Barely two weeks ago, Gulbis scored the most significant triumph of his still-nascent career by upsetting Federer in the latter’s Rome opener.  Just a few days after that match, Ferrer recorded a minor, unsurprising upset over Murray in the Foro Italico.  During the Madrid quarterfinals tomorrow, both Australian Open finalists revisit their recent nemeses as they attempt to secure semifinal slots opposite each other. Arranged in the format of who should win and who might win, previews of those two matches and the two most intriguing WTA quarterfinals lie straight ahead…

Federer-Gulbis:

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Why Federer should win:  Once was enough, wasn’t it?  On only one occasion in the last several years has Federer lost consecutive meetings with a player outside the top 30 (Canas in Indian Wells and Miami).  Pedestrian in Rome, he looked more inspired than he has in months during a third-round rout of another player who had previously defeated him, Wawrinka.  After an unconvincing opening game, he immediately regained the break and never let Wawrinka regain his footing, displaying the clutch serving, purposeful point construction, and sophisticated net play that we have grown to (rather unfairly) expect from him on a regular basis.  At this time a year ago, commentators were raising questions regarding what seemed a decline during the North American hard courts, Monte Carlo, and Rome, but the Magic Box provided Federer with all of the magic that he required in order to complete the career Slam–still a glorious achievement despite Nadal’s absence, in our opinion.  One shouldn’t underestimate the power of positive memories at a certain event.  Meanwhile, Gulbis might be a little complacent after scoring the Rome victory and start the match overconfidently, allowing Federer to establish control in the early stages.

Why Gulbis might win:  One resounding win over a quality opponent (Wawrinka) remains just a resounding win until Federer turns it into a trend.  Unlike Isner and Karlovic, Gulbis possesses manifold weapons with which to capitalize upon that percussive serve; both his forehand and his backhand have penetrated the relatively fast clay here with vigor, while his drop shot provides ingenious variation.  He enjoys a definite edge regarding the second serve as well as backhand-to-backhand rallies, for the world #1’s more elegant one-hander doesn’t wield the raw force of Gulbis’ bruising two-hander.  Extending the momentum from his debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Rome, the Latvian has dramatically improved in the arena of consolidating his successes, a mark of maturity.  Also revealing his maturation was his reaction to the two squandered match points in Lopez’ last service game of the second set.  When the Spaniard escaped that predicament and rallied his hometown fans behind his cause, Gulbis merely intensified his focus and emphatically slammed the door with a 7-0 tiebreak.  If that seismic game is finally harnessed to a modestly sound mind, he’ll be able to threaten anyone on any surface.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Nadal.

Murray-Ferrer:

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Why Ferrer should win:  Far superior to the Scot on this surface, Ferrer may be the best clay-court player in the ATP this year outside Nadal.  At any rate, he’s scored more clay wins than anyone (including Nadal) and reached the semifinals or better at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome; no non-Spanish lefty has defeated him yet.  Once again illustrating his superlative fitness, he efficiently dismantled Cilic after surviving a marathon against Baghdatis on the previous night.  To some extent, Ferrer practices the same art on clay that Murray has refined on a hard court:  wearing down opponents through baseline consistency, intelligent shot selection, and a knack for exposing the opponent’s hidden flaws.  Little effort is required, however, to expose Murray’s uneasiness on clay.  Sometimes one wonders why he bothered to hire French Open champion Alex Corretja to assist him with the clay-court season, since he often appears indifferent to it.  A ghastly 2-and-1 opening loss to Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo preceded a 3-and-4 defeat against Ferrer in Rome.  At the root of this perceived indifference perhaps lies his mounting awareness of the tension-soaked task ahead at the All England Club, and he certainly could be forgiven for hoarding his energies until that fortnight.

Why Murray might win:  Who would have thought that Murray would have conceded fewer games in his pre-quarterfinal matches than…Rafa Nadal??  To be sure, neither Chela nor Hanescu is a jaw-breaking challenge, but we were impressed by Murray’s more adroit movement and more confident body language so far this week.  He’ll never find a clay more to his liking than the grit at this tournament, and he has reached a significant clay semifinal (Rome 2009) in the past.  Among the numerous surprises at last year’s French Open was his string of four victories, terminated not without some difficulty by Gonzalez in the quarterfinals.  Virtually invisible since his deflating defeat in Melbourne, Murray is long overdue to emerge from the noxious cloud of gloom and self-doubt in which he has since immersed himself.  Despite Ferrer’s sensational clay record, he looked a little less dogged than usual against Baghdatis, donating more unforced errors than does his characteristically stingy self.  The Rome match was somewhat more competitive than the 3-and-4 scoreline suggests, for Murray earned multiple break points on the Spaniard’s serve but couldn’t capitalize; one or two timely conversions could have altered the trajectory of that encounter.

