Few Sharapova fans have forgotten her epic victory over Venus Williams in the 2007 Miami tournament, during which she courageously overcame not only the three-time champion but her aching shoulder deep in the third set.  This afternoon, Henin displayed a different type of fortitude when she confronted a perilous position in the seventh game of the third set.  Having received medical treatment in the previous change-over and squandered three break points in the game that followed, she found herself trailing 30-40 on her serve at 6-7, 3-3.  Rather than retreat from her relentless aggression, however, Henin scorched a trademark down-the-line backhand winner over the high part of the net, a shot that she had repeatedly missed during the first set and a half.  Although she would need to save another break point before escaping the game, she had decisively reversed the momentum in this scintillating quarterfinal; the Belgian would break the Dane in the next game, serve out the set, and drop just two points on serve thereafter.  What a joy to see this elegant game in action again, and what a pity that external circumstances prevented Henin and Sharapova from igniting a compelling rivalry.  You can catch a glimpse of what might have been by clicking on the link to the 2006 US Open final in the margin to this blog.

Today, the women set the stage for the championship match, while four men seek to walk through the door opened by the Federer-less and Murray-less top half of the draw.


Berdych (16) vs. Verdasco (10):  After a thrilling upset such as the Czech’s fourth-round win over Federer, one always should beware of a letdown.  How does one follow up a career-defining (and possibly career-changing) performance?  On the other hand, Berdych annihilated Verdasco at Indian Wells, extending past success against the Spaniard; in fact, the Czech has enjoyed an excellent month, looking uncharacteristically motivated and confident on both coasts.  Despite defeating Cilic, Fernando’s form has been less than overwhelming here in general.  One suspects that he’ll head in the same direction as the Chilean Fernando.  Pick:  Berdych.  Yes, we really mean it this time.

Youzhny (13) vs. Soderling (5):  Dispatching that other Fernando in his previous round, Soderling must be salivating over the possibility of his first Masters Series final, which he could reach without defeating a higher-ranked player.  Don’t underestimate the determined Mikhail Youzhny, however, who has unsettled many a marquee name (see N for Nadal and D for Djokovic) with his balanced, versatile style.  Exploiting an all-court game, the Russian will seek to construct ingenious rallies that place the often flat-footed Swede in awkward positions.  Meanwhile, Soderling will load, fire, and reload his mighty weapons, deploying first-strike tennis in an effort to prevent Youzhny from settling into the rallies.  Probably the highlight of the fifth seed’s performance against Gonzalez, moreover, was his mental tenacity after losing the second-set tiebreak; rather than crumbling in disappointment as would have the pre-2009 Soderling, he intensified his focus and reaffirmed control.  Can he take advantage of the opportunity created by the depleted draw?  When someone has opened a door for Soderling in the past, he typically kicks it down.  Pick:  Soderling.


Bartoli (13) vs. Venus (3):  You wouldn’t be surprised that one of these players has reached the final four without dropping a set, but you might be surprised to learn that the player is Bartoli.  Will her streak in Miami continue?  We’ll outline the head-to-head, recent form, and shot-by-shot breakdown, as we will for the all-Belgian nightcap.

Head-to-head:  It’s even at 1-1; Venus’ fourth Wimbledon came at the Frenchwoman’s expense, while Bartoli retaliated by swiping the Stanford title from the elder Williams last summer.  Wimbledon results tell us little about matchups involving Venus, who plays her best tennis by far at the All England Club.  Although it occurred at a much less consequential event than Miami, the three-set Stanford final could prove relevant should the American repeat the error-strewn performance that she delivered there.  It’s difficult to discern whether we’ll see the clean, crisp Venus who crushed Radwanska or the slovenly, sluggish Venus who barely edged past Hantuchova.  If it’s the latter, Bartoli will be more than ready to profit; if it’s the former, she’ll have little or no chance.

Recent form:  Venus has lost just a single match this year, a three-set quarterfinal against the famously tenacious Li Na in Melbourne. After convincingly outplaying Azarenka in the Dubai final, she found ways to win in Acapulco when less than her best.  Bartoli hasn’t distinguished herself in 2010, falling before the quarterfinals in every event until now, but neither has she fallen on her face as have others of equal or greater talents this year.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Venus

Return:  Bartoli

Forehand:  Venus

Backhand:  Venus

Volleys:  Venus

Movement:  Venus

Mental:  Bartoli

Recap:  As you might have discerned from the shot-by-shot analysis above, the match lies almost entirely in Venus’ hands.  The factor atop that list could define the match; when Venus finds a rhythm, there’s no comparison between her serve and Bartoli’s unsightly delivery, which is always an adventure whenever she tosses up a ball.  We’ve seen before that Bartoli can hold her nerve against Venus.  But can she hold her serve? 


Clijsters (14) vs. Henin (W):  Previewing the all-Belgian matchup is not unlike previewing an all-Williams matchup; you never know exactly what you’re going to get.  Littered with spectacular rallies and spectacular momentum shifts, their pas de deux in the Brisbane final illustrated this unpredictability.  Clijsters clearly had the match in hand, then Henin clearly had snatched it away from her, then nothing was clear anymore except the brilliance of both Belgians.  But whereas Serena and Venus play essentially the same style as each other, Kim and Justine play dramatically different games; their contests oppose punching against counterpunching, flair against functionality, volatility against consistency. 

Head-to-head:  Henin has won 12 of their 23 meetings; the last 14 have occurred either in a semifinal or a final.  She has trumped Clijsters on the biggest stages, winning three of her seven Slams at her compatriot’s expense.  Nevertheless, Kim impressively overcame her personal demons in the Brisbane championship tilt by saving two match points before prevailing in a nail-biting tiebreak.  They have never met in Miami and have not played each other in North America since 2003 (an eternity in tennis time); Henin has won two of their three clashes in this continent, while Clijsters has won 7 of their 11 hard-court meetings overall.

Recent form:  After a fairytale beginning to her comeback last year, Clijsters underwhelmed in Australia with a career-worst loss to Petrova and in Indian Wells with a loss to the swiftly climbing Kleybanova.  In Miami, she appears to have regained the timing on her shots as well as her momentum, hurtling through the first two rounds before overthrowing defending champion Azarenka and navigating the surging Stosur.  Perhaps motivated by the loss in Brisbane, Henin far outshone her compatriot in Melbourne and fell just one set short of repeating what Clijsters accomplished in New York.  After a magnificent Australian performance, however, she self-destructed in a comedy of errors against Gisela Dulko in Indian Wells.  Like her compatriot, she has demonstrated that the desert was an anomaly rather than an omen, demolishing Dementieva for the second time this year and hitting through the dogged defenses of world #2 Wozniacki.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Clijsters

Return:  Both

Forehand:  Clijsters

Backhand:  Henin

Volleys:  Henin

Movement:  Clijsters

Mental:  Henin

Recap:  If their fortnights thus far serve as any guide, Kim-Justine XXIV should attain the extraordinarily high level of Kim-Justine XXIII.  Can Henin negate Clijsters’ sterling defense with a blizzard of fearless shot-making?  Although she executed a similar feat against Wozniacki, her compatriot can transition from counterpunching to punching much more swiftly and smoothly than the Dane; Justine won’t be able to spend almost the entire match on offense.  Fatigue also may play a factor; Henin’s petite frame withstood nearly three hours of bruising rallies in the quarterfinals, while Clijsters has progressed through the draw with minimal ado. 


Enjoy watching the action accelerate towards the weekend climax!  🙂