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Savagely slinging thunderbolts down from Valhalla, the Norse god of tennis confirmed what Del Potro proved at last year’s US Open final:  audacious, relentless power can overcome even the most talented player of all time.  Often a flaw earlier in his career, Soderling’s sheer stubbornness profited him immensely against Federer just as it did against Nadal a year ago.  Refusing to retreat or compromise in moments of adversity, he continued to unleash his weapons with abandon until they struck their targets.  The crucial juncture in the match, though, arrived with a Federer-worthy display of shotmaking late in the third set.  With the top seed hovering at a set point for a two-sets-to-one lead, Soderling charged to the net and crushed an overhead, only to see the Swiss retrieve it with a sparkling display of reflexes and timing.  Here, one sensed, had come the inevitable moment of Federer magic that would prove the turning point in this intense encounter, as had happened in so many fateful matches over the years.  And indeed it was, but not in the way that the world #1 or any of the spectators would have imagined.  Presented with a persuasive invitation to donate a set-ending error, the ungainly Soderling instead somehow leaped and pivoted to his left just enough to slash away a backhand volley past the frozen Federer.  Despite an 0-12 record against the defending champion, the Swede found the courage and the inspiration to execute this shot under extreme pressure, a testament to his unflinching self-belief against the game’s elite. 

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One calendar Slam bid evaporated in the quarterfinals, and will the other attempt falter there too?  After Henin’s listless departure, the WTA draw became a children’s animated picture book entitled “Serena and the Seven Dwarfs.”  Most of the other seven quarterfinalist have enjoyed extensive success at the sub-Slam level yet regularly have fallen short in majors.  The least dwarfish of the dwarfs, Stosur brings not only the momentum boost acquired from her victory over Henin but a game that can match Serena blow for blow from the service notch or the baseline.  Interestingly, however, the Australian survived a rather indifferent serving performance against Henin and will need to improve those numbers when she confronts the American, who has served brilliantly here when her stomach allowed.  Look for both players to utilize the kick serve out wide, always an effective weapon on this surface, and to move forward whenever they pull their opponent out of position.  Although they’ll hope for a high first-serve percentage, one imagines that they’ll prioritize pace over consistency; therefore, their formidable second serves could be crucial in a match that won’t feature many breaks.  While the Aussie defeated Serena in a testy three-setter at Stanford last year, the world #1 delivered when it mattered most by stifling her big-serving foe in the Australian Open fourth round.  The 12-time Slam champion simply brings a different game to the majors than to the smaller events, and that game generally rises another level in the second week.  Profiting from Henin’s disintegration late in the third set, Stosur can’t expect such generosity on this occasion, but she has more than enough belief to capitalize on any opportunities that arise.  We anticipate many short points, intelligent serving, excellent shot-making, and a solidly competitive effort from start to finish on both sides of the net.  Eight weeks a year, there’s no better competitor than Serena.

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Oddly unnoticed and (we think) underestimated by many commentators, Jankovic has progressed through the draw with increasing rather than decreasing ease and decreasing rather than increasing drama.  Both trends bode extremely well for her chances to become the third Slam champion from Serbia, but she faces an opponent who bounced her from the US Open and has dragged her into third sets during their other two meetings.  On a fast surface, it’s easy to see why Shvedova might trouble Jankovic, for her much more imposing serve allows her to hold more comfortably and consistently.  Yet the JJ who wandered out of the US Open is not the same JJ who (so far) has rejuvenated herself in the last few months, winning Indian Wells and reaching the Rome final with a sensational triumph over Serena.  Already having toppled Radwanska and Kleybanova, the Kazakh has demonstrated both the consistency necessary to topple the Pole and the offensive weapons essential to outhit the Russian.  If Jankovic can stay close to the baseline, display her ball-redirecting talents, and turn the match into a gritty grind, she should be able to make her substantially superior movement a key factor.  One also wonders whether Shvedova mentally may be more than satisfied with her quarterfinal result and not unwilling to move on to greener pastures; she’s already accomplished far more here than anyone could have expected from her.  That said, we never know quite what to expect from the charismatic, controversial Serb, so there might be some lively moments as she navigates into a reunion with Serena.

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What impact will Federer’s exit have on the lower half of the draw, where Nadal knows that no Swiss legend will await them in the final?  After Soderling stunned Rafa here last year, Federer nearly fumbled the opportunity in his very next match against the unimposing Tommy Haas, when he escaped defeat by a mere five points.  From Nadal’s outstanding form during his 19-match clay winning streak, one doesn’t expect to see him in such a predicament, and he might well have preferred the Swiss to the Swede anyway.  When he met Almagro in the same round here two years ago, Rafa (dis)courteously took his friend to the bakery for three breadsticks.  Even at the nadir of his dismal 2009, he defeated Nic in three unremarkable sets at the US Open and managed to evade multiple match points at the Paris Indoors before exposing his foe’s inferior fitness.  Having improved that dimension of his game as well as his shot selection and consistency, however, Almagro should deliver a significantly sturdier effort than that previous Roland Garros quarterfinal, part of an unsurpassed and perhaps unsurpassable title charge by Nadal.  (Remember that Federer won only one more game than Almagro in the final that year.)  Odd as it may sound, the four-time champion has reached greater heights on his favorite surface than the plateau where he currently resides.  Moreover, Almagro remains one of only two players (with Gulbis) to have won a set on clay from his compatriot this year during an inspired Madrid semifinal run.  On the other hand, he won four total games during the rest of that match, which led us to chuckle a bit when he confidently declared that he knows how to play Nadal on clay.  Congratulations on cracking the code, Nic.  See you in London. 

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Djokovic should be delighted to see Melzer rather than Ferrer in the quarterfinals, for the aging Austrian lacks the consistency to frustrate the Serb in a best-of-five format unless he delivers an outstanding serving performance.  A lefty with an affinity for serve-and-volley tactics, a suspect backhand, and a susceptibility to radical momentum shifts, Melzer reminds us a bit of Feliciano Lopez and possesses a similar ability to temporarily fluster elite players before ultimately succumbing to them.  One might recall his ill-tempered five-set loss to Murray at the 2008 US Open as an example.  On other occasions, he simply never comes to play and heedlessly sprays balls to every conceivable location.  As his loss to Nadal in Madrid last year demonstrated, Melzer struggles with confidence against the top players; that day, he tested the Spaniard well into the first set until losing his serve for the first time, after which he meekly capitulated.  Even if the Austrian arrives in fine fettle, which is likely, and takes an early lead, which is possible, Djokovic should be able to hold the veteran in check until he remembers where he is and whom he is playing.

Enjoy the second half of the quarterfinals!  Will the favorites restore order in the court, or will another thunderous upset leave us covering our eyes in disbelief?

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