On Thin Ice: Five Top-20 Underachievers
After the first hard-court season of 2012, several familiar names find themselves in urgent need of a momentum boost as the European section of the calendar approaches. We select four women and one man in the top 20 who have played well below their potential this year to highlight—or rather lowlight. More than any of the peers, these five should fear displacement by the rising stars of both Tours, who have looked especially hungry over the last few months.
*rankings and records precede the Family Circle Cup this week
Zvonareva (#9, 5-5): Since reaching semifinals at the Australian Open and Miami last year, Zvonareva’s results at significant tournaments have diminished dramatically as her mental frailties have returned to haunt her. Only once in the last twelve months has she reached even a quarterfinal at a major or a Premier Mandatory tournament, and her semifinal appearance at the year-end championships masked the fact that she won no more than one match that week (against a reeling Wozniacki). So far in 2012, the Russian #2 has lost three matches to players outside the top 50 and defeated no opponent inside it. Minor illnesses and injuries troubled Zvonareva over the past two months, resulting in two retirements and a walkover, so her form may improve as she gains consistency. Although she rarely plays her best on clay, the upcoming Fed Cup tie in Moscow might lift her spirits before a sequence of the season when she could resurface. Probably overachieving when she reached consecutive major finals in 2010, this 27-year-old counterpuncher never quite seemed to believe in herself as a contender.
Fish (#9, 7-5): An unexpected Miami quarterfinal appearance, highlighted by a victory over the 12th-ranked Almagro, concealed the depths into which this Fish plunged earlier in the season. Irritable and lacking in motivation since the start of 2012, he failed to win a set from Colombian clay specialist Falla at the Australian Open and then (as the #2 seed) dropped his Marseille opener to a wildcard ranked outside the top 300. But Fish always has unleashed his most convincing tennis on North American hard courts, so his loss to qualifier Matthew Ebden at Indian Wells may have stung the most deeply. Perhaps it also galvanized him out of complacency, although his abysmal effort in the Miami quarterfinal against Monaco seemed to augur more troubled waters ahead. Rarely a threat on clay, the top-ranked American depends for his elevated stature on the grass season and the US Open Series. With Isner’s rise, of course, he may no longer spearhead his countrymen by then and have returned to the more modest position in which he looks more comfortable.
Schiavone (#12, 7-8): After she won one of the most implausible major titles of the last decade, this canny veteran had nothing left to prove and mostly has played like it, with a few notable exceptions including her Roland Garros final last year. Only recently disbarred from the top 10, Schiavone likely will fall precipitously if she fails to recapture her magic in Paris after a tepid 2012 campaign in which she has failed to win consecutive matches at her last six tournaments. The year started brightly for her when she defeated former #1 Jankovic in Brisbane and fellow breakthrough champion Stosur in Sydney, but she has won only one match at a WTA tournament against a top-100 opponent from the Australian Open onwards. Often at her best in epics, Schiavone battled rising Russian-turned-Kazakh Ksenia Pervak deep into a third set in Miami in an encouraging display of resilience. Despite her energetic playing style, she generally has avoided the injuries that one might expect for someone her age. How much longer can she defy the march of time?
Lisicki (#13, 8-8): Near the opposite end of the age spectrum, last year’s Wimbledon semifinalist may become the top-ranked German soon in a shift owing less to her recent accomplishments than to Petkovic’s injuries. A recurrent theme in her own career, a retirement ominously ended her first tournament of the year in Auckland, after which she impressed by winning a set from Sharapova in the fourth round of the Australian Open. That match marked the first in a series of four consecutive three-set defeats, in all of which Lisicki won the first set. While three of the four losses came against the impressive trio of Sharapova, Kvitova, and Kerber, that patten probably deflated her morale and contributed to lopsided losses at her next two tournaments. In Miami, Lisicki seemed to collect herself with two routine victories, but then she squandered yet another one-set lead against Li Na, perhaps the woman best positioned to empathize with the hard-serving blonde’s travails.
Cibulkova (#18, 6-9): So miserably did she start the year that she won just two completed matches in her first seven tournaments while absorbing four three-set losses in Lisicki-esque fashion. Her performance at the Sony Ericsson Open thus astonished those who watched. Following two resounding victories, Cibulkova thrust undefeated world #1 Azarenka to the edge of the precipice and almost certainly contributed to her first loss of the season a round later. On the verge of a commanding triumph, though, she twice failed to serve out the match and later double-faulted at the turning point of a tense final set. Pure and painfully visible losses of nerve, those moments illustrated how swiftly a struggling player’s burst of confidence can evaporate.
We return on Thursday with a preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals, all played on clay in a surprising development for a competition notorious for featuring counter-intuitive surfaces.