We’re going to break down the whys and wherefores of the women’s semifinals just as we have the previous matches, but first there’s a background narrative to tell.

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Celebrating the 2008 Australian “glam Slam” final almost as enthusiastically as we did, the marketing moguls at the WTA (What’s Tennis, Anyway?) wondered complacently whether this season would become the Year of Maria or the Year of Ana.  Much to their chagrin, 2008 and 2009 would instead become the Year(s) of Anarchy, featuring six different #1s, seven different titlists at the Slams and the Olympics, multiple losses by #1s to players outside the top 100, and so many bizarre bits of “history” that nothing seemed historic anymore.  One #1 retired with a massive lead atop the rankings, another #1 disappeared for 10 months with a career-threatening shoulder injury, a third #1 squawked “Why am I such a chicken?” during a Slam final, and a fourth #1 explained away an embarrassing Wimbledon defeat with “woman problems.”  In this endless comedy of errors, the annual year-end championships seemed less a competition to decide who was the best player of the year than a manicure-endangering fistfight over who was the best player of this week, this day, this hour, right now at this nanosecond.  After a rebuilding period in the latter stages of 2009, the WTA breathed a sigh of relief as order looked about to be restored in 2010 following the comebacks of two Belgians and a Siberian.  The Williams sisters would no longer be required to stand guard over the sanctuary alone.

In fact, everything did unfold more or less according to plan early this year, despite the dismal departures of Clijsters and Sharapova during the first week in Melbourne.  Serena and Henin reinvigorated their fierce rivalry in a memorable, tightly contested women’s final that trumped its men’s counterpart for the first time in recent memory.  A few weeks earlier in Brisbane, the two Belgians had reignited their own equally fierce rivalry with a scintillating final that remains one of the best women’s matches of the year so far.  Although alarm bells jingled faintly when Clijsters and Henin crashed out of Indian Wells prematurely, everyone knows that odd things happen in the California desert, where bald old men defeat Nadal and Roddick to win titles.  Reinforcing the identification of Indian Wells as an anomaly were the stirring runs of Venus, Clijsters, and Henin in Miami; despite the horrific final, the organizers got the matchup for which they had hoped, so the new Roadmap seemed vindicated.  When the surface shifted to European clay, observers expected irregularities to abound, for the elite women (other than Henin) feel least secure on this surface and devote the least effort to it.  Consequently, it was more charming than disturbing to witness the startling achievements of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai.  When we reached Roland Garros, though, there was a sense that the magnitude of a Slam would separate the contenders from the pretenders again.  It did indeed; the contenders went home to lick their largely self-inflicted wounds, while the pretenders frolicked around the court in delirious glee.  (Nothing against the achievement of Schiavone, who fully deserved her title, but the marquee players had a job to do and didn’t do it.)  After the conclusion of the clay season, however, the WTA could be forgiven for anticipating Wimbledon with relish, for conventional form generally prevails in these most traditional surroundings.  As everyone now knows, those expectations proved hopelessly unfounded, in part as a consequence of a lopsided draw (ahem, Wimbledon seedings committee) but in no less part as a consequence of appallingly lackluster performances by those who ought to know better (ahem, Clijsters and Venus).  Considered four-fifths of the WTA elite, the quartet of Venus, Clijsters, Henin, and Sharapova have recorded just one total semifinal among them at the first three majors of the year.  The remaining fifth now carries the responsibility of preserving credibility for the established order in women’s tennis by winning two more matches on the lawns of the All England Club.  Since Serena bears that burden alone, it’s no surprise that her shoulder was taped on Wednesday.  

With that context in mind, we turn to the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon…

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Zvonareva (21) vs. Pironkova:  Amidst widespread reports of Russia’s demise as the dominant WTA power, Zvonareva has bravely upheld her nation’s honor by reaching the semifinals in both singles and doubles.  This unexpected heroine demonstrated uncharacteristic mental tenacity by rebounding from adversity more than once in her quarterfinal victory over Clijsters.  Hampered by untimely net cords as she failed to serve out the second set, Zvonareva contained her disappointment and broke the Belgian a game later.  In the third set, however, the eighth seed conveniently dropped her own serve rather than compelling the Russian to serve out the match, so one remains unaware of how she would have responded to that ultimate challenge.  Unfailingly positive and poised throughout her absurdly one-sided win over Venus, Pironkova looked like a much more mature, experienced player than the trembling cannon fodder who offered no resistance whatever against Sharapova at last year’s US Open.  Remarkably, she looked as though she expected to win and showed barely a flicker of nerves even as the finish line approached.  Earning break points in all but two of the second seed’s games, the world #82 returned overhead after overhead, swing volley after swing volley with improbable retrievals; Zvonareva must prepare to win the point two or even three times instead of assuming that one penetrating groundstroke will suffice.  Pironkova’s knack for placing balls in awkward locations thus proved startlingly effective on a surface where defense traditionally has reaped few rewards. 

