Just as we had hinted in our pre-tournament previews, Nalbandian chopped down the limb on which we had climbed by forecasting him to reach the semifinals.  At any rate, such is the beauty of the disclaimers that one can carefully attach to these long-shot picks.  When the player actually performs as we had foretold, we can proclaim that we knew that they would.  When he/she doesn’t…well, we can proclaim that we knew that they wouldn’t.  In our semifinal preview, we investigate the probability of the first Federer-Nadal hard-court clash since the 2009 Australian Open and the probability of the first “Sharapovanovic” final since the 2008 Australian Open. 

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Nadal (1) vs. Murray (4):  For the second straight tournament and the second straight Toronto Rogers Cup, the fiery Spaniard and the icy Scot collide in a semifinal.  During their eleven previous meetings, a fascinating rivalry has developed that has showcased Murray’s capacity for offensive first-strike tennis (uncharacteristic) as well as Nadal’s scintillating counter-punching talents (characteristic).  While Murray must leave his comfort zone when he plays Rafa, therefore, the Spaniard requires few adjustments when he confronts the Scot.  As one would expect, Rafa has dominated their head-to-head except on three occasions when injuries or fatigue undercut his performance.  Hard courts constitute Murray’s surface of choice as well as Nadal’s least favorite surface, so a mini-upset could occur if the world #1’s pedestrian form from this week continues.  Erratic against Monfils, Murray delivered a poised, seamless quarterfinal performance to record his first career victory over Nalbandian.  The Scot will seek to recapitulate his stunning display against Rafa in Melbourne, when he served boldly on key points, sharpened his focus throughout the rallies, and resolutely opened up the court with early ball-striking.  Aiding Nadal will be the humid weather conditions, to which the Spaniard adapts more adeptly than does Murray.  Healthy and mentally relaxed, Rafa should elongate a sufficient number of rallies on this medium-speed hard court to wear down Murray physically and psychologically.  Since we’re only a month removed from Wimbledon, the ghosts of Nadal’s rather straightforward victory there will be waiting to descend into the Scot’s mind when adversity strikes. Pick:  Nadal, 70-30.

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Federer (3) vs. Djokovic (2):  At the 2007 Rogers Cup, Djokovic achieved a vital breakthrough by ambushing Federer in one of the most thrilling championship matches ever hosted by the tournament.  At the last three US Opens, however, the engaging Serb has lost to Federer, Federer, and…Federer.  Furthermore, he fell to the Swiss maestro in last year’s Cincinnati final, after which he admitted his lack of confidence against the GOAT.  Djokovic’s stirring upset of Federer at the 2008 Australian Open feels like a long time ago now; since that fortnight, his focus has wandered, his confidence has faltered, and his strokes have lost their crisp, almost robotic precision.  Suggesting a Djokovic renaissance was a Wimbledon semifinal run as well as a comprehensive demolition of Croats Ljubicic and Cilic in Davis Cup.  After almost retiring in his opener here, the Serb dispatched a pair of overmatched opponents in Hanescu and Chardy but has not faced a seeded player.  Menawhile, Federer displayed bursts of signature form in a quarterfinal comeback against Berdych that should have revived his self-belief after losing to the Czech at the All England Club.   But the 29-year-old’s game did wobble in pivotal moments including the last game of the second set, which featured two double faults, a wildly reckless forehand miss, and a shanked backhand on set point.  Armed with a crisp two-hander, Djokovic will hope to target Federer’s weaker wing as often as possible.  By contrast, their forehand-to-forehand battles would favor the Swiss, so be sure to observe the direction of the cross-court rallies.  As has often been the case in their scintillating collision, though, the key factor should be Federer’s superior poise under pressure, the trait that assured his survival on Friday.  (Interesting fact:  Federer was two points from defeat on seven different occasions against Berdych.)  Pick:  Federer, 60-40.

