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For once, form held in the women’s tournament as the two seeded players expelled their unseeded challengers from these fabled lawns (not without considerable effort, to be sure).  Will the upset genie now shift to the men’s tournament, where a pair of mini-upsets look somewhat plausible?  We explore the less than insurmountable tasks confronting each underdog as they collide with the two players who will tower above the ATP rankings next Monday. 

Berdych (12) vs. Djokovic (3)

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Winning 14 of his last 15 sets here after dropping two of his first three, Djokovic has proved one of the more pleasant surprises at this year’s Wimbledon.  After an indifferent beginning to 2010, by his lofty standards, the Serb has regained the focus, competitive intensity, and purposefulness that defined his most impressive performances in 2007 and 2008.  Although his fitness briefly faltered against Hewitt, he dispatched the surging Yen-Hsun Lu with merciless efficiency rather than the slothful apathy with which he had approached such overmatched opponents for most of this season.  Djokovic’s serve has steadily improved throughout the fortnight, as has his movement on the grass and his confidence on his forehand; the Serb’s return to an exclusive coaching partnership with Marian Vajda after an experiment with Todd Martin may have aided him in rediscovering his poise.  In his two previous encounters with the Czech, he did not drop a set and looked distinctly superior in every department except the serve.  Yet the 2010 incarnation of Berdych barely resembles the flimsy competitor who often struggled to harness his massive game and who lacked belief against elite adversaries.  Ignited by a spectacular breakthrough in Miami, Tomas has reached the semifinals at the next two Slams while scoring five victories over top-10 opponents.  His previous win over Federer preceded two more impressive wins over Verdasco and Soderling, so he clearly won’t rest content after Wednesday’s historic triumph. 

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At the core of this compelling clash will be the first serves of both players, for Berdych’s indifferent movement leaves him at a disadvantage during second-serve points, while the Czech’s crushing return of serve would punish an excessive number of second balls from Djokovic.  Pinpointing a difficult backhand volley on break point in the fourth set, Federer’s nemesis not only revealed his newfound poise under pressure but his improved skills in the forecourt, where once one would expect him to donate senseless errors.  Both the Czech and the Serb will prefer to wage this contest from the baseline instead of the forecourt, however.  Whereas Berdych must play first-strike tennis and pull the trigger as early as he can, Djokovic would be best advised to work himself into the rallies, at which point he can wear down his foe by stretching him laterally and forcing him to attempt low-percentage shots over the high part of the net.  Consequently, note the length of the points to determine who holds the upper hand, for shorter exchanges favor the Czech almost as much as longer exchanges favor the Serb.  Much less fluid than the third seed, Tomas remains awkward when reversing direction and thus would be susceptible to balls hit behind him.  Although Berdych possesses a reasonably solid two-handed backhand, Djokovic holds a definite edge in that area; he should enjoy superior court positioning because he won’t be tempted to run around that side as often as will Berdych, who distinctly trusts his forehand more on significant points.  Only moderately efficient in break-point conversions against Lu, the Serb will need to take advantage of whatever opportunities he sees against the Czech, since he’s likely to find far fewer openings.  Will the power and first-strike explosiveness of Tomas or the movement and all-court style of Novak prevail?  While Berdych is slightly better suited to grass tennis, Djokovic holds the mental advantage from their head-to-head as well as his greater experience late in majors.  In addition to tracking down more balls than did Federer in the quarterfinals, he transitions more smoothly from defense to offense.  On the other hand, he has been frustrated by formidable servers such as Roddick in the past, so he’ll need to control his emotions as the aces zip by him.  The match should be decided by a small handful of points, and the more courageous player who takes the initiative more often should advance to the final.  Therefore, the relentlessly aggressive Berdych might well record another upset if his serve continues to crackle; if it doesn’t, Djokovic will once again expose the inconsistencies in his opponent’s relatively one-dimensional game.

