder.
Rafa should be safe in the first week, however, though an on-form John Isner in the fourth round can make unique problems for any opponent.
The other half of the quarter presents an interesting early-round match-up between two tall strikers. Tomas Berdych, 26 at height 6-5, should be atop still-improving Kevin Anderson, 25 at 6-7. Meanwhile seeded Stan Wawrinka must face Benoit Paire, 22, in an intriguing first-round affair where the tall French youth's recent rise suggests a possible surprise. Either way, Berdych should advance.
Nadal has the 4-3 edge in head-to-head play on hard courts over Berdych, and an overwhelming lead on clay and grass. He is well ahead in our other indicators, though his lead in the second is negligible, reflecting his recent slump. That Tomas was destined for superstardom has been long expected. But Rafa's past magnificence, along with his nine consecutive head-to-head victories over Tomas, turn our verdict in his direction. Nadal will advance.
Prior to 2011 Tsonga led Djokovic 5-2 in head-to head play, including a five-set triumph at Australian Open 2010. Their forthcoming semi-final should be a highly physical battle featuring long and aggressive exchanges sizzling in their fury. Jo-Wilfried is not to be disregarded in his chances here, and he indeed leads in our second indicator, having shown better results in recent months. Our composite favors Djokovic and, although with great uncertainty, the choice here follows that guide. Djokovic should prevail.
In the other semi-final Federer will be favored over Nadal by our first five indicators, while the two megastars will be nearly even in past head-to-head play on hard courts, Nadal far ahead in an all-surface tally. Roger's strong win in the 2011 finale in London, capping his late-year perfection, is especially persuasive. The choice here must be Federer.
A classic final seems in store. In 2010, Federer defeated Djokovic in four of their five meetings, Djokovik winning their five-setter at U.S. Open. Then in 2011, Djokovic defeated Federer in four of their five meetings, Federer winning their four-setter at Garros. The reversal across the two years seems a reflection of their six-year age difference -- a turning place in the careers of both. To win this month Federer must find extreme stamina. (He won their first two sets at U.S. Open last year but lost the next three.) The likely physical and mental toll of the earlier rounds argues against Roger's chances. Novak Djokovic is the favorite by our indicators, and we here judge that he will in 2012 again become champion of the Open at Melbourne Park.
The women's singles are intriguing as always. Four different women won the Slams of 2011, and a fifth female star captured the year's #1 ranking. All four past Australian champions who remain active in the sport have been set back by injury problems of late. Meanwhile the strong array of young and rising stars seem ready for higher glory. Our indicators help in penetrating the disorder, and taken individually and in aggregate, they give unique perspectives.
Indicator 1. Weighed 13-month performance.
Our heaviest-weighted event for predicting the women's singles at Australian Open 2012 is U.S. Open 2011, followed in order by Wimbledon, Miami, and Canadian Open 2011.
1. Victoria Azarenka, score 15.2
2. Caroline Wozniacki, 13.3
3. Petra Kvitova, 12.3
The margins among the top three in this indicator are not large. Indeed the leader in our rank order changed just a day or two prior to the Melbourne draw owing to results at the Sydney tune-up.
The leader here, Belarus-born Victoria Azarenka, 24, shows a strong all-court game well suited to her athletic 6-0 and 145-pound physique. She scored well in several events highly-weighted here, winning Miami and reaching her only career Slam semi-final at Wimbledon, and she consistently scored well in earlier rounds of nearly all other important events. Victoria retired unusually often from tournaments for physical reasons, but she finished 2011 with a fine run at the Istanbul finale, where she lost to Petra Kvitova in a furious split-set championship match. She then started 2012 well, triumphing at Sydney by defeating Li Na in the final match on this very day.
As the top player in the official WTA rankings for both 2010 and 2011, Caroline Wozniacki, age 21 at height 5-10, is the #1 seed at Melbourne Park. As teenagers, she and Azarenka both moved upward rapidly in the rankings, but while Victoria acquired a reputation as a stormy competitor, Caroline developed a relentless consistency in avoiding error, a quality where she sometimes approached perfection as matches reached climax. Now, however, she often produces more-powerful and aggressive patterns of play, favored by her excellent size. Last year, she reached the final four at Australian and U.S. Opens and won the next-tier tournaments at Indian Wells and Dubai. As her comfort in attacking improves, so too should her results against the other superstars. Her break-through at a slam could come suddenly.
