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After a predictable increase in dramatic tension on Thursday, all eight of our projected semifinalists in Cincinnati and Montreal advanced within a round of their appointed destination.  The early rounds sometimes provide compelling evidence for altering one’s forecasts, however.  Did we change our Saturday’s semifinal lineup?  Answers straight ahead…

Nadal (1) vs. Baghdatis:  Rallying from the brink of disaster to outlast Benneteau in a three-hour epic, Nadal dropped his serve five times under the scorching Cincinnati sun.  One win away from Federer, he confronts an mercurial foe who has upset Cilic and Berdych in straight sets, bookended around an edgy victory over Bellucci.  Similar to most of the players who have troubled the Spaniard, Baghdatis can crack explosive winners from his flat, two-handed backhand, which he strikes with little margin for error.  Last fall, in fact, he won a set from the recuperating Nadal on the Asian circuit, displaying Davydenko-like precision and timing.  If the Spaniard enters the contest jaded from his Thursday war of attrition, the Cypriot might well upset a world #1 for the second time this year; he overcame Federer at Indian Wells after a memorable comeback.  Yet Rafa remains a vastly superior competitor to Baghdatis, who chooses  style over substance too often to become a regular contender.  Pick:  Nadal, 65-35.

Federer (3) vs. Davydenko (6):  After a career of futility against the Swiss grandmaster, Davydenko finally cracked the code during the London year-end championships last fall.  Following that triumph with a routine January victory in Doha, he entered the Australian Open as a trendy pick to capture his maiden Slam.  For the first set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, he jerked the GOAT around the court seemingly at will; then, at 6-2, 3-1, 40-15, reality struck as the eventual champion reeled off 13 consecutive games.  Having restored the balance of power in this pseudo-rivalry, the third seed enters this quarterfinal extremely rested after receiving a bye, a first-set retirement, and a walkover in the first three rounds.  Meanwhile, Davydenko hasn’t regrouped entirely from a wrist injury this spring, suffering repeated losses to players outside the top 50 since his return.  Showing signs of life in a three-set comeback over Ferrer, he nevertheless demonstrated negative body language while committing 46 unforced errors, which revealed persistent frailty on almost all of his strokes.  It’s difficult to see him summoning the nerve to win a tight match from Federer at this stage in his return, and it’s even more difficult to see him dispatching the defending champion routinely.  Pick:  Federer, 75-25.

Fish (W) vs. Murray (4):  Two opposing storylines define this quarterfinal match, one dating from Miami and the other from Toronto.  Enduring an embarrassing second-round defeat against the American this spring, Murray surely will be spurred to exact revenge on a comparable surface.  After falling to Verdasco in last year’s Australian Open, retribution at Indian Wells was swift and brutal.  On the other hand, the easily irked Scot struggled mightily with the scorching midday temperatures in a marathon victory over Gulbis and has trudged through the draw much more laboriously than has Fish.  Murray has won consecutive tournaments only once in his career despite his sturdy fitness, and nobody has completed the Canada-Cincinnati double since 2003 (Roddick).   Winning all three of the tiebreaks that he has played this week, Fish has advanced to the quarterfinals without dropping a set; the light balls and relatively fast surface favor his all-offense playing style more than Murray’s counterpunching agility.  In the wake of his stirring Toronto performance, the Scot surely has little at stake beyond the mission of personal revenge.  It might be enough to motivate him, or it might not.  Pick:  Fish, 55-45.

Roddick (9) vs. Djokovic (2):  Battling past a stubborn Swede and his own seething temper, Roddick delivered a crucial pre-US Open statement at the last possible opportunity.  Since he sustained a four-set loss to the Serb at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked American has seized the momentum in their somewhat acerbic (by ATP standards) rivalry by defeating Djokovic at Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Montreal last year.  Dropping just one set of the eight that they played in 2009, Roddick has exploited Novak’s occasional uncertainties on serve with consistent, stingy rallying.  Now that those issues have begun to recede, the matchup has swung closer to equilibrium.  Furthermore, the two-time Cincinnati champion will enjoy a mere 16 hours of rest after his night-session victory on Thursday, so he’ll need to summon his mono-depleted energy more swiftly than he would prefer.  But a key factor aligned with Roddick the aforementioned Ohio heat, in which these players will be immersed at their 2 PM start time.  His style of play is less taxing than the Serb’s, usually enabling him to hold serve with less effort, and soaring temperatures always exact a severe physical and psychological toll upon Djokovic.  Somehow, Roddick always exposes his latent, damaging fatalism.  Pick:  Roddick, 60-40.