Petrova-Safarova:

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Why Petrova should win:  Serena may have been discomfited by the clay and weary from the longest match of her career, but Petrova still merits applause for her 11-ace display against an opponent who has tormented her in the past.  A former French Open semifinalist, she produced more than enough brilliant clay-court tennis to deserve victory in a second-round loss to Sharapova there last year; she easily could have reached the second week with a less disastrous draw.  Nadia leads the head-to-head with Safarova 3-0, of which two wins came on clay; the Czech secured just nine game in four sets during those two meetings.  When they collided in the Paris Indoors final, where one might expect Petrova to wobble under pressure, she rallied from a one-set deficit to outlast Safarova.  Although the Russian endured a three-set tussle with Serena, the Czech waffled through consecutive epic victories:  7-5 in the third set against the unimpressive Govortsova and 7-6 in the third set against the only marginally more threatening Dulgheru (herself a 7-5 third-set winner in the previous round).  The Dulgheru match ended at 1:48 A.M., according to our friend Alvaro Rama, so Safarova’s biorhythms may not adjust well to an 11 AM start on Friday.  A finicky, unpredictable personality, she veers from equatorially hot to antarctically cold even more abruptly than does Petrova.  

Why Safarova might win:  Last week, Jankovic suffered a bit of a post-Serena letdown against Martinez Sanchez, so Petrova’s momentum might not necessarily persist.  Although hitherto unsuccessful on clay against Petrova, Safarova held a match point against Venus at last year’s French Open, so her history has been not entirely dismal on the surface.  In fact, this week represents her third consecutive clay quarterfinal after reaching that stage in Stuttgart and Rome; upsetting a sore-ankled Wozniacki in the former event, she ambushed Pennetta and Radwanska in the latter tournament.  Particularly impressive was the Radwanska victory, when she stormed back from a dismal 1-6 first-set loss to edge through a third-set tiebreak, revealing that she can summon her best tennis when it matters most.  In the quarterfinals, moreover, she came about as close as anyone else that week to toppling MJMS.  Here, she scored a somewhat less surprising win over a rusty Sharapova:

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Stosur-Venus:

Why Stosur should win:  Not only did she win the Charleston title with an emphatic win over Zvonareva, but she reached the Stuttgart final and even took a 6-2 set from Henin there.  Wisely choosing to rest during Rome, she must not have relished the sight of Martinez Sanchez in her second round, but she consistently outplayed the Spaniard at crucial junctures in that contest.  This match features two of the three best serves in the WTA, which could indicate a tiebreak or two; the Australian has won all three of the tiebreaks that she has played in the tournament, a testament to her outstanding composure.  Venus has looked more convincing here than in Rome, but that statement is a bit like saying that Murray played better here than in his Monte Carlo loss to Kohlschreiber (in other words, the standard has been set very low indeed).  Down a break in both sets to the ever-fragile Zvonareva, the elder Williams lost a set to Schiavone despite her immensely superior serve and overall talents.  A substantial advantage over most adversaries, the American’s superb net skills provide her with little or no edge in that department over the dexterous Australian.  Never comfortable on the dirt, she was bageled by the underachieving Szavay in last year’s French Open and has suffered three consecutive first-week exits there.  By contrast, Stosur built her career-turning momentum burst upon a spectacular, completely unexpected semifinal charge at Roland Garros last year.

Why Venus might winBoth players will enjoy the altitude and the faster conditions, but the recently more erratic Venus will especially benefit from the opportunity to finish points more quickly.  Probably unrecognized by casual fans, her February streak included a clay title in Acapulco despite her infamous struggles on the sluggish surface.  Although extended to three sets on multiple occasions, she delivered performances as gritty as the dirt and revealed a willingness to “win ugly,” always useful for clay.  Furthermore, there’s the 3-0 head-to-head that eerily resembles the Petrova-Safarova statistic.  Mirroring that matchup, two meetings have come on clay, one on red clay and one on green clay; also mirroring that matchup, the losing player (Stosur) won exactly nine games in the four total sets.  It’s worth noting, however, that all of those meetings occurred before the Australian’s Roland Garros breakthrough a year ago and that the red-clay clash in Rome occurred when she was just returning from Lyme disease with a ranking of 145th. 

***

Elsewhere on Friday, it looks more than likely that Nadal and Almagro will set up yet another all-Spanish semifinal at a Masters 1000 event.  Yawn.  Showing little mercy to the last remaining Spaniard in the WTA draw, Jankovic looks primed to reach a third final in the last four Premier Five or Premier Mandatory events, despite Rezai’s eye-popping win over Henin.  Jelena might want to send the Frenchwoman flowers and chocolates for forestalling an 11th meeting–and probably 11th loss–against the Belgian.  It’s hard to tell whether Peer or Li will emerge from their quarterfinal, since both of have been in solid but not fiery form lately.  Stripping much of the suspense from this encounter is the likelihood that either player will fall to the winner of Stosur-Venus in the semis.  Could we ultimately be headed for a third Jankovic-Stosur clash in the last three months?

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