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Tenaciously Tennis


Sharapova Advances to Rome Final, Beats Angry Azarenka in Quarterfinals

Maria Sharapova faced a tough test against Caroline Wozniacki before advancing to the Rome final. If she can beat Sam Stosur, Sharapova will claim her first title since her 2010 Strausborg title.

With the win over Wozniacki, Sharapova has solidified her head-to-head over the world number one to 3-2. She beat her 7-5, 6-3.

A dramatic display of contained power, the Russian even fell on the red clay before eventually taking over the set and the match. As Tennis.com’s Bobby Chintapelli put it, “Sharapova, a self-described ‘cow on ice,’ perhaps turning too quickly or stepping incorrectly, fell hard and fast and completely. She lay there for a few seconds, all 6’2” of her sprawled out on the red clay. Then she got up and went on to win—and did both without as much fuss as you’d expect.”

And the drama didn’t even begin there for the 24-year old Sharapova. Her match against Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals proved just as nail-biting.

Apparently, the Belarussian said “f—ing bitch”  during her 4-6, 3-0 loss as she retired due to an elbow injury. It was unclear, however, whether the words were meant for Sharapova. Azarenka’s remarks prompted a posting of the following statement on her twitter account: “Very sad and tough day for me. Very hard to retire like this. Said some things to myself on the match that I’m not proud of. But it was just being mad at myself. Will never refer anything to my opponent. I play with respect to every single player. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding of that situation.”

This was the 10th time that Azarenka has retired in a match since the beginning of the 2010 season, according to a report from Tennis.com.

For a video of Azarenka’s outburst, watch below.

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Serena Williams Won’t Play Nike Exhibition: Now a Referee?

Serena Williams, scheduled to play a Nike exhibition in Oregon on March 8, withdrew, citing the foot injury that has kept her off tour since July.

In a statement, she said, “I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to play at the NIKE Clash of the Champions as I had anticipated. I’m thrilled, however, to still be able to participate in the Family Tennis Festival and in the exhibition as a referee during the mixed doubles.”

Going along with that nugget, she also wrote the following on her twitter yesterday:

While it probably doesn’t refer to her foot, it sure should given all the chaos its caused the WTA tour, the tennis community, and Serena’s own career.

On her website, no such statement has been posted. The last tennis-related one? Her withdrawal from the Hopman Cup and the Australian Open, which she announced on November 24, 2010.

So, now what: Serena’s not playing, but she’s refereeing? Tell that to the 12,000 fans who bought tickets in hopes of seeing the younger Williams sister alongside other champions Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova — on court. Not beside it.

Apparently, tickets for the stadium sold out almost completely within 11 minutes.

A recent post by AOL Fanhouse columnist Greg Crouch, however, analyzed Nike’s language announcing the exhibition even before Serena pulled out. The statement suggests that some dishonesty may have been involved in selling the tickets. He writes, “But this one was weird. The press release announcing the field spelled it out prominently, right in the second paragraph: ‘Under certain circumstances, it is possible that one or more of the advertised athletes will not be able to participate in the NIKE Clash of Champions.’ I called it The Serena Clause. It was as if they knew something.” He might be on to something with this theory. Of course, nothing much can be done about it now.

Stepping in for Serena is Victoria Azarenka, who although a fine player and a good fighter, simply doesn’t have the record or the draw of the 13-time American major champion. Then again, no one does these days.

Australian Open 2011 Predictions: WTA Tour

Note: Please see my most recent predictions for the WTA tour’s 2011 Australian Open here.