Like the Russian, the Bulgarian strikes her backhand more crisply than her forehand, which has a loopier swing relatively low in power.  Therefore, it’ll be intriguing to observe whether each player attempts to target their opponent’s weakness in forehand-to-forehand rallies or play to their own strengths in backhand-to-backhand exchanges.  Vera has looked sharper on cross-court shots than on down-the-line forays, whereas the opposite preference characterizes Tsvetana.  Generally more of a counterpuncher than a puncher, Zvonareva must leave her comfort zone to create her own pace, for Pironkova rarely hits anything that would incur a speeding ticket on a motorway.  While the Russian covers the open court with the alacrity of a Clijsters or a Jankovic, her weak ankles hinder her ability to reverse directions, so the Bulgarian would do well to hit behind her and keep her off balance.  Average behind their first serves, both players struggle with second serves and should seek a high first-serve percentage rather than overly risky deliveries.  All the same, we should see fewer short points and more breaks than one might expect on greass, for Vera and Tsvetana often project more power behind their returns than their serves.  Just as a previous victory over Venus infused the Bulgarian with confidence, her commanding win over Zvonareva in last fall’s Moscow tournament will inspire her to believe that her miraculous run can continue.  Businesslike and purposeful as the underdog against Clijsters, how will the Russian react to the role of the favorite in what is only the second Slam semifinal of her career?  While the magnitude of the occasion may prevent both players from delivering their best tennis, Zvonareva possesses the physical edge, while the Bulgarian enjoys the mental edge.  Pironkova doesn’t need to step as far outside her normal game as does the Russian, although the world #82 has reached just two semifinals in her career and is seeking her first final at any level.  Wimbledon would be a decent place to start. 

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Serena (1) vs. Kvitova:  For the second straight day, a volatile Czech shotmaker takes aim at the top seed and defending champion.  Crushing Kvitova during the first week of the Australian Open, Serena rarely struggles against lefties.  At the US Open last year, she emphatically defused Hungarian southpaw Melina Czink in the second round.  Unless Kvitova connects consistently on sweeping wide serves into the ad court, there’s little that she can do to prevent the top seed from seizing immediate control of the rallies.  Meanwhile, Serena’s own serve has reached record-breaking heights here for the second consecutive year, allowing her to be broken just twice in the tournament.  Can Kvitova match her hold for hold over the course of even one set?  She would have to deliver an even more resounding performance than during her dominant wins over Azarenka and Wozniacki, both of which featured bagels.  Not known for mental tenacity, the Czech should wilt beneath the pressure of Serena’s resounding serve, unless the top seed’s arm bandage portends something very serious indeed.  Asked whether she had a chance to record the upset of a lifetime, Kvitova bluntly said “No.”  That response should tell you all that you need to know about the second semifinal, which should be short and sweet for Serena.  Do keep an eye on that shoulder, though.

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Far from the most shocking upset of the fortnight, Federer’s loss to Berdych registered only mild surprise around here, certainly less than the demises of Venus and Roddick.  Rarely in vintage form throughout his favorite tournament, the defending champion sounded uncharacteristically graceless and grumpy during his press conference, unwilling to grant Berdych more than a few scraps of credit for the victory.  Perhaps his most concerning statement, however, was the defensive assertion that consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon constituted quite a decent performance.  Federer’s fans should hope that he doesn’t internalize those rationalizing sentiments, for such complacency would severely hamper him against a host of hungrier opponents.  As was the case after the epic Wimbledon loss to Nadal in 2008, the new world #3 will be one of the most intriguing storylines at the US Open, which will indicate where (if anywhere) his career goes from here.  Can Federer reinvigorate himself again as he did two years ago?  Or has the evolution of tennis into an ever more physical, baseline-rooted sport left his elegant, all-court game behind?  There will be no answers until September, which permits us plenty of time to ponder.

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