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Almost exactly a year ago today, Robin Soderling trained his bone-crushing artillery on the four-time defending champion of Roland Garros and accomplished the greatest upset in tennis history.  The Swede now attempts to depose another defending champion at the citadel of clay, while Federer can claim a new, moderately significant record by progressing into the semis:  passing Sampras’ total number of weeks at #1.  Considering that their lopsided head-to-head stands at 12-0 for the Swiss, one would think that a 24th consecutive semifinals lies well within his grasp.  Yet Soderling has inched increasingly closer to snapping that streak of futility, forcing Federer four tiebreaks in the last six sets that they have played (all at Slams) and dragging him within one point of a fifth set at last year’s US Open.  The two adversaries have lost just one of twenty-five total sets in the first four round here, so expect an extremely high-quality encounter including very few service breaks.  Allowing Del Potro to lure him into a baseline shootout midway through the US Open final, Federer will be in trouble if he adopts the same tactics here; Soderling is one of the few players who possesses the raw power to hit through him even on clay.  Instead, the Swiss must attempt to showcase his expert net skills and biting backhand slice.  A liability against Nadal, the backhand oddly might prove valuable than his legendary forehand in disrupting the Swede’s timing.  Soderling must preserve his patience in extended rallies rather than pulling the trigger too early, for he has enhanced his consistency over the past year and now doesn’t need to end points as quickly.  Donating meek opening sets to Federer in two of their three Slam meetings last year (6-1 at the French and 6-0 at the US Open), he’ll want to bring his full intensity to the very first point.  We anticipate plenty of aces and service winners, more short points than normal in a clay match, high-risk tennis from Soderling, high-consistency tennis from Federer, and a fiercely contested victory for the top seed—perhaps in four sets.

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Lacking a clear contender, the second quarter of the draw seemed likely to produce an unexpected hero, but ultimately no great surprises emerged from that section.  In search of his first career Slam semifinal, Berdych exceeded our expectations not so much by defeating Isner and Murray as by the composed, routine manner with which he dismissed both threats.  Did Miami really witness the birth of a mature, poised Tomas who can showcase his best tennis on the biggest stages?  By no means a finesse artist, he’ll rely on his massive serve-forehand combinations to outhit Youzhny.  Meanwhile, the Russian will profit from the extremely slow surface on Lenglen to perhaps prolong more points than he could on Chatrier and gain time to ingeniously construct points in his distinctive style.  (Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion:  you can find a lengthy profile on Misha among the older entries on this blog.)  Reaching the US Open semifinals a few years ago after defeating Nadal, Youzhny has more experience with these circumstances than one might imagine.  Generally not a factor on clay, he has enjoyed a significant resurgence this year by reaching finals in Rotterdam and Dubai while posting wins over Monfils, Djokovic, and Wawrinka.  The head-to-head is extremely even at 6-4 in Youzhny’s favor; they’ve split their two clay meetings and their last four meetings overall.  We anticipate plenty of momentum shifts, blinding forehands by the Czech, exquisite one-handed backhands by the Russian, some ghastly errors from both players, and a debut semifinal appearance for Berdych.

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Having required three hours to work her way through a heaping plate of penne(tta), Wozniacki encounters Flavia’s Fed Cup teammate Schiavone.  Less powerful but more crafty than her compatriot, the 17th seed showcases a flamboyant one-handed backhand that reveals her natural talent just as Wozniacki’s steady two-hander reveals her dedicated work ethic.  On paper, the Pole-Dane should prevail rather comfortably, but remember that not only her ankle but her thigh may be questionable.  Effective against Kirilenko in the previous round, Schiavone’s slice might test those aching limbs if she can employ it consistently.  Another potential advantage over the Dane is her excellent net play, honed after years of experience in doubles.  Almost exactly a decade older than Wozniacki, Schiavone doesn’t seem to have many other options with which to counter the third seed’s bulletproof defenses, although she did win their only meeting in late 2008.  The Italian’s gritty (haha) tenacity often benefits her against youthful, inexperienced opponents, yet Caroline has amply demonstrated her own resolve on repeated occasions, so don’t expect her to crumble as did her friend Azarenka when facing Schiavone at last year’s US Open.  We anticipate multiple breaks of serve, some very, very long rallies, many more errors than winners, and a two-set win for Wozniacki (if her ankle / thigh / [insert body part here] permit).

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Petrova characterized all-Russian duels as well as anyone during her post-Venus press conference by describing them as “battles to the death.”  Sometimes they seem more like exercises in mutual suicide, however, with both players paralyzed by nerves and donating hideous errors to each other’s cause.  Clashing in last year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal, Dementieva and Petrova did contribute a respectable three-setter, so perhaps they’re less troubled by the atmosphere of intra-national competition than some of their compatriots.  Their head-to-head stands squarely even at seven wins apiece, two wins apiece on clay; while Elena has won the last four meetings, the last three all have reached a final set.  Although we were highly impressed with Petrova’s clutch serving against Venus, Lenglen will take a little of the edge off her serve as it did off Roddick’s delivery.  If Dementieva can work her way into the rallies, she has the more consistent game and superior movement to outlast her compatriot.  Don’t forget that she also is hampered by leg injuries, however, which troubled her against Wozniak in the third round and could undermine her ability to win an epic such as this match threatens to become.  And can she hold serve often enough to put pressure on Petrova?  Even on one of the slowest courts in the sport, she can’t break Nadia constantly.  It’ll be intriguing to observe whether Petrova can create opportunities to approach the net, where she enjoys a high comfort level, or whether Dementieva can keep the match mired in her own comfort zone behind the baseline.  We anticipate plenty of mental fragility, plenty of Russian imprecations, great offense by Nadia, great defense by Elena, and a three-set win for a Russian.  (Ha!)

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Hope that you found these previews thought-provoking.  Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have something to say…or shriek.

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