Serena Williams is out of her second consecutive major, and that means only one thing: the draw opens up substantially. Who can rise to the occasion with the favorite out of the mix? Will it be Kim Clijsters, who comes fresh off wins at the US Open and the year-ending championships, and has done well so far in 2011? There’s also Caroline Wozniaki trying to prove her number one ranking by her maiden Grand Slam title. Last year’s finalist Justine Henin must be mentioned, while Venus Williams plays after a knee injury kept her off tour. The Australian Open this year is bound for some surprises. Here’s a breakdown of the brackets.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Section:

The top seed should make it to the fourth round with Wozniacki’s toughest competition being Dominika Cibulkova. The 29th-seed recently scored a straight sets win over the Dane in Sydney. In the bottom of that portion of the draw, Yanina Wickmayer could very well defeat Marion Bartoli with confidence inspired by her finals showing in Auckland. Bartoli, however, does enjoy a 2-0 head-to-head record over Wickmayer.

In the bottom half, last year’s finalist Henin looms as the 15th-seed with Svetlana Kuznetsova as a potential third round match. The reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone also looks promising to advance. Henin, however, has won seven of eight matches against the Italian.

Ones-to-Watch: Australian Jarmila Groth recently won the Hobart tournament and may pose trouble for Wickmayer in the first round. The two met only once in 2009 with Wickmayer pulling through in three sets. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Wimbledon semifinalist, who has been struggling since the result, also appear in Wozniacki’s bracket.

Bottom Line: Wozniacki has some tough tests, but I believe she’ll advance to the quarterfinals over Wickmayer. Henin shouldn’t have a problem against Schiavone.

Venus Williams’ Section:

Here’s home to the fourth-seed, Venus, who faces a couple tests before the fourth round. In the third round, Andrea Petkovic could push her. The two have never met, and Petkovic looks confident with a recent string of wins in Brisbane. In the fourth round, however, Venus potentially meets Maria Sharapova. The head-to-head makes the Russian’s  possible success slim as Venus leads 5-3 in their head-to-head. She’s also won the last three matches in straight sets.

It’ll be a toss-up between 2010 semifinalist Na Li and the ever spirited Victoria Azarenka in their probable fourth round match.

Ones-to-Watch: The other seeded players, Kaia Kanepi (no. 20), Aravane Rezai (no. 17) and Daniela Hantuchova (no. 28) also appear here.

Bottom Line: Venus will likely defeat Sharapova, while Li can take out Azarenka in a battle.

Kim Clijsters’ Section:

Possibly the most open part of the draw belongs to Clijsters, where she’ll no doubt benefit. Competition comes in the form of Nadia Petrova and Ana Ivanovic. Clijsters, however, should get through to the quarterfinals unless Ivanovic can out-perform her in the fourth round. It’ll be an interesting match between Clijsters and Dinara Safina in the first round.

With a struggling Jelena Jankovic as the seventh-seed (she’s lost eight of her last matches, including six straight) at the top, the section looks perfect for an up-and-comer to make a move. Agnieszka Radwanska (no. 12), although she’s battling some injury, might do well. Jankovic can also squeak through the bracket as she has before. One never knows with the former world number one.

Ones-to-Watch: Personal favorite Patty Schnyder could meet Ivanovic in the second round. Greta Arn, the surprise winner of Auckland, also appears in this section, facing the 26th-seed, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in the first round.

Bottom Line: Jankovic looks like a big question mark, while Clijsters should sail through to the second week.

Vera Zvonareva’s Section:

One of the strongest sections of the 2011 Australian Open on the WTA tour, this bracket is home to the second-seeded Zvonareva and home-favorite Sam Stosur (no. 5). These two names stand above the rest, although there are some, such as Petra Kvitova (no. 25), Shahar Peer (no. 10), and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (no. 16), who serve as fierce competition.

In a potential fourth round match, Kvitova, who won Brisbane — but lost in a walkover at Sydney — would face Stosur. The Australian hasn’t been quite up to form as she lost to Kuznetsova in Sydney’s second round.  Israel’s Peer would probably face the victor. Zvonareva lost to Flavia Pennetta — also of this bracket — early in Sydney. Zvonareva should, however, shake off the loss to make a run to the quarterfinals.

Ones-to-Watch: American Melanie Oudin might make a move in her section of the draw, where she’d face Zvonareva in a potential third round match. There’s also Maria Kirilenko (no. 22) and Anna Chakvetadze.

