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Three of the four women’s semifinalist bit the dust on Thursday, two figuratively and one quite literally indeed.  Anticipating a thrilling afternoon of tennis at Roland Garros, Parisians watched with dismay as a Russian juggernaut suffered a flat tire and a Serbian sorceress metamorphosed into origami before their eyes.  While Dementieva and Jankovic will continue to compete for the title of “best active player never to win a Slam,” Schiavone and Stosur will hope for a bit of beginner’s luck on Saturday when their vastly divergent games collide.  Admittedly less familiar than their vanquished foes, these mature, battle-scarred veterans might provide more compelling entertainment than recent women’s finals at Roland Garros, where the standard has been set very low over the past few years.  But what sort of entertainment will the men’s semifinals provide on Friday?  (Don’t forget the women’s doubles final either, as Serena and Venus pursue their fourth consecutive major title on Lenglen.)

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Asked what player other than Nadal would reach the semifinals without dropping a set, few observers would have chosen Tomas Berdych despite the Czech’s hard-court revival this spring.  Struggling with a foot injury earlier in the clay season, the Miami finalist evinced little indication of a career-best Slam performance that included straight-sets wins over Isner and Murray.  Meanwhile, Soderling shelled Federer’s fortress into submission after those of Montanes and Cilic, a trio that arguably represented more formidable obstacles than did Berdych’s adversaries.  We’ve learned to regularly expect the unexpected from last year’s finalist, who seems to relish delivering seismic shocks to the conventional favorites punctuated with his patented snarl.  The feral Swede followed up his career-altering triumph over Nadal last year with a resounding quarterfinal win over Davydenko, so he probably won’t succumb to the hangover syndrome following his Federer upset any more than did Stosur following her Henin / Serena double play.  During that dazzling Miami run, Berdych defeated an oddly listless Soderling for his third victory in their seven meetings; the Czech also won their only clay clash in 2007, although that moment shouldn’t be weighted too heavily because the fifth seed was a completely different player then.  One imagines that the match might turn on their respective first-serve effectiveness and their efficiency in converting break points, which probably won’t proliferate.  Unwilling to grind through long rallies and averse to lateral movement, both players should showcase a brand of first-strike tennis traditionally not witnessed on clay; don’t be surprised to see them combine for more than 100 winners and more than 100 unforced errors.  Also unlike the typical clay courter, who relentlessly constructs points around their forehand (think of Ferrer), are the balanced groundstroke games of Soderling and Berdych, comfortable with attempting winners from anywhere to anywhere on either their forehand or their brisk two-handed backhands.  The Czech might waver in his first ascent to the rarefied altitude of a Slam semifinal, but he has markedly improved his mentality over the last few months.  Like Soderling, he’s a momentum player with a propensity for strings of winners alternating with strings of unforced errors, which means that we might see a rollercoaster encounter as one competitor catches fire while the other sinks into Antarctic permafrost.  Can Berdych become the third first-time Slam finalist of the weekend and the second first-time men’s finalist here in two years?  It’s a definite possibility in this very even matchup, but a confident Soderling will prove extremely difficult to derail.  We’ll go with Robin the Hood in five sets as entertaining for the spectators as they will be painful for the tennis balls.  

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Although NBC chose to air the second men’s semifinal, this apparent mismatch probably won’t deliver a fraction of the intrigue in the first match.  Melzer’s implausible comeback from a two-set deficit against Djokovic might have drained the veteran’s energies despite the intervening rest day.  Tested by Almagro throughout their quarterfinal, Nadal looked vulnerable at times on his backhand but otherwise displayed magnificent movement and a pinpoint forehand, which he struck with increasing aggression as the match progressed.  If the Austrian starts sluggishly, this semifinal might end rather swiftly, for the four-time champion’s challenger lacks a Plan B to reverse the trajectory of events when his high-risk style falters.  He might have a tiny chance to fluster Nadal on serve if he can hold his own serve with ease, perhaps with forays to the net, and crack some aggressive returns on the Spaniard’s delivery.  It’s hard to imagine Melzer hitting through his opponent’s outstanding defenses long enough to win a set even in the best possible scenario, however, much less executing his high-risk game to perfection over a best-of-five format.  Wobbly in his first four rounds, Djokovic demonstrated both physical and mental frailty during their later stages of their quarterfinal; Nadal won’t demonstrate mental frailty on his favorite surface, and the most discussed knees in tennis look as sturdy as they have since Indian Wells last year.  We’ll take Rafa in three mostly straightforward sets to set up a climactic duel with the architect of his demise in 2009. 

Judging by our (non-)success with the women’s semis predictions, however, we might be seeing Berdych-Melzer on Sunday.  While we wait to see how tomorrow unfolds, we wish our favorite Mallorcan a belated happy 24th birthday:

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Feliz Cumpleaños, Rafa, y que tenga suerte en los dìas que vienen!

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