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Whereas the men’s tournament builds toward a magnificent climax, the women’s tournament skidded downhill towards a highly predictable conclusion after only one Williams sister survived the quarterfinals.  Joined by three players with a solitary Slam semifinal among them (Zvonareva—2009 Australian Open), Serena will swagger into the latter rounds with an immense edge in every physical and mental department.  Probably the greatest surprise of the tournament so far, meanwhile, was the premature demise of its five-time women’s champion.  No longer can commentators claim that Venus becomes a different player when she steps onto the grass; today, we saw every flaw in this legendary but aging game exposed as cruelly as on any other surface.  While her career wanes, the elder Williams sister has grappled not only with focus lapses but with wildly imprecise timing on her groundstrokes, a costly flaw in a game with such little margin for error.  This unreliability from the baseline places too much pressure upon her first serve and return to terminate points before rallies develop; a mediocre performance in one or both of those areas leaves her vulnerable to consistent, opportunistic opponents.  Moreover, a talent that long separated the world #2 from her rivals was her well-honed net prowess, yet she won just half of her net points in the loss today while displaying the indifferent forecourt footwork that has characterized her reverses this year.  Among the most telling elements of the upset, though, was its lopsided scoreline.  In three of her six defeats this year, Venus has won five or fewer games.  These embarrassments in Miami, Rome, and Wimbledon reveal her inability to alter a strategy that isn’t working, for she never has possessed a Plan B and has shown no inclination to craft one as her high-risk style grows progressively less dependable.  At this stage in her storied career, nobody can fault her for clinging to what has preserved her position at the summit of the sport for over a decade.  Nevertheless, the bizarre, seemingly inexplicable days when she suddenly can’t find the court will recur with increasing frequency, hindering her from adding to the seven majors in her collection.  Although Venus can win week-long WTA tournaments with sporadic brilliance, she can’t survive a fortnight’s supply of fiercely motivated adversaries without the mental fortitude and sturdy technique that have recently deserted her.  To be sure, Federer regrouped after losing his citadel on grass to recapture it a year later, so there’s a precedent for the elder Williams sister to again hold the dish that bears her name.  Perhaps the shock of this loss will thrust her from her complacent torpor into the competitive intensity that played a vital role in her five Wimbledon crowns.  But time is not on her side.

After a wayward (although far from dull) day courtesy of the women, will the top four men restore order in the court and advance to the semis?  Confronted with four highly formidable foes, they might not find the task as easy as they would hope.

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Federer (1) vs. Berdych (12):  Far from flawless in his first two rounds, Federer rediscovered his range during the next two matches and has dropped just 16 games in his last 6 sets.  Having fallen to a mighty slugger in his last Slam quarterfinal, Federer will find himself forced to solve the similar, slightly less formidable conundrum posed by his recent Miami nemesis.  Surging to his first career Slam semifinal at Roland Garros, Berdych enjoys a reasonable chance to match that accomplishment if Federer reverts to his early-tournament malaise rather than rising to the occasion as he typically does in the second week.  The Czech has progressed to this stage only slightly more compellingly than the top seed, for he dropped three sets in his past two matches against the anonymous Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands.  Whereas the defending champion’s form has steadily accelerated, therefore, his challenger’s form has dropped a bit.  Also in Federer’s favor is the best-of-five format, which allows him the time to rebound from an indifferent start while also providing his opponents greater opportunity to ponder the magnitude of a potential upset.  Almost as relevant to this clash as the Miami meeting this year, their 2009 Australian Open encounter witnessed the Swiss star’s stirring comeback from a two-set deficit; after dominating Federer in those first two sets, Berdych sharply declined thereafter as a result of mental insecurities and his inferior fitness.  Although the fitness remains an issue, the mental insecurities may no longer hamper Berdych, since his remarkable results in Miami and Paris appear to have silenced his inner demons.  (Or are they only temporarily silenced?  We might find out.)  The early stages of this match will be crucial for the Czech in order for him to implant doubts in the defending champion’s mind, a bit more frail in 2010 than in preceding years.  Much more adept at the net than his challenger, Federer should attempt to drag Berdych forward in uncomfortable circumstances while fearlessly venturing into the forecourt himself whenever an opportunity arises.  If Berdych can protect his serve and force Federer into tiebreaks, the top seed might well blink.  But he must slam the door as soon as possible before the Swiss can catch his balance.  Otherwise, the next Slam semifinal streak starts here.  Federer, 60-40.