Also just 21 is rising superstar Petra Kvitova, at 6-0 and a trim 154 pounds. Having finished #34 in 2010 Petra rose to #2 one year later, having captured the 2011 crowns at Wimbledon, Paris Indoors, and Madrid clay. She was then dazzling in winning the finale in Istanbul, where she won all five of her matches behind a sliced, lefty serve that was devastating to the backhands of her right-handed opponents. Petra could be at the verge of dominating the sport.
Indicator 2. Aged results of last seven months.
1. Samantha Stosur, 14.1
2. Victoria Azarenka, 13.9
3. Agnieszka Radwanska, 13.9
Superstardom came late in Stosur's career, years after early fame from superior doubles results. Five months ago at U.S. Open, Sam became the first Australian woman in 31 years to capture a Slam singles crown. That triumph (which is aged to just 3/7 value in our calculation here) along with her runner-up finish at Osaka and her final-four effort at Istanbul, makes her our leader in this indicator. Sam, however, began 2012 with first-round losses at Brisbane and Sydney.
Agnieszka Radwanska, third here at just age 22 and height 5-8, displays a nicely balanced game featuring good power. Her results were poor at U.S. Open and at Istanbul, but in the interval between those two events she captured the Premier Mandatory/Premier Five tournaments in Beijing and Tokyo. Success resumed in January in reaching the final four at Sydney, beating Wozniacki but then losing to Azarenka, in both cases in split sets. The prospects are assuredly upward for Agnieszka, both in Melbourne and in the months to follow.
Indicator 3. Elite wins vs. total losses
Serena Williams, 30, commands attention here, where quality rather than quantity of results is foremost. Serena played only briefly during 2011, recovering from nearly a year's absence caused by injury and sickness. She lost only three matches during her late-spring and summer emergence, while in scoring 22 wins she defeated elites Wozniacki, Azarenka (twice), Sharapova, and Stosur. She made a powerful run to the final round at U.S. Open but was defeated in a stunning upset by Stosur.
1. Serena Williams, 23.9
2. Petra Kvitova, 20.0
3. Maria Sharapova, 9.2
Petra Kvitova joined Serena as the only players with more elite wins than total losses during the period. Five of Kvitova's 15 elite wins came in the year-end event at Istanbul.
Still a powerful server and stroker is Russian-born Maria Sharapova, age 24 at height 6-2, Australian champion in 2008 but plagued for several years with major shoulder trouble, Maria in 2011 recovered some of her former eminence. She can be counted on to plaster every shot in high-risk attack. An ankle injury forced her withdrawal from the January tune-up at Brisbane.
Fourth place here belongs to Kim Clijsters, who won Australian Open 2011 but played only briefly thereafter, scoring four elite wins against eight total losses for the year. Kim returned at Brisbane in January 2012, reaching the semis with three victories, but she then retired against Hantuchova with muscle spasms in the hip area.
Indicator 4. Recent pattern of improvement
In a semi-final appearance at U.S. Open 2011, unseeded German player Angelica Kerber, 23, forced eventual champion Stosur to three sets. Angelica's auspices continued to brighten thereafter, as she accumulated a 7-4 W-L record in the rest of 2011, where one of her losses was a split-setter to Radwanska. Continuing in 2012, she reached the semis against strong opponents in Auckland and again at Hobart.
Top-tenners Stosur and Radwanska claim the next two places here, consistent with their strong presence in our second indicator, which also depends partly on recent performance.
1. Angelica Kerber, 21.4
2. Samantha Stosur, 15.5
2. Agnieszka Radwanska, 15.5
Indicator 5. Past Australian Opens
Veteran former champions at Melboune Park scored well here. Serena has captured the crown five times, Clijsters and Sharapova each once.
1. Serena Williams, 21.0
2. Kim Clijsters, 12.5
3. Maria Sharapova, 11.1
Li Na in fourth place is the highest ranking player here not a past champion at Melbourne. Na's relentless ground stroking lifted her to the final last year, and her win over Kvitova to reach the final in Sydney this month reveals her readiness to repeat her strong January play.
Composite of five indicators
1. Serena Williams, 55.0
2. Petra Kvitova, 49.0
3. Agnieszka Radwanska, 45.0
4. Samantha Stosur, 43.2
5. Victoria Azarenka, 39.5
Our composite ranking differs considerably from the official seedings. Our second-place performer, Kvitova, is also second in the seeded order, but otherwise none of our four favorites are among the official top four. It looks as if a deliciously scrambled official draw is promising many early-round treats.
Our indicators make Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na the front-ruinners in this quarter of the draw, with Kim Clijsters returning from inactivity to cloud matters. Caroline has the safer path in her half of the quarter, facing a likely fourth-round face-off with Jelena Jankovic or Lucie Safarova. Either is unlikely to derail the relentless determination of the Danish princess.
In the lower half, Clijsters must face Daniela Hantuchova, whom she defeated nine straight times prior to the retirement in Brisbane. Kim will then meet Li Na, supernova of Australia 2011, whose firm ground game is likely to prevail against a Clijsters at less than her best. The two met in the final rounds last year at both Sydney and Melbourne. Li won in straight sets in the first case, Clijsters won at Melbourne Park in a three-set classic. It is hard to believe that Kim can find her superb form of one year ago, so the choice here Is Li.
The Li-Wozniacki quarter-final is intriguing. Na defeated Caroline at Australian Open in both 2010 and 2011, last year in a close three-setter. She also won when they met in Sydney 2010. Our other indicators point to Caroline, though not overwhelmingly. Caroline is the younger and larger player, but the evidence from the last two Januarys makes Na the choice here. Thus Li Na will again topple the tournament's top seed.
Our indicators show that Azarenka and Radwanska are well ahead of the many fine, rising players in this quarter. Azarenka has a firm advantage over the Polish star in the first indicator, weighted results of the last year, but Agnieszka is close in all other indicators and has the definite edge in the fourth, pattern of improvement. Azarenka is well ahead in their head-to-head count, but Radwanska won their last meeting, last fall in Tokyo. I like Radwanska's calm on-court temperament, but Victoria's recent win over Li, who had just beaten Kvitova, turns the verdict here to Azarenka.
Two risers require attention in this quarter -- Kaia Kanepi, 26, who won at Brisbane this month, and Angelique Kerber, 23, who leads in our fourth indicator. Probably neither will reach the final match of the quarter, however, even though their higher-ranked likely opponents all seem on downhill paths. Kerber must make her way against Sharapova with either Kuznetsova or rising Lisicki ahead. Sharapova is the choice in this mix. Meanwhile Kanepi seems about even with Zvonareva but the winner of these two must face Serena Williams.
A fully healthy Serena with a moderate record of recent activity would be the heavy favorite to sweep the quarter. Her withdrawal after two wins in Brisbane leaves unclear her readiness, not so much because of the ankle injury itself but rather because of her long absence previously. In similar circumstances in the past, Serena, now 30, has been able to find her top game. Guessing, that will happen once again, and the winner of the quarter will be Serena.
There is a potential tennis giant, capable of reaching Serena's heights, in this quarter, whose rise in 2011 in my opinion was only prelude to higher glory just ahead. She is only 21 at height 6-0, seemingly at full physical health. Petra Kvitova is the player to beat in this tournament. Her only weakness, it has seemed to me, is a tendency to relax her strong game when she feels overly comfortable.
Improving Pavlyuchenkova could give Kvitova trouble in their half of the quarter. The same must be said of Stosur, or alternatively Bartoli, in the other half. But if Kvitova maintains the concentration needed to produce her superior forcefulness and precision, none of these players can stop her. Once ahead on the scoreboard, that wonderful left-handed sliced serve will close out matters. Kvitova to the final four.
Petra Kvitova's best game equals or perhaps even surpasses Serena's.
That assertion has yet to be proven by the young Czech star, but her chance should come in the semis at Melbourne Park. Petra must bear down relentlessly and avoid those spells of lesser play that sometimes unexpectedly appear. But she is far more likely than Serena to be in top form. Nine years younger, three inches taller, and toughened by regular challenges throughout 2011, Kvitova should claim the victory.
As to the two players in the other semi, Azarenka, 22, is considerably younger and taller than Li Na, she won their last meeting comfortably (at Istanbul last fall), and she probably has the easier road to the semis. Our indicators, especially the first, point strongly to Victoria. There are marked differences in their temperaments, Na calm and less demonstrative on the court, Victoria sometimes showing irritation, risking loss of concentration. Having improved in this area with maturity, Azarenka should here reach her first slam final.
It should be a fascinating affair between two young power hitters. Kvitova and Azarenka met in the final match at the finale in Istanbul last fall. Kvitova won, but the verdict was not clear-cut until well into the third set, when Petra turned on the full heat. For me it would be a surprise if matters are equally close this time. Fortified by the realization that Petra has won their last four meetings, and that our composite indicator tally strongly favors her, I believe that the new champion at Melbourne Park will be Kvitova.
Best wishes to fellow watchers worldwide for yet another magical and magnificent Slam.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.