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After a week replete with stunning headlines and engaging tennis, has all of the magic escaped from the Magic Box?  One might be forgiven for such a thought when contemplating tomorrow’s semifinal lineup.  A combined 14-0 against their respective opponents, Federer and Nadal look likely to set up their 21st collision and their first in exactly a year.  On the WTA side, Venus attempts to inflict a third 2010 defeat upon the pugnacious Peer in order to set up a final against another unseeded opponent.  From all appearances, the elder Williams would have to severely botch something in the next two days for one of her semifinal peers (haha) to seize the title.  Anything can happen, but it probably won’t…or will it?  Martinez Sanchez confounded all expectations a week ago, so maybe there’s something worth discussing here after all:

Safarova-Rezai:  Born just a month apart from each other, these two upstarts share an almost identical career win-loss records (199-139 vs. 203-130).  Appropriately, the head-to-head stands level at one win apiece; while Safarova won the clay encounter in Estoril, Rezai triumphed at the more significant venue in Flushing Meadows.  The Frenchwoman has plowed a more treacherous course here past Henin and Jankovic, the top two contenders for Roland Garros, but the Czech dispatched Sharapova and a resurgent Petrova who had ousted Serena.   Among the x-factors here is the Czech’s physical condition, for she has played three three-setters in the last three days, whereas Rezai followed her three-set upset of Henin with three consecutive straight-set wins.  Both players will zoom upwards in the rankings regardless of the outcome, elevating their seeding and probably improving their draw at Roland Garros.  (We anticipate a media barrage in Paris, where the expectations on Rezai will be higher than the Eiffel Tower after her implausible run here.)  Anticipate a stylistically straightforward exercise in ball-bludgeoning from the baseline.  If Safarova exploits her lefty serve to open up the court, she might be able to keep the Frenchwoman off balance with sharply angled forehands.  Nevertheless, Rezai has looked ferociously relentless and relentlessly ferocious all week.  Refusing to let Jankovic escape from a marathon service game in the first set today, she shrugged off squandered break point after squandered break point (she was 1 for 14 at one stage) until she finally converted.  That sort of tenacity should serve her well against a mentally questionable adversary

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Venus-Peer:  Kudos to Venus for rising immediately from an ignominious fiasco in Rome to establish herself as a genuine threat at Roland Garros.  Not only did she outsteady the volatile Zvonareva and outlast the crafty Schiavone, but she surrendered just six games in the quarterfinals to a Stosur who had rampaged through Charleston and Stuttgart.  A semifinalist in Stuttgart, Peer has thoroughly earned a second final four appearance with eye-opening wins over Kuznetsova, Kleybanova, and Li Na, all of whom possess many more offensive weapons than she does.  In the past, sheer tenacity hasn’t proved sufficient to threaten Venus, who has performed at an outstanding level during their four previous meetings.  Winning all eight sets that she has played against Peer, the elder Williams thrashed the Israeli in the Dubai semifinals before recording a more competitive yet still comfortable win during the aforementioned Rome tournament.  (Her game went off the rails completely a day later, an experience that she won’t want to repeat in Madrid.)  Once again, a solid serving percentage combined with a reasonable number of penetrating forehands should see her through to Sunday.  Meanwhile, don’t forget her doubles final with Serena against the white-hot team of Dulko and Pennetta, which should provide an intriguing signpost as to whether the sisters can secure the Roland Garros doubles title that eluded them last year.

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Almagro-Nadal:  A year ago on this court, Nadal scratched and clawed his way to a record-shattering 243-minute victory over an inspired Djokovic, who seemed to have seized all of the magic from the Magic Box en route to a 20-point third-set tiebreak.  The task today looks far less imposing, for next week’s world #2 has won 12 of 13 total sets from his compatriot.  Woefully outclassed by Rafa at the 2008 French Open, Almagro briefly tested him at the 2009 US Open before severely testing him at the Paris Indoors midway through Nadal’s miserable fall campaign.  Saving several match points, Nadal ultimately dragged his friend deep into the final set, where his superior fitness proved decisive.  Following his startling second-round win over Soderling, Almagro profited from a Verdasco-vacated quarter and hasn’t scored a string of upsets a la Rezai in the WTA draw.  The matchup reminds us a bit of the Federer-Wawrinka encounter, where the Swiss #2 appeared reluctant to unseat his fellow Olympic gold medalist.  Does Almagro really want to be the guy who rains on his friend’s parade?  We doubt it.

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Federer-Ferrer:  Seeking his 10th consecutive win without a loss against the diminutive Spaniard, Federer may finally have risen from his post-Melbourne doldrums with a commanding demolition of Wawrinka and an even more impressive comeback against Gulbis, his nemesis just a fortnight ago.  When the top seed dropped a routine first set and meekly surrendered his serve to start the second set, one suspected that he would mentally move forward to Paris rather than concentrating upon erasing this formidable deficit.  During the second and third sets, however, Federer’s intense, fully focused play delivered a statement of purpose to his weekend opponents.  Raising his level as the week has progressed, Ferrer executed textbook clay-court tennis to swiftly dispense with Cilic; confronted with the sterner test of Murray in the quarterfinals, the Spaniard stymied the Scot with the suffocating court coverage that has long been his trademark.  If Federer opens with erratic groundstrokes or a mediocre first-serve percentage, Ferrer might well win a set, as he has in two of their last three meetings.  The weapons that finally subdued an unruly Gulbis, though, should hit through the counterpuncher on this relatively swift surface, which also will enable Federer to hold serve more regularly than the Spaniard.  Expect the road to Roland Garros to climax with Federer-Nadal XXI on Sunday.

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We’ll return to preview the ATP final tomorrow and perhaps share a few thoughts on the WTA final as well.  In the meantime, let’s hope that the outwardly unprepossessing semifinal lineup serves up something memorable tomorrow. 😉

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