Murray (4) vs. Nadal (2)

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Despite the Spaniard’s firm lead over their head-to-head, the Scot has won their last two Slam meetings at the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Australian Open.  In fact, that first victory was the only best-of-five match that Nadal lost between the 2008 Australian Open and the 2009 French Open.  On both of those occasions, the seven-time Slam champion inspired Murray to unleash far more aggressive tennis than we’re accustomed to watching him produce.  Famous for counterpunching his way into opponent’s weaknesses, he ripped two-handers with authority, served aggressively, and charged into the forecourt with conviction to finish points.  Nevertheless, Rafa routed the Scot in their only grass meeting here two years ago, which followed the home hope’s enthralling but exhausting triumph over Gasquet.  Surrendering one solitary set during his first five matches, Murray has established himself as the best player of the fortnight by a considerable margin, but Nadal will have gained valuable momentum from his quarterfinal victory over nerve-jangling nemesis Soderling.  Both players will know that this semifinal should prove a sterner test than the final, which enhances the pressure on these two players and especially Murray.  Already a bit tense in his quarterfinal against Tsonga, the Scot needs to draw confidence rather than anxiety from the maelstrom of World Cup-worthy fervor with which his compatriots will deluge him.

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Like the Djokovic-Berdych match, this encounter might turn upon the lower-ranked player’s ability to deliver penetrating first serves without sacrificing consistency.  Probably the most glaring weakness in Murray’s generally impeccable game is his second serve, which Nadal should be ready to attack.  During the Australian match, Andy not only struck some of his most potent deliveries on the most crucial points but varied the placement of his serve and his tactics behind it, even serving and volleying at times.  He can’t afford to allow Rafa any baseline rhythm, for neutral rallies will favor the Spaniard’s greater stamina and less risky shot selection.  Although the Scot continues to lack the single offensive weapon that can finish points with a single blow, his forehand has looked a little zippier during this fortnight (especially cross-court), and his shots often gain extra sting from the adrenaline of playing in his home Slam.  Moreover, Murray must pounce upon Nadal’s own second serve in order to keep the world #1 off balance and perhaps persuade him to choose percentage over pace on the first serve.  While the Spaniard will attempt to engage in the protracted, long-distance rallies that have suffocated so many foes, the Scot should position himself at or inside the baseline whenever possible, seeking to take time away from Rafa.  We expect Murray to record more aces, winners, and unforced errors than Nadal, who will rely upon crisp returning and scintillating passing shots to mute the fourth seed’s offensive combinations.  Breaking Soderling’s formidable delivery five times during their quarterfinal, Rafa will enter this contest primed to excel in both of those categories.  The world #1 should punish the fourth seed for any patches of carelessness or tentative approach shots and (unlike Tsonga) will compel him to hit at least one volley when he enters the forecourt.  Since both players move with outstanding agility and return serve arguably better than anyone in the ATP, one might witness a few more breaks than in most men’s matches on this surface.  Famed for his gritty determination, Nadal will scratch and claw until the last stroke of the last points, so an early deficit won’t unnerve him; curiously, he has trailed by a set or by two sets to one in three of his five previous matches.  The early stages will be more vital for Murray, who not only feels the expectations of a nation upon his shoulders but will be overcoming the memories of his loss to Nadal here two years ago as well as his loss to Roddick in the same round here last year.  On the other hand, the Spaniard represents a dramatically different challenge from the American and has looked much more mortal here than in 2008.  Will Murray find the fortitude to achieve his long-awaited Slam breakthrough this weekend, or will Nadal consolidate his possession of the top ranking with a tenth major final?  The challenge here is more mental than physical.  If the Scot stays positive, maintains his focus, and adheres to the game plan that smothered Rafa in their last two Slam meetings, we think that he’ll become the first British man to reach the final since 1938.  If he wavers in either his execution or his self-belief and drifts back into his counterpunching comfort zone, however, Nadal should take advantage and reawaken the inner demons that have thus far forestalled Murray from claiming a major. 

And, of course, Rafa can count on Shakira to assist in whatever way she can.

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***

Since both of these matches seem extremely even affairs, we’d be surprised if either of them ended in a routine straight-sets scoreline.  Featuring a variety of playing styles and personalities, the semifinals will provide a snapshot of what men’s tennis will look like after Federer, just as Indian Wells provides a snapshot of what women’s tennis will look like after the Williams sisters.  Will the sport belong to relentless ball-bludgeoners like Berdych, mercurial entertainers like Djokovic, crafty artisans like Murray, or indefatigable competitors like Nadal?  A first set of answers will come on Friday.

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