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Bartoli (17) vs. Azarenka (10):  Reprising their captivating Stanford quarterfinal, these fierce competitors have advanced to this stage with commanding victories, including Azarenka’s first career win over Li Na.  While the Belarussian hasn’t evolved into a player who can dominate her peers week-in and week-out, she appears to be in the midst of a torrid stretch that might return her to the top 10 in next week’s rankings.  When the women last played in Montreal, a 19-year-old Azarenka came within a set of the final, so the surface and venue clearly complement her game.  All the same, Bartoli led Vika by a set and a break during their Stanford quarterfinal before fading, and the Frenchwoman has dropped just two games in two matches here.  (One wonders whether her demolition of Benesova was performed in the hope that the Bradenton-bound Jankovic was watching.)  We expect plenty of sizzling, flat groundstrokes, thunderous returns, and prolonged rallies in what appears to be the quarterfinal of the day in Montreal.  Pick:  Azarenka, 65-35.

Clijsters (5) vs. Zvonareva (8):  For the first time in six attempts, the Russian ambushed the Belgian at Wimbledon this year during a match in which a listless Clijsters gave Vera all of the assistance that she could have desired.  Nearly a second-round casualty in Montreal, the Cincinnati champion carries a 14-match winning streak on American hard courts into this confrontation as she prepares for her title defense in New York.  Clijsters and Zvonareva have honed somewhat similar styles, buttressed on symmetrical groundstrokes, fluid movement, and point construction more than on first-strike power from serves and returns.  In addition to these tennis-related similarities, they share the pattern of radical mood swings, which can lead them to zone in and out of matches with alarming alacrity.  If Clijsters is complacent from her title last week, Zvonareva has more than sufficient talent to take advantage.  But one should note that Kim is far more comfortable on hard courts than on grass and that her previous loss to the Russian occurred during a rusty stretch following her springtime foot injury.  Although the Belgian doesn’t seem the vengeful type, she should be especially focused against a player who recently proved that she can threaten her; focus is generally the key for Clijsters, as it is for so many of her colleagues.  Pick:  Clijsters, 60-40.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Zheng:  Quietly overcoming Rezai and now Dementieva, the understated Chinese counterpuncher faces the flamboyant Russian.  After another win over Radwanska (and another three-setter), Kuznetsova’s confidence must be climbing as she continues to demonstrate improved concentration late in matches against quality opponents.  She may need to showcase that skill again in her quarterfinal, for Zheng battles fearlessly for every point and rarely donates significant points to opponents.  If the Russian can punish her benign serve, however, the Chinese star will struggle to take command of rallies and expose Kuznetsova’s backhand.  Wobbly at times during her San Diego title run, Sveta’s own second serve can be easily attacked by crisp returners such as Zheng, so don’t be surprised to see multiple breaks and closely contested games.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 75-25.

Schiavone (6) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Winning consecutive matches this week for the first time since Roland Garros, the Italian defeated the Dane-Pole during that stunning fortnight.  In their quarterfinal match at the year’s second major, Schiavone unveiled Wozniacki’s discomfort at the net and with handling a variety of spins and slices.  Designed to trade penetrating missiles from a respectable distance, the second seed struggles with the Italian’s clever nuances while lacking the firepower to regularly hit through her from the baseline.  (Interesting fact:  Wozniacki had defeated Pennetta a round before playing Schiavone in Paris, just as is the case here.)  Nevertheless, last year’s US Open finalist possesses a superior serve and greater consistency, which allowed her to steadily grind down Pennetta on Thursday night.  Although the Italian’s artistry makes Wozniacki’s style seem monochromatic, one imagines that the 20-year-old will prevail after some nervy moments; their previous rounds featured a combined 22 service breaks.  Pick:  Wozniacki, 60-40.

***

We’ll return tomorrow to discuss the semifinals, probably including Federer-Nadal XXII!  And don’t forget to keep an eye on New Haven, where the draw should be released soon.  That charmless city will become uncharacteristically charming next week…

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