Bottom Line: It looks like Zvonareva and Stosur get through to the quarterfinals, but not without some strong tests from a number of good competition.

In the Quarterfinals: With the above predictions, the quarterfinals will showcase Wozniacki against Henin; Venus against Li; (potentially) Jankovic against Clijsters; and Stosur versus Zvonareva.

In the Semifinals: Watch for Henin to face Venus and Clijsters against Zvonareva in the final four.

Federer Wins 64th Career Title; Azarenka Makes Doha

Roger Federer has tied Pete Sampras’ record of 64 career titles with his win in Sweden over Florian Mayer of Germany. Federer beat the 47th-ranked player with a smooth 6-4, 6-3 score in the tournamant during which he also claimed his 50th match of the season. This distinction, reports an Associated Press article, makes Federer “only the fifth man, and the first since Sampras, to win 50 matches in at least nine straight years in the Open era.”

The article continues, “Since 1968, only Jimmy Connors (109), Ivan Lendl (94) and John McEnroe (77) have won more singles tournaments than Federer and Sampras,” highlighting the extent of Federer’s impressive career thus far.

Can Federer keep going to match Connors’ 109 titles? I wouldn’t count him out by any means, although 45 more title would certainly be a stretch. The win in Sweden marked his 3rd of the year. If he continues on this path, he’d need to play over 15 years. And that, we all know, isn’t happening.

Regardless, it’ll be great to see just where the next few years takes Federer. Can he get to 20 major titles? Can he overtake McEnroes’ record 77 titles? This will all come with time.

In other news, Victoria Azarenka is back winning. This time, in the Kremlin Cup against Maria Kirilenko. The title marks the fifth of her career in a season hampered with injury, including the frightening end to her US Open run in August due to a collapse. She looked strong in her 6-3, 6-4 victory.

In other news, her win qualifies her for the year-ending tournament in Doha. In fact, Azarenka only needed to make the quarterfinals of the event. She’ll be confident and ready to make some noise at the event in which both Serena and Venus Williams pulled-out due to injury.

“It’s a big boost to win ahead of Doha. The win gave me confidence and perfect fitness. I feel my rhythm and I’m ready to go and play there,” said Azarenka. That sounds good coming at a time where many of the other top women are struggling.

Wozniacki Wins, Nadal Loses in Three

Caroline Wozniacki survived a tough test from Elena Dementieva to win her sixth title of the season at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, Japan. After losing the first set in a shockingly lopsided way, she rallied to beat the Russian 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.  With this newest addition to her already impressive results from the year, Wozniacki inches closer to claiming the top world ranking from an ailing Serena Williams. Next, Wozniacki needs to make the Beijing quarterfinals next week to claim the number one position.

Previously, I had predicted that Dementieva would win handily given her strong performance throughout the tournament. Plus, Wozniacki seemed shaky against Victoria Azarenka. Regardless, there’s a reason why the 20-year-old Dane is typically all smiles.

In other news, Rafael Nadal squandered an early lead in his match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the world’s 53rd-ranked player, in the semifinals of the Thailand Open. Nadal lost 2-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3. The tournament, his first since claiming a career Grand Slam at the US Open, could have been his seventh victory of the year. Nadal’s major undoing: He converted only two of 26 break-point chances.

Nadal will next play at the Shangai Masters, where I see him regaining his form and showing the best in the world why he belongs at the top of the rankings.

Predictions for Wozniacki Versus Dementieva

While I haven’t been following too much of the tennis post-US Open, the Pacific Pan Open has had a lot of great tennis and compelling stories in the past few days.

There’s Maria Sharapova’s early exit, the strong showing by the now 40-year old Kimiko Date Krumm, Coco Vandeweghe’s trip to the quarters, and more. It’s nice to see the mix of familiar faces and newcomers making a push towards success as the season comes to a close.