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Tsonga (10) vs. Murray (4):  The Scot has won two of their three meetings, but it’s the Frenchman who won their most significant clash at the 2008 Australian Open.  In that first-round encounter, Murray remained locked in a passive counter-punching mentality while Tsonga took all the risks and reaped most of the rewards.  Over the last two years, the home hope has enhanced his aggressive skills to a perceptible extent but not sufficiently to outgun Roddick in a 2009 semifinal here.  Uncertain of his participation until shortly before the fortnight began, Tsonga has weathered a few unconventional, motivated foes such as Ukraine’s Dolgopolov and his compatriot Julien Benneteau.  The only player to reach the quarters without dropping a set, Murray has enjoyed a placid draw with the exception of the rising Sam Querrey, whose formidable serve rarely ruffled the fourth seed.  That fact bodes ill for the Frenchman, who relies upon a massive first delivery to set up his forehand and acrobatic net-rushing style.  Much less athletic than Tsonga, the Scot has achieved his accomplishments through intelligence, versatility, crisp footwork, and exceptional movement, an underrated advantage on grass.  While short points will favor the Frenchman, longer exchanges will shift towards the much more consistent Murray, armed with an exceptional passing shot that should blunt his opponent’s charges into the forecourt.  Moreover, the ingenious Scot will seek to construct backhand-to-backhand rallies in which he would enjoy a clear edge.  If Tsonga attempts to run around his weaker wing to hit a forehand, he would sacrifice too much court area to protect on this fast surface.  We wouldn’t be surprised to see an early wobble or two from the Scot, though, who did start tentatively against Querrey.  Nevertheless, Tsonga generally ebbs and flows during the best-of-five format, winning only one straight-setter thus far despite winning the first two sets in every round.  Whereas he can escape that streakiness (albeit narrowly) against most ATP journeymen, Murray should exploit the lulls that punctuate the Frenchman’s high-wire performance.  Like Berdych, Tsonga either will win this match in a hurry or not at all.  Murray, 70-30.

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Djokovic (3) vs. Lu:  The only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals, Lu should not be discounted as he was by almost everyone before his five-set upset of Roddick in the previous round.  During that match, the Taiwanese star showcased lithe movement and flat, almost net-skimming groundstrokes that darted through the grass with greater pace than one might expect from his slim physique.  Equally impressive was the sturdy mentality with which he refused to wilt after wasting a chance to close out the match in the fourth-set tiebreak.  Nearly all observers would have handed Roddick the advantage in a no-tiebreak deciding set, but it was the world #82 who found his sharpest serves, zippiest passing shots, and deftest volleys when it mattered most.  Will he be mentally and physically weary following the most dazzling win of his career, however?  It’s not easy to score two massive upsets in a row, although Djokovic did fall prey to a career run from Melzer in the same round at Roland Garros.  Often struggling to raise his level against an exceptionally inspired opponent, the Serb might be vulnerable to Lu if his physical condition remains shaky as it was late in his gritty win over Hewitt.  On the other hand, that previous triumph will have prepared Djokovic for the playing style that he will face in the quarterfinals, since the Taiwanese challenger possesses most of the same strengths (tenacity, tennis IQ, court coverage, groundstroke depth) and weaknesses (serve, first-strike ability) as the Australian.  Underdogs like Lu are dangerous because they have nothing to lose, but Djokovic must approach this match with the same mentality; almost nobody has mentioned him as a genuine contender for the title here, yet he’ll be within a win of the final Sunday should he survive this match.  At the semifinal stage, anything can happen.  For the moment, though, the Serb needs to play with the same crisp, purposeful demeanor that characterized his previous victory and that must replace his energy-draining penchant for drama if he is to reaffirm himself as a Slam contender.  Business first, pleasure later.  Djokovic, 75-25.

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Soderling (6) vs. Nadal (2):  Arguably the juiciest of these four delicious confrontations, this clash reprises the French Open final just as did the Federer-Soderling fourth-rounder here last year.  Although the Swiss star reprised his straight-sets win over the Swedish behemoth that time, one senses that Nadal might not cruise so conclusively now.  Inciting the anxiety of his fans, Rafa request multiple medical timeouts during a mediocre first week that included consecutive five-setters.  He did look considerably more convincing in his last round against the mentally frail Mathieu, but the knees remain an ongoing issue about which he admitted his concern.  Ever eager to pounce upon a weakened adversary, Soderling reaped historic rewards a year ago when he battered a knee-troubled Rafa into submission, so he might well repeat the feat on Wednesday.  Of concern for the Swede’s supporters, though, was his erratic play and overt emotional turmoil during his five-set win over Ferrer, which disturbingly recalled the pre-2009 Robin.  In order to conquer the Spaniard in a best-of-five format, Soderling must prevent his temper from bubbling to the surface and concentrate upon bombing serve after serve after serve.  Unlike all other men’s contenders, his serve survived intact into the second set of his fourth match.  Predictably less invulnerable upon his own delivery, Nadal will rely upon his superb movement, reflexes, and instincts to transition from defense to offense after retrieving the Swede’s thunderbolts.  Not as many of those shots will return on grass, however, as they did on clay a month ago, so the world #1 needs to impose himself upon rallies with more first-strike tennis than he generally prefers.  Like Federer, Nadal should bring his net-averse foe forward in uncomfortable positions whenever convenient, for his passing shots have crackled through the court with authority lately.  The low bounce on grass hampers the lofty Soderling, who prefers a high strike zone for his groundstrokes, but it also lessens the topspin on Nadal’s heavy groundstrokes.  Neither the Spaniard’s beloved clay nor the Swede’s favored hard courts, this surface represents a relatively neutral battleground.  If the sixth seed serves brilliantly and the second seed moves brilliantly, this match is very even indeed.  Whoever wins should approach the rest of his tournament brimming with confidence after overcoming a redoubtable adversary.  Nadal, 51-49. 

***

Although we gave the Big Four the edge in each of these compelling matchups, somehow we suspect that at least one challenger will thwart the odds and embed themselves in Friday’s semifinals.  But who?  Answers to come…

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