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Since the 2009 Australian Open, a jaunty upstart almost invariably has derailed a collision between Federer and Nadal just when the tennis world was bracing itself in anticipation.  In Cincinnati, the mercurial Marcos Baghdatis thwarted hopes of a rivalry renewed by scoring his second win of 2010 over a reigning ATP #1.  Can the flavor of the week replicate his Washington finals run, and what does his performance this summer portend for the US Open?  One of those questions is answered below, while the other question will be answered next week.

Baghdatis vs. Federer (3):  For the second consecutive week, a player attempts to knock off Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Ever a dangerous adversary despite his issues with fitness and motivation, Baghdatis preceded his first career win over Rafa with creditable victories over Cilic and Berdych.  Just weeks removed from his Australian Open title, Federer dropped a third-set tiebreak to the charismatic Cypriot after squandering match points in the second set.  That uncharacteristic defeat triggered an arid spring for the Swiss legend, but he appears to have emerged at least partly from that malaise with morale-boosting victories over Berdych, Djokovic, and Davydenko on the American hard courts.  A three-time champion in Cincinnati, Federer doesn’t wilt under the oppressive heat as do so many of his rivals; he’ll be much better rested for this semifinal than Baghdatis, having spent barely two hours on court this week.  If sets stay close late, the ghosts of Indian Wells could creep into his mind just as the phantoms of Miami hovered over him when his lead over Berdych evaporated in Toronto.  Although he probably won’t be motivated by personal revenge, Federer expects himself to defeat opponents like Baghdatis and can rely on far more free points from his serve than could Nadal.  Unless the Cypriot can force the GOAT into backhand-to-backhand exchanges at pivotal junctures, it’s hard to imagine that lightning will strike twice.  Beyond that vicious two-hander, there’s no area of his game in which he is equal (let alone superior) to the Swiss.  Pick:  Federer, 70-30.

Fish vs. Roddick (9): Like Sharapova here a week ago, Fish seeks to reach the final in four of his last six tournaments while duplicating his eye-opening victory over Roddick in the Atlanta semifinals.  Prior to that confrontation, however, the top-ranked American had thoroughly dominated their rivalry and had regularly prevailed in the tiebreaks and 7-5 sets in which these two outstanding servers so frequently find themselves.  Almost as successful in the heat as Federer, Roddick once again dismissed the physically and mentally fragile Djokovic in the quarterfinals; since the 2009 Australian Open, he has won nine consecutive sets from the Serb.  Perhaps more impressive was the conviction that Roddick displayed in his previous win over Soderling, when he shrugged off a series of wasted opportunities and preserved his focus despite manifold distractions.  On the other hand, Murray could remind the ninth seed that Fish rarely lets his adversaries off the hook (haha) when they waste opportunities against him.  Escaping a one-set deficit and a 2-4 deficit in the climactic tiebreak of his quarterfinal, Fish delivered his best tennis when it mattered most, a refreshing reversal of his normal trends.  Since the two Americans have lost their serve three times between them in this tournament (Fish once, Roddick twice), break points will be at a premium and a tiebreak or two almost inevitable.  Whereas Fish has won four of the five tiebreaks that he has contested here, Roddick has prevailed in just two of four, extending an uncharacteristic drought in these situations that began with his Wimbledon loss and continued through a tiebreak in his Atlanta loss to Fish.  We expect a high-quality encounter with a crackling atmosphere created by the local crowd.  While Fish will pin his hopes upon audacious shotmaking, Roddick will rely upon his consistency and high-percentage point construction to overcome a compatriot with far less experience at the sport’s highest level.  Pick:  Roddick, 55-45.

In Montreal, the Stanford and San Diego champions remain in the quest for a second US Open Series title, but will they progress to Sunday’s final?

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Azarenka (10) vs. Zvonareva (8):  In this fascinating mini-rivalry between the Stanford champion and the Wimbledon finalist, don’t overestimate Zvonareva’s 4-2 lead.  After the Russian won the first nine sets that she played against the Belarussian, Vika has won the last four sets and both of their 2010 meetings.  At the Australian Open, Zvonareva led by a set and a break before a few wayward groundstrokes and double faults uncorked yet another of her signature meltdowns.  Sturdier this week than in her previous US Open Series appearances, the Wimbledon finalist will become the top-ranked Russian in next week’s rankings, while Azarenka hopes to rejoin the top 10 with a title run here.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against Clijsters for the second time this year, Vera profited from an ominous leg injury incurred by the Belgian.  Meanwhile, the Minx from Minsk has rolled past opponents such as Li and Bartoli without dropping a set, although she did save four set points during a second-set tiebreak against the Frenchwoman.  Azarenka has lost just three service games in four matches, a remarkable accomplishment for a player without an overwhelming serve.  Slightly more powerful and slightly less consistent than Zvonareva, the 21-year-old Belarussian favors her smooth two-handed backhand just as does the Russian, so expect cross-court rallies to develop in that direction more often than between their forehands.  Despite an early Cincinnati loss, Azarenka has proved herself a far sterner competitor than the Wimbledon finalist; she plays the important points more confidently and will be eager to establish herself among the leading contenders for the US Open.  Pick:  Azarenka, 70-30.

Kuznetsova (11) vs. Wozniacki (2):  Reprising their scintillating fourth-round epic from last year’s US Open, the Russian and the Pole-Dane should perform a largely straightforward offense-defense pas de deux.  Armed with a forehand more potent than any of Wozniacki’s weapons, Kuznetsova should control most of the baseline rallies and will be more comfortable finishing points off at the net, where the second seed often looks helplessly marooned.  But the task of blunting the Russian’s assault casts last year’s US Open finalist in her favorite role, soaking up pace and elongating rallies into mind-numbing wars of attrition.  Therefore, the match rests squarely in Kuznetsova’s hands to win or to lose; in the 2009 US Open, she lost it with reckless shotmaking at untimely moments.  Finally regaining the form that won her two Slam titles and brought her to two US Open finals, Sveta should approach this match with greater confidence and patience than she might have a few months ago.  A titlist in the inaugural Copenhagen event but otherwise dormant since Miami, Wozniacki showed her familiar grittiness by outlasting Pennetta in the third round before smothering an irritable Schiavone in the quarterfinals.  Still relying upon errors from her opponent to win matches, however, she may not find Kuznetsova as generous as she would wish.  Pick:  Kuznetsova, 60-40.

***

After a thought-provoking group of quarterfinals, what intrigue will the semifinals serve for us?

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