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Ivanovic vs. Clijsters (4):  Just like Hantuchova in San Diego, Ivanovic barely dodged defeat in her first-round match against a seeded opponent.  Also like Hantuchova, she exploited the opportunity that she herself had created by dispatching her next few adversaries as her confidence has mounted visibly each day.  Following the second-set tiebreak seized from Azarenka, Ana has lost just fifteen games in her last seven sets, five of which were played against higher-ranked players.  Once again like Hantuchova, she enters the semifinal as a clear underdog against the fourth seed, a player with a much more versatile game and superior movement.  Don’t put too much weight on their one-set Madison Square Garden exhibition, a ghastly comedy of errors at a time when both women were struggling mightily.  Unless the Serb enjoys an outstanding serving day, Clijsters should expose her still dubious albeit improved movement by stretching her laterally.  Possessing much more balanced groundstrokes than does Ivanovic, the Belgian will seek to pin Ana in her backhand corner, where she either will be prevented from unleashing her massive forehand or will be lured into running around the backhand and thus exposing too much court territory.  The smiling Serb showcased sparkling net should play during her quarterfinal victory, which should encourage her to venture into the forecourt whenever an opening emerges.  Yet the depth on Clijsters’ penetrating, symmetrical groundstrokes should forestall such incursions for much of the match unless Kim’s concentration dissolves; in fact, she has suffered such lapses too frequently during her comeback thus far.  Among the key trends to observe in this encounter will be the length of the points, which will favor Clijsters when extended and Ivanovic when briskly curtailed.  Even if the Serb sprays a few rash forehands, she must muster the confidence to continue forcing the issue and aiming for the lines, necessary against a much more consistent opponent.  (Interesting fact:  a win in this match should vault Ivanovic into a seeded slot for the US Open, a position in which one never could have imagined her a few weeks ago.)  Pick:  Clijsters, 75-25.

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Pavlyuchenkova vs. Sharapova (10):  Savage and suffocating in her last three matches, Sharapova has dropped five or fewer games in her last three matches against Petkovic, Radwanska, and Bartoli—not quite the elite of the elite, to be sure, but a sturdy trio of opponents all the same.  When her serve deserts her as it did early against Radwanska and late against Bartoli, Maria has been able to regroup, crush thunderous returns, and prevent her opponent from capitalizing on the momentum shift.  While she continues to pursue this courageous comeback, the three-time Slam champion has learned to adapt to the dips in her service rhythm rather than allowing them to derail the rest of her game as it did in 2009.  Despite the mind-numbing heat and humidity in Cincinnati, Maria has progressed efficiently through her matches (unlike at Stanford) and has enjoyed the advantage of twice playing at night.  Nevertheless, playing on the fifth consecutive day often has proved a challenge for her in the past, so take note of her movement and footwork in the early stages.  When taking small, careful steps towards the ball, the Russian fully profits from her statuesque frame to blast her baseline weapons with eye-popping precision.  When fatigue induces her to take large, careless strides, she loses the timing and rhythm on her swings, guiding balls instead of striking them cleanly. Having not watched the Istanbul tournament or any of Pavlyuchenkova’s matches this week, we’re unsure what to expect from Maria’s compatriot, who sounded doubtful about her own recovery from a three-set quarterfinal under the unforgiving Ohio sun.  Neither player knows much about the details of her opponent’s game, which implies that the match might feature an early adjustment period as they adapt.  Although upstarts who never have played Sharapova often wilt under her sheer weight of shot, Pavlyuchenkova scored two impressive wins over Venus last fall and thus has demonstrated her ability to absorb pace.  The former junior #1 reached a Premier Mandatory final in 2009; is she ready to extend a career-best nine-match winning streak and reach a Premier Five final in 2010?  Or will Maria reach her fifth final of the season and fourth in her last six tournaments?  Pick:  Sharapova, 65-35.

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Enjoy the star-studded Saturday in Toronto and Cincinnati, arguably the most intriguing day of tennis so far in this year’s US Open Series!

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