At the end of the day, however, two of the top women have advanced to the finals: Caroline Wozniacki, the world number two, who is poised to take the number one ranking from Serena Williams, and Elena Dementieva, the seventh seed.

Both overcame tough opponents in the semifinals to grab their spots in the final. For Wozniacki, it was a real test from Victoria Azarenka. She needed three sets to advance, eventually closing out the feisty Belorussian 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-4. At the same time, I could see the fight being a real positive for Wozniacki, who only played five games in her win over Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska retired with a left foot injury after trailing in that first set.

For Dementieva, US Open and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva and French Open champion Francesca Schiavone stood in her way. Like the veteran and champion that she is in her own right, Dementieva won both matches with poise, experience, and the brand of shot-making that seems so capable of winning her a major title. Regardless of her disappointing inability to win  a major, she advanced in both rounds in straight sets, defeating Zvonareva 7-5, 6-2, and Schiavone 6-4 7-5.

Given the last two rounds, their results so far this year, and their match history, this is a truly compelling final. Both have played a somewhat even amount of tennis in the quarters and semis. Fitness won’t really be a factor, although Dementieva’s arguable playing stronger tennis given her easy advances.

On the other hand, pressure could very well be a factor: Wozniacki needs to win this event and reach the quarters in Beijing next week to secure the world’s top ranking. She would also walk home from the event with her sixth title of the year.

The head-to-head record of Wozniacki and Dementieva is also noteworthy: It’s currently locked at 3-all. In this regard, I give Wozniacki the edge as she won the last meeting, during a high-energy and high-drama semifinal match at New Haven. In the final tournament of the US Open Series, Wozniacki prevailed in three sets, winning 1-6 6-3 7-6 (5).

I’m going with Dementieva to pull-off the upset and win the tournament. She’s on a roll, the pressure’s on Wozniacki, and I don’t think there will be much to stop the Russian from exacting revenge after a disappointing loss in New Haven.

Azarenka’s Collapse – What It Means for Tennis

With a fiery personality, a big game, and a desire to win, Victoria Azarenka looked poised to make a deep run at the US Open, if not win it all together. The 10th-seeded Azarenka, however, fell to an opponent other than Gisela Dulko in the major’s second round. She, instead, succumbed to a phantom culprit: the combination of energy-sapping heat, humidity, and — quite probably– a physically debilitating tennis schedule.

Now, the debate about tennis’ long season — from January to November — has been raging for a while now. More recently, John McEnroe expressed some controversial concerns that the women in particular “should be required to be in less events,” garnering criticism from many.

While I believe the comments were demeaning, there’s truth to what he’s saying. I think, however, that it isn’t just the women John McEnroe should have targeted. The men, too, — think (last year’s) Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to name a few — are suffering. Injury shouldn’t be so prevalent on tour, and it certainly shouldn’t get to the point where promising young players collapse on court.

Instead, the season’s schedule needs some trimming. Cut down the required number of events, allow professional play to end sooner, and do what it takes for health and player safety — not fan enjoyment and corporate satisfaction — to reign the WTA and ATP tours. By consolidating the schedule, creating higher energy men and women combined events, and weeding out tournaments that aren’t garnering fan support, everyone benefits.

A lot is being done in the tennis world to solve these problems, I’m not saying there aren’t steps being taken. In fact, in January, Novak Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer stated the desire to curb the Davis Cup, cutting down some weeks from the schedule in the process. Maybe this isn’t the best solution — Davis Cup is a heavily grounded tradition in tennis. The problem is: Since then the topic has been somewhat of an elephant in the room. It shouldn’t take such an extreme case, such as Azarenka’s dramatic retirement, to get the conversation really going with purpose.

Let’s hope the remainder of the US Open — and the rest of the season — survives without this scary manifestation of a harsh (and physically daunting) reality that professional tennis players of both sexes sadly face.

US Open Predictions – WTA Tour

The action at the US Open has begun. Without Serena Williams and Justine Henin, the year’s final major looks open for the taking. Here are my thoughts on the tournament.

Caroline Wozniacki’s Quarter:

Wozniacki looks sharp as the number one seed. She’s won three US Open Series titles in a row, capturing the Pilot Pen Tournament just a few days ago. She won the Series and could very well dominate the competition on her way to a major title. But before we look that far ahead, Maria Sharapova looms in her future as a potential fourth round match.

In that set-up, I take Wozniacki’s consistency over Sharapova’s experience, drive, and power. Plus, Sharapova needed three sets in her first round win to advance. I say Wozniacki wins in three sets.

Other notables: Aravane Rezai, the 18th seed, is one to watch, possibly meeting Sharapova in the third round.

Na Li’s Quarter:

The highest seed in this section of the draw got knocked out early on. Therefore, the stage is set for Svetlana Kuznetsova to get to the quarterfinals. Maria Kirilenko, however, recently got the the semifinals at the Pilot Pen Tournament. Can she make another big move at a major, like this year’s Australian Open?

Other notables: Kateryna Bondarenko beat Li. Will her form continue against a tough Dominika Cibulkova in the next round? If so, a fourth round result might just be in the cards for her.

Jelena Jankovic’s Quarter:

Jankovic isn’t a threat for the title in my opinion. She’s coming off of injury and needed three sets to get to the second round. If the seeding stays true to form, she could very well lose to Yanina Wickmayer, the 15th seed, in the fourth round.

Other notables: Kaia Kanepi, the Wimbledon quarterfinalist, might make some noise against Jankovic in a possible third round match. Personal favorite and veteran Patty Schnyder gets a shout-out for her dominating 6-1, 6-3 win over Kirsten Flipkins in the first round.

Vera Zvonareva’s Quarter:

This is a tough section with Zvonareva and Agnieszka Radwanska heading the field. Zvonareva, this year’s Wimbledon finalist, should get to the fourth round without a problem. I see her playing against Radwanska to decide the quarterfinal spot.

Radwanska wins that match in three, using finesse, tactics, and superb counter-punching consistency to get inside Zvonareva’s head.

Other notables: Nadia Petrova, the Pilot Pen Tennis finalist, already lost to Andrea Petkovic, while Bethanie Mattek-Sands should find strong support at her home major.

Francesca Schiavone’s Quarter:

In what I view as the hardest section of the field, the French Open winner won’t live up to expectations. Instead, I’m rooting for Melanie Oudin, last year’s fairytale story, to get to the fourth round. Against her could be either Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sania Mirza, or Victoria Azarenka. The seeding says Azarenka, but I’ve been seeing great things from Pavlyuchenkova lately. Then again, Mirza’s back in action, and looked sharp in her qualifying matches and especially against Michelle Larcher de Brito in the first round.

Other notables: Can Alona Bondarenko find some surprise honeymoon success?

Venus Williams’ Section:

Okay, so the draw doesn’t get much easier in this section. Shahar Peer, Flavia Pennetta, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Venus are all contenders. I’ll take Venus to exact revenge over Pironkova, who beat her in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in straight sets during potential third round action.

The winner of that match could face Pennetta, although I’m a fan of Peer’s game.

Other notables: Can Pironkova bring the same amount of trickery against Venis this time around? Probably not.

Sam Stosur’s Quarter:

Elena Dementieva immediately comes to mind as the winner for this part of the draw. Stosur did well to get to the French Open final, but her form has suffered since then. Dementieva lost in a close match against Wozniacki and will bring that same drive and intensity in search of her first major title. She wants it badly. I’ll predict she advances in straight sets to the quarterfinals.

Other notables: I’m curious to see if Vania King can beat Daniela Hantuchova, who defeated an ailing Dinara Safina, in the second round. I hope King gets a lot of love from the New York City crowd.

Kim Clijsters’ Quarter:

Clijsters is likely to dominate this field. While Petra Kvitova plays a big, athletic game that got her all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals, she doesn’t have the experience to beat last year’s champion. Clijsters’ opponent for a spot in the quarters, however, is by no means locked. Ana Ivanovic, Marion Bartoli, and Jie Zheng are all big threats. Regardless, I’m not overly worried.

Other notables: Ivanovic versus Zheng should be an interesting match. Is the Serb ready for the top tier once more? I hope so. She looked promising in Cincinnati before withdrawing from injury against Clijsters in the semifinals.

The Quarters and Semis:

In the top half, Wozniacki beats Kuznetsova in two sets to make the semis. She’ll face the winner of Radwanska and Wickmayer. I like the chances of Wozniacki versus Radwanska. who takes out Zvonareva, in this semifinal section.

In the other matches, Azarenka loses to Venus, while Clijsters and Dementieva battle it out. Clijsters prevails in three sets.

The final four: Wozniacki against Radwanska, and Venus versus Clijsters.

The Cincinnati Final Four — A Welcome Surprise

It’s been a shocking week in Cincinnati, current high-profile players, such as Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki dropped-out early. Former number ones Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, and Kim Clijsters, however, are in top form getting to the semis, while Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova surprised many to also make the final four.

Kim Clijsters:

Clijsters, the defending US Open champion, looks sharp in her return to play after a disappointing loss to Vera Zvonareva in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Her draw hasn’t been an easy one, either. To make it to the semis, she’s won against former world number one Dinara Safina, the young upstart American Christina McHale, and Flavia Pennetta, who took out Zvonareva. Clijsters won against Pennetta in a close 7-6 (4), 6-4 match.

Ana Ivanovic:

It’s great seeing Ivanovic back. Her draw really opened up after Jelena Jankovic lost to Akgul Amanmurdova in the third round. Instead of Ivanovic playing her compatriot, the world’s second-ranked player,  she fended off the 114th Amanmuradova. Ivanovic won 6-1, 6-3 to get to her first semifinal since the Rome clay tournament in May. Can the Serb take out Clijsters to get to her first final in over a year? I don’t think so. Her last final: Indian Wells in 2009, where she lost to Vera Zvonareva as the sixth player in the world. It’s been a long road for Ivanovic both mentally and in her ranking slide these past few months. She has a lot to prove going into this semifinal. I think her mental game and, therefore, athletic game will break down under the pressure of playing a confident Clijsters.

Maria Sharapova:

Coming off a 6-4 6-1 drubbing by Victoria Azarenka in the final at Stanford, Sharapova is playing with a new confidence. That loss, along with some close wins over Elena Dementieva and Agnieszka Radwanska to get to her fourth final of the season, further fired up the powerful game of the former Russian teenage phenom (she won Wimbledon at just 17). Sharapova’s serving embodies this renewed confidence. In a recent statement, Sharapova said, “I’m actually serving a lot better than I did last summer. Hitting bigger serves — maybe I’m missing a few more first serves and second serves, but not hitting second serves 70 miles an hour.” That’s a good sign for the three-time major champion, and a scary one for the rest of the field.

At this tournament, she’s continued to claw her way to the top, taking out a recently victorious Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round. In the second, she easily handled the tennis media sensation Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-1. Next, she outhit Radwanska 6-2, 6-3, improving her head-to-head to a dominating 6-1 record. In the quarters, she beat Marion Bartoli 6-1. 6-4.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova:

Rounding out the final four is the teenager Pavlyuchenkova, who’s been playing some strong tennis this season. She’s won two titles already, including her last at the end of July in Istanbul. With a ranking of 25th in the world — close to her career-high of 24 — things are looking good for the former girl’s champion. To make it to the semis, she’s been some fantastic players, including: Elena Dementieva, Shahar Peer, and Yanina Wickmayer (all top twenety talent).  Her next opponent, however, has the experience and drive to handle even Pavlychenkova’s big game, easily.

Predictions:

I’m going by the rankings (and my past prediction, which you can read here) to make it to the final. I see Clijsters taking out Ivanovic easily, just like their last match three years ago on carpet in the quarterfinals of Antwerp. There, she beat Ivanovic 6-2, 6-1. I think the sets will be closer, but not by much.

For Sharapova versus Pavlyuchenkova — the two haven’t played one another yet — I’m going with Sharapova, assuming her serve stays on track. If it does, and she plays the game that’s carried her through the past few tournaments during the US Open Series, she should advance comfortably with a chance to take on Clijsters.

In the end, I’m banking on Sharapova to win — she has a 3-1 record against Clijsters (although it’s been about three years since the last match).

Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Pavlyuchenkova Win Big

Coming fresh off a big seesaw victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova advanced easily over Andrea Petkovic to get to the round of 16 at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s event in Cincinnati, Ohio. She won 6-3, 6-1 in the dominating performance. Other strong performers included Ana Ivanovic, who knocked out Victoria Azarenka in the previous round, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the winner over third-seeded Elena Dementieva in two sets.

Sharapova’s last two victories prove she’s regaining the top form that others on the WTA tour should fear. With every match, there’s more of that champion’s spark that brought her to three major titles, beginning at 17. I’ve hinted at it in the past few weeks, but this win only solidifies my sentiments: Sharapova’s prepared to go deep at the US Open. She’ll be seeded well within the top 20, and I see her taking out some other big-time threats to get to the major’s second week.

Her results this year are on an upward trend: first round at the Australian Open, third round at Roland Garros, and a tough loss to Serena Williams in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Here’s her chance to break through past the quarterfinals since her 2009 French Open showing. Sharapova’s next opponent? The tricky shot-maker, Agnieszka Radwanska, who’s having a great US Open Series so far, having made it to the semifinals and final of her last two events. I don’t see Sharapova letting up against Radwanska. She’ll win in two close sets.

Compared to Sharapova, Ivanovic’s results at the majors seem wildly unexceptional. She’s only made it to the second rounds at the Australian and French, falling in the first round at Wimbledon. And, yet, things are looking up (even if just slightly) with that win over Azarenka. She followed the upset with a straight sets victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, a quarter-finalist at this year’s French Open, and the winner of the doubles title with American Vania King at Wimbledon. Ivanovic needs to soak up the win and channel the confidence in her next round. She faces Elena Vesnina, the winner over a struggling Francesca Schiavone. I’m taking Ivanovic over Vesnina in three sets.

Pavlyuchenkova’s drubbing of Dementieva secures a huge step for the younger Russian to get to the semis of this event. That is, if she can take out Israel’s Shahar Peer in the quarterfinals. I see Pavlyuchenkova winning that match in three sets. She has the bigger game, and a good deal of experience so far throughout this summer season.

Bracket Breakdown:

In the top half, Jelena Jankovic will get to the semis despite some shaky play. She’ll potentially face Ana Ivanovic in the quarters.

In the bottom half, we see the return of Kim Clijsters, and an impressive showing from the American teenager Christina McHale — the winner against Nadia Petrova. Clijsters easily beat an ailing Dinara Safina 7-5, 6-2. For McHale, her win over Ayumi Morita means she’ll probably face the Belgian. There, I see her getting overwhelmed by the shots and experience of Clijsters in straight sets. I’m calling Vera Zvonareva to meet Clijsters in the quarterfinals.

On the other side of the draw, I like Pavlyuchenkova to make the semifinals in the top half, although she has stiff competition by facing either Na Li or Yanina Wickmayer to make it there.

In the bottom section, look for Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki to battle it out for the last spot in the final four. I’m predicting Sharapova overwhelms Wozniacki in three sets.

Final Predictions:

Jelena Jankovic defeats Ana Ivanovic in the quarters; Clijsters gets revenge over Zvonareva, who defeated her at Wimbledon in the other match.

Pavlyuchenkova surprises to make the semis, where she’ll face a fiery Sharapova.

The last two standing: Clijsters and Sharapova — a